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Armenia

Executive Summary

The constitution states that everyone has freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.  It recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) as the national church and preserver of national identity but also establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state.  According to media, in March police attempted to pressure a self-identified atheist youth to return to the AAC.  On several occasions, Nikol Pashinyan, elected prime minister in May following nationwide protests, declared that state and church were separate and the government would not interfere in church matters.  According to local observers, the new government suspended the process of adopting a new draft law on religious freedom of major concern to religious minorities.  According to representatives of the Baha’i community, authorities detained a prominent member of the community in December 2017 and held him until July, when a court released him on bail.  Some civil society and minority religious groups continued to state their concerns that the content of the History of the Armenian Church (HAC) courses taught in public schools discriminated against religious minorities and that the courses did not provide an opt-out mechanism.  According to the Center for Religion and Law, an evangelical Protestant teacher in a public school in the village of Yelpin became a target of religious discrimination.

According to media analysts, following the April “velvet revolution,” individuals affiliated with or sympathetic to the ousted government used religious issues to denounce the new government.  Various private media outlets and social media users stated that minority religious groups, which they referred to as “sects,” had led the revolution and that these “sects” continued to exercise influence over the new government.  According to local observers, these remarks led to a dramatic decrease in objective reporting on religious issues.  Religious minorities said that what they characterized as a “nationalistic climate,” especially outside the capital, had caused their members to experience societal discrimination.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials.  Embassy officials met with AAC leaders to engage the AAC in supporting the rights of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions.  In July the Ambassador hosted an event to foster interreligious dialogue, mutual respect, and cooperation, bringing together representatives of the AAC, religious and ethnic minorities, and civil society and sharing the previous Department of State report on international religious freedom.  The embassy used Facebook and Twitter to send messages in support of religious tolerance.  The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with minority religious groups, including with evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2011 census, approximately 92 percent of the population identifies with the AAC.  Other religious groups include Roman Catholics, Armenian Uniate (Mekhitarist) Catholics, Orthodox Christians, evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, charismatic Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, members of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, pagans, Molokan Christians, Yezidis, Jews, Baha’is, Shia Muslims, and Sunni Muslims.  According to an International Republican Institute poll released in October, 94 percent of the country’s population identify as Armenian Apostolic, 2 percent as Catholic, 3 percent other, and 1 percent none.  According to members of the Jewish community, there are approximately 800 Jews in the country.

Yezidis are concentrated primarily in agricultural areas northwest of Yerevan around Mount Aragats, and Armenian Uniate Catholics live primarily in the north.  Most Jews, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Orthodox Christians reside in Yerevan, along with a small community of Muslims.  Most Muslims are Shia, including Iranians and temporary residents from the Middle East.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The law prohibits, but does not define, “soul hunting,” a term describing both proselytism and forced conversion.

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

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

The criminal code prohibits “obstruction of the right to exercise freedom of religion” and prescribes punishment ranging from fines of up to 200,000 drams ($410) to detention for up to two months.

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

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

The penitentiary code allows penal institutions to invite clergy members to conduct religious ceremonies and use religious objects and literature.  Prisoners may request spiritual assistance from the religious group of their choice.

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

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

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

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

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

The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred through violence, public statements, or the mass media and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($410 to $1,030) to prison terms of between two and six years.

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

Government Practices

On March 30, Epress.am, an independent online outlet focused on human rights reporting, reported that police officers from the town of Hrazdan attempted to pressure a youth who identified as atheist to “return” to the AAC.  According to the report, unidentified police officers, under false pretenses, took the youth to the Children’s Support Center to meet with a psychologist, where he was held overnight.

Starting in June, the “New Armenia, New Patriarch” initiative group, comprising AAC self-identified secular activists and two former members of the AAC clergy, protested and demanded the resignation of Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.  On June 6, the group made a statement accusing Catholicos Karekin II of weakening the AAC and of “submitting the country to sects, homosexuals, atheists, and opportunists.”  On July 14, protesters blocked the Catholicos’s vehicle at the Gndevank monastery complex in the Vayots Dzor Region and blocked him as he tried to walk away from the venue.  Protesters insulted him in the presence of police.  According to an AAC priest from the Vagharshapat Cathedral, in addition to pushing and pulling him, the protesters restricted the Catholicos’ freedom of movement and threatened to lock him in the monastery.  On July 15, on Facebook Livestream, Prime Minister Pashinyan described these developments as an internal church matter into which the government should not interfere and urged the clergy to discuss and find a solution to those internal disagreements.  He also emphasized the government’s role in upholding the law, stating he was not satisfied with police actions, which he had observed in videos of the incident.  The prime minister stated he had tasked police to examine carefully the Vayots Dzor incident and assess whether the protesters’ actions were justified.  According to the police press service, the police chief instructed officers to investigate the incident and assess police actions; however, according to the AAC representative in Echmiatsin, police dropped the case because they said there was no threat to the Catholicos’ life.

On July 6, the same group of activists broke into the AAC chancery in Echmiatsin, which includes the Catholicos’ residence and offices, and staged around-the-clock protests.  According to an AAC priest, in response to the Church’s request for police assistance, police initially stated that churches and monasteries were public spaces and they could not remove the protesters.  After three days, however, police removed them.  The activists continued to hold occasional rallies in downtown Yerevan and threatened to track all of the Catholicos’ movements.

On May 8, the National Assembly elected as prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, who had led protests against former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan that led to Sargsyan’s resignation on April 23.  On several occasions, Pashinyan reiterated that state and church were separate and the government would not interfere in church affairs.  The new government indefinitely halted the process of adoption of a package of laws called “Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” initiated by the former government.  According to religious freedom experts and many members of the religious community, the most recent version of the draft package, published in November 2017, sought to control religious organizations, including by banning religious expression under certain circumstances and banning foreign funding of religious organizations.  The draft also included mandatory public reporting, with the possibility of suspending an organization for failure to report.  Representatives of evangelical Protestant churches said government authorities could selectively apply such provisions to target “unwanted” minority religious groups.

According to representatives of the Baha’i community, authorities detained Edward Manasyan, a prominent member of the community, in December 2017 and held him until July on what members of the community said were religious grounds.  In July the trial court judge released him on bail.  His trial continued at year’s end.  Local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights lawyers said they were concerned about the case, including the surveillance of members of the Baha’i community preceding Manasyan’s arrest.

In early September there were media reports that minority religious “sects” infiltrated a school in Yelpin village in Vayots Dzor Region, which caused a number of parents to refuse to send their children to the school.  According to the Center for Religion and Law, after a group of four teachers filed a police report stating the school principal was involved in corruption, the latter started a smear campaign against the teachers, leading to local activists and council members accusing the teachers of being members of religious “sects.”  Activists demanded the teachers’ dismissal, stating they could “indoctrinate” the students.  Once it became clear that three of the four teachers were AAC followers and that the other teacher was a member of an evangelical Protestant church, the latter became the sole target of the protests, even though the activists admitted they had no proof she was preaching or proselytizing during school activities.  Because of the boycott, the school cancelled all but one of the teacher’s classes, resulting in reduction of her pay.  According to the Center for Religion and Law, which represented the teacher, the latter was subject to reprisal and discrimination because of her religion.  The governor’s office stated it had taken measures to resolve the issue, explaining to the teachers of the school and the parents of the students that according to the constitution everyone enjoys freedom of conscience, religion, and belief.  The governor’s office disciplined the school principal.  According to the Center for Religion and Law, the evangelical Protestant teacher’s working conditions had not changed by year’s end.

The vast majority of public and private schools continued to teach HAC courses throughout the country in grades five through 11.  According to official information, the HAC was taught in all public schools with no exceptions, although during the year there were anecdotal reports that at least one public school and two schools in Yezidi villages did not teach the course.  During a parliamentary briefing on November 14, the new minister of education stated the HAC course needed serious revisions.  According to the deputy minister, the reform would likely take approximately three years and would include a review of the HAC with a new focus on history of religions in compliance with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools.  In the interim, beginning with the 2019-20 academic year, national minorities could choose an alternative course to the HAC.

Yezidi community representatives again reported dissatisfaction with the mandatory HAC course, terming it “religious indoctrination.”  While all Yezidi schools were able to remove the course from their curriculum, Yezidi children who attended mixed schools were obliged to take the course, regardless of parental objections.

Several non-AAC religious groups said they did not object to the inclusion of the HAC course in public schools, although some objected to the prayers and crossing that reportedly occurred during those classes and said they would like to see a more accurate portrayal of religious groups other than the AAC.  The Ministry of Education stated that during the year it did not receive any complaints about the HAC course and that it had instructed HAC teachers to maintain the secular nature of the class and refrain from religious propaganda.  NGOs, other religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC publicly voiced concerns about what they stated were elements of religious indoctrination contained in the HAC course, as well as material equating AAC affiliation with national identity.  There were reports of AAC clergy teaching the course in some schools and requiring visits to AAC churches as part of the course, without providing opportunities for discussion of other faiths or for students to visit non-AAC religious sites.  According to the government, during the 2018-19 academic year, six AAC clergy members taught the HAC course in four public and two private schools.

Human rights activists expressed their concern that religious elements were a consistent part of the public education process and were present even outside the AAC course.

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

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

According to the government, during the year, the AAC conducted visits, up to three times per week, to each of the 12 penitentiaries to engage in spiritual discussions with incarcerated followers and to hold services, baptisms and other religious events.  Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Armenian Evangelical Church visited some of the penitentiaries four, 16, and seven times, respectively, during the first nine months of the year.

Jehovah’s Witnesses said they continued to face difficulties in building places of worship because of interference by local officials throughout the country.  At year’s end, three pending cases continued before the European Court of Human Rights regarding the prohibition by the Yerevan City Municipality on building places of worship on land owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Seventh-day Adventists reported their dissatisfaction over some schools operating on Saturdays or school- or state-level examinations scheduled for Saturdays, a day of worship for the community.  The group stated, however, that on an individual level their members were able to resolve the issue.  The new government stopped the practice of designating AAC holidays as nonworking days, making the following or preceding Saturday a working day.

As of May 123 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to media analysts, following the April “velvet revolution,” private individuals affiliated with or sympathetic to the ousted government used religious issues as a means to denounce the new government.  According to media and religious freedom experts, those individuals used hybrid websites, controversial bloggers, local troll factories, fake Facebook groups, and false stories to propagate the idea that the revolution was carried out by minority religious groups or “sects,” (commonly considered any group other than the AAC).  These individuals alleged those religious minority groups continued to influence the new government.

In September the Word of Life Church requested the National Security Service (NSS) to open a criminal case regarding a fake Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated both with the Word of Life Church and the prime minister’s Civil Contract party.  According to World of Life Church representatives, among other posts, the Facebook page posted a photograph of the senior pastor of the Word of Life Church and included an article with anti-Armenian and anti-AAC statements, causing a public uproar against the Church.  Word of Life Church representatives said they believed an organized group, mostly likely a political adversary of the new government, was behind the fake Facebook page.  On October 1, the NSS opened a criminal case on charges of incitement of religious hatred; at year’s end, the investigation continued and the Facebook page was still active.

Social media criticized several government officials because of their affiliation with minority religious groups.  On one occasion, a member of the Word of Life Church, appointed to a position in the new government, said he resigned following public pressure.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were incidents of verbal abuse toward the group’s members while they were publicly manifesting their religious beliefs.  In some cases, unknown individuals overturned and damaged the group’s literature display carts.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, police responded promptly and appropriately, and as a result, the number of incidents had decreased.

Construction continued on Quba Mere Diwane Temple, which media called the world’s largest Yezidi temple.  Located in the small village of Aknalich, the Yezidi community said it would become the spiritual center for the country’s Yezidis.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials.  Embassy officials and a visiting official from the Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom met with representatives of the Ministry of Justice in April to discuss concerns raised by religious minorities and human rights groups about restrictive provisions in the proposed package of legislation on religious freedom.  Embassy officials met with representatives of the Ministry of Education to discuss concerns about the HAC course and steps undertaken by the government to address those concerns.

The Ambassador regularly met with representatives of the government, political parties, social groups, and religious minorities to discuss problems of discrimination faced by religious minorities, foster a dialogue between the government and the religious groups, and explore cooperative solutions to those problems.  In July the Ambassador hosted an event to foster interreligious dialogue, mutual respect, and cooperation, bringing together representatives of the AAC, religious and ethnic minorities, and civil society to discuss issues of concern and foster a dialogue between the groups and share the Department of State 2017 report on international religious freedom.  In the meeting, the Ambassador emphasized the fundamental universal right for every person to have freedom of worship and the freedom to choose to believe or not believe.

The Ambassador met with leaders of the AAC and engaged them on the importance of supporting the right of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions.  Embassy officials attended conferences and discussions on nondiscrimination and religious tolerance regularly hosted by the Eurasian Partnership Foundation in its religious tolerance projects.  They visited a Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian village, attending the celebration of the 190th anniversary of the establishment of the Assyrian community in the country.  Embassy officials also visited the Yezidi Ferik village and held regular meetings with representatives of the AAC and religious and ethnic minorities, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ, Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is.  In these meetings, embassy officials and religious group representatives discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, including minority religious group concerns.  They also met with civil society groups to discuss concerns about the HAC courses taught in public schools.  Embassy officials monitored the trial of the Baha’i member facing prosecution on what the group stated were religious grounds.

Embassy officials met with a joint delegation of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and European Union Venice Commission to discuss the concerns raised by some religious groups over the draft package of legislation on religious freedom.

The embassy used social media, including Twitter and Facebook, to send messages supporting religious diversity and tolerance and to highlight the January 11 annual International Religious Freedom Day and the release of the Department of State report on international religious freedom.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and equality of all religions.  It also protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and practice religious rituals, provided these do not violate public order or public morality.  The law prohibits the government from interfering in religious activities, but it also states the government and citizens have a responsibility to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.”  The law specifies the government may dissolve religious organizations if they cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; proselytize in a way that “degrades human dignity”; or hinder secular education.  Following a July attack on the then head of the city of Ganja Executive Committee, security forces killed five and arrested more than 60 individuals whom authorities said were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” involving at least some members of the Muslim Unity Movement.  Local human rights groups and others stated that the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists.  The government had reportedly imprisoned 68 religious activists at the end of the year, compared with 80 in 2017.  Authorities detained, fined, or warned numerous individuals for holding unauthorized religious meetings.  According to religious groups, the government continued to deny or delay registration to minority religious groups it considered “nontraditional,” disrupting their religious services and fining participants.  Groups previously registered but which authorities required to reregister continued to face obstacles in doing so.  Authorities permitted some of these groups to operate freely, but others reported difficulties in trying to practice their faith.  The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials.  The courts fined numerous individuals for the unauthorized sale or distribution of religious materials, although some individuals had their fines revoked on appeal.  The government sponsored events throughout the country to promote religious tolerance and combat what it considered religious extremism.

Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated societal tolerance continued for “traditional” minority religious groups (i.e. those historically present in the country), including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics; however, citizens often viewed with suspicion and mistrust groups that many considered “nontraditional” (i.e., those organized in recent decades).

The U.S. Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers met regularly with officials from the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA) and other government officials and urged the government to address longstanding issues with the registration process for religious communities and to improve its treatment of religious groups still facing difficulties fulfilling the requirements for reregistration.  The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers engaged government officials to argue against the criminal prosecution for evasion of military service of Jehovah’s Witnesses who sought alternative service as stipulated in the constitution.  The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers also continued discussions on obstacles to registration and the importation of religious materials with religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  The Charge d’Affaires and embassy spokespersons publicly called for the government and society to uphold religious tolerance and acceptance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to 2011 data from the SCWRA, 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni.  Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include the Russian Orthodox Church; Georgian Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Seventh-day Adventists; Molokans; Roman Catholic Church; other Christians, including evangelical Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jews; and Baha’is.  Other groups include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and those professing no religion.

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

The law bans activities by unregistered religious groups, which are punishable by fines or imprisonment.

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

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

The law allows foreigners invited by registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they have received special permission from the CMB.  Penalties for violating the law include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 manat ($590) to 5,000 manat ($2,900).  A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.

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

According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution.  Punishment for the illegal production, distribution, or importation of religious literature can include fines ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 manat ($2,900 to $4,100) or up to two years’ imprisonment for first offenses, and fines of 7,000 to 9,000 manat ($4,100 to $5,300) or imprisonment of between two and five years for subsequent offenses.  There is no separate religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions.  Students may take courses in religion at higher educational institutions, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad.  Individuals wishing to participate in state-supported religious education outside the country, whether supported by the national or foreign governments, must obtain permission from, or register with, the SCWRA or the Ministry of Education.  If religious education abroad is not supported by the national or foreign governments, individuals are not required to obtain advance permission from authorities.  Individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government are not allowed to hold official religious positions, preach, or lead sermons after returning to the country.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

In July a resident attacked and wounded the then mayor of the city of Ganja, and subsequently another local assailant stabbed two police officers to death during a related demonstration against local government authorities.  In response to these events, security forces conducted operations in the cities of Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku that resulted in the arrest of more than 60 individuals and the deaths of five.  The government said the individuals were part of a Shia Muslim “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country, and that those killed had resisted arrest.  The Muslim Unity Movement and other civil society activists disputed the government’s recounting of the events and stated the five individuals whom security forces killed had not resisted arrest, and that security forced targeted them.

On April 30, family members of imprisoned deputy head of the Muslim Unity Movement Abbas Huseynov said that several days prior, Huseynov had been severely beaten by prison authorities and left chained in an isolation cell for three days.  He was subsequently chained to an iron post in the prison yard and exposed to the elements from morning until night on May 10.  This followed media and human rights lawyers’ allegations in August 2017 of Huseynov’s torture in the same prison.  Authorities denied the allegations.

Authorities continued to arrest and incarcerate individuals with links to Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Unity Movement, that they asserted mix religious and political ideology.  Charges against these individuals included drug possession, incitement of religious hatred, terrorism, and attempted coup d’etat.  Human rights defenders stated the charges were pretexts, and the incarcerations were meant to prevent political activity by Islamic groups.  According to data collected by the Working Group on a Unified List of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan and other NGOs, the estimated number of religious activists incarcerated at the end of the year was 68, compared with 80 in 2017.

On February 13, the Garadag District Court in Baku added two and one-half months to the 20-year prison term of Muslim Unity Movement leader Taleh Bagirzada for possession of the Quran and religious music on electronic media in his prison cell.

On March 6, the Baku Grave Crimes Court found Muslim Unity Movement activist Ahsan Nuruzade guilty of drug possession and sentenced him to seven years in prison.  On April 8, the Baku Court of Appeal upheld the verdict.  Nuruzade and others in civil society stated authorities prosecuted him for criticizing the government and publicly supporting the imprisoned leadership of the Muslim Unity Movement.

On July 14, the Baku Court on Grave Crimes sentenced Muslim Unity Movement members Ebulfez Bunyadov to 15 years’ imprisonment and Elkhan Isgandarov to 14 years on charges that included inciting religious hatred and terrorism.  The Baku Court of Appeals upheld the verdicts on September 26.  Activists stated the court convicted the two for their affiliation with the Muslim Unity Movement at the time of the 2015 police operation in the village of Nardaran against Taleh Bagirzada, Abbas Huseynov, and 16 other members of the Muslim Unity Movement.

On March 1, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Muslim Unity Movement leader Taleh Bagirzada as well as Abbas Huseynov and 16 others on charges stemming from the 2015 police raid in Nardaran to disrupt alleged planning for a coup.  Human rights defenders said authorities ordered the operation and subsequent sweeping arrests to prevent the spread of Islamic political activism in the country.  On April 4, the Baku Court of Appeals upheld the December 2017 conviction of 12 other members of the Muslim Unity Movement in a related case.  Human rights defenders stated the government fabricated all charges in the cases to halt the spread of an Islamic political opposition in the country.

On February 13, the Supreme Court upheld the verdicts of the Masalli District Court and the Shirvan Court of Appeal sentencing theologian Sardar Babayev to three years in prison for performing Namaz (ritual prayers) after having studied Islam outside the country.  He was the only individual ever prosecuted under this law.  Following Babayev’s arrest, parliament passed legislation allowing the CMB, the same body that had originally appointed him as imam in Masalli and whose members all received religious education outside Azerbaijan, to waive the law’s requirements for specific individuals.

On December 20, the Khazar District Court sentenced Telman Shiraliyev to an additional five months and 18 days in prison for alleged possession of a weapon in his prison cell.  Prosecutors filed the new charge days before the conclusion of his six-year prison term for protesting against a ban on schoolgirls wearing headscarves.  Human rights defenders said the new charge was fabricated by authorities to prevent Shiraliyev’s release.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the government continued to withhold alternative military service to conscientious objectors despite being required to do so by the constitution.  On July 6, the Barda District Court convicted Jehovah’s Witness Emil Mehdiyev for criminal evasion of military service and sentenced him to one year of probation.  On September 6, the Agdam District Court convicted Jehovah’s Witness Vahid Abilov on the same charge and also sentenced him to one year of probation.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that in January, 10 police officers raided a home in Lankaran where several families of Jehovah’s Witnesses were gathered.  According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, police believed the meeting was religious in nature, but it was actually a social gathering.  Police searched the home, seized personal literature, and took statements from those present.  Authorities required the men to report to a police station to give their statements while they took statements from the women at their homes.

On April 5, authorities released three individuals – Tarlan Agadadashov, Rovshan Allahverdiyev, and Ilham Hatamov – who participated in a 2012 protest seeking to abolish the ban on wearing the hijab in secondary schools who completed their six-year term of imprisonment.  On May 24, authorities pardoned and released Davud Kerimov and Elshad Rzayev for their participation in the same protest.

Unregistered Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups considered nontraditional by the government reported authorities continued to impede their activities and subject them to harassment and fines.  Some Protestant leaders reported their continued inability to obtain legal registration prevented them from openly conducting worship services or advertising their locations to bring in new members.  Leaders of unregistered home-based churches continued to report they kept their activities discreet to avoid unwanted attention from the authorities.

On January 17, police and SCWRA officials raided the shop of Ruhiyya Mehdiyeva in Baku’s Sabunchu District and seized 400 unapproved religious books.  On February 1, the Sabunchu District Court found Mehdiyeva guilty of disseminating unauthorized religious materials and fined her 2,000 manat ($1,200).

On January 28, Ganja police raided the home of Adalat Sariyev during a meeting of 100 members of the unregistered Star in the East Pentecostal Church.  Police dispersed those present but did not file charges.

Numerous religious communities continued to report frustration at the requirements for government registration.  Many groups, including Baptist communities in Zagatala and Baku, complained the government requirement to have a minimum of 50 members to register was unreasonable.

Some religious community leaders also reported the SCWRA continued its policy of applying pre-2009 registration status for such communities only to the physical structures mentioned in their pre-2009 registration forms.  While the SCWRA continued to state the religious activities of these communities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status was prohibited, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request.

The SCWRA reported it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registration.  Some of the religious communities unable to reregister reported police did not accept SCWRA letters as evidence of prior registration and stated only communities listed on the SCWRA website as currently registered were allowed to operate.

On November 8, the SCWRA reregistered the Baku community of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

During the year, the SCWRA registered 90 religious communities, of which 86 were Muslim and four Christian.  The total number of registered communities at the end of the year was 909, of which 32 were non-Muslim:  21 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.  The SCWRA also reported 2,250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered.

On March 27, President Ilham Aliyev allocated 6.1 million manat ($3.59 million) to the newly established Moral Values Promotion Foundation (MVPF), under the purview of the SCWRA.  Created in October 2017, the MVPF institutionalizes the payment of salaries for imams and other mosque staff who previously subsisted primarily from local community donations.  The tax-free allowance ranged from 200 to 400 manat ($120-$240) depending on position, and the MVPF began disbursements in May.

On February 9, President Aliyev issued an executive order to establish the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology under the SCWRA.  The institute was intended to gradually replace the Baku Islamic University, which operated under the purview of the CMB since 1991.  Experts stated the establishment of the MVPF and the Institute of Theology signified a diminishment of the authority of the CMB and a tightening of SCWRA control over the Islamic education and practice in the country.

In February the SCWRA prohibited publication of the book Things Not Existing in Islam by Muslim theologian Elshad Miri, which enumerated ideas and practices alleged to have no theological basis in Islam, such as the use of magic and child marriage.  The SCWRA stated the book could have a negative influence on religious stability in the country and thus was not suitable for publication.  Miri submitted a legal challenge to the prohibition, and on September 18, a Baku court ruled in favor of the SCWRA and prohibited publication of the book.

The SCWRA reported that in the first half of the year, it prohibited the importation of 19 books out of 483, and the publication of 22 books out of 104.

On January 31, the Constitutional Court informed Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov that it would not consider the appeal of a 1,500 manat ($880) fine for a 2016 gathering in the village of Aliabad of his unregistered Baptist community.  Human rights defenders stated there were multiple violations of law and process in the case, such as the court’s failure to provide a Georgian language interpreter and requiring Shabanov to sign documents he could not read.

The SCWRA announced on its website that on April 23 it raided a home mosque in Baku’s Qaradag District in a joint operation with the State Security Service and local police.  In its statement, the SCWRA noted its concern about youth participation in the unauthorized gathering.

On September 17, regional officials of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, officers of the State Security Service secret police, and officials of unspecified other state agencies raided the home of Vugar Mammadov in Agsu.  Officials found Mammadov and two guests, Rauf Majidov and Qanbar Zeynalov, meeting for religious purposes.  Officials then charged them for violating legislation on holding religious meetings, marches, and other religious ceremonies.  On September 21, Judge Tahir Ismayilov of Agsu District Court found all three individuals guilty.  The court fined Zeynalov 2,000 manat ($1,200) and fined the two guests 1,700 manat ($1,000) and 1,500 manat ($880).

On August 6, Sheki District Court fined Samad Alikhanov 2,000 manat ($1,200) for offering religious literature for sale without state permission.  Alikhanov appealed his fine to Sheki Appeal Court, but Judge Rafail Aliyev rejected the appeal on September 4.

On March 6, Judge Arif Ismayilov of Zaqatala District Court fined Adil Zinkiyev 1,750 manat ($1,000) for offering 19 religious and historical books and 16 pamphlets for sale outside a mosque in the village of Car on February 16.  The Islamic publications were in Avar, Russian, and Arabic; had not undergone the compulsory state censorship; and were not marked with the required State Committee sticker.  Zinkiyev appealed the fine, but on May 18, Judge Rafail Aliyev of Sheki Appeal Court rejected the appeal.

On April 12, President Aliyev attended the opening of the new Haji Javad Mosque in Baku that was constructed to replace the mosque of the same name demolished by authorities in July 2017 to construct a new road.  Prior to demolition, a group of Muslim practitioners had unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the government’s action.

On June 11, President Aliyev signed a decree allocating one million manat ($588,000) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities, and 250,000 manat ($147,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews.  The decree also allocated 100,000 manat ($58,800) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

The government did not exercise control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.  Some religious groups and NGOs reported continued restrictions on religious activities by the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, but information on specific abuses remained unavailable.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the de facto authorities allowed them to worship in the region without hindrance but denied them registration as a religious group as well as the right to conscientious objection to military service.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Following the July attack on the then head of the Ganja Executive Committee and subsequent killing of two police officers, government-controlled media outlets published articles supporting the narrative that operations by security forces were needed to prevent Islamic extremism.  The Ganja events and government media campaign spurred debate in social media in which some users questioned the government’s recounting of the facts, stating criminals, not religious radicals, perpetrated them.  Others stated the threat of religious extremism was real and would fill the vacuum created by the government’s clampdown on civil society.

Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated the country’s historical societal tolerance continued with regard to traditional minority religious groups such as Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics, but many persons viewed groups considered nontraditional, such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with suspicion and mistrust.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers engaged government officials to argue against the criminal prosecution for evasion of military service of Jehovah’s Witnesses who sought alternative service as stipulated in the constitution.  They also expressed concern over incarcerations and fines of religious practitioners.  The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers met with senior SCWRA, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and CMB officials and continued to urge the government to address longstanding issues with the registration process for religious groups and the government’s treatment of the religious communities continuing to face difficulties in fulfilling registration requirements, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptist communities, and other religious minorities.

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers met regularly with leaders of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish groups and civil society representatives to continue discussions on religious freedom and obstacles to registration.

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy spokespersons made several public statements encouraging the government and individuals to live up to the country’s history of religious tolerance.  In June the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar for local women who had benefited from U.S.-sponsored programs in the southern town of Masalli.  Representatives of the local government, the SCWRA, the CMB, and others also attended the event.  The Charge d’Affaires gave remarks highlighting the important role of women in maintaining and improving religious freedom.

Belarus

Executive Summary

The constitution grants individuals freedom to profess and practice any religious belief but prohibits religious activities directed against the sovereignty of the state, its constitutional system, and “civic harmony.”  The law recognizes the “determining role” of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC).  A concordat grants the BOC rights and privileges not granted to other religious groups, although the law also acknowledges the historical importance of the “traditional” faiths of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism.  By law, all registered religious groups must seek permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing activities, and must obtain prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature.  The law bans all religious activity by unregistered groups.  The government continued to detain or fine individuals for proselytizing, including a Baptist couple in Lepel who were singing Christian songs and distributing Christian literature.  Police also detained Jehovah’s Witnesses and a Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox priest for proselytizing in public.  Minority religious groups continued to have difficulty registering.  Some groups remained reluctant to apply for registration, reportedly due to fear of harassment and punishment.  The government continued its surveillance of minority and unregistered religious groups.  Human rights groups said that while BOC and some Roman Catholic clergy had access to prisoners of their faiths, Muslim and Protestant clergy and clergy from nontraditional faiths did not.  Minority religious groups said they continued to have difficulties acquiring buildings to use as houses of worship.  Roman Catholic groups reported the government denied visas and requests to extend the stay of some foreign missionaries.

Authorities convicted a number of individuals reportedly associated with neo-Nazis or skinhead movements for inciting ethnic and religious hatred against Jews and other religious minorities.  On February 27, a court in the Vitsyebsk region sentenced a resident in Navapolatsk to three years in prison for posting videos on his social media featuring mass killings of Jews in the Holocaust and skinheads beating Muslims.  In a similar case, authorities convicted an individual from the Baranavichy district for posting videos with anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim content and sentenced him to a year and a month in jail on April 18.  Jewish community leaders continued to express concern about the BOC’s annual commemoration of a young child allegedly killed by Jews near Hrodna in 1690 as one of its saints and martyrs.  Despite a government ban, anti-Semitic print and video material continued to be imported from Russia and available locally.  Interdenominational Christian groups worked together on charitable projects and programs.  In a televised interview in November BOC Metropolitan Pavel said Baptists were “a sect,” focused on their “missionary activities,” and called them “annoying” and accused them of spreading “propaganda and not preaching.”  The head of the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Leanid Mikhovich, called the Metropolitan’s remarks “unacceptable.”

In October U.S. embassy officials and a visiting U.S. delegation that included the Chair of the U.S. Commission on Protection of America’s Heritage Abroad and the Deputy Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with officials from the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs as well as prosecutors to discuss concerns related to preservation of Jewish heritage sites.  The delegation also participated in the Foreign Ministry-sponsored international roundtable to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Minsk ghetto on October 22.  Also in October the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs met with senior government officials for discussions that included religious freedom concerns.  The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with Jewish groups to discuss anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage.  Embassy officials also met with Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups, as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups, to discuss government restrictions on registration and the activities of minority religious groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.5 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to a January 2016 survey by the state Information and Analytical Center of the Presidential Administration, approximately 53 percent of the adult population belongs to the BOC and 6 percent to the Roman Catholic Church.  According to the state survey, 8 percent of the adult population is atheist, and 22 percent is “uncertain.”  Smaller religious groups together constituting approximately 2 percent of the population include:  Jews; Muslims; Greek Catholics (“Uniates”); Old Believers (priestist and priestless); members of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and other Orthodox Christian groups, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Christians, Presbyterians and other Protestant groups, Armenian Apostolics, Latin Catholics, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Buddhists.  Jewish groups state there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews.  Ethnic Poles, who constitute approximately 3 percent of the population, tend to be Roman Catholic.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution grants individuals the freedom to profess any religious beliefs and to participate in the performance of acts of worship not prohibited by law.  It stipulates all faiths are equal before the law.  The constitution states relations between the state and religious organizations shall be regulated by the law “with regard to their influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural, and state traditions of the Belarusian people.”  It prohibits activities by religious groups that are directed against the country’s sovereignty, its constitutional system, and civic harmony; involve a violation of civil rights and liberties; “impede the execution of state, public, and family duties” by its citizens; or are detrimental to public health and morality.  The constitution states the law shall determine the conditions for exemption from military service and the performance of alternative service as a substitute.

The Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs (OPRRNA) regulates all religious matters.

The law recognizes the “determining role” of the BOC, an Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the development of the traditions of the people, as well as the historical importance of religious groups commonly referred to as “traditional” faiths:  Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism.  The law does not consider as traditional faiths newer religious groups or older groups such as the priestless Old Believers, Greek Catholics (Uniates), and the Calvinist churches, which have roots in the country dating to the 17th century.

A concordat between the government and the BOC provides the BOC with autonomy in its internal affairs, freedom to perform religious rites and other activities, and a special relationship with the state.  The concordat recognizes the BOC’s “influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and national traditions of the Belarusian people.”  Although it states it does not limit the religious freedom of other religious groups, the concordat calls for the government and the BOC to combat unnamed “pseudo-religious structures that present a danger to individuals and society.”  The BOC, unlike other religious communities, receives state subsidies.  In addition, the BOC possesses the exclusive right to use the word “orthodox” in its title and to use as its symbol the double-barred image of the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne, the country’s patron saint.

The concordat also serves as the framework for agreements between the BOC and individual state agencies.  There are at least a dozen such agreements, including an agreement with the Ministry of Education covering cooperation on education through 2020 and providing for joint projects for the “spiritual and moral education” of students based on BOC traditions and history.

The law establishes three tiers of registered religious groups:  religious communities, religious associations, and national religious associations.  Religious communities must include at least 20 persons over the age of 18 who live in one or several adjoining areas.  Religious associations must include at least 10 religious communities, one of which must have been active in the country for at least 20 years, and may be constituted only by a national-level religious association.  National religious associations may be formed only when they comprise active religious communities in at least four of the country’s six regions.

According to government data as of January 1, 2017, (the most recent data available), there are 25 religious faiths and denominations registered in the country, encompassing 3,350 religious communities and 174 religious associations, monasteries, missions, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and schools.  The BOC has 1,681 religious communities, 15 dioceses, seven schools, 35 monasteries, 15 brotherhoods, and 10 sisterhoods.  The Roman Catholic Church has four dioceses, five schools, 11 missions, nine monasteries, and 496 communities.  Protestant religious organizations of 14 denominations have 1,033 religious communities, 21 associations, 22 missions, and five schools.  There are 33 registered religious communities of Old Believers.  There are three Jewish religious associations – Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch, and Reform Judaism – comprising 52 communities, including 10 autonomous communities.  In addition, 24 Muslim religious communities – 23 Sunni and one Shia – are registered.

National religious associations include the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Old Believers Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, Association of New Apostolic Churches, Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches, Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, Jewish Religious Union, Association of Jewish Religious Communities, Union of Reform Judaism Communities, Muslim Religious Association, Spiritual Board of Muslims, and the Religious Association of Baha’is.

To register, a religious community must submit an official application with the following information:  a list of its founders’ names, places of residence, citizenship, and signatures; copies of its founding statutes; the minutes of its founding meeting; and permission from the regional authorities confirming the community’s right to occupy or use any property referenced in its founding statutes.  A religious group not previously registered by the government must also submit information about its beliefs.  The law stipulates authorities may take up to six months to review a new registration application due to an additional evaluation of the religion by a state-appointed religious commission of experts.  The commission evaluates the fundamental teachings of the religion; rituals, practices, history, and forms and methods of activities; welfare and charitable services; proselytizing and missionary activities; approaches towards marriage and family; educational activities; attitudes toward health care; and compliance with legal requirements.  In addition, the community must submit any texts written by its founder or considered sacred by the followers of the religion, information about prohibitions on clergy or adherents, a list of countries where the religion is widely practiced, and a list of countries officially recognizing the religion.  It also must submit information about countries that have refused to recognize the religion and information about court cases against followers of the religion in other countries.

Regional government authorities, as well as Minsk city authorities or local municipal authorities (for groups outside of Minsk), review all registration applications.  Permissible grounds for denial of registration are broad and include failure to comply with requirements for establishing a community, an inconsistent or fraudulent charter or other required document, violations of the procedures to establish religious organizations, or a negative evaluation by the state-appointed religious commission of experts.  Communities may appeal refusals in court.

In order to register as a religious association or national religious association, a group must provide an official application with a copy of the founding statutes, a list of members of the managing body with biographical information, proof of permission for the association to be at its designated location, and the minutes from its founding congress.  Religious associations have the exclusive right to establish religious educational institutions and organize cloistered and monastic communities.  All applications to establish religious associations and national associations must be submitted to OPRRNA, which has 30 days to respond.  Grounds for refusal are the same as for religious communities except they also include failure to comply with requirements for establishing an association rather than a community.  Refusals or a failure by OPRRNA to respond within the 30-day period may be appealed in court.

The law confines the activities of religious communities and associations to the jurisdictional area where they are registered.  The law permits state agencies in charge of registration to issue written warnings to a registered religious group for violating any law or undertaking activities outside the scope of responsibilities in the group’s charter.  The government may apply to a relevant court, depending upon jurisdiction, to shut down the group if it has not ceased the illegal activity outlined in the written warning within six months or if the activity is repeated within one year of the warning.  The government may suspend activities of the religious group pending the court’s decision.  The law contains no provision for appeal of the warning or suspension.

The law bans all religious activity by unregistered groups and subjects group members to penalties ranging from unspecified fines to two years in prison.

The housing code permits religious groups to hold services at residential premises if local authorities grant permission.  The local authorities must certify the premises comply with a number of regulations, including fire safety, sanitary, and health code requirements.  The government does not grant such permission automatically, and the law does not permit religious groups to hold services in private residences without prior permission from local authorities.

By law, all religious groups must obtain permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing.

The law requires all religious groups to receive prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature.  The approval process includes official examination of the documents by state-appointed religious studies experts.

Although there is no law providing for a systematic restitution process for property, including religious property, seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods, groups may apply for the restitution of property to local authorities.  The law on religion specifically bans the restitution of seized property currently used for cultural or sports purposes.

The law permits associations and national associations to establish schools to train clergy; however, it does not permit religious communities to do so.

The law permits only registered religious groups that are members of national religious associations to organize extracurricular religious activities at educational institutions.  The law states the national religious association must first conclude an agreement on cooperation with the Ministry of Education; the BOC is currently the only religious group to have such an agreement.  Students who wish to participate in voluntary “moral, civic, and patriotic education” in collaboration with religious groups must either provide a written statement expressing their desire to participate or secure their legal guardians’ approval.  According to the law, “such education shall raise awareness among the youth against any religious groups whose activities are aimed at undermining Belarus’ sovereignty, civic accord, and constitutional system or at violating human rights and freedoms.”

The law prohibits religious groups from conducting activities in any school without identifying themselves.  It also prohibits visits from representatives of foreign religious groups; missionary activities; collections of donations or fees from students for religious groups or any charity; distribution of religious literature, audio, video, and other religious materials; holding prayer services, religious rituals, rites, or ceremonies; and placing religious symbols or paraphernalia at educational institutions.

The law does not allow private religious elementary, junior, or senior high schools or homeschooling for religious reasons.

The law establishes penalties ranging from fines to five years in prison for failure to fulfill mandatory military service, with an exemption for conscientious objectors for religious reasons.  The law allows alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors.  By law, individuals who evade alternative civilian service may face up to five years in prison.

Only registered religious associations may apply to OPRRNA for permission to invite foreign clergy to the country.  OPRRNA must grant permission before foreign religious workers may serve in local congregations, teach or study at local institutions, or participate in charitable work.  The government generally grants such permission for a period of one year, which may be reduced or extended.  OPRRNA has 30 days to respond to requests for foreign clergy permits (religious visas) and may deny requests without explanation.  There is no provision for appeals.

By law, the government permits foreign missionaries to engage in religious activity only in the territorial area where their religious association is registered.  Transfers of foreign clergy within a religious association, including from one parish to another, require prior government permission.  By law, foreigners may not lead religious groups.  The authorities may reprimand or expel foreign citizens who officially are present in the country for nonreligious work if they lead any religious activities.  Law enforcement agencies on their own initiative or in response to recommendations from other government entities, such as the security service, may require foreign clergy to depart the country.

The law does not restrict religious groups from raising donations in public.

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

Government Practices

The international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported that on October 27, police in Lepel in the Vitsyebsk Region detained Baptist husband and wife Andrei and Tatsyana Fokin, who were singing Christian songs and distributing Christian literature.  Authorities charged both with violating procedures for organizing a mass event or demonstration and fined the husband 661.5 rubles ($310) and the wife 539 rubles ($250).  Andrei Fokin said he and his wife were still in debt from 2017 fines levied following their detention in 2017 for similar activities.

According to Forum 18 and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities in Rahachou in Homyel Region detained Jehovah’s Witnesses Tamara Vitkouskaya and Volha Hrapava on March 24 as they were distributing religious literature, charging them with illegal picketing.  On May 16, the Rahachou District Court fined the two Witnesses 49 rubles ($23) each, and the Homyel Regional Court dismissed their subsequent appeals in June.

Forum 18 also reported that on November 26, authorities detained for 24 hours Father Vikentsy, a priest of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which is not officially registered, for preaching and seeking donations in an apartment block in Minsk.  Forum 18 stated that on November 30, a Minsk district court found Vikentsy not guilty and closed the case.

The government continued surveillance on minority religious groups of various Protestant denominations.  According to various observers, government “ideology officers” (officials in charge of implementing political and social government policies) continued to monitor the activities of members of unregistered religious groups in their workplaces, although there were no reports of prosecutions.  Government officials reportedly had occasional “informal” talks with members of religious groups to learn about their activities.  According to religious leaders, state security officers also continued to attend religious services of registered Protestant communities to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment.  The Roman Catholic Church expressed concerns that in some regions of the country local ideology officers requested the church provide them with Sunday school programs and lists of children attending them.  According to the independent Belarusian Christian news portal krynica.info, local authorities in some regions summoned Catholic priests for questioning after they held services to honor the anniversary of the 1918 establishment of the Belarusian National Republic on March 25.

Christian groups continued to state the registration requirements for religious groups remained complex and difficult to fulfill, which they said restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs.  The government’s guidelines for evaluating registration applications remained sufficiently broad, they said, to continue to give authorities a pretext for denying applications from groups they considered unacceptable.

During the year, authorities in Barysau, Slonim and Vileika rejected applications from Jehovah’s Witnesses communities.  Authorities also continued to deny registration to several Protestant religious communities, including a community within the Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches in Maladzechna.  On July 6 and then on August 30, city authorities denied an independent Pentecostal community’s applications for registration in two separate locations in Minsk.  In both cases, officials stated that locations provided by the community did not comply with regulations, but did not explain their refusals in detail.  The community filed an appeal on October 18, which was denied in December.

Independent religious experts continued to report minority religious groups remained reluctant to apply for registration because members continued to be unwilling to provide their names as part of the application process due to fear of harassment and punishment by the authorities.  Additionally, a number of them said they did not report registration denials because they believed that if they did not publicize the denials, they might still be able to negotiate their communities’ registration with local authorities.

In November the UN Human Rights Committee recommended the state repeal the requirement of mandatory state registration of religious communities, but the state had taken no action as of the end of the year.

Many unregistered religious groups stated they continued to maintain a low profile because of what they believed to be government hostility and due to fear of criminal prosecution.  According to independent religious experts, many registered religious communities also remained reluctant to report abuses and restrictions because of fear of punishment.

Nontraditional religious groups continued to state the procedure for registering and using residential premises for religious gatherings remained cumbersome and arbitrary.  Authorities continued to deny permission for a registered Jehovah’s Witness community in Homyel to hold religious services at a private home, but continued to allow it to hold services at rented premises.  In October the local government in the city of Mahilyou allowed a local Jehovah’s Witness community to hold religious services at rented premises.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, in August the Mahilyou Regional Executive Committee issued a warning notice to the local community for engaging in illegal religious activity and meeting in places that were not designated for worship and without authorization from the local authorities.

Human rights groups reported prison administrators continued to deny Muslim and Protestant clergy, and in some cases Roman Catholic clergy, as well as clergy from nontraditional faiths (any faiths not among the four recognized as “traditional”), permission to visit inmates in prison.  At the same time, they said, authorities continued to grant BOC, and in some cases Catholic clergy, permission to visit believers in prison on a regular basis, and many prisons had designated Orthodox religious facilities.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported Minsk city officials approved a request from the national association for a convention to take place in the city July 27 to 29.  Approximately 9,000 members attended the convention without hindrance, compared with approximately 7,300 the previous year.  In November, however, authorities in a Minsk district denied a Jehovah’s Witnesses community group’s application to hold a convention for its Minsk city community of approximately 1,000 members at a local cultural center on November 24-25.  In Vitsyebsk, authorities denied a request from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold a local convention in November.  In each case, authorities did not give a reason for the denial.

Authorities in the town of Radashkovichi allowed the Full Gospel Christian Church’s “Youth With A Mission” group to hold its Christian youth conference at a local facility April 27-May 1.

Religious groups, especially Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to report they remained cautious about proselytizing and distributing religious materials due to what they said was the general atmosphere of intimidation and fear of punishment.  In contrast, Orthodox literature remained available countrywide.  The BOC remained able to proselytize freely and, unlike other religious groups, continued to participate in government-sponsored public events such as rallies without the need to seek prior approval from authorities.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 30, the Brest Regional Executive Committee issued a notice to the Brest Religious Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, warning the community it had distributed printed religious material at unauthorized locations.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses stated the warning did not refer to any specific incidents.

While the national government approved the import of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ requested literature during the year, local governments in Brest and Mahilyou issued written warnings to communities against proselytizing.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents generally had to wait three months before receiving permission to import new religious periodicals.

Religious groups continued to report problems purchasing properties as places of worship.  They continued to say that converting residential property to religious use also remained difficult.  Renting a public facility to hold religious services remained difficult as well.  For example, some Protestant communities continued to report they were able to conclude only short-term lease agreements with the owners of the facilities the communities rented, which allowed authorities to pressure owners to terminate or not renew lease agreements as a means of preventing religious activities.  Protestant groups stated they continued to be more severely affected than other groups in this regard because they were less likely to own religious facilities and they could not apply for permission to conduct religious activities in private homes because these residences were too small to accommodate their numbers.

The government continued to require students to use textbooks that representatives of nontraditional religious groups said promoted intolerance towards them, citing chapters in the books that labeled such groups as “sects.”  The textbooks described nontraditional religious groups as “striving for the exclusiveness of their role, doctrine, and principles,” being isolationist, and claiming to be God-chosen, among other things.

According to media reports, school administrators continued to cooperate only with the BOC among registered religious groups, based on the BOC’s concordat with the government.  School administrators continued to invite BOC priests to lecture to students, organize tours of BOC facilities, and participate in BOC festivities, programs, and humanitarian projects.

On August 28, the Catholic Diocese of Hrodna received a certificate granting registration to Saint Kazimir’s College of Theology in Hrodna.  The college became the fifth Roman Catholic institute of higher education in the country.

Religious groups said the government continued to apply visa regulations in ways restricting the ability of foreign missionaries to live and work in the country.  Forum 18 reported OPRRNA rejected applications in the spring from the BOC’s Vitsyebsk Diocese for two Orthodox priests from Russia.

Local human rights portals stated that on April 30, the government expelled Polish Catholic priest Krzysztof Poswiata, who ministered in the town of Hatava near Minsk, after authorities refused to extend his permission to serve.  Poswiata reportedly received three speeding tickets in 2018, which authorities told Forum 18 was the reason for his expulsion.  Forum 18 reported that on June 4, OPRRNA rejected the application of the Catholic Diocese of Vitsyebsk for Polish priest Karol Prandzioch to serve at a parish in Shumilina, replacing another Polish priest who was leaving voluntarily.  Father Uladzimir Razanovich, secretary of the Vitsyebsk Diocesan administration, told Forum 18 that unofficially, the government wanted local religious communities to train local citizens as clergy rather than having foreigners.

According to Catholic Archbishop of Minsk Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, foreign priests faced multiple challenges, including:  newly arrived priests had to undergo a lengthy approval process before obtaining permission to celebrate Mass; the government often issued them visas for only three to six months; and they often encountered administrative difficulties when trying to renew visas.

A representative of the Polish community in Hrodna told the press on July 26 that local authorities denied Polish priest Ryszard Umanski entrance into the country, saying he did not have a religious visa.  In applying for the visa, he reportedly said the visit would be private and not related to any religious activity.

There were no developments regarding the longstanding freeze placed on the assets of New Life Church in 2005.  Minsk authorities did not renew their attempts to evict the church from its premises, a process that began in 2007 and continued through 2012 after the authorities refused to register the church at its location.  While the church continued to use the space for religious purposes, it remained unable to obtain proof of ownership from the authorities and had no access to electricity.  Church leadership’s discussions with Minsk city authorities on the status and operations of the church were continuing at year’s end.

The authorities continued to permit the BOC to collect charitable donations in public as well as on its religious property.  While the law does not restrict other religious groups from raising donations in public, representatives of these groups said authorities continued to limit their fundraising activities to their own places of worship or other properties.  Groups said they faced government harassment if they tried to raise donations at other locations.

During the year, the Jewish community worked with local authorities to erect at least eight new privately funded monuments in the villages of Svislach, Klimavichy, and Petrykau and other locations that specifically commemorated Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

The government supported commemorative events and an international conference dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Minsk ghetto on October 21-23.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs held an international roundtable on October 22 to discuss remembrance and lessons of the Minsk ghetto, which included former ghetto prisoners, local historians, international and local officials, and representatives of the diplomatic and Jewish communities.  Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey condemned “hatred and bigotry, which could lead to killings of masses of people based on their religious or ethnic attributes.”  He also noted increasing xenophobia, discrimination, anti-Semitism and hate crimes, and warned against the revival of Nazism and ideas of racial superiority.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During the year, authorities convicted a number of offenders who reportedly associated themselves with neo-Nazis or skinhead movements for inciting ethnic and religious hatred against Jews, among others.  On February 27, a court in the Vitsyebsk Region sentenced a resident in Navapolatsk to three years in prison for posting videos on his social media featuring mass killings of Jews in the Holocaust and skinheads beating Muslims.  In another case, authorities convicted an individual from the Baranavichy District of Brest Region for posting videos with anti-Semitic content and calls for violence against natives of the Caucasus (the majority of whom are Muslim).  A court sentenced the man to a year and a month in jail on April 18.

In March a Mahilyou District court convicted two local residents detained in November 2017 for stealing parts of metal fencing from graves at a local Jewish cemetery.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, doctors continued to force their believers to accept blood transfusions as part of their treatment, despite their explicit written refusal of blood transfusions.

The BOC, in particular the Minsk-based parish of the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, continued its annual commemoration honoring Hauryil Belastoksky, a child allegedly killed by Jews near Hrodna in 1690, as one of its saints and martyrs.  Jewish community leaders again expressed concern over the memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Belastoksky’s death on May 3, the text of which included a passage stating the “martyred and courageous Hauryil exposed Jewish dishonesty.”

In a televised interview on November 24, Metropolitan of the BOC Pavel said Baptists were “a sect,” focused on their “missionary activities,” and called them “annoying” and said they were spreading “propaganda and not preaching.”  He added, “You cannot talk to them about anything and if you do, they turn into gypsies” and “start soliciting until they rob you.”  On November 27, head of the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists Leanid Mikhovich called the Metropolitan’s remarks “unacceptable” and blessed “all Baptists in the country, especially representatives of the Roma who are believers of [our] faith.”

While the government had previously banned various literature and printed materials it classified as “extremist” and they were no longer widely sold in mainstream bookstores, anti-Semitic and xenophobic newspapers, literature, digital video discs, and videotapes, frequently imported from Russia, continued to be available.

The Bible Society, an interdenominational Christian fellowship center, continued to print and distribute copies of the Bible and other religious literature, including donating Bibles to children’s and nursing homes, temporary shelters, rehabilitation centers, and hospitals during the year.  The society also distributed copies of the Bible and other religious literature to foster and underprivileged families in towns and villages across the country.  In addition, the society extensively promoted the distribution of the Bible translated into the Belarusian language.  Founded by the BOC, Roman and Greek Catholic Churches, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, and Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, the Bible Society also engaged in educational and charitable projects targeting vulnerable populations.  These projects included Bible studies, summer schools and camps, and literacy courses for children.

An interreligious working group comprised of the BOC, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, and Jewish religious communities organized quarterly meetings, seminars on theological themes, trips around the country, and a trip to Dachau and Flossenburg, Germany, that focused on interfaith dialogue.  The group visited sites of former concentration camps and participated in commemorations of the1938 Kristallnacht pogrom in Munich.

On January 20, BOC, Roman and Greek Catholic, Protestant, and Lutheran churches held ecumenical services marking the international Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at parishes across the country.  Clergy stressed the importance of cooperation and understanding among Christians.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In October embassy officials and a visiting U.S. delegation that included the Chair of the U.S. Commission on Protection of America’s Heritage Abroad and the Deputy Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with officials from the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs as well as prosecutors to discuss concerns related to the preservation of Jewish heritage sites.  The delegation also participated in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-sponsored international roundtable to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Minsk ghetto on October 22.  Also in October the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs met with senior government officials for discussions that included religious freedom concerns.  The Charge d’Affaires regularly raised religious freedom concerns at the highest levels of government throughout the year.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials continued to meet regularly with representatives of the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, and minority religious groups.  They discussed anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage with Jewish religious groups, and discussed government restrictions on registration and operations with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups.  Embassy officials also continued to hold regular discussions about restrictions on religious freedom with religious freedom activists, religious leaders, lawyers for religious groups, and representatives of the For Freedom of Religion initiative, a group of civil society activists promoting religious tolerance.  In October a Protestant pastor from Hrodna participated in the Interfaith Dialogue and Religious Freedom multi-regional program sponsored by the Department of State.  On social media, embassy officials posted the Secretary of State’s speeches and other materials related to religious freedom.

Crimea

Executive Summary

In February 2014, Russian military forces invaded and occupied Crimea.  United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262 adopted on March 27, 2014, and entitled Territorial Integrity of Ukraine, states the Autonomous Republic of Crimea remains internationally recognized as within Ukraine’s international borders.  The U.S. government does not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and considers that Crimea remains a part of Ukraine.

IN THIS SECTION: UKRAINE | CRIMEA (BELOW)


In February 2014, armed forces of the Russian Federation seized and occupied Crimea.  In March 2014, Russia announced Crimea had become part of the Russian Federation.  A UN General Assembly resolution declared continued international recognition of Crimea’s inclusion within Ukraine’s international borders.  The U.S. government continues not to recognize the purported annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and recognizes that Crimea continues to be part of Ukraine.  Occupation forces continue to impose the de facto implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory of Crimea.

In a joint 2014-2018 report for the UN Committee against Torture, Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, Regional Center for Human Rights, and Media Initiative for Human Rights reported religious activists were among victims of torture.  According to the report, despite the health problems of Arsen Dzhepparov and Uzeir Abdullayev, detained by the FSB on suspicion of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, occupation authorities denied medical assistance to them.

The Russian government reported there were 831 religious communities registered in Crimea, compared with 812 in 2017, a number that dropped by over 1,000 since occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available.  According to religious activists, human rights groups, and media reports, Russian authorities in occupied Crimea continued to persecute and intimidate minority religious congregations, Jehovah’s Witnesses, UOC-KP members, and Muslim Crimean Tatars.  Occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to imprisonment and detentions, especially if the authorities purportedly suspected the individuals of involvement in the Muslim political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is legal in Ukraine.

Due to the close links between religion and ethnicity, it was sometimes difficult for human rights groups to categorize incidents as solely based on religious identity.

According to Forum 18, an international religious freedom NGO, administrative court hearings under Russian law imposed on Crimea for “missionary activity” doubled in Crimea compared to the previous year.  There were 23 prosecutions for such activity, most of which ended in convictions with some type of monetary fine.

Greek Catholic leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation authorities.  The UGCC said it continued to have to operate under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church.  The UOC-KP reported continued seizures of its churches.  Crimean Tatars reported police continued to be slow to investigate attacks on Islamic religious properties or refused to investigate them at all.

Religious and human rights groups continued to report Russian media efforts to create suspicion and fear among certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, whom media repeatedly accused of links to Islamist groups designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir.  Russian media also portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.”

The U.S. government continued to condemn the intimidation of Christian and Muslim religious groups by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea and to call international attention to the religious abuses committed by Russian forces.  U.S. government officials remained unable to visit the peninsula following its occupation by the Russian Federation.  Embassy officials, however, continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Crimean Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders to discuss their concerns over actions taken against their congregations by the occupation authorities, and to demonstrate continued U.S. support for their right to practice their religious beliefs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The Crimean peninsula consists of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC) and the City of Sevastopol.  According to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine 2014 estimates, the total population of the peninsula is 2,353,000.  There are no recent independent surveys with data on the religious affiliation of the population, but media outlets estimate the number of Crimean Tatars, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, at 300,000, or 13 percent of the population.

According to the information provided by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture in 2014 (the most recent year available), the UOC-MP remains the largest Christian denomination.  Smaller Christian denominations include the UOC-KP, the Roman Catholic Church, UAOC, UGCC, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with Protestant groups, including Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Lutherans.  Adherents of the UOC-MP, Protestants, and Muslims are the largest religious groups in Sevastopol.

There are several Jewish congregations, mostly in Sevastopol and Simferopol.  Jewish groups estimate between 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish residents lived in Crimea before the Russian occupation began.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Pursuant to international recognition of the continued inclusion of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea within Ukraine’s international borders, Crimea continues to be officially subject to the constitution and laws of Ukraine.  In the aftermath of Russia’s occupation, however, occupation authorities continue their de facto implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory.

Government Practices

On December 22, the UN General Assembly issued a resolution condemning Russian occupation authorities for “the ongoing pressure exerted upon religious minority communities, including through frequent police raids, threats against and persecution of those belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, the Protestant Church, mosques and Muslim religious schools, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses.”  The UN also condemned the “baseless prosecution of dozens of peaceful Muslims for allegedly belonging to Islamic organizations.”  Such prosecutions were primarily of Muslims occupation authorities claimed were members of the Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, banned in Russia, but legal in Ukraine.

In a joint 2014-2018 report for the UN Committee against Torture, Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, Regional Center for Human Rights, and Media Initiative for Human Rights reported religious activists were among victims of torture.  According to the report, despite the health problems of Arsen Dzhepparov and Uzeir Abdullayev, detained by the FSB on suspicion of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, occupation authorities denied medical assistance to them.

Forced psychiatric examinations of Crimean Tatar Muslim prisoners continued throughout the year.  The Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG) said on December 13, Server Mustafayev was placed in a psychiatric institution for a month-long forced examination.

On June 30, the NGO Krymska Solidarnist quoted human rights attorney Emil Kurbedinov as saying the occupation authorities had subjected Muslim activist Neriman Memedeminov to forced psychiatric examination.

According to media, from June 26 to July 18, Muslim detainee Emir-Huseyn Kuku was on a hunger strike to show his solidarity with other political prisoners and to call attention to their treatment.  On August 26, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld the Ukrainian government’s petition to require Russia to share information about Kuku’s state of health and the medical care provided to him.  According to a September 6 BBC News Ukraine report, the ECHR press service quoted the Russian government as saying that Kuku was receiving proper medical care and was not on a hunger strike at that time.

According to the CHRG, in December the number of Crimean Tatars charged in connection with their Hizb ut-Tahrir membership totaled 29, including Ruslan Zeytullayev, Rustem Vaitov, Nuri Primov and Ferat Sayfullayev, who were serving their prison sentences in Russia.  These four were arrested in Sevastopol in 2015 and charged with participation in Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Additionally, defendants in the Yalta Hizb ut-Tahrir case (Enver Bekirov, Vadim Siruk, Muslim Aliyev, Emir Usein Kuku, Refat Alimov, and Arsen Dzhepparov) and the Bakhchisarai Hizb ut-Tahrir case (Enver Mamutov, Remzi Memetov, Zevri Abseitov and Rustem Abiltarov) were in a detention center in Rostov while their trials continued.

Prisoners in the Bakhchisarai Hizb ut-Tahrir case (Ernes Ametov, Marlen Asanov, Seyran Saliyev, Memet Belialov, Timur Ibragimov, Server Zakiryayev, Server Mustafayev and Edem Smailov), Simferopol Hizb ut-Tahrir case (Teymur Abdullayev, Rustem Ismailov, Ayder Saledinov, Uzeir Abdullayev, Emil Djemadenov), and Sevastopol Hizb ut-Tahrir case (Enver Seytosmanov), and activist of Krymska Solidarnist Nariman Memedeminov were held in pretrial detention in Simferopol.  Server Mustafayev, Edem Smailov and Nariman Memedeminov were held in pretrial detention in Simferopol.

According to Krymska Solidarnist, on March 22, FSB officers detained blogger Nariman Memedeminov following a search at his home in Kholmovka village in Bakhchisarai District.  The NGO linked the arrest to his reporting on the human rights situation in Crimea.  On March 23, the Kyivsky District Court in Simferopol sanctioned his arrest on terrorist charges, citing his involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir.

According to Krymska Solidarnist, on December 24, Roman Plisko, judge of the North Caucasus District Court in Rostov, sentenced Enver Mamutov to 17 years in a maximum-security prison.  Ruslan Abiltarov, Remzi Memetov, and Zevri Abseitov each received nine-year maximum-security prison sentences.  They were arrested in Bakhchisarai in 2016 and charged with participation in Hizb ut-Tahrir.

According to the Krym Realii news website, on December 6-7, the Kyivsky District Court in Simferopol prolonged until March 9, 2019, the detentions of Seyran Saliyev, Memet Belyalov and Timur Ibragimov, Marlen Asanov, Server Zekiryayev, and Ernes Ametov for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai.

According to Krymska Solidarnist, on December 3, Russia’s Rostov District Military Court extended until February 27, 2019, the detentions of Ayder Saledinov, Teymur Abdullayev, Uzair Abdullayev, Emil Dzhemadenov, and Rustem Ismailov, whom the FSB had detained on suspicion of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Simferopol.

According to Krymska Solidarnist, on November 22, the Rostov District Military Court prolonged the detentions of Muslims Aliyev, Emir-Useyn Kuku, Vadym Siruk, Enver Bekirov, Arsen Dzhepparov and Refat Alimov until February 28, 2019.  The court cited their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Yalta.

According to an OHCHR quarterly report issued in September, since the beginning of the Russian occupation, at least 33 Crimean residents were arrested for alleged ties with radical Muslim groups.  OHCHR reported four of them were convicted in the absence of “any credible evidence that the defendants called for the use of force, violated public order, or engaged in any unlawful activity in Crimea.”

According to CHRG, on December 24, Inna Semenets, magistrate of the Evpatoriya Judicial District, fined the Karaite religious community for failing to place an identifying sign on the building of a religious organization.  In December the Crimean magistrates reviewed at least five cases pertaining to “illegal missionary activity.”  During the year, 30 of these cases were reviewed, and the magistrates imposed an administrative penalty, fines of 5,000-30,000 Russian rubles ($72-430) and a warning in at least 18 cases.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses and Forum 18, on November 14, the Russian FSB opened the first criminal case in occupied Crimea against a Jehovah’s Witness, Sergei Filatov, on extremism-related charges.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Filatov is a former head of their Sivash community in Dzhankoy.  Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that on November 16, 200 FSB officers raided Filatov’s home and the homes of seven other Jehovah’s Witnesses in the northern Crimean town of Dzhankoy.  During the raid, officers reportedly pinned 79-year-old Oleksandr Ursu to a wall, forced him to the ground, and handcuffed him.  Ursu spent his childhood years with his family in Soviet exile in Siberia.  Later the authorities rehabilitated him as a victim of Soviet political repression.  According to JW.org and Forum 18, two Jehovah’s Witness members were hospitalized for high blood pressure, and 22-year-old Zhanna Lungu suffered a miscarriage following the raid.

The investigation of Ervin Ibragimov’s 2016 kidnapping continued with no new information on his whereabouts at year’s end.  According to media sources, in March Simferopol’s Kyiv District Court dismissed a complaint by his family’s lawyer about lack of police response to attorney inquiries regarding the investigation of the case.  In May 2016, unidentified uniformed men kidnapped Ibragimov, a Muslim and member of the Bakhchisarai Mejlis and of the Coordinating Council of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars, after stopping his car on the side of the road.

According to Forum 18, administrative court hearings under Russian law imposed on Crimea for “missionary activity” doubled in Crimea compared to the previous year.  There were 23 prosecutions for such activity, 19 of which ended with some type of punishment.  Many of those prosecuted had been sharing their faith on the street or holding worship at unapproved venues.  According to Forum 18, 12 Russian citizens were fined approximately 10 days’ average local wages.  Six Ukrainian citizens were given higher fines of up to nearly two months’ average local wages.  Forum 18 stated these six cases, in addition to the case of another Ukrainian who was prosecuted, appear to be the first use in Crimea of a Russian Administrative Code on “foreigners conducting missionary activity” that is “specifically aimed at non-Russians.”

According to Forum 18, occupation authorities brought an additional 17 cases against individuals and religious communities for failing to use the full legal name of a registered religious community.  The punishments generally involved fines of approximately 10 days’ wages, according to Forum 18.  Occupation authorities brought an additional 14 cases against individuals and religious communities for failing to use the full legal name of a registered religious community.

According to Forum 18, local authorities maintained a ban on the Tablighi Jamaat Muslim missionary movement in Crimea under the 2009 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.  Forum 18 reported on its website on November 28 that the trial of four alleged members of the Tablighi Jamaat Muslim missionary movement on extremism-related charges was imminent at the Crimea “Supreme Court” in Simferopol.  The four men, all members of the Tatar minority, were arrested in October 2017.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, local authorities maintained a ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea under the 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.

According to the Ministry of Justice of Russia, 831 religious organizations were registered in Crimea, including 69 in Sevastopol, as of year’s end.  These included the two largest religious organizations – the Christian Orthodox UOC-MP and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea (SAMC) – as well as various Protestant, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Greek Catholic communities, among other religious groups.

According to data collected by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture in 2014 (the most recent year available), there were 2,083 religious organizations (a term including parishes, congregations, theological schools, monasteries, and other constituent parts of a church or religious group) in the ARC and 137 in Sevastopol.  The numbers included organizations both with and without legal entity status.  Muslim religious organizations constituted the largest number of religious organizations in the ARC, most of which were affiliated with the SAMC, Ukraine’s largest Muslim group.

The OHCHR report on the most recent number of registered religious communities indicated more than 1,000 religious communities recognized under Ukrainian law had not reregistered.  According to the OHCHR, stringent legal requirements under Russian legislation continued to prevent or discourage reregistration of many religious communities.

According to human rights groups, occupation authorities continued to restrict the rights of Crimean Tatars, who are predominantly Muslim, following the 2016 designation of the Mejlis, recognized under Ukrainian law as the democratically elected representative council of the Crimean Tatars, as an “extremist organization.”

Human rights groups reported occupation authorities continued to require imams at Crimean Tatar mosques to inform them each time they transferred from one mosque to another.

The Roman Catholic Church reported it continued to operate in the territory as a pastoral district directly under the authority of the Vatican.  Polish and Ukrainian Roman Catholic Church priests were permitted to stay in the territory for only 90 days at a time and then were required to remain out of Crimea for 90 days before returning.

According to the UGCC, it could still only operate as a part of the pastoral district of the Roman Catholic Church.

According to the UOC-KP, Russian occupation authorities continued to pressure the UOC-KP Crimean diocese in a bid to force the UOC-KP to leave the region.  Only five of the 15 UOC-KP churches located in Crimea prior to the Russian occupation remained functioning at the end of the year, compared with eight in 2017.

On June 3, the “Government of Sevastopol” returned to the Roman Catholic Church the vacant former Church of St. Clement.  According to the media, “Governor of Sevastopol” Dmitry Ovsyannikov called the decision a “restoration of historical justice.”

According to media sources, Russian authorities ordered the relocation of human remains from an ancient Muslim cemetery near Bakhchisaray due to road construction through the cemetery.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Following an October 17 mass shooting in a Kerch college, Russian media widely discussed a claim that the shooter’s mother was a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses “sect.”

On July 18, local authorities in Kerch said they had identified a group of teenagers who during that month had destroyed 15 tombstones in a Muslim cemetery in Bagerovе.  Local government representatives said the suspects would face administrative penalties.

According to Krym Realii news website, on the night of June 18-19, unidentified individuals painted neo-Nazi graffiti on a fence surrounding a mosque in Bilohirsk.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government continued its efforts to focus international attention on the religious freedom-related abuses committed by Russian forces and occupation authorities in Crimea, especially on actions taken by those forces and authorities against Christians and Muslims.  U.S. government and embassy officials condemned the continuing intimidation of minority religious congregations, including Christians and Muslim Crimean Tatars.  On December 20, among the frequent public statements and tweets to amplify U.S. government support for religious freedom, including the rights of religious minorities, the Ambassador stated, “Tolerance, restraint, and understanding are decisive factors that provide an opportunity for people with different religious beliefs to live and flourish peacefully together.”

Although embassy and other U.S. government officials remained unable to visit Crimea following the Russian occupation, embassy officials continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders.  The leaders discussed their concerns over actions taken against congregations by the occupation authorities and reassured the religious leaders of continued U.S. support for the right of all to practice their religious beliefs.  Embassy officials told religious leaders the United States would continue to support religious freedom in Crimea and press the occupation authorities to return confiscated property and release prisoners incarcerated for their religious or political beliefs.


IN THIS SECTION: UKRAINE | CRIMEA (ABOVE)

Estonia

Executive Summary

The constitution declares there is no state church and protects the freedom of individuals to practice their religion.  It prohibits the incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination.  The law provides the procedure for registration of religious associations and religious societies and regulates their activities.  Unregistered religious associations are free to conduct religious activities but are not eligible for tax benefits.  The government continued to provide funds to the Council of Churches for ecumenical activities.  On January 26, the government held an annual memorial event on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.

In August unidentified individuals burned and defaced the Kalevi-Liiva Holocaust memorial with anti-Semitic graffiti.  A police investigation continued at year’s end.  Jewish groups expressed concern about a September 2 demonstration involving the temporary erection of a monument depicting an Estonian soldier in a World War II-era German uniform.  In 2017, the most recent year for which data was available, police registered no hate crime cases involving religion, compared with six cases in 2016.

U.S. embassy officials discussed religious freedom and the importance of religious tolerance with government representatives.  The embassy made use of social media to promote religious freedom, including producing a featured video to commemorate National Religious Freedom Day.  The Ambassador and embassy staff continued to support dialogue on anti-Semitism and Holocaust education in meetings with government officials, religious leaders, civil society, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.3 million (September 2018).  According to the 2011 census, 29 percent of the population is religiously affiliated, 54 percent does not identify with any religion, and 17 percent does not state an affiliation.  According to current data from the Council of Churches, the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church has 180,000 members (13.8 percent of the population), while the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (EOCMP) has 170,000 members (13.1 percent).  The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church has 30,000 members (2.3 percent).  The Union of Free Evangelical and Baptist Churches of Estonia and the Roman Catholic Church in Estonia both have more than 6,400 members (1 percent together).  Other Christian groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Russian Old Believers, collectively constitute 1.1 percent of the population.  According to the 2011 census, there are small Jewish and Muslim communities of 2,500 members and 1,500 members, respectively.  Most religious adherents among the Russian-speaking population belong to the EOCMP and reside mainly in the capital or the northeastern part of the country.  According to census data, most of the country’s community of Russian Old Believers lives along the west bank of Lake Peipsi in the eastern part of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares there is no state church and stipulates freedom for individuals to belong to any religious group and practice any religion, both alone and in community with others, in public or in private, unless doing so is “detrimental to public order, health, or morals.”  The constitution also prohibits incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination.  The law states that violations are punishable by fines or up to three years in prison.  The constitution recognizes the right to refuse military service for religious reasons but requires conscientious objectors to perform alternative service as provided by law.

The law regulates the activities of religious associations and religious societies.  Religious associations are defined as churches, congregations, unions of congregations, and monasteries.  Churches, congregations, and unions of congregations are required to have a management board.  The management board has the right to invite a minister of religion from outside the country.  The residence of at least half of the members of the management board must be in the country, in another member state of the European Economic Area, or in Switzerland.  The elected or appointed superior of a monastery serves as the management board for the monastery.  Religious societies are defined as voluntary organizations whose main activities include religious or ecumenical activities relating to morals, ethics, culture, and social rehabilitation activities outside the traditional forms of religious rites of a church or congregation.  Religious societies do not need to affiliate with a specific church or congregation.

The registration office of the Tartu County Court registers religious associations and religious societies.

To register, a religious association must have at least 12 members, and its management board must submit a notarized or digitally signed application, the minutes of its constitutive meeting, and a copy of its statutes.  The law treats registered religious associations as nonprofit entities entitled to some tax benefits if they apply for them, such as a value-added tax exemption.  There are more than 550 religious associations registered with the government.

The law does not prohibit activities by unregistered religious associations.  Unregistered religious associations, however, may not act as legal persons.  Unlike registered religious associations, unregistered associations are not eligible for tax benefits.

Religious societies are registered according to the law governing nonprofit associations and are entitled to the same tax benefits as religious associations.  To register as an NGO, a religious society must have a founding contract and statutes approved by its founders, who may be physical or legal persons.  The minimum number of founders is two.  The society must submit its registration application either electronically or on paper to the Tartu County Court registry office.

The law requires the commanding officer of each military unit to provide its members the opportunity to practice their religion.  Prison directors must also provide the opportunity for inmates to practice their religious beliefs.  The state funds police and border guard, military, and prison chaplains, who may belong to any registered religious denomination and must guarantee religious services for individuals of all faiths.

Optional basic religious instruction is available in public and private schools, funded by the state.  All schools must provide religious studies at the primary and secondary levels if students request these studies.  The courses offer a general introduction to different faiths.  Religious studies instructors may be lay teachers or clergy provided by religious groups.  There are also private religious schools.  All students, regardless of their religious affiliation or non-affiliation, may attend religious schools.  Attendance at religious services at religious schools is voluntary.  The majority of students attending a private religious school are not associated with the school’s religious affiliation.

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

Government Practices

According to the NGO register, six religious associations registered during the first 10 months of the year, including evangelical Protestant, Pentecostal, and other groups.

The government allocated 596,000 euros ($683,000) to the Estonian Council of Churches.  The council, which comprises 10 Christian churches – including the Lutheran Church and both Orthodox Churches – continued to serve as an organization joining the country’s largest Christian communities.  The government provided the funds for ecumenical activities, including ecclesiastical programs broadcast on the Estonian Broadcasting Company, youth work by churches, activities promoting interreligious dialogue, and religious publishing.

Following the burning and defacing of the Kalevi-Liiva Holocaust memorial in August, Prime Minister Juri Ratas and Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu publicly condemned the vandalism and declared the state would “seriously investigate” the incident.  The investigation continued at year’s end.  The state forestry agency and heritage organization repaired the damage on August 23.

On January 26, the government held an annual memorial event on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn.  Schools participated in commemorative activities throughout the country.  On January 26, the Ministry of Education and Research, in cooperation with the Estonian Memory Institute, sponsored a Jewish culture and history seminar for history and civics teachers from across the country and the public on Holocaust history and commemoration.

On September 25, the government hosted the visit of Pope Francis to Tallinn.  At a meeting with civil society, diplomatic, and cultural leaders during the visit, President Kersti Kaljulaid stated, “The freedom of religion is precisely one of the unyielding bedrocks on which our democracy is founded.”

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In 2017, the most recent year for which data was available, police registered no hate crime cases involving religion, compared with six cases in 2016.

According to representatives of the Jewish community, either on August 20 or 21, unidentified individuals burned and defaced the Kalevi-Liiva Holocaust memorial with anti-Semitic graffiti.

Jewish groups expressed concern about a September 2 demonstration, organized by activists affiliated with the Estonian Conservative People’s Party, involving the temporary erection of a monument depicting an Estonian soldier in a World War II-era German uniform.

According to many religious and other civil society leaders, there was societal support for religious freedom and tolerance in the country.  Interreligious events involving religious minorities were frequent, including conferences celebrating Estonian religious life and the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed the state of religious freedom and tolerance in the country with officials from the ministries of internal, social, and foreign affairs and engaged the government on the importance of promoting religious tolerance.

The embassy again joined with the Ministry of Education to fund the travel of two teachers to a summer teacher-training program on Holocaust education in the United States.  The teachers said they had incorporated what they had learned into the Holocaust education portion of the national curriculum.

The embassy made use of social media to promote religious freedom, including making a video about a female American Anglican pastor serving in the country and retweeting the Secretary of State on publishing the 2017 religious freedom report.  The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with members of the Jewish community, leaders of religious associations, representatives of the Council of Churches, and NGOs to discuss religious tolerance.

Georgia

Executive Summary

A new constitution took effect in December and provides for “absolute freedom of religion,” the separation of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) and the state, and equality for all regardless of religion.  It also prohibits persecution based on religion.  Previously, in March the ruling party withdrew proposed amendments to the then draft constitution that generated controversy after critics said the amendments appeared to allow the limiting of freedom of religion on national security grounds.  Laws and policies continue to grant the GOC privileges not accorded to any other religious group, including legal immunity for the GOC patriarch and a consultative role in education.  In July, however, the Constitutional Court declared both the tax and property privileges of the GOC unconstitutional and mandated legislative changes by December 31, although parliament missed this deadline.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report a lack of effective investigations into crimes motivated by religious hatred, but they said the quality of investigations was improving.  The Public Defender’s Office (PDO) reported it received 19 cases of violence based on religious intolerance during the year, compared to five cases the previous year.  Authorities registered seven new religious organizations as legal entities during the year.  They suspended the application for registration of one organization due to legal issues with its application.  Some NGOs and minority religious groups continued to report both national and local government resistance to minority religious groups’ construction of buildings for religious purposes.  After negotiations with the local government about mosque construction in Batumi broke down, Muslim representatives continued to state government delays and opaque decision-making prevented them from building a new mosque.  Some religious organizations and NGOs criticized the State Agency on Religious Issues (SARI, also known as the State Agency for Religious Affairs) for functioning opaquely, practicing favoritism toward the GOC in restitution of buildings confiscated by the state in the Soviet era, and inadequately addressing acts of religious intolerance and discrimination in favor of the GOC in public schools.  The Armenian Apostolic Church petitioned SARI for ownership of 37 churches it operated.

Restrictions continued on religious activities in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which remained outside the control of the central government.  According to the GOC Patriarchate, GOC clergy were unable to conduct religious services in South Ossetia or Abkhazia.  De facto authorities in these occupied territories continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses, classifying the Church as an extremist organization.

During the year, there were eight reported cases of religiously motivated physical assaults on 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses.  There were reports of vandalism against religious minorities, such as graffiti on Armenian churches in Adjara and an attack on a Kingdom Hall building in Gori.  Representatives of minority religious groups continued to report widespread societal beliefs that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and the country’s cultural values.  The NGO Media Development Foundation (MDF) documented at least 140 instances of religiously intolerant remarks in national media, up from 92 the previous year.

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials, including SARI leadership, the prime minister’s adviser for human rights and gender equality, the president’s adviser for minority issues, and officials at various ministries to encourage dialogue between the government and minority religious groups, support government-led efforts to reform the investigative arm of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (responsible for assessing whether crimes were motivated by religious hatred), and promote religious freedom as provided in the new constitution.  The Charge d’Affaires met with the GOC Patriarch several times to stress the importance of the GOC’s role in promoting religious diversity and tolerance.  The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy officials traveled throughout the country to meet with minority religious groups, and the embassy sponsored the participation of various representatives from different faiths in programs in the United States on religious freedom and interfaith issues.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.9 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2014 census, GOC members constitute 83.4 percent of the population, followed by Muslims at 10.7 percent and members of the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) at 2.9 percent.  According to the census, Roman Catholics, Yezidis, Greek Orthodox, Jews, growing numbers of “nontraditional” religious groups such as Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and individuals who profess no religious preference constitute the remaining 3 percent of the population.

Ethnicity, religious affiliation, and region of residence are strongly connected.  Most ethnic Georgians affiliate with the GOC.  A small number of mostly ethnic Russians are members of several Orthodox groups not affiliated with the GOC, including the Molokani, Staroveriy (Old Believers), and Dukhoboriy (Spirit Wrestlers).  Ethnic Azerbaijanis are predominantly Shia Muslims and form the majority of the population in the southeastern region of Kvemo-Kartli.  Other Muslim groups include ethnic Georgian Muslims in Adjara and Chechen Kists in the northeast, both of which are predominantly Sunni.  Ethnic Georgian Sunni Muslims are also present in Samtskhe-Javakheti.  Ethnic Armenians belong primarily to the AAC and constitute the majority of the population in Samtskhe-Javakheti.

According to a census reportedly conducted in 2016 by the de facto government of Abkhazia, there are 243,564 residents of Abkhazia.  A survey reportedly conducted in 2003 by the de facto government listed 60 percent of respondents as Christian, 16 percent Muslim, 8 percent atheists or nonbelievers, 8 percent followers of the pre-Christian Abkhazian religion, and 1 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, or adherents of other religions.  The remaining 7 percent listed no preference.

According to a 2015 census reportedly conducted by the de facto government of South Ossetia, there are 53,000 residents of South Ossetia.  Estimates indicate the majority of the population practices Christianity, followed by Islam and the Right Faith, a revival of the pre-Christian ethnic Ossetian religion.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

A new constitution went into effect in December and provides for “absolute freedom of religion,” the separation of the GOC and the state, and equality for all regardless of religion.  Like the previous constitution, it prohibits persecution based on religion and prohibits compelling anyone to express his or her opinion about religion.  It also continues to prohibit public and political associations that create religious animosity.  The law provides for freedom of religious belief, denomination, and conscience, including the right to choose and change religious affiliation.

The previous and new constitutions recognize the GOC’s special role in the country’s history, but stipulate the GOC shall be independent from the state and relations between the GOC and the state shall be governed by a constitutional agreement (also called a concordat).  The concordat grants rights not given to other religious groups, including legal immunity for the GOC patriarch, exemption of GOC clergy from military service, and a consultative role in government, especially in education.  The concordat states some of its provisions require additional legislation before they may be implemented, including the GOC’s consultative role in education.

A religious group may register with the National Agency of the Public Registry (NAPR) as a Legal Entity of Public Law (LEPL) or as a nonprofit organization, both of which offer benefits, including legal recognition when conducting activities, partial tax exemptions, and the right to own property and open bank accounts.  Unregistered religious groups may conduct religious activities but do not receive the legal status or benefits conferred on registered groups.

To acquire LEPL status, the law requires religious organizations to register with the government.  To register, religious groups must have historic ties to the country and recognition from Council of Europe member states as a religious organization.  In addition, an organization registering for LEPL status must submit to the NAPR information regarding its objectives and procedures and a list of its founders and governing body.  The civil code defines the activities and rights of denominations registered under LEPL status.  Groups registering as nonprofit religious organizations do not have to demonstrate historic ties to the country or recognition by Council of Europe members but must submit to the NAPR similar information on their objectives, governing procedures, and names of founders and members of their governing body.

The tax code does not consider religious activities to be economic activities, and grants registered religious groups partial tax exemptions for donations.

Until a July Constitutional Court ruling, the GOC was exempt from several requirements applicable to other religious groups, including the payment of taxes on the construction, restoration, and maintenance of religious buildings and the payment of taxes on property.  Moreover, the Law on State Property states that no religious organization registered as an LEPL, except the GOC, could acquire nonagricultural state property through a direct sale.  The law also states a denomination registered as a nonprofit organization could purchase state property and only grants the GOC the right to acquire state-owned agricultural land free of charge.

In July, however, the Constitutional Court declared both tax and property privileges of the GOC unconstitutional in a case brought by NGOs on behalf of nine religious groups.  The court’s ruling mandated legislative changes that would either abolish the privileges or grant them to all religious organizations no later than December 31.  As of the end of the year, parliament had taken no action to implement legislation on the court’s ruling.

The criminal code prohibits interference with worship services, persecution of a person based on religious faith or belief, and interference with the establishment of a religious organization, although the code provides no definition for “establishment.”  Violations are punishable by fines, imprisonment, or both.  Violations committed by public officials are considered abuses of power and are punishable by fines or longer terms of imprisonment if committed by force of arms or by insulting the dignity of a victim.  In cases of religious persecution, the perpetrator may face imprisonment for up to three years depending on the use or threat of violence, his or her official position, and damages caused.  In cases of unlawful interference with the right to perform religious rituals involving the use or threat of violence, offenders may face imprisonment for up to two years; in cases where the offender holds an official position, offenders may face up to five years in prison.  Interference with the establishment of a religious organization is punishable by fine, correctional work for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to two years.

By law, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office (CPO) prosecutes human rights violations involving religious intolerance, while the PDO serves as the country’s human rights ombudsman and monitors complaints of restrictions on religious freedom.  The PDO’s Tolerance Center coordinates the PDO’s Council of Religions and Ethnic Minorities, carries out educational activities, and monitors and analyzes cases of religious and ethnic discrimination and xenophobia.

SARI distributes government compensation to Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and AAC religious organizations registered as LEPLs for “the material and moral damages inflicted upon them during the Soviet period.”  According to SARI, its mandate is to promote and ensure a peaceful coexistence based on principles of equality and tolerance.  According to its website, SARI’s stated responsibilities include researching the existing religious situation and reporting to the government, preparing recommendations and draft legal acts for the government, and serving as a consultative body and intermediary for the government in disputes arising between religious associations.  SARI also issues recommendations to relevant state institutions on approval of construction of religious buildings, determination of their locations, and transfer of such properties to religious organizations.

Although the law states public schools may not be used for religious indoctrination, proselytizing, or forcible assimilation, the concordat accords the GOC the right to teach religious studies in public educational institutions and authorizes the state to pay for GOC religious schools.  As of December, however, the GOC had not taught any religious studies classes in public institutions.  The law states students may pursue religious study and practice religious rituals in schools “of their own accord” to receive religious education, but only after school hours.  Outside instructors, including clergy of any denomination, may only attend or direct students’ religious education or activities if students invite them to do so; school administration and teachers may not be involved in this process.  In practice, however, NGOs and non-GOC organizations report that GOC clergy often visit classes during academic hours, sometimes at the initiative of teachers or school administrators.  The law includes no special regulations for private religious schools.

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

Government Practices

In March the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party withdrew a draft constitutional amendment that critics said would have allowed the government to interfere in religious affairs based on national security grounds.  The Council of Europe’s European Commission for Democracy through Law (known as the Venice Commission), as well as NGOs and local religious organizations, criticized the draft amendment.  Parliament revised the language and introduced a new amendment that did not include the provision on national security as a justification for interference in religious affairs.  The Venice Commission positively assessed the revised language and parliament passed the new amendment.

In April a member of parliament from the Alliance of Patriots political party introduced a draft of a “blasphemy law” that would criminalize “insults to religious feelings.”  Although the draft generated significant discussion about religious sentiment, free speech, and the “defense” of Georgia’s traditions and history, parliament ultimately did not pass the legislation.

The introduction of the draft bill followed an incident in March, when protesters attacked two Rustavi 2 journalists after one “insulted [their] religious feelings” with an on-air joke that involved Jesus Christ.  Authorities arrested six individuals on charges of group hooliganism and an investigation of threats against the journalist was ongoing at year’s end.

In April the government fined a condom production company for including on its products a design of medieval Queen Tamar, whom the GOC considers a saint.  The judge said the design was “unethical” and charged the firm with an administrative offense under the “Law on Distribution of Advertisement.”

NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to influence the NGO All Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG), including the appointment of AMAG religious leaders.

The PDO reported it received 19 accounts of violence on the ground of religious intolerance during the year, 14 more than in 2017.  The PDO also noted that cases from previous years remained largely unresolved.  The 2018 cases all pertained to Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Church members accused the relevant authorities of lacking the will to investigate these cases.

During the year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MoIA) investigated 23 cases involving alleged religiously motivated hate crimes.  The CPO, however, investigated none of these cases during the year, as compared to seven such cases in 2017.  Of the MoIA investigations, one concerned unlawful interference with the activities of a religious association; one, damage or destruction of property; one, damage or destruction of property together with persecution; five, unlawful interference with the performance of a divine service; 14, persecution; and one, abuse of official authority.

The NGO Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) assessed that the MoIA was correctly applying proper articles of the criminal code and the quality of investigations of crimes motivated by religious hatred had improved since 2017.  TDI reported, however, that several cases from previous years remained pending.

Authorities registered seven new religious organizations as legal entities during the year:  Christian Church Spring of Life, Armenian-language Christian Church of Gospel Faith, Evangelical-Christian Centralized Religion Organization First Nazareth Church, International Orthodox Laz-Khalibian Kharibian Catacomb Church, Salvation Army in Georgia, the Light of the Evangel, and Multinational Church of Marneuli.  Authorities suspended the registration of the Georgian Christian-Evangelical Church New Life due to legal issues with its application.

Most prisons reportedly continued to have GOC chapels but no areas for nondenominational worship.  According to SARI, Catholic, AAC, Baptist, Muslim, and Jewish groups, services remained available upon request in the military and in prisons.

According to the PDO’s Tolerance Center, non-GOC religious organizations continued to face government resistance when attempting to obtain construction permits for houses of worship, as was the case with the Batumi mosque.  The center continued to attribute the resistance to what it termed a general societal bias in favor of the GOC.  According to TDI, although the law provides for equal treatment for applicants seeking construction permits, representatives of religious minority groups were often subject to discrimination.  TDI previously stated municipalities issued construction permits, although religious minorities often faced obstacles due to the municipalities’ discriminatory approaches.  TDI also noted the “problematic role” of SARI in the process, which “without a legitimate purpose and legal basis,” interfered with the authority of local self-governance.

In January the AAC appealed the National Agency of Public Registry’s decision to register as GOC property a church the AAC has claimed ownership of since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  As of the end of the year, the appeal remained under review by the courts.  The AAC continued to request restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which the GOC also claimed and authorities registered as state property.  The AAC reported it operated 57 churches in the country but did not own any of them.  The AAC petitioned SARI for ownership and/or right of usage of 20 of the churches in 2015 and for the remaining churches during the year.  SARI’s response remained pending at year’s end.

Muslim community members said there was a lack of transparency around government decisions on mosques and their construction.  The Muslim community continued to dispute the government’s ownership of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara.  Muslim leaders and local and central government authorities remained unable to reach a mutually agreeable solution to address overcrowding in the state-owned mosque in Batumi.  NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to exert influence over the NGO Administration of Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG), including through the selective transfer of land to AMAG and the appointment of AMAG religious leaders.  The potential transfer of land to AMAG rather than local religious organizations continued to be a source of tension, including in Batumi.  A number of Sunni Muslim groups also were critical of AMAG for its attempt to represent all Muslim communities in the country within one organization regardless of denomination.

In February Batumi City Court held its first hearing of the New Mosque Construction Fund’s 2017 appeal of Batumi City Hall’s decision in 2017 to deny the permits necessary to build a new mosque on land the fund owned.  In April the new mayor of Batumi announced he wanted to negotiate with the fund to find a resolution.  The mayor outlined several conditions to allow the construction, including that the fund retract its appeal from the courts and give the land acquired for the mosque to AMAG, which would later apply for the necessary permits.  The fund rejected the requests and refused to continue negotiations.  Parallel to this, the fund appealed Batumi City Hall’s decision to impose a fine of 3,000 lari ($1,100) for the construction of a temporary wooden structure built on the fund’s land.  As of December court hearings had not resumed on either case.

Construction continued on a new mosque promised by SARI and AMAG in the village of Mokhe in Samtskhe-Javakheti.  The construction resulted from a 2017 SARI commission recommendation that the government transfer ownership of a building claimed by local Muslims and the GOC to the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation and provide the local Muslims an alternative plot for a new mosque.  The disputed historical building has been fenced off and protected as a cultural heritage monument.  The PDO stated the SARI commission failed to establish the origin and ownership of the building.  In April the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC) addressed the UN Human Rights Committee on behalf of the Mokhe Muslims and stated the government’s discriminatory restitution policy towards minority religious groups constituted a violation of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and was emblematic of the government’s more general restitution policy.

The government continued to pay subsidies for the restoration of religious properties it considered national cultural heritage sites, increasing funding compared to the previous year.  The National Agency for Cultural Heritage, now housed within the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport, allocated 2,483,300 lari ($930,000) during the year for the restoration of religious monuments, including 145,000 lari ($54,300) for design drafts and 2,338,300 lari ($876,000) for rehabilitation, conservation, and infrastructure development.

The EMC appealed to the Supreme Court a Kutaisi Court of Appeals ruling that the MoIA did not discriminate against Muslims by failing to prevent vandalism in 2014 against a planned Muslim boarding school in Kobuleti.  The EMC also submitted a case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on “the prolonged and discriminatory obstruction of boarding schools for Kobuleti Muslim students,” although the Supreme Court must rule on the case before the ECHR can accept it.  As of December protests by the Orthodox community had prevented local Muslims from installing sewage infrastructure for the boarding school, which had not yet opened.

TDI continued to report cases of religious discrimination in schools, including incidents involving the promotion of GOC theology in religion courses, GOC prayers conducted in classrooms, and the display of icons and other religious symbols in schools, despite the law’s prohibition of proselytization.  The Ministry of Education’s General Inspection Department continued to be responsible for dealing with complaints of inappropriate teacher behavior.  According to a TDI report, while the law governing general education provides for religious neutrality and nondiscrimination, religious education in public schools persisted.

The government distributed 25 million lari ($9.36 million) to the GOC in compensation for “material and moral damages” inflicted upon it during the Soviet period.  In addition, in accordance with a 2014 parliamentary resolution allowing the government to compensate Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic religious organizations registered as LEPLs, SARI disbursed compensation funds totaling 4.5 million lari ($1.69 million) to those four religious groups in coordination with the Ministry of Finance.  SARI reported compensation remained the same as the previous year and was as follows:  2.75 million lari ($1.03 million) to the Muslim community, represented by the AMAG; 550,000 lari ($206,000) to the RCC; 800,000 lari ($300,000) to the AAC; and 400,000 lari ($150,000) to the Jewish community.  In making the disbursements, SARI stated the compensation was of “partial and of symbolic character,” and stated the government continued to take into account levels of damage and “present day negative conditions” of denominations during the selection process.  NGOs continued to criticize the exclusion of other religious groups and to question the criteria the government used to select the four denominations for compensation.

In accordance with the government human rights action plan for 2018-2020, SARI trained approximately 1,000 students, journalists, and representatives from religious organizations to raise awareness of human rights, freedom of religion, and other fundamental freedoms.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained occupied by Russia and outside the control of the central government.  Reliable information from those regions continued to be difficult to obtain.  According to the de facto “constitution” adopted in Abkhazia, all persons in the region are equal before the law regardless of religious beliefs and everyone enjoys freedom of religion.  Forming associations or parties aimed at sowing religious discord is forbidden.

De facto authorities in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia continued to impose a ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  According to anecdotal reports, Jehovah’s Witnesses nonetheless did not encounter significant problems when renting space for Kingdom Halls in Abkhazia.

Representatives of the GOC remained unable to conduct services in the Russian-occupied territories, and the Georgian government has said the de facto authorities damaged historical religious buildings in an attempt to erase Georgian cultural heritage.

The de facto authorities in Abkhazia’s Gali District reportedly continued not to permit GOC clergy to travel to Abkhazia to conduct religious services, and ethnic Georgians were unable to attend services in their own language.  According to a SARI report, the district’s ethnic Georgian population had to travel to Georgian-controlled territory to celebrate religious holidays.

SARI reported it was unable to monitor houses of worship in South Ossetia, and the status of most properties in the territory was unknown.

According to media and online accounts, some religious figures in Abkhazia continued to support turning the region’s Orthodox churches, which are claimed by the GOC, into an autocephalous Abkhaz Orthodox Church, others wished to subordinate them to the Russian Orthodox Church, while yet others wished to subordinate them to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

A Council of Europe report from November found that, after LGBT individuals, Georgians thought Jehovah’s Witnesses were most likely to face discrimination.  The PDO reported that a large number of the alleged hate crimes reported to it over the years were cases of violence or property damage committed against Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Despite continued requests from Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, authorities generally classified such cases as cases of violence rather than persecution on religious grounds.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported approximately eight assaults during the year, down from 10 in 2017.  The attacks targeted 12 individuals, and all included physical assaults, verbal insults, and property damage, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses.  In one case in May, unidentified attackers shot at a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall in Gori, damaging the front door, and spray-painted “Believe in our God” (in Georgian) on the outer wall.  As of December the MoIA was investigating the incident.  The investigation into repeated vandalism of the Vazisubani Kingdom Hall in Tbilisi in previous years was also ongoing.

In January the Tbilisi City Court found one person guilty in criminal proceedings in connection with the 2016 attack on two female Jehovah’s Witnesses who were sharing Bible verses in Alexandre’s Garden in Tbilisi.  The Tbilisi Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal and, as of December, the trial was pending before the Supreme Court.

Representatives of minority religious groups continued to report what they termed a widespread societal belief that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and to the country’s cultural values.  In November the Council of Europe released the results of a study it commissioned, reporting 36 percent of Georgians believed diversity adversely affected the country and was detrimental to Georgian culture and local traditions.  Minority religious communities, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and Protestants, continued to report resistance to their establishing places of worship and religious schools.  In October, for example, the Batumi City Court ruled authorities in the village of Kobuleti must provide sewage and water connections to a Muslim boarding school.  The mayor’s office had previously refused, stating it could not connect the school because of objections from neighbors that led to it remaining closed.  As of December the school remained closed and disconnected.  Representatives from the AAC in Batumi mentioned repeated instances of graffiti on their properties.

As of September MDF documented at least 140 instances of religiously intolerant statements on television, online, and in printed media by media representatives, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared to 92 such incidents from January to October 2017.  The instances included 90 statements which were termed Islamophobic, 35 of which were directed against Muslim migrants.  MDF listed 29 statements against Jehovah’s Witnesses; two each against the AAC, Baptists, and Protestants; one anti-Semitic statement; one against the GOC; and eight against other religious groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other U.S. embassy officials regularly met with officials from the government, including SARI, the prime minister’s adviser on human rights and gender equality, and the president’s adviser on national minorities, to promote religious freedom as provided in the new constitution, to encourage dialogue between the government and minority religious groups, and to support government-led efforts to reform the investigative arm of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (responsible for assessing whether crimes were motivated by religious hatred).  They also continued to meet with the PDO and with officials in its Tolerance Center on these issues.

In January a delegation of five representatives from civil society, government, and the Muslim community participated in an embassy-sponsored multicity trip including Washington, D.C., and New York, to study religious tolerance, interfaith cooperation, and countering violent extremism.  In September seven representatives from civil society and religious communities, including the Muslim community and the GOC, met with U.S. experts on inclusivity and civil rights as part of a U.S. government-sponsored program on religious tolerance and pluralism.

Embassy staff continued to meet with NGOs concerned with religious freedom issues, including the Center for Development and Democracy, EMC, TDI, and the NGO 21st Century Union, as well as with religious community leaders, to promote interfaith relations, the integration of religious minorities into society, and the continued promotion of civil rights for all.

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy officials met with leaders from traditional and nontraditional denominations.  They also visited the Pankisi Gorge, Akhalkalaki, Kvemo Kartli, and Adjara regions on several occasions to meet with local religious leaders from the Sunni Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, and Shia Muslim communities.  In the meetings, embassy officials advocated for interfaith understanding, dialogue, respect, and the peaceful coexistence of all religions.

The Ambassador and Charge d’Affaires met with GOC Patriarch Ilia II on multiple occasions.  In their meetings, they stressed the importance of the Church’s role in promoting religious diversity and tolerance.

Kazakhstan

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion.  The Committee for Social Accord (CSA), part of the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), is responsible for religious issues.  According to local and international observers, authorities imposed restrictions and scrutiny on what the government considers “nontraditional” religious groups, including Muslims who practice a version of Islam other than the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and Protestant Christians.  Authorities continued to arrest, detain, and imprison individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation; restrict religious expression; prevent unregistered groups from practicing their faith; restrict assembly for peaceful religious activities; restrict public manifestation of religious belief; restrict religious expression and customs, including religious clothing; criminalize speech “inciting religious discord”; restrict proselytism; restrict the publication and distribution of religious literature; censor religious content; and restrict acquisition or use of buildings used for religious ceremonies and purposes.  The government raided religious services, prosecuted individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and refused to register “nontraditional” religious groups.  In April a Karaganda court convicted three men accused of being members of the Sunni missionary organization Tabligi Jamaat for disseminating ideas and recruiting members on the group’s behalf; the court sentenced them to three years imprisonment.  In May a court sentenced a high school student to four years’ imprisonment for incitement of religious discord in connection with the creation of a group on social media and the dissemination of religious material it labeled as extremist.  In January an Almaty court sentenced a Muslim to seven years imprisonment after he posted an interpretation of Quranic verses online.  According to the local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Association of Religious Organizations of Kazakhstan (AROK), authorities reduced their pressure on minority religious communities, with fewer arrests and less harassment.  Forum 18, an international NGO based in Norway, noted 165 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2018 and 284 such prosecutions in 2017.  Forum 18, however, released a religious freedom survey for the period 2014 to 2018, noting increasing numbers of prisoners of conscience jailed for exercising freedom of religion and belief; unfair trials and torture of prisoners; and making exercise of freedom of religion and belief dependent on state permission.  The government considered draft legislation that would place additional restrictions on religious attire, symbols, education, and literature, as well as proselytizing and membership and participation in religious communities; civil society representatives and religious experts stated they feared such amendments would further infringe religious liberty.  Government officials indicated at the end of the year that the draft legislation was unlikely to become law.

AROK reported that fewer media organizations released articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional,” compared to 2017.  In March the Aktobe Times web newspaper posted an article entitled, “The ‘Truth’ Poisons Children,” with negative coverage of the activity of Baptist churches in Aktobe and Martuk.  The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) and other civil society organizations reported they received many letters containing citizens’ complaints about “nontraditional” faiths and their harmful impact on society.  NGOs and academics reported that members of certain religious groups, including Muslims who wear headscarves or other identifying attire, as well as Christian groups perceived as proselytizing, such as evangelical, Baptist, and Jehovah’s Witness churches, continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.

The Vice President, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, and other U.S. officials engaged in dialogue with the government to urge respect for religious freedom, both in general and with regard to specific cases, including a regular and recurring dialogue with the MSD and CSA.  This included raising concerns over the restrictive effects on religious freedom of the government’s implementation of both the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes, especially concerning criminal penalties for peaceful religious speech, praying without registration, and censorship of religious literature.  U.S. diplomatic officials visited various houses of worship and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities and religious freedom advocates.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 18.7 million (July 2018 estimate).  The national census reports approximately 70 percent of the population is Muslim, most of whom adhere to the Sunni Hanafi school.  Other Islamic groups include Shafi’i Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and Ahmadi Muslims.

The CSA estimates 26 percent of the population is Christian, the great majority of whom are Russian Orthodox, but also including Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Christian Scientists.  Ethnic Kazakhs or Uzbeks primarily identify as Muslim and ethnic Russians or Ukrainians primarily identify as Christian.

Other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Jews, Buddhists, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, members of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), and Scientologists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion and belief, as well as for the freedom to decline religious affiliation.  These rights may be limited only by laws and only to the extent necessary for protection of the constitutional system, public order, human rights and freedoms, and the health and morality of the population.  Under the constitution, all people have the right to follow their religious or other convictions, take part in religious activities, and disseminate their beliefs.  These rights, however, are in practice limited to “traditional” or registered religious groups.

In June President Nursultan Nazarbayev renamed the Ministry of Religious and Civil Society Affairs the Ministry of Social Development.  The Committee on Religious Affairs within the ministry became the CSA, which continues to regulate the practice of religion in the country.  By law, the MSD is responsible for the formulation and implementation of state policy on religion, as well as facilitating government and civil society engagement.  It also considers potential violations of the laws on religious activity and extremism.  The MSD drafts legislation and regulations, conducts analysis of religious materials, and makes decisions on censorship.  All religious groups are required to submit all religious materials for approval before dissemination.  The MSD cooperates with law enforcement to ban religious groups and sanction individuals who violate the religion law, coordinates actions of local government to regulate religious practices, and provides the official interpretation of the religion law.

The counterterrorism law requires religious organizations to secure their buildings of worship against potential terrorist attacks; the government may take action against religious organizations for failure to do so.  The law states the government shall not interfere with the choice of religious beliefs or affiliation of citizens or residents, unless those beliefs are directed against the country’s constitutional framework, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.

The law prohibits coercion to force a person’s conversion to any religion or to force a person’s participation in a religious group’s activities or in religious rites.

The criminal and administrative codes include penalties for unauthorized religious activity, which includes the arrangement of and participation in activities of unregistered religious groups, participation in religious activities outside permitted areas, unlicensed distribution of religious materials or training of clergy, sale of religious literature without government approval or in places not approved by the government, and discussion of religion for the purpose of proselytization without the required missionary registration.

The criminal code prohibits the “incitement of interreligious discord,” which includes “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority, or inferiority of citizens according to their relation to religion [and other] origin.”  It also criminalizes the creation and leadership of social institutions that proclaim religious intolerance or exclusivity, which is punishable with imprisonment from three to seven years.

The extremism law, which applies to religious groups and other organizations, gives the government discretion to identify and designate a group as an “extremist organization,” ban a designated group’s activities, and criminalize membership in a banned organization.  The law defines “extremism” as the organization and/or commission of acts in pursuit of violent change of the constitutional system; violation of the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the country; undermining national security; violent seizure or retention of power; armed rebellion; incitement of ethnic, religious, or other forms of social discord that are accompanied by calls to violence; or the use of any religious practice that causes a security or health risk.  An extremist organization is a “legal entity, association of individuals and (or) legal entities engaged in extremism, and recognized by the court as extremist.”  The law provides streamlined court procedures for identifying a group as “terrorist or extremist,” reducing the time necessary for a court to render and act on a decision to 72 hours.  After a legal finding of a violation, the law authorizes officials to revoke immediately the organization’s registration, thus ending its legal existence, and to seize its property.  Prosecutors have the right to inspect annually all groups registered with state bodies.

The administrative code prohibits “spreading the creed of religious groups unregistered” in the country, an offense punishable by a fine of 226,900 tenge ($600).  A foreigner or stateless person found guilty may also be deported.

A religious organization may be designated “national,” “regional,” or “local.”  In order to register at the local level, religious groups must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice, listing the names and addresses of at least 50 founding members.  Communities may only be active within the geographic limits of the locality in which they register, unless they have sufficient numbers to register at the regional or national level.  Regional registration requires at least two local organizations, each located within a different oblast (province), and each local group must have at least 250 members.  National registration requires at least 5,000 total members and at least 300 members in each of the country’s 14 oblasts and the cities of Astana, Almaty, and Shymkent.  Only groups registered at the national or regional level have the right to open educational institutions for training clergy.

The law allows the government to deny registration to a religious group based on an insufficient number of adherents or inconsistencies between the religious group’s charter and any national law, as determined by an analysis conducted by the CSA.  According to the administrative code, individuals participating in, leading, or financing an unregistered, suspended, or banned religious group may be fined between 113,450 tenge ($300) and 453,800 tenge ($1,200).

The administrative code mandates a 453,800 tenge ($1,200) fine and a three-month suspension from conducting any religious activities for registered groups holding religious gatherings in buildings that are not approved for that purpose; importing, producing, or disseminating religious materials not approved by the CSA; systemically pursuing activities that contradict the charter and bylaws of the group as registered; constructing religious facilities without a permit; holding gatherings or conducting charity events in violation of the law; or otherwise defying the constitution or laws.  Private persons engaged in these activities are subject to a fine of 113,450 tenge ($300).  Police may impose these fines without first going to court.  The fines may be appealed to a court.

If an organization, its leaders, or its members engage in activities not specified in its charter, it is subject to a warning and/or a fine of 226,900 tenge ($600).  Under the administrative code, if the same violation is repeated within a year, the legal entity is subject to a fine of 340,350 tenge ($910) and a three- to six-month suspension of activities.

According to the administrative code, if a religious group engages in a prohibited activity or fails to rectify violations resulting in a suspension, an official or the organization’s leader is subject to a fine of 453,800 tenge ($1,200), the entity is subject to a fine of 1,134,500 tenge ($3,000), and its activities are banned.

The law prohibits coercive religious activities that harm the health or morality of citizens and residents, force them to end marriages or family relations, violate human rights and freedoms, or force citizens to evade performance of duties specified in the constitution and legislation.  The law prohibits methods of proselytizing that take advantage of a potential convert’s dependence on charity.  The law also prohibits blackmail, violence or the threat of violence, or the use of material threats to coerce participation in religious activities.

The law states in cases when a prisoner seeks the help of a clergy member to perform a religious rite, he or she may invite a clergy member of a formally registered religious group to a detention facility, as long as this access complies with the internal regulations of the prison.  The law bans construction of places of worship within prison territory.  Pursuant to the law, religious organizations may participate in monitoring prisons, including creating and implementing programs to improve the correctional system and developing and publicly discussing draft laws and regulations as they relate to the prison system.  Religious groups may identify, provide, distribute, and monitor the use of humanitarian, social, legal, and charitable assistance to prisoners.  They may provide other forms of assistance to penitentiary system bodies, as long as they do not contradict the law.  According to the law, prisoners may possess religious literature, but only if approved after a religious expert analysis conducted by the CSA.

The law defines “religious tourism” as a “type of tourism where people travel for performance of religious rites in a country (place) of temporary residence” and requires the MSD to regulate it and, together with the Sunni Hanafi Spiritual Administration of Muslims (SAMK), oversee the process by which individuals participate in the Hajj or other travel for the performance of religious rites.  The government requires that specially selected guides and imams accompany each group and states that the rules are designed to ensure pilgrims are not recruited by extremist religious groups.

The law prohibits religious ceremonies in government buildings, including those belonging to the military or law enforcement.

The law states production, publication, and dissemination of religious literature and information materials of religious content is allowed only after receiving a positive expert opinion from the CSA.  The law limits to one copy per publication an exemption from expert review for importing religious materials for personal use.

The law states the government shall not interfere with the rights of parents to raise their children consistent with their religious convictions, unless such an upbringing harms the child’s health or infringes upon the child’s rights.

The law requires organizations to “take steps to prevent involvement or participation of anyone under the age of 18 in the activities of a religious association,” if one of the parents or other legal guardians objects.  The law bans religious activities, including proselytizing, in children’s holiday, sport, creative, or other leisure organizations, camps, or sanatoria.  The extent to which organizations must prevent underage persons’ involvement in religious activity is not specifically outlined and has not been further defined by authorities.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools, colleges, or universities.  Homeschooling for religious reasons is also prohibited.  The law allows for after-school and other supplemental religious instruction as long as it is provided by a registered religious group.  A decree mandates that schoolchildren wear school uniforms that comply with the secular nature of education and prohibits inclusion of any elements that could indicate religious affiliation, such as head coverings.

The election law prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation.

The criminal code prohibits creating, leading, or actively participating in a religious or public association whose activities involve committing acts of “violence against citizens or the causing of other harm to their health or the incitement of citizens to refuse to carry out their civil obligations, as well as the creation or leadership of parties on a religious basis.”  The code punishes such acts with a fine of up to 12.7 million tenge ($33,900) or up to six years’ imprisonment.

In order to perform missionary or other religious activity in the country, a foreigner must obtain a missionary or religious visa.  These visas allow a person to stay for a maximum of six months, with the possibility to apply to extend the stay for another six months.  To obtain missionary visas, applicants must be invited by a religious group formally registered in the country.  The letter of invitation must be approved by the CSA.  Applicants must obtain consent from the CSA each time they apply.  The CSA may reject missionary visa applications based on a negative assessment from CSA religious experts, or if it deems the missionaries represent a danger to the country’s constitutional framework, citizens’ rights and freedoms, or any person’s health or morals.  The constitution requires foreign religious groups to conduct their activities, including appointing the heads of local congregations, “in coordination with appropriate state institutions,” notably the CSA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).  Foreigners may not register religious groups.

Local and foreign missionaries are required to register annually with the local executive body of an oblast or the cities of Astana and Almaty and provide information on their religious affiliation, intended territory of missionary work, and time period for conducting that work.  Missionaries must submit all literature and other materials intended to support their missionary work together with their registration application.  Use of materials not vetted during the registration process is illegal.  A missionary must produce registration documents and a power of attorney from the sponsoring religious organization in order to work on its behalf.  The local executive body of an oblast or the cities of Astana and Almaty may refuse registration to missionaries whose work “constitutes a threat to the constitutional order, social order, the rights, and freedoms of individuals, or the health and morals of the population.”

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

Government Practices

According to AROK, authorities reduced their pressure on minority religious communities, with fewer arrests and less harassment than the previous year.  According to Forum 18, in 2018, authorities brought administrative charges against 165 individuals, religious communities, and charities for violations including attending worship meetings, offering or importing religious literature and pictures, sharing or teaching faith, praying in mosques, and bringing a child to a religious meeting.  Of these, 139 individuals or organizations received fines or bans on religious activity.  In comparison, authorities carried out 284 administrative prosecutions in 2017.  Forum 18’s religious freedom survey released in September for the period 2014 to 2018, however, noted increased numbers of prisoners of conscience jailed for exercising freedom of religion and belief, and unfair trials and torture of prisoners.  The survey also noted broadly written laws allowed much scope for arbitrary official actions and a wide range of offenses prosecuted, numbers of prosecutions, and levels of fines.  The survey noted the government made exercise of freedom of religion and belief dependent on state permissions, with restrictions on activities allowed; restrictions on freedom of religion and belief for children and youth; complete control being imposed on the Islamic community; girls in headscarves being denied access to education; and prior compulsory religious censorship.

On April 6, a court in Karaganda convicted Kazbek Laubayev, Marat Konrybayev, and Taskali Naurzgaliyev of illegally disseminating ideas and recruiting members for Tabligi Jamaat, which the government banned as extremist in 2013, and sentenced each to three years’ imprisonment.  The men denied their affiliation with Tabligi Jamaat and filed an appeal with the Karaganda regional court.  On May 22, the court rejected their appeal.

Media reported that on May 3, the specialized juvenile court in Sairam in South Kazakhstan Region convicted 18-year-old high school student Shakhsat Ismailov of incitement of religious discord and propagating terrorism, and sentenced him to four years’ imprisonment.  According to the court, Ismailov created a group on social media and disseminated religious extremist materials among his friends and followers.  He denied the charges.

On January 9, a court in Almaty sentenced Yeraltay Abay to seven years’ imprisonment for incitement of religious discord and propagating of terrorism.  Authorities arrested Abay in September 2017 after he posted an interpretation of a chapter of the Quran on social media.  Abay’s attorney stated that the book from which he copied the text was not banned in the country, and Abay had deleted his posts immediately after law enforcement warned him about the allegedly illegal content.

According to Forum 18 and other sources, authorities arrested Galymzhan Abilkairov and Dadash Mazhenov in April for posting audio recordings of talks by jailed Muslim preacher Kuanysh Bashpayev on social media.  Among other things, the men argued that the talks, which a court in Pavlodar banned as extremist in 2017, were not illegal at the time that they shared them online.  The court in October sentenced both Abilkairov and Mazhenov to more than seven years’ imprisonment.

Forum 18 reported that the Atyrau city court in December convicted two Muslim men, Erzhan Sharmukhambetov and Ermek Kuanshaliyev, and sentenced them both to three and a half years of restricted freedom, a form of probation, for incitement of discord and participating in the activities of a banned religious association.  The two were childhood friends of Sunni Muslim Murat Bakrayev, who was detained in Germany in September at the request of the government.  Authorities accused Bakrayev, who left the country in 2005, of inciting religious hatred, expressing support for terrorism or extremism, and involvement in a banned organization.  According to Forum 18, Bakrayev’s family and friends said that the police arrested Sharmukhambetov and Kuanshaliyev to pressure them to testify against Bakrayev.  At the end of the year, German authorities continued to detain Bakrayev.

On July 9, a court in Aktobe convicted seven followers of the Tabligi Jamaat group for participation in the activities of an extremist organization.  Authorities had arrested them in May.  During the trial, the defendants admitted guilt and “repented.”  The court sentenced two leaders – Zhanat Dosalin and Amanzhol Kishkentekov – to three years’ probation, and the five others to one year of probation and 120 hours of community service.

Media reported that on February 25, police in Kyzylorda city raided the local New Life church during its Sunday service; detained and questioned members of the church, including the pastor; filmed those present against their wishes; and seized religious literature.  The reports stated that police responded to a complaint by parents who claimed their school-aged daughter had attended church services without their permission.  Police took Pastor Serik Beisembayev to a police station, where they interrogated him and initiated a police report.  According to Forum 18, police took approximately 20 church members to the police station where they were released after each had written a statement about why he or she had become Christian and how long the individual had attended the church.  Ultimately, authorities dropped the case against the pastor.

On February 7, the Aktobe court found Pastor Viacheslav Poptsov of the local Evangelical Christian Baptist community guilty of violating the ban on participation of minors in religious services without parental approval.  According to the police investigation, parents of some school-age children who attended the church’s Christmas service did not approve of their children’s attendance.  By law, it was the pastor’s responsibility to check whether minor participants had their parents’ permission.  The court imposed a fine of 120,250 tenge ($320).  In May the court of appeal upheld the district court’s decision.

Forum 18 reported that 20 Muslims were taken to court for saying “amen” aloud in mosques in violation of SAMK’s code of conduct, which is punishable by law as an administrative offense.  Those arrested paid administrative fines.

On August 24, Kyzylkoginsky district court in Atyrau Region ruled a resident of Miyaly village violated the law when, during the Friday service, he said “amen” aloud.  The court fined the man 84,175 tenge ($220).

Courts continued to fine individuals for illegal missionary activity.  Religious organizations noted that local law enforcement continued to interpret and label any religious discussions that took place outside of a registered religious building as “illegal missionary activity,” including invitations to religious services and discussions.

On January 23, the administrative court of Balkhash in Karaganda Region found Nikolay Popov of the local community of the Council of Baptist Churches guilty of illegal missionary activity and distribution of religious literature not approved by official government experts.  The court imposed a fine of 226,900 tenge ($600).  According to police investigators, Popov traveled to villages near Balkhash, talked to people about his faith, and gave them religious books.

On August 6, the Korday district court in Zhambyl Region found two local residents, Aidar Kharsanov and his wife Zarina Manu, guilty of illegal missionary activity.  According to police investigators, the couple taught the Quran to a group of school-aged girls without formal registration as religious missionaries.  The couple admitted their actions, but both appealed to the Zhambyl Regional Court on August 22 after the court imposed fines of 360,750 tenge ($960) for Kharsonov and 120,250 tenge ($320) for Manu.  Forum 18 noted that neither of the accused was represented by a lawyer.

On February 8, in three separate trials, the Sarykol District court in Kostanay Region found Jehovah’s Witnesses Estay Asainov, Maksim Ivakhnik, and Timur Koshkunbayev guilty of “illegal missionary activity” and imposed fines of 168,350 tenge ($450) each.  On February 13, the Sarykol District court found 79-year-old Jehovah’s Witness Taisiya Yezhova guilty of violating the requirements of the law on holding religious ceremonies and meetings by holding meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses at her house.  The court imposed a fine of 85,000 tenge ($230).  In initiating the court case, Yezhova’s neighbors complained about what they called her persistent attempts to draw them into her faith.

The Council of Baptist Churches stated it continued to refuse on principle to register under the law.  Community representatives reported that the number of police actions and court cases initiated against them decreased compared to 2017, but authorities continued to closely monitor their meetings and travels, and police followed and surveilled them as in prior years.  The government banned community members who were fined and did not pay their fines from traveling outside the country.  Baptists reported several police raids on adherents’ residences and churches and 14 administrative court cases during the year.

The government maintained its policy of banning religious clothing from schools.  The Ministry of Education and Science continued to prohibit headscarves in schools throughout the country.  According to media, in March 200 parents of schoolgirls in Aktobe Region who were barred from attending classes for wearing religious headscarves appealed to the president.  Media reported that authorities issued administrative fines to eighteen parents, 32 families moved to different regions where the national ban was not yet being enforced, and the rest chose to comply with the school rules.  Subsequently, on September 14 the Aktobe court convicted three fathers who had continued to insist that their daughters be allowed to attend classes wearing headscarves.  According to media, the men had reportedly threatened teachers at the school.  The court sentenced Nuraly Shakkozov to three days in prison and Medet Kudaibergenov and Zhanibek Otaliyev each to five days’ imprisonment.

Media reported that on September 1, authorities prevented approximately 300 girls wearing religious headscarves from attending classes in Firdousi village in South Kazakhstan Region.  The government, at the direction of Minister of Education and Science Yerlan Sagadiyev, dispatched a special commission to the region to explain the ministry’s rule and the principle of secular education and to persuade the girls’ parents to comply with the ban.  Most of the girls agreed, although 15 switched to other schools where the regulation was not yet enforced.  Thirteen parents were punished with fines of 12,025 tenge ($32).  Before sending the special commission, Sagadiyev, in commenting on the situation in Firdousi, told a reporter “according to the law, school girls in headscarves are not allowed to attend classes.”

On October 12, the Supreme Court declined to review lower court decisions against residents of West Kazakhstan Region who had protested the education ministry’s ban on religious headscarves in school.  The lower court determined that the country’s constitution supported such a regulation.

According to Forum 18, a group of 107 Muslim parents from three of the country’s regions, whose school-age daughters were barred from attending school because they wore headscarves, planned a further appeal to the Supreme Court.  The parents’ case failed previously in the lower courts, including Astana City Court on March 27.  They argued that the ban was a violation of the country’s constitution and international human rights norms.

The parliament considered draft legislation that would place additional restrictions on religious attire, symbols, education, and literature, as well as proselytizing and membership and participation in religious communities; civil society representatives and religious experts stated they feared such amendments would further infringe religious liberty.  Government representatives justified the draft legislation as necessary to address security concerns created by “religious extremism.”  Among the government’s justifications for the legislation was that people arrested for undertaking religious activities without government permission were “a risk group.”  Government officials at the end of the year indicated that it was unlikely that the draft legislation would become law.

On March 30, a research institute attached to the former Religious Affairs Department of West Kazakhstan Region instructed some local registered Christian communities to submit by April 10 full names, ages, place of study, and national identification numbers of all people under the age of 18 who come to meetings for worship, Forum 18 reported.  The official who sent the letter stated to Forum 18 the information was needed for “monitoring.”  According to Forum 18, the official stated that the request was sent only to Christians, and “selectively,” refusing to explain what “selectively” meant.

On July 10, pursuant to a Supreme Court ruling, the Kokshetau Administrative Court extended an official apology and ordered the return of a fine of 173,100 tenge ($460) to Jehovah’s Witnesses congregant Andrey Korolev.  A court had convicted Korolev of conducting illegal missionary activity in 2013.  While authorities continued to conduct raids of services and detain participants, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported that four Supreme Court rulings issued since 2017 overturned lower court decisions and affirmed Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to freely practice their religion, including the right to proselytize.

On April 2, the president pardoned Teymur Akhmedov, a Jehovah’s Witness who had served more than one year of a five-year sentence on charges he had “incited religious discord” by talking about his faith with men identified as university students.  Akhmedov suffered from cancer and the government previously had transferred him from prison to a hospital.

On July 10, atheist blogger Aleksandr Kharlamov won a civil lawsuit against the government.  The court determined that Kharlamov, who spent five years under investigation for charges of “incitement of religious discord,” suffered emotional and physical harm as a result of the prolonged and restrictive investigation and awarded him more than 1 million tenge ($2,700) in damages and court expenses.  Among other restrictions, after his arrest in 2013, authorities detained Kharlamov for six months, including one month in a psychiatric hospital.

The Church of Scientology continued to function as a registered public association rather than as a religious organization.  The government allowed the church, as a public association, to maintain resource centers/libraries where members could read or borrow books and host discussions or meetings, but did not allow the church to engage in religious activity.

The MSD and the SAMK maintained an official agreement on cooperation, and NGOs said this led to the government effectively exercising control over the nominally independent SAMK.  The government did not approve the registration of Muslim groups apart from the Sunni Hanafi school, which the SAMK oversaw.  All other schools of Islam remained unregistered and officially unable to practice in the country, though some Muslim communities continued to worship informally without government interference.  By joining the SAMK, Muslim communities relinquished the right to appoint their own imams, subjected themselves to SAMK approval over any property actions (such as sales, transfers, or improvements), and were required to pay 30 percent of the mosque’s income to the SAMK.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community remained unregistered, after authorities denied the group reregistration for the sixth time in June 2016.  Government experts previously concluded the community’s teachings were not Islamic and that the community needed to remove the word “Muslim” from its registration materials.  During the year, the group attempted to engage in dialogue with the MSD and continued to prepare documents for its next reregistration application.  Community members reported that, due to lack of registration, they did not engage in any official religious activity.

The SAMK continued to oversee the opening of new and restored mosques.  In February then-Minister of Religious and Civil Society Affairs Nurlan Yermekbayev criticized the construction of new mosques while, he said, others remained empty or were put up for sale.  Eighty-four out of 3,601 mosques were not being used, he said.

According to the CSA, there were 3,715 registered religious associations or branches thereof in the country, compared to 3,692 in 2017.  The SAMK continued to control the activities of all 2,591 formally registered Muslim groups affiliated with the Sunni Hanafi school and had authority over construction of new mosques, appointment of imams, and administration of examinations and background checks for aspiring imams.  The SAMK was responsible for authorizing travel agencies to provide Hajj travel services to citizens.  Saudi Arabia increased its 2018 pilgrimage quota for Kazakhstani Muslims to 3,000, from 2,500 the previous year.  The MSD worked closely with the SAMK on the training of imams, upgrading madrasahs to the status of degree-granting colleges, and controlling Hajj pilgrimages. The SAMK permitted imams to enroll in baccalaureate, masters, or PhD programs offered at Nur Mubarak University’s Islamic Studies and Religious Studies departments based on their prior education levels.  The CSA published information about schools for religious training, including 11 schools for Sunni Hanafi imams, one school for Roman Catholic clergy, and one school for Russian Orthodox clergy.

MSD officials continued to monitor the internet, collecting information on internet sites with “destructive” content, applying expedited procedures for the evaluation of such materials by religious experts, and obtaining court authorizations for immediate closures of internet sites it deemed unacceptable. In 2017, the ministry detected 3,555 websites containing what it considered illegal and harmful information.  In the first quarter of 2018, the ministry analyzed the content of 2,299 websites and determined that 700 of them contained what it considered illegal and harmful information.  Media reported the MSD forwarded the negatively assessed online content to the Ministry of Digital Development, Defense and Aerospace Industry’s Information Security Committee for further consideration and potential action, such as blocking the websites.  On September 20, Dr. Aidar Abuov, Director of the MSD’s International Center of Culture and Religions, stated that monitoring of domestic Internet, social media, and news media had revealed “practically no” extremist materials.

The MSD and other authorities continued to inspect religious facilities regularly to review compliance with security requirements mandated by the counterterrorism law, such as utilization of security cameras and maintenance of recorded data for at least 30 days.  There were fewer complaints about security inspections conducted by the authorities compared to 2017.  The Pentecostal Harvest Church received a 176,750 tenge ($470) fine on March 15 for failure to store video surveillance recordings for the required 30-day minimum.

On February 22, the administrative court in Shymkent ruled that the local New Life church violated fire safety regulations.  Although the pastor of the church stated that he had complied with the results of an inspection a month earlier and installed additional fire detectors, the judge levied a fine of 240,550 tenge ($640) and ordered a one-month suspension of the church’s activity.  The pastor submitted an appeal and on March 20, the court of appeals overturned the administrative court’s decision, citing a lack of evidence that the church had violated the law.

According to the Penitentiary Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all prisons had a dedicated specialist to create programs to counter religious extremism, in accordance with a 2017 order issued by the minister of internal affairs adding the position of “religious specialist” to prison staff as part of the State Program for Counteraction against Terrorism and Religious Extremism.

Religious community representatives and civil society actors expressed hope that the government renaming the Ministry of Religious and Civil Society Affairs the Ministry of Social Development would lead to a reduced focus on policing religious practice and increased tolerance for religious diversity and expression.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

AROK and minority Christian religious communities reported that fewer media organizations released articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional,” compared to 2017.  In March the Aktobe Times web newspaper posted an article entitled, “The ‘Truth’ Poisons Children,” concerning the activity of Baptist churches in Aktobe and Martuk.  According to the article, church activists lured children to church by holding holiday entertainment events despite the disapproval of their parents.  According to the author, there had been an increase in the number of complaints about what he called the Baptists’ unreasonable and persistent missionary activity.

The KIBHR and other civil society organizations reported that they received many letters containing citizens’ complaints about “nontraditional” faiths and their harmful impact on society.  According to KIBHR, the letters appeared to be copied from a template, with identical content and format.  KIBHR reported receiving these letters regularly every two to three weeks, leading them and other recipient organizations to suspect they were part of a campaign aimed at creating a negative image of the faiths involved.

NGOs continued to report individuals were wary of “nontraditional” religious groups, particularly those that proselytized or whose dress or grooming indicated “nontraditional” beliefs, including Muslim headscarves and beards.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In a meeting with President Nazarbayev on January 17, the Vice President highlighted the need for the government to meet commitments to protect religious freedom.

The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, other senior U.S. government officials, and embassy officers met with senior government officials in the MFA, the MSD, and the CSA, and advocated for the importance of respecting religious freedom, underscoring that bilateral cooperation on economic and security issues was a complement to, not a substitute for, meaningful progress on religious freedom.  In a regular and recurring dialogue with the ministry and CSA, U.S. officials raised concerns over the restrictive effects of the government’s implementation of the current religion law and criminal and administrative codes on religious freedom.  They also raised concerns about the inconsistent application of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes with regard to “nontraditional” versus “traditional” religious groups.

U.S. officials continued to encourage the government to respect individuals’ rights to peaceful expression of religious belief and practice.  They expressed concern about vaguely written laws that were broad in scope and lacked specific definition of legal terms, enabling authorities, particularly at the local level, to apply them in an arbitrary manner.  They also stated that any amendments to the law on religions must not constrain the ability of believers to practice their faith.  They underscored the importance freedom of religion played in countering violent extremism and expressed concern about further restrictions on religious freedom.  The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, and other U.S. officials met with the MSD to reiterate the importance of enabling all citizens to worship freely, regardless of registration status.

U.S. diplomatic officials visited houses of worship in several regions of the country and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities, their leaders, and religious freedom advocates.  In addition, embassy officials participated in roundtable discussions and speaker series dealing with religious freedom.  They underscored the importance freedom of religion played in countering violent extremism, expressed concern about further restrictions on religious freedom, and encouraged reform of relevant laws and guidelines so all citizens could conduct peaceful religious activities freely, whether or not they were part of registered religious groups.

Kyrgyz Republic

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion and bans religious groups from undertaking actions inciting religious hatred.  It establishes the separation of religion and state and prohibits pursuit of political goals by religious groups.  The law requires all religious groups to register with the government and prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups.  Authorities maintained bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups they considered extremist and, in an increase in the number of arrests from 2017, arrested hundreds of individuals they accused of participating in what they termed as extremist incidents.  The State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA) substantively revised draft amendments to the 2009 religion law to address public concerns on restrictions to religious freedom.  The proposed amendments, however, include a ban on “door-to-door proselytizing.”  Some religious groups believed the changes would also increase the difficulty of registering as a religious organization.  As of year’s end, the SCRA had not submitted the amendments to parliament for review.  According to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), in the course of conducting counterterrorism measures against extremists, authorities arrested dozens of citizens for possession of vaguely defined “extremist” materials.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continued to face difficulties registering as official religious groups.  The government did not provide religious materials to prisoners convicted of affiliation with banned religious groups, according to NGOs.

In January unidentified individuals burned the Baptist church in Kaji-Sai village, an incident that church leaders said was a deliberate arson attack.  Also in January the international NGO Forum 18 reported a mob led by a local religious figure denied a Christian burial in a public cemetery in Jeti-Oguz District.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups and proposed revisions to the religion law.  The embassy regularly met with religious leaders, including office directors of the grand muftiate, and with representatives of NGOs to discuss tolerance and respect for religious groups.  Embassy outreach programs, especially for local youth, emphasized religious tolerance and dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.8 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to government estimates, approximately 90 percent of the population is Muslim, the vast majority of whom are Sunni.  The government estimates Shia make up less than 1 percent of the Muslim population.  According to an international organization, there is also a small Ahmadiyya Muslim community not reflected in government figures and estimated at 1,000 individuals.  According to government estimates, approximately 7 percent of the population is Christian, including an estimated 3 percent Russian Orthodox.  Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, and unaffiliated groups together constitute approximately 3 percent of the population.

According to the National Statistics Committee, ethnic Kyrgyz make up approximately 73 percent of the population, while ethnic Uzbeks make up an estimated 15 percent.  Both ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks are primarily Muslim, making Islam the main religion in both urban and rural areas.  Ethnic Russians are primarily adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church or one of several Protestant denominations.  Members of the Russian Orthodox Church and other non-Muslim religious groups live mainly in major cities.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion; the right to practice or not practice a religion, individually or jointly with other persons; and the right to refuse to express one’s religious views.  It bans actions inciting religious hatred.

The constitution establishes the separation of religion and state.  It prohibits the establishment of religiously based political parties and the pursuit of political goals by religious groups.  The constitution prohibits the establishment of any religion as a state or mandatory religion.

The law states all religions and religious groups are equal.  It prohibits “insistent attempts to convert followers of one religion to another (proselytism)” and “illegal missionary activity,” defined as missionary activity of groups not registered with the SCRA.  The law also prohibits the involvement of minors in organized, proselytizing religious groups, unless a parent grants written consent.

The law requires all religious groups, and religiously affiliated schools, to register with the SCRA, which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the law’s provisions on religion.  The law prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups.  Groups applying for registration must submit an application form, organizational charter, minutes of the organizing meeting, and a list of founding members.  Each congregation of a religious group must register separately and must have at least 200 resident founding citizens.  Foreign religious organizations are required to renew their registrations with the SCRA annually.

The SCRA is legally authorized to deny the registration of a religious group if it does not comply with the law or is considered a threat to national security, social stability, interethnic and interdenominational harmony, public order, health, or morality.  The SCRA may also deny or postpone the certification of a particular religious group if it deems the proposed activities of the group are not religious in character.  Denied applicants may reapply at any time or may appeal to the courts.  The law prohibits unregistered religious groups from actions such as renting space and holding religious services.  Violations may result in an administrative fine of 500 som ($7).

After the SCRA has approved a group’s registration as a religious entity, the group must register with the Ministry of Justice to obtain status as a legal entity so it may own property, open bank accounts, and otherwise engage in contractual activities.  The organization must submit an application to the ministry that includes a group charter with an administrative structure and a list of board and founding members.  If a religious group engages in a commercial activity, it is required to pay taxes.  By law religious groups are designated as nonprofit organizations exempt from taxes on their religious activities.

The law gives the SCRA authority to ban a religious group as long as the SCRA delivers written notice to the group stating the group does not comply with the law.  The group may appeal the decision in the courts.

The constitution prohibits religious groups from “involvement in organizational activities aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred.”  A conviction for inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a prison term of three to eight years, while a conviction for creating an organization aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a term of five to 10 years.  Conviction for murder committed on the grounds of religious hatred is punishable by life imprisonment.

The law mandates separate prison facilities for prisoners convicted of terrorism and extremism, and it allows for stripping the citizenship of any Kyrgyz national found to have trained to acquire skills to commit terrorist or extremist crimes outside the country.  The law defines “extremist activity” as including the violent overthrow of the constitutional order; undermining the security of the country; violence or inciting violence on racial, national, or religious grounds; propagating the symbols or paraphernalia of an extremist organization; carrying out mass riots or vandalism based on ideological, political, racial, national, or religious hatred or enmity; and hate speech or hostility toward any social group.

According to the law, only individuals representing registered religious organizations may conduct missionary activity.  If a foreign missionary represents an organization approved by the SCRA, the individual must apply for a visa with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Visas are valid for up to one year, and a missionary is allowed to work three consecutive years in the country.  All foreign religious entities, including missionaries, must operate within these restrictions and must reregister annually.  Representatives of religious groups acting inconsistently with the law may be fined or deported.  Violations of the law may result in fines of 1,000 som ($14), and deportation in the case of foreign missionaries.

The law provides for the right of religious groups to produce, import, export, and distribute religious literature and materials in accordance with established procedures, which could include examination by state experts.  The law does not require government examination of religious materials (such as literature and other printed or audio or video materials), and it does not define the criteria for religious experts.  The law prohibits the distribution of religious literature and materials in public locations or in visits to individual households, schools, and other institutions.  The law specifies fines based on the nature of the violations.

The law allows public secular schools an option to offer religion courses that discuss the history and character of religions, as long as the subject of such teaching is not religious doctrine and does not promote any particular religion.  Private religious schools need to register with SCRA to operate as such.

According to the law, religion is grounds for conscientious objection to and exemption from military service.  Conscientious objectors must pay a fee of 18,000 som ($260) to opt out of military service.  Draft-eligible males must pay the fee before turning 27 years of age.  Failure to pay by the age limit requires the person to perform 240 hours of community service or pay a fine of up to 20,000 som ($290).  Draft-eligible men who evade military service and do not fall under an exemption are subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to two years.  There is no option to perform alternative service; community service is imposed only in cases of a conscientious objector failing to pay the 18,000 som ($260) fee.

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

Government Practices

The government maintained its bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups it considered to be extremist:  al-Qaida, the Taliban, Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkistan, Kurdish Peoples’ Congress, Organization for the Release of Eastern Turkistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), Union of Islamic Jihad, Islamic Party of Turkistan, Unification (Mun San Men) Church, Takfir Jihadist, Jaysh al-Mahdi, Jund al-Khilafah, Ansarullah, At-Takfir Val Hidjra, Akromiya, ISIS, Djabhat An Nusra, Katibat al-Imam al-Buhari, Jannat Oshiqlari, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Yakyn Incar.  Authorities also continued the ban on all materials or activities connected to the Chechen Islamist militant leader A.A. Tihomirov (aka Said Buryatsky), whose activities and materials the Bishkek District Court deemed to be extremist in 2014.

Media reported that on September 19, upon the recommendation of the SCRA, the Ministry of Interior filed two criminal cases against two inhabitants of Issyk-Kul Province for possessing materials it said were extremist related to Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Law enforcement authorities stated they had recorded 358 religiously motivated extremist incidents for the first six months of the year.  They opened criminal cases in 213 instances.  Extremist incidents included membership in a banned “religiously oriented” organization, possession of literature associated with a banned organization, and proselytizing on behalf of or financing a banned organization.  In comparison, the authorities recorded 597 extremist incidents in 2017 (35.3 percent higher than in 2016), for which they opened 229 criminal cases.  According to a Ministry of Interior report, there were 285 individuals arrested for extremism and terrorism and 3,586 pieces of extremist materials extracted within the first six months of the year.  Government law enforcement analysis identified domestic extremism as a growing trend, noting the state had identified 101 “extremist” incidents in 2010, compared with 597 incidents in 2017.  There were no reports of citizens being stripped of citizenship for terrorism or extremism, although ethnic Uzbeks said they were arrested and imprisoned on extremism-related charges, usually tied to possession of banned literature or support of banned organizations, based on false testimony or planted evidence.

According to NGOs, in the course of conducting counterterrorism measures against extremists, authorities arrested dozens of citizens for possession of vaguely defined “extremist” materials.  On September 17, Human Rights Watch published the report “We Live in Constant Fear:  Possession of Extremist Material in Kyrgyzstan,” which identified instances where law enforcement agencies were accused of torturing and extorting suspects found to possess “extremist” materials.  The report noted prosecutions for possessing extremist material were carried out under Article 299-2 of the criminal code, the country’s most widely applied charge against terrorism and extremism suspects.  It stated that at least 258 persons had been convicted under the article since 2010.  The report also stated several hundred suspects were awaiting trial on the charge and the numbers had increased each year, with 167 new cases opened during the first nine months of the year.

Throughout the year the SCRA substantively revised draft amendments to the 2009 religion law, and it held two public hearings in August at which the revised amendments were discussed.  Although the Parliamentary Committee on Social Issues, Education, Science, Culture, and Healthcare had already approved the proposed amendments in 2017, the SCRA withdrew them from parliamentary consideration in order to revise them.  The revised amendments include a ban on door-to-door proselytizing and a requirement to notify the government prior to undertaking religious education abroad.  Some religious groups said, after consultations with the SCRA, the proposed amendments had undergone changes the groups considered positive.  For example, the SCRA eliminated a proposed change to increase the number of members required to register as a religious organization (from 200 to 500 members), allowing registered religious organizations to create filial branches across the country regardless of the number of adherents in a locality.  NGOs and religious groups also cited as positive amendments that eliminated the need for religious organizations to coordinate registration with local councils in addition to SCRA registration.  In meetings with government officials, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses noted concerns with the revised draft amendments, stating they would introduce elements that would have a negative impact on their ability to share their faith with others and register local congregations.  In September Jehovah’s Witnesses presented the organization’s concerns with the draft amendments to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw.  As of year’s end, the SCRA had not submitted the amendments to parliament for review

Religious groups continued to report the SCRA registration process was cumbersome, taking anywhere from one month to several years to complete.  Some unregistered groups continued to report they were able to hold regular religious services without government interference, especially foreign religious organizations that had been registered in the past and had an annual application for reregistration pending.  The SCRA reported it registered one Jewish, one Buddhist, and 12 Baha’i congregations during the year.

Although the government continued not to list the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community as a banned organization, a representative of the group confirmed it still had not obtained registration.  The community initially registered in 2002, but the SCRA had declined to approve its reregistration every year since 2012, including again in 2018.

The SCRA continued to state that, while the law did not mandate expert review of religious literature, its practice was to examine imported religious materials submitted for review by religious organizations.  There continued to be no specific procedure for hiring or evaluating the experts performing the examination of religious literature that groups wished to distribute within their places of worship.  According to religious studies academics, the SCRA continued to choose its own employees or religious scholars with whom the agency contracted to serve as the experts.  Attorneys for religious groups continued to say the experts chosen by the SCRA were biased in favor of prosecutors and were not formal experts under the criminal procedure code.

According to the Kyrgyz Baptist Union, local authorities had not approved its request to convert the status of a Baptist church in Kara-Kul, Jalalabad Province, from a “residential home” to a “prayer house.”  In addition, the Kara-Kul Mayor’s Office issued a decision to close the church for failing to adhere to the local government’s zoning status.  The Kyrgyz Baptist Union called the decision illegal, saying the law did not give this power to local authorities.  The Baptist Union stated it had addressed this issue with the SCRA multiple times without resolution.

According to representatives of religious groups, refusal either to serve or to pay a fee to opt out of military service continued to subject a conscientious objector to hardship, because military service remained a prerequisite for employment in the government and with many private employers.

The SCRA held interfaith dialogue forums in all seven provinces of the country during the year.  These forums included Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Baha’i participants, as well as civil society representatives, local authorities, and officials from the Ministry of Interior and State Committee on National Security.  The forums focused on religious tolerance, cooperation, and mutual understanding among representatives of religious communities, as well as between the state and religious organizations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On January 2, attackers set the Baptist church in the village of Kaji-Sai on fire.  A report by the Forum 18 News Service stated that a few hours before the arson attack, three young men threatened women for attending a church service.  Representatives of the Baptist Union reported the local police found the arsonists, who admitted their guilt and agreed to make partial reimbursement for refurbishment of the church.  Authorities did not release any information about the identities or motivation of the arsonists.

According to Forum 18, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries.  In January Forum 18 reported that in November 2017 in Jeti-Oguz District, a group led by a local Islamic religious leader refused to allow the burial of a Christian.  In response to the report, an SCRA official denied the incident had taken place.  In 2017 the SCRA announced a policy to divide public cemeteries by religion, which it said would be introduced by government decree.  The SCRA said it developed the policy in response to reports that religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for the burial of their dead in public cemeteries; however, as of year’s end the policy had not been implemented.

According to civil society activists, incidents of harassment of minority religious groups typically occurred in small towns and villages with majority Kyrgyz populations.  According to the Forum 18 News Service, on October 15, Eldos Sattar uuly was attacked for his Protestant religious beliefs in the village of Tumchi.  Sattar uuly said three of his fellow villagers beat him while they called him an infidel.  In the course of the attack, Sattar uuly’s jaw was broken and required surgery.  Police in the village of Tumchi denied there was a religious motivation for the attack, saying the beating was the result of “hooliganism.”  Sattar uuly said the family of one of his attackers continued to threaten him in the hospital.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met regularly with government officials, including the SCRA chief and deputy and high-ranking officials in the grand muftiate.  In February the Charge d’Affaires met with the SCRA chief and religious organizations to discuss proposed revisions to the religion law, registration of independent religious groups, efforts to promote religious tolerance through exchange visits, and programs to improve the qualifications of religious teachers and the quality of education at religious institutions.

Embassy officers also continued to engage with representatives of the muftiate, leaders of minority religions, NGOs, and civil society representatives to discuss the law on terrorism and extremism, the ability of independent religious groups to register, and the rights of religious minorities.

The embassy sponsored a group of prominent religious leaders on a U.S. government program to exchange views on the role of religion in U.S. and Kyrgyz societies.  In October the embassy hosted a visiting Muslim cleric from the United States to prepare the group of religious leaders for the visit to the United States.  The embassy continued its sponsorship of English-language classes and vocational training at local madrassahs to enable students in remote areas to obtain better access to information on religious tolerance.

Latvia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides every person the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and specifies the separation of church and state.  By law, eight “traditional” religious groups receive rights and privileges other groups do not.  Three new religious groups registered during the year.  Pursuant to a Supreme Court ruling in April, religious groups registered in the country for less than 10 years no longer had to reregister every year.  The government again did not take any steps to restitute property to victims of Nazi persecution in accordance with the 2009 Terezin Declaration.  Several senior politicians, including the president and prime minister, spoke against anti-Semitism during the year or participated in Holocaust memorial ceremonies.

On March 16, approximately 250 persons, including 10-15 veterans of the Nazi Waffen SS, five members of the All for Latvia Party, and a member of the National Alliance coalition, participated in the annual march for Latvian Legionnaires who fought alongside the Waffen SS against the Soviet Union in World War II (WWII).  Attendance was similar to recent years.  NGO Freedom House said support for the event continued to decline.  Police said they detained two persons protesting the march.  Various groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Latvian Anti-Nazi Committee, and politicians from the Latvian Russian Union, again condemned the march.  Jewish and Muslim groups again cited instances of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate speech on the internet.

The U.S. embassy engaged with government officials, including representatives from the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Office of the Ombudsman, Department of Religious Affairs, and parliamentarians on the importance of restoring expropriated property to the Jewish community, religious tolerance, and Holocaust education.  It also engaged with nongovernmental organization (NGO) MARTA and representatives of various religious groups, including Baptists, the Jewish community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims, on the role they could play in promoting religious tolerance and acceptance in the country.  The embassy funded three projects designed to address Holocaust issues.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the Annual Report of Religious Organizations and their Activities published by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), based on 2017 data, the largest religious groups are Lutheran (36 percent), Roman Catholic (19 percent), and Latvian Orthodox Christian (19 percent), the latter of which are predominantly native Russian speakers; 24 percent are unaffiliated with any religious group.  The Latvian Orthodox Church is a self-governing Eastern Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.  The Central Statistical Bureau reported there are 4,721 persons who identify as Jewish, and the Council of Jewish Communities believes there are between 6,000 and 8,000 persons with Jewish heritage.  The Muslim community reports approximately 1,000 Muslims, while the MOJ’s report of religious organizations lists 198 Muslim community members in 15 congregations.  Other religious groups, which together constitute less than 5 percent of the population, include Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Old Believers, evangelical Christians, Methodists, Calvinists, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and “the church shall be separate from the state.”  It allows restrictions on the expression of religious beliefs in order to protect public safety, welfare, morals, the democratic structure of the state, and others’ rights.  The law gives eight “traditional” religious groups – Lutherans, Catholics, Latvian Orthodox Christians, Old Believers, Baptists, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jews – some rights and privileges not given to other religious groups, including the right to teach religion courses in public schools and the right to officiate at marriages without obtaining a civil marriage license from the MOJ.  These eight groups are also the only religious groups represented on the government’s Ecclesiastical Council, an advisory body established by law and chaired by the prime minister that meets on an ad hoc basis to comment and provide recommendations on religious issues.  These recommendations do not carry the force of law.

Separate laws define relations between the state and each of these eight groups.  The rights and activities of other religious groups are covered by one law on religious organizations.

Although the government does not require religious groups to register, the law accords registered religious groups a number of rights and privileges, including legal status to own property and conduct financial transactions, eligibility to apply for funds for religious building restoration, and tax deductions for donors.  Registration also allows religious groups to perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, and military units and to hold services in public places such as parks or public squares with the agreement of the local government.  The law accords the same rights and privileges to the eight traditional religious groups, which it treats as already registered.

Unregistered groups do not possess legal status and may not own property, conduct financial transactions, or receive tax-free donations.  They may not perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, or military units, and generally may not hold worship services in public places without special permission.  The law stipulates fines if an unregistered group carries out any of these activities.

The law stipulates that, in order to register as a congregation, a religious group must have at least 20 members aged 18 or older.  Individuals with temporary residency status, such as asylum seekers and foreign diplomatic staff, may count as members for the purpose of registration only during the authorized period of their residency permits.  To apply, religious groups must submit statutes stipulating their aims and tasks; a list of all group members (full name, identification number, and signature); the names of the persons who will represent the religious organization; minutes of the meeting founding the group; confirmation that members voted on and approved the statutes; and a list of members of the audit committee (full name, identification number, and title).  The audit committee is responsible for preparing financial reports on the group and ensuring it adheres to its statutes.  The MOJ determines whether to register a religious group as a congregation.  The ministry may deny an application if it deems registration would threaten human rights, the democratic structure of the state, public safety, welfare, or morals.  Groups denied registration may appeal the decision in court.

Ten or more congregations – totaling at least 200 members – of the same faith or denomination, each with permanent registration status, may form a religious association or church.  Groups with religious association status, or status as a private society or foundation, may establish theological schools and monasteries.  The law does not permit simultaneous registration of more than one religious association of a single faith or denomination, or of more than one religious group with the same or similar name.  For example, the law prevents any association other than the Latvian Orthodox Church from registering with the word “orthodox” in its name.  Other Orthodox groups, such as Old Believers, are registered as separate religious associations.

In April the Constitutional Court ruled that the law requiring religious groups to reregister every year if they had been registered in the country for fewer than 10 years was unconstitutional.

According to the law, all traditional and registered religious organizations are required to submit an annual report to the MOJ by March 1 regarding their activities and goals.  They must also provide other data, including congregation size, number of clergy, number of weddings and other ceremonies performed, and details of group governance and financial status.

The law criminalizes hate speech and the incitement of hatred on the basis of religious affiliation but requires legal proof, determined at trial, of substantial harm for conviction.  Penalties range from community service to up to 10 years of imprisonment.  Committing a crime for religious reasons may also be considered an aggravating factor at trial.

The government funds required religion and ethics classes in public schools in first through third grade.  The school must receive the approval of the parents of at least 10 students in order to hold religion classes in any of the eight traditional groups; if such approval is not obtained or if they prefer not to enroll in religion classes, students take courses on general ethics.  The Center for Educational Content at the Ministry of Education must review the content of the classes to verify they do not violate freedom of conscience.  Starting in fourth grade, religious subjects are incorporated into elective ethics and social science classes.  If there is demand, schools are permitted to teach classes on the history of religion.  Students at state-supported national minority schools may attend classes on a voluntary basis on the religion “characteristic of the national minority.”  Other nontraditional religious groups without their own state-supported minority schools may provide religious education only in private schools.  Religion courses in public schools range from doctrinal instruction by church-approved government-certified instructors (usually at the lower grades), to nondenominational Christian teachings or overviews of major world religions by certified teachers who are proposed by a religious group, and approved by the Ministry of Education (usually at higher grades).

The law establishes an independent ombudsman’s office for human rights.  Its mandate includes helping to resolve cases of religious discrimination through collaboration with authorities.  While it does not have enforcement powers, it can issue recommendations to specific authorities.  Parliament appoints the ombudsman.

The law stipulates foreign missionaries may be issued a residency permit, hold meetings, and proselytize only if a registered domestic religious group invites them to conduct such activities.  Visa regulations require foreign religious workers to present letters of invitation, typically from a religious organization, and either an ordination certificate or evidence of religious education that corresponds to a local bachelor’s degree in theology.  Religious workers from EU or Schengen countries do not require visas.

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

Government Practices

The MOJ approved the applications of three religious groups that applied to register for the first time:  evangelical Christian Church Kingdom of God, spiritual center Rebirth, and evangelical Christian Church Grace of Christ.

Pursuant to the Constitutional Court’s ruling, effective in April, religious groups registered in the country for fewer than 10 years no longer had to register every year.  In December parliament amended the law on religious organizations to bring it into compliance with the Constitutional Court’s ruling.

The government again did not take any steps to restitute property in accordance with the 2009 Terezin Declaration, which called for measures to provide assistance, redress, and remembrance for victims of Nazi persecution.  There continued to be differing views among the government and Jewish community groups about the number of properties that remained to be restituted.  Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told media in May restitution of Jewish property remained on the agenda and would be addressed in the next parliament, elected in October.

According to a report on the country issued in 2018 by the NGO National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ), the government had made significant progress in recognizing Jewish issues and commemorating the Holocaust, adding that problems remained with regard to property restitution and vandalism of Jewish sites.

Authorities continued to monitor Muslim activities according to the annual report of the security police.  In November Islamic Cultural Centre in Latvia (ICCL) leader Janis Hamza Lucins stated privately he had had no negative interaction with the security police during the year and was unaware of any actual or threatened violence against the Muslim community by government actors or private individuals during the same period.  In October Muslim community leader Zufars Zainullins said privately he did not view government monitoring of Muslims to be discriminatory or a violation of their rights.

The new prayer center of the ICCL remained unopened.  ICCL leader Lucins stated the ICCL was not currently focused on opening the new prayer center and had no timeline for opening the facility.  Lucins and Muslim community leader Zainullins said the ICCL’s unopened status did not involve anti-Muslim animus on the part of the government.

President Raimonds Vejonis and other senior government officials, including Speaker of the Parliament Inara Murniece, Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis, and Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, attended or spoke at Holocaust memorial events, including International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Latvian Holocaust Memorial Day, and the Rumbula Forest Massacre Memorial.  In July at a commemoration of the burning in 1941 of the Great Choral Synagogue together with those inside, Murniece said, “Thousands of lives were wiped out …  it was hell on earth,” adding that local henchmen were also involved in the mass executions that took place in the country during WWII.  In his speech at the same event, President Vejonis said Jews were an integral part of the country and that “intolerance to those who are different find[s] a fertile soil in society and public space.  Those who remember the horrible events of the past are today’s hope.”

On the July 4 Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, officials unveiled a memorial in Riga dedicated to Hungarian Jewish women who were deported to labor and concentration camps in Latvia during the 1944 Nazi occupation, where they perished or were killed.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On March 16, the annual march commemorating Latvians who fought in the grenadier divisions of the Waffen SS against the Soviet Red Army in WWII took place in Riga.  Approximately 250 persons, including 10-15 SS veterans and five members of parliament from the All for Latvia Party, participated.  Numbers were similar to recent years.  Protesters against the march also attended.  The organizers, the Daugava Hawks group, characterized the annual march as a commemoration of national identity and remembrance of those who fought for independence rather than as a glorification of Nazism.  According to the NCSEJ’s report on the country, the march featured Nazi propaganda.  Police reported they detained two persons protesting the march, one on a charge of public drunkenness, the other for displaying a poster picturing concentration camp prisoners before a Nazi firing squad, shouting and acting aggressively, and resisting police orders.  Police released them on the same day after they paid a fine.

In March a researcher for U.S.-based NGO Freedom House said far-right participation in the march had fallen year on year and that “Such movements tend to become the butt of online jokes rather than a meaningful force on the Latvian political scene.”  Minister of Interior Rihards Kozlovskis stated confrontations between parties holding opposing opinions at the rally had decreased over the years, and that the 2018 march passed without incident.  As in previous years, the march drew strong condemnations from various groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Latvian Anti-Nazi Committee, and politicians from political party the Latvian Russian Union.

On November 30, approximately 500 persons lit thousands of candles at the Freedom Monument in Riga in memory of the approximately 30,000 Jews killed in the Rumbula Forest by the Nazis in 1941.  Organizer Lila Tomsone initiated the annual commemoration in 2016.

In December the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism.  In Latvia 200 respondents completed the survey; however, because the agency encountered difficulties in reaching respondents through online methods, which it attributed to the country’s small and elderly Jewish population, it conducted the survey through face-to-face interviews.  The agency concluded the different recruitment and data collection methods affected the data quality and cited its findings for the country in an appendix rather than with the main survey results.  According to these findings, 3 percent of respondents said they had experienced anti-Semitic harassment over the previous 12 months, and 8 percent said a family member or close friend had experienced verbal insults or harassment because of being Jewish over the same period.  Three percent had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief.  Twelve percent of respondents considered anti-Semitism to be a problem in the country; 77 percent considered the level of anti-Semitism had stayed the same over the previous five years.

Riga Jewish Community Executive Director Gita Umanovska said that anti-Semitic hate speech on the internet was mostly in the form of posts on social media and comments on news articles, although none were reported to police.  For example, one online commenter wrote, “Hitler was too humane.”  Another wrote, “It is a damned nation that causes riots… and destroys nations from within that God himself cursed when he made them walk 40 years through the desert.  They don’t deserve anything!”  Another poster wrote:  “in the Jewish Torah it says that other people are goy … [Jews] can kill them and humiliate them, and even destroy entire nations.  It is not surprising that Adolf (half-Jewish) started to beat his own, so that they do not go too far.”

According to Muslim community leader Zainullins, anti-Muslim hate speech on the internet also consisted mostly of posts on social media and comments on news articles.  For example, one site carried the message, “You [Muslims] have no place in Europe with your savage beliefs”.  Another message read, “Muslims have their own territory, Christians have their own … Maybe you do not have to offer your territory to a potential enemy so that no [expletive] could happen!”  Several comments suggested the pilgrimage to Mecca would be a perfect opportunity for a bombing, such as:  “All of them could go straight to their hotly-loved Allah in one big crowd.  There are so many Muslims in one place.  Really no one has thought of it.”

In September the Riga City Vidzeme District Court ordered the government to pay 2,000 euros ($2,300) in damages to Leonards Inkins for prosecuting him on charges of anti-Semitism because of an article Inkins wrote in 2012 defending a broadcast by Radio Naba.  On that broadcast, a person said he had witnessed “Jews with guns” in charge.  In 2017, the Supreme Court upheld lower court verdicts acquitting Inkins of anti-Semitism.

During a visit to the country in September, Pope Francis prayed along with members of the Lutheran, Russian Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopalian faiths at the Lutheran cathedral in Riga.  Pope Francis praised the people’s solidarity in the face of ethnic and religious differences.  He laid flowers at the Freedom Monument honoring soldiers killed in the War of Independence before celebrating a Mass for 40,000 persons at the Basilica of Aglona, a Catholic pilgrimage site.  During the Mass in Aglona, the pope called for “the spirit of universal fraternity.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged in regular discussions with government officials, including at the MFA, MOJ, Office of the Ombudsman, Department of Religious Affairs, and with members of parliament, on the importance of restoring expropriated property to the Jewish community, religious tolerance, and Holocaust education.  U.S. embassy officials also met with Foreign Minister Rinkevics and other MFA officials specifically on the issue of why the country had not yet met its obligation under the Terezin Declaration.

Embassy staff met with leaders of the Jewish community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, and the Muslim community to discuss their concerns with religious tolerance and acceptance in the country.  They also met with NGO MARTA, which worked with immigrant women, including those that might be victimized as a result of their religious beliefs.

The embassy funded a Holocaust education program for teachers with workshops designed to help the teachers discuss critical topics, including religious tolerance and the history of the Nazi occupation of the country, as well as the Holocaust itself.  The program also included designing teaching materials to assist educational instructors to tackle issues of historical remembrance of the Holocaust in Europe.  The materials provided lesson plan examples and historical sources to support teachers.  The program built on a previous embassy-supported program that sponsored five teachers for a teacher-training program in the United States on Holocaust education.

The embassy also provided funding for a series of workshops and speakers on the theme “Holocaust Education:  Three Generations Later” during International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  With the embassy’s support, the organizers live streamed the event on the internet, making it possible for people throughout the country and around the world to view the event.

The embassy funded a project with the Zanis Lipke Memorial Museum called the “Ghetto Drawings” that created an album of sketches by artist Alexandra Belcova capturing life in the Riga Ghetto and depicting the Holocaust in the country.  More than 8,000 visitors viewed the exhibition, including students from regional schools and universities, such as Riga Stradins University, Riga Technical University, and the University of Latvia.

Lithuania

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom of religious practice, and state recognition of religious organizations, provided they do not contradict the constitution or the law.  The government extends special benefits to nine “traditional” religious groups and more limited benefits to four “recognized” religious groups.  Religious groups must register with the government to gain legal status.  Parliament had not yet considered the recognition application by the indigenous religious group Romuva, following a favorable recommendation by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), and again did not vote on the recognition application of the United Methodist Church, pending since 2001.  The government allocated funds to begin the conversion of a Soviet-era sports palace built atop a Jewish cemetery into a conference center.  The Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC) supported the project, but its Vilnius branch and other Jewish groups issued a statement against it and two other projects on former Jewish cemetery sites.  Parliament removed the ombudsman for academic ethics amid allegations of anti-Semitism.  The government again paid 3.62 million euros ($4.15 million) to the Foundation for the Disposal of Good Will Compensation for the Immovable Property of Jewish Religious Communities (Good Will Foundation) as compensation for nationalized Jewish communal property and 1.2 million euros ($1.38 million) to traditional religious groups.  Senior government officials participated and spoke at Holocaust remembrance events.

Some participants at a nationalist march of 1,000 persons in March wore fascist symbols and carried banners of Lithuanian partisans who critics said were Nazi collaborators.  Some participants at another nationalist march of 300 persons in February carried a banner with a picture of a World War II (WWII)-era anti-Semite, Kazys Skirpa.  Anonymous anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim internet postings in response to articles about Jewish or Muslim issues were common; media portals generally removed them.

U.S. embassy officials and the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues) met with government officials, including a vice chancellor, vice ministers at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture, members of parliament (MPs), and the head of the LJC to discuss ways to combat intolerance and anti-Semitism and to encourage resolution of remaining issues of compensation for Jewish private property seized during the Nazi and Soviet eras.  Embassy officials discussed Jewish heritage preservation with local government officials.  In September the Ambassador spoke on the importance of religious tolerance in remarks at the Symposium for Diplomats Who Saved Jewish Lives.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.8 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2011 census, of the 90 percent of the population that responded to the question about religious affiliation, 86 percent is Roman Catholic, and 7 percent does not identify with any religious group.  Religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Russian Orthodox, Old Believers, Lutherans, Reformed Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, Greek Catholics, and Karaites.  In the 2011 census, approximately 5,100 persons identified as followers of Romuva, a religion practiced in the country since before Christianity.  According to the 2011 census, the Jewish population is predominately concentrated in larger cities and is estimated at 3,050.  The population of Karaites, who traditionally live in Trakai and in the greater Vilnius region, is estimated at 250.  The Sunni Muslim population numbers approximately 2,800, the majority of whom are Tatars, a community living primarily in Vilnius and Kaunas.  The Muslim community also includes recent converts, migrants, refugees, and temporary workers from the Middle East and Africa, most of whom are Sunni.

According to the 2011 census, less than 1 percent of the population belongs to other religious groups.  Among these, the most numerous are Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Full Gospel Word of Faith Movement, Pentecostals/Charismatics, Old Baltic faith communities, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, and members of the New Apostolic Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates there is no state religion and provides for the right of individuals to choose freely any religion or belief, to profess their religion and perform religious practices, individually or with others, in private or in public, and to practice and teach their beliefs.  It states no one may compel another person (or be compelled) to choose or profess any religion or belief.  The constitution allows limits on the freedom to profess and spread religious beliefs when necessary to protect health, safety, public order, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.  It restricts freedom of expression if it incites religious hatred, violence, or discrimination.  It stipulates religious belief may not serve as justification for failing to comply with laws.

Under the constitution, the government may temporarily restrict freedom of expression of religious belief during a period of martial law or a state of emergency, although it has never invoked this right.

The constitution acknowledges the freedom of parents or guardians to oversee the religious and moral education of their children without interference and stipulates public education shall be secular, although schools may provide religious instruction at the request of parents.  The constitution grants recognition to “traditional” religious groups and provides for recognition of other religious groups if they have support in society and their teachings and practices do not conflict with law or public morals.  It states the status of religious groups shall be established by agreement or law, and recognized religious groups shall be free to carry out their activities as long as they are not in conflict with the constitution or laws.

The law defines religious groups as (1) religious communities, (2) religious associations, which comprise at least two religious communities under common leadership, and (3) religious centers, which are higher governing bodies of religious associations.

The law recognizes as “traditional” those religious groups able to trace back their presence in the country at least 300 years.  The law lists nine “traditional” religious groups:  Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Russian Orthodox, Old Believer, Jewish, Sunni Muslim, and Karaite Jewish.  Traditional religious groups may perform marriages that are state-recognized, establish joint private/public schools, provide religious instruction in public schools, and receive annual government subsidies.  Their highest-ranking leaders are eligible to apply for diplomatic passports, and they may provide chaplains for the military, social care institutions, hospitals, and prisons.  The state provides social security and healthcare insurance contributions for clergy, religious workers, and members of monastic orders of the traditional religious groups.  Traditional religious groups are also not required to pay social and health insurance taxes for clergy and most other religious workers and members of monastic orders.

Other religious groups and associations may apply to the MOJ for state recognition if they have been officially registered in the country for at least 25 years.  Parliament votes whether to grant this status upon recommendation from the MOJ.  The Evangelical Baptist Union of Lithuania, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Pentecostal Evangelical Belief Christian Union, and the New Apostolic Church of Lithuania are the only state-recognized nontraditional religious groups.

Recognition entitles nontraditional religious groups to perform marriages and provide religious instruction in public schools.  Unlike traditional groups, however, they are not eligible for annual subsidies from the state budget.  The law provides recognized nontraditional religious groups with legal entity status, but they do not qualify for certain social security and healthcare contributions by the state.

The MOJ handles official registration of religious communities, associations, and centers.  Groups wishing to register must submit an application and supporting documentation to the MOJ, including their bylaws describing their religious teachings and governance, minutes of the founding meeting, and a list of the founders, at least 15 of whom must be citizens.  Upon approval of its application, a religious community, association, or center may register as a legal entity with the State Enterprise Center of Registers.  Registration is voluntary for religious communities, associations, and centers affiliated with traditional religious groups and mandatory for nontraditional communities wishing to receive legal status.

Registration of traditional religious communities, associations, and centers is free of charge, while nontraditional communities pay a fee of 32 euros ($37).  Traditional communities also have a simpler registration procedure, needing to submit only an application, decisions of their governing body on the appointment of their leader, and their headquarters address.  The MOJ may refuse to register a religious group if full data are not included in the application; the activities of the group violate human rights or public order; or a group with the same name has already registered.  According to the Center of Registers, there are 1,115 traditional and 194 nontraditional religious communities, associations, and centers officially registered in the register of legal entities.

For nontraditional religious groups, official registration is a prerequisite for opening a bank account, owning property, and acting in a legal or official capacity as a community.  The law allows all registered religious groups to own property for use as prayer houses, homes, and other functions, and permits construction of facilities necessary for religious activities.  All registered groups are eligible for public funds from municipalities for cultural and social projects.

In December 2017, parliament amended the law to exempt all clergy from registered groups from compulsory military service.  Previously, only clergy (and theological students) from traditional religious groups were exempt from military service.  In the event of a conflict, clergy would be called to serve as chaplains in the military.

Unregistered communities have no legal status, but the constitution allows them to conduct worship services and seek new members.

The Interministerial Commission to Coordinate Activities of Governmental Institutions that Deal with Issues of Religious, Esoteric, and Spiritual Groups coordinates investigations of religious groups if there is a concern a group’s actions may be inconsistent with what the commission perceives to be “principles that stress respect for human freedom of expression and freedom of religion.”

The Journalist Ethics Inspectorate, an independent, government-sponsored organization whose head is appointed by parliament, investigates complaints involving the violation of regulatory laws governing the provision of information to the public, including print media and the internet.  These laws include prohibition of the publication of material that fuels religious hatred.  The inspectorate may levy administrative fines on newspapers or refer cases to the Office of the General Prosecutor.

The Soviet Union nationalized all religious buildings, some of which it redistributed, while others continued to serve religious communities.  For properties belonging to the national government, registered groups could apply to the appropriate ministry for the restitution of, or compensation for, religious property they owned before June 19, 1948.  For former religious properties belonging to municipalities, registered groups applied for restitution or compensation to the appropriate municipality.  Religious communities could also register a claim for property not officially registered under their name but which they used during the Soviet period.  If the ministry or municipality determines the claim is legitimate, it drafts a resolution officially returning the property to its original owner.  The deadline for registered religious groups to submit a claim for religious property restitution was 1997.  The government continues to review cases filed by the 1997 deadline but is not accepting any new claims.  Religious groups may appeal the decisions of the ministry or municipality in court.  Unregistered religious groups could not apply for restitution.

A compensation fund for Jewish-owned communal property nationalized under totalitarian regimes is designed to support Jewish educational, religious, scientific, cultural, and healthcare projects with public benefits.  Pursuant to the law, the government is committed to disbursing 37 million euros ($42.43 million) over the course of the decade ending March 1, 2023.  Funds go to the Good Will Foundation, a public institution governed by national and international Jewish leaders.

The country has no law for the restitution of heirless private property.

The government allocates funds to traditional religious communities for refurbishing houses of prayer, restoring old cemeteries, and preserving cultural heritage sites.  Each traditional religion group receives 3,075 euros ($3,500) every year as a base fund plus a variable component that depends on the number of believers of each community.

The constitution and other law permits and funds religious instruction in public schools for traditional and other state-recognized religious groups.  Most religious instructors are regular state-employed teachers, but some are priests, seminarians, or monks.  Parents must choose either religious instruction or secular ethics classes for their children, but may not opt out of both offerings.  Schools decide which of the traditional religious groups will be represented in their curricula on the basis of requests from parents of children up to age 14, after which students present the requests themselves.

There are 30 private schools established by religious communities, 26 Catholic and four Jewish; students of different religious groups may attend these schools.  All accredited private schools (religious and nonreligious) receive funding from municipalities and the Ministry of Education and Science through a voucher system based on the number of pupils.  Each private school receives 1,099 euros ($1,300) per student.  Beginning with the 2017-18 school year, national minority schools, which include schools established by the Jewish community, receive 20 percent more – 1,318.80 euros ($1,500) – per student than other private schools.  The per-student stipend covers only the program costs of school operation.  Private school operators generally bear responsibility for covering capital outlays; however, per an agreement the government signed with the Holy See, the Ministry of Education and Science funds both the capital and operating costs of private Catholic schools.

The criminal code prohibits incitement of hatred and discrimination based on religion and stipulates fines or up to two years in prison for violations.  The code penalizes interference with religious ceremonies of recognized religious groups with community service, fines, or detention for up to 90 days.  The law does not address interference with or incitement of hatred against unrecognized religious groups.

The Office of the Equal Opportunities (OEO) ombudsperson investigates complaints of discrimination, including those based on religion, directed against state institutions, educational institutions, employers, and product and service sellers and producers.  Parliament appoints the ombudsperson for a period of five years.  The office conducts independent investigations, publishes surveys and independent reports on discrimination, and provides conclusions and recommendations on any discrimination-related issues.  The office also makes proposals to state and municipal institutions and government agencies concerning the improvement of legal acts and priorities of the implementation of equal rights policy.  The OEO ombudsperson does not levy monetary penalties.

The parliamentary ombudsperson often works with the OEO ombudsperson but is a separate entity.  The parliamentary ombudsperson examines the conduct of state authorities in serving the population.  The law governing the parliamentary ombudsperson specifically includes religious discrimination within its purview.  The OEO and parliamentary ombudsperson may investigate complaints, recommend changes in the law or draft legislation to parliamentary committees and ministries, and recommend cases to the prosecutor general’s office for pretrial investigation.

The criminal code prohibits public display of Soviet and Nazi symbols or national anthems.  Violators are subject to fines of 144-289 euros ($170-$330).

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

Government Practices

On May 25, the MOJ submitted to parliament an application from the Romuva for state-recognized religious association status.  Minister of Justice Eimutis Misiunas supported the proposal, stating the Romuva’s commitment to reviving national culture was important for the country’s national identity and that Romuva was the country’s fastest growing religious community.  The parliamentary committee on human rights was reviewing the proposal at year’s end.  An application for religious association status by the United Methodist Church of Lithuania, which the MOJ submitted to parliament, with a favorable recommendation, in 2001 remained pending.  According to the MOJ, it was incumbent on the United Methodist Church to advocate for its application in parliament, but the group had not done so.

In April Minister of Economy Virginijus Sinkevicius introduced in parliament an amendment that would ban the sale of material that “distorts historical facts” about the nation, which was met by criticism from many quarters.  Parliament’s legal department concluded it failed to ensure human rights.  The LJC said it “raise[d] well-founded concerns and recall[ed] the dark times of government censorship… and ha[d] given rise to anger, with foundation, in the international Jewish community.”  Lithuanian and international media also reacted negatively, with some viewing the proposed amendment as a response to the publication in 2016 of a controversial book by Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite and a representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center citing participation by Lithuanians in the Holocaust.  The proposal never reached a final vote in parliament, and Sinkevicius withdrew it in May.

In October media reported that the Ministry of Finance had proposed allocating 28.3 million euros ($32.45 million) for the reconstruction of the Vilnius Sports Palace, which the Soviets built on the Snipiskes cemetery, Vilnius’s oldest Jewish cemetery, in 1971.  The plans were to convert the buildings into a conference center, with design work scheduled to begin in 2019, construction in 2020, and an opening by 2021.  In November the government approved the budget allocation.  On August 29, the Vilnius Jewish Community, one of 33 regional branches of the LJC, and other local Jewish groups issued a statement protesting the Sports Palace renovation, as well as other renovation projects of Soviet buildings located on the site of former Jewish cemeteries in Kaunas and Siauliai.  The proposed renovations at the latter two sites remained pending.  The national LJC supported the Vilnius Sports Palace project.  The government stated it would undertake the project in accordance with the August 26, 2009 agreement between the LJC, the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, and the Lithuanian Department of Cultural Heritage, and would protect the area of the cemetery at the Sports Palace and its buffer zone, as well as other related areas.  The LJC and Vilnius municipality said that, in recognition of the sensitivity of the issue, they had installed vehicle barriers and 10 information plaques around the Sports Palace, noting it had once been a Jewish cemetery and that all of the human remains had been removed.  Initially, Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis said he backed a proposal to convert part of the new complex into a Jewish museum or cultural center; the government was still considering other proposals aimed at commemorating the legacy of the Snipiskes Jewish cemetery at year’s end.

The government again disbursed 3.62 million euros ($4.15 million) to the Good Will Foundation, in accordance with its agreement with that institution.

The government provided 1.2 million euros ($1.38 million) to traditional religious groups to reconstruct religious buildings and to support other religious community activities.  Of this total, it granted one million euros ($1.15 million) to the Roman Catholic Church (some of which was to assist with preparations for the visit of Pope Francis in September) and 61,100 euros ($70,100) to the Russian Orthodox community.  The remaining 139,000 euros ($159,000) was divided among the Old Believer, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Sunni Muslim, Karaite and other Jewish, and Greek Catholic communities.

On March 15, parliament removed Vigilijus Sadauskas from the government-appointed position of ombudsman for academic ethics and procedures amid allegations of anti-Semitism.  Sadauskas, affiliated with Gedimino Technical University, had offered a reward to students who submitted a research thesis about Jewish crimes in the 20th century.

The OEO ombudsperson received five complaints of discrimination based on religion.  Two concerned public schools holding graduation ceremonies at Catholic churches.  Another concerned the content of the mission statement of a kindergarten operated by a religious community.  A fourth involved the establishment of the position of police chaplain, a move that the petitioner stated favored Christianity.  The OEO ombudsperson found these four complaints fell outside of the jurisdiction of the OEO office.  The fifth complaint was from a prisoner who charged authorities did not allow him to participate in Christmas Mass.  The ombudsperson ruled the incident did not constitute religious discrimination.

The government and civil society organizations continued to work together to promote Holocaust education and tolerance in schools.  In July the Ministry of Culture sponsored a summer camp in Cekiskes to teach high school students about Jewish history and the preservation of Jewish culture.  The program included tours, lectures, concerts, exhibitions, and conferences in Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipeda, Kedainiai and other cities.  On August 24, Prime Minister Skvernelis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended a ceremony at the Paneriai Memorial, which is located less than 11 miles from central Vilnius and marks the site where the Gestapo, the SS security service, and the Vilnius Special Squad executed approximately 70,000 Jews between July 1941 and 1944.  Prime Minister Skvernelis referred to the Holocaust as the “worst episode” in the country’s history and said the government was responsible for ensuring that this chapter not be hidden from the world.  In September the nongovernmental organization Lithuanian Human Rights Center, in cooperation with local municipalities, installed eight new memorials known as “stumbling stones” to commemorate Holocaust victims in Alytus, Ukmerge, Plunge, and Kuliai.

On September 19, Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevicius called on authorities to remove a memorial plaque located on the side of the library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences in central Vilnius honoring Jonas Noreika, a Lithuanian military officer known as Generolas Vetra (General Storm).  Faina Kukliansky, head of the LJC, also called for the removal of the plaque.  The appeals came after The New York Times published an article in early September citing a descendant of Vetra, who said Vetra had been complicit in the killing of Jews during the Holocaust.  By year’s end, the library had not removed the plaque.

Government officials continued to participate in ceremonies to commemorate the Holocaust.  On January 26, Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius delivered a speech on International Holocaust Remembrance Day; he referred to the role of Lithuanian collaborators during the Holocaust as a “scar” on Lithuania’s history.  On May 4, Prime Minister Skvernelis, Speaker of Parliament Viktoras Pranckietis, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a new museum in Seduva commemorating the country’s extinct Jewish shtetl communities.  Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius, the President’s Advisor on Foreign Policy, the Israeli ambassador, and the LJC participated in the annual March of the Living on May 23, to memorialize the killing of 70,000 Jews in Ponary, on the outskirts of Vilnius, during the Nazi occupation.

On September 21, government and nongovernmental bodies organized events to mark the country’s 75th Holocaust Memorial Day.  Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius, Vice Chancellor Deividas Matulionis, Mayor of Vilnius Remigijus Simasius, MPs, Catholic Archbishop of Vilnius Gintaras Grusas, the LJC, and foreign dignitaries attended the unveiling of a memorial stone in Vilnius to honor the country’s Righteous Among the Nations – individuals recognized by Israel as risking their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust.  In opening remarks, Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius said, “Jews were killed by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators.  We can never forget this.  But when there are tragic events and trials, there are also people to whom truth and justice is more important than their own lives.”  On September 22, President Dalia Grybauskaite stated, “In a country brutalized by both Nazi and Stalinist crimes, many people stood up to rescue Jews because they saw humanity as the ultimate good.”

On September 23, the anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto, Speaker of Parliament Pranckietis, Minister of Culture Lijana Ruokyte-Jonsson, Mayor of Vilnius Simasius, the LJC, and Litvak (Lithuanian Jewish) organizations from Israel and Poland attended a 75th Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at the Paneriai Memorial.  In his remarks, Speaker Pranckietis said, “Today we [Lithuanians] suffer repentance for the grievance caused to the Jewish nation.”

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Authorities did not maintain statistics on religiously motivated incidents.

On February 16, nationalists held a march in Vilnius to commemorate the anniversary of the restoration of the country’s independence.  The march attracted approximately 300 participants, compared with 150 in the previous year; some of the participants held torches and carried national flags.  The march included a banner with a picture of, and a quote by WWII-era anti-Semite Kazys Skirpa.  Nationalists also organized a march in Vilnius on March 11, the country’s Independence Day, involving approximately 1,000 persons, compared with 500 in the previous year.  According to local observers, some of the participants displayed fascist or neo-Nazi symbols such as a skull and crossbones flag, and carried a banner with the images of Lithuanian partisans who many believe were Nazi collaborators, such as Skirpa and Jonas Noreika.

A Lithuanian writer who cowrote a controversial 2016 book on Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust told an Israeli newspaper she had received threats to her safety, which she attributed in part to her book.

Anonymous anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments on the internet were common, for example on Lithuanian media portal Delfi.  Examples of anti-Semitism in this forum included statements that Jews who collaborated with the KGB should be condemned by the LJC or statements justifying the Holocaust because “Jews collaborated with the Soviet Union and killed Lithuanian partisans.”  Most anti-Muslim examples included equating Muslims with terrorists.  Main media portals generally removed such comments promptly after becoming aware of them.

On September 23, more than 50 people gathered for a ceremony at the site marking the former Vilnius ghetto to place stones made of lava and ash into a metal structure in the shape of the Star of David.  During the ceremony Mayor Simasius said, “Our duty is to mark this day, to remember and say deep in our heart, ‘never again.’”

Also on September 23, Pope Francis visited the country and prayed at the site of the former Vilnius ghetto.  At a Mass in Kaunas, he warned against any rebirth of “pernicious” anti-Semitism and honored Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. embassy continued to maintain a regular dialogue with senior government officials on the importance of religious freedom.  Embassy representatives met with a vice chancellor and officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture, as well as MPs and continued to engage them on ways to promote tolerance and integration of religious minorities, including Muslim refugees, into society and combat anti-Semitism.  Embassy representatives urged the government to address the remaining issues regarding compensation for Jewish private property seized during the Nazi and Soviet eras.  U.S. officials, including the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues in a visit in October, discussed Holocaust education, remembrance, and property restitution at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government offices and with MPs.

The Ambassador and embassy staff met regularly with the Jewish community to discuss issues of concern, including property restitution, preservation and restoration of heritage sites, combating intolerance, and Holocaust remembrance.  On January 3, the Ambassador visited restored Jewish synagogues in Alanta and Pakruojis and met with the Jewish communities in Panevezys and Siauliai to discuss the country’s progress on Jewish heritage preservation, commemoration events, and religious life.  On January 17, the Ambassador met with the American Jewish Committee to discuss its views on issues of concern to Jews in the country.

On May 4, the Ambassador attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a new museum in Seduva to commemorate the country’s extinct Jewish shtetl communities.  She delivered remarks citing the government for acknowledging and celebrating the life and contributions of Jews in the development of Lithuanian society, history, and culture and the government’s actions to acknowledge and celebrate those contributions.

On July 12, the embassy collaborated with the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum to organize a public screening of the film The Good Nazi, the story of a German engineer who joined the Nazi Party in 1931 but later saved approximately 200 Jews in Vilnius.  The screening was followed by a discussion with the executive producer about the role of individuals who helped save Jews during WWII.

In September the Ambassador delivered remarks at the Symposium for Diplomats Who Saved Jewish Lives, to honor the work of diplomats that helped saved Jews during WWII.

On September 23, the Ambassador presented a wreath on behalf of the diplomatic corps at the Paneriai memorial in honor of the 75th Holocaust Memorial Day.  The Ambassador also participated in a ceremony at the site marking the former Vilnius Jewish ghetto to place stones made of lava and ash into a metal structure in the shape of the Star of David.

Moldova

Executive Summary

The constitution protects the right of individuals to practice their religion and states religious groups are autonomous and independent from the state.  The law, however, recognizes the “exceptional importance” of Orthodox Christianity.  Minority religious groups and others reported the government continued to provide preferential treatment to the Moldovan Orthodox Church (MOC), and that the MOC exerted strong influence over government policies and electoral politics.  Several legal cases involving minority religions continued to be unresolved.  Throughout the year, President Igor Dodon expressed his support for Orthodox Christianity and particularly the MOC.  In May the Jewish community submitted a request to renew a building permit with the Chisinau mayor’s office to renovate property on which a historical Jewish synagogue stands, following a favorable Supreme Court of Justice decision in 2017 and the 2016 endorsement by parliament of the Wiesel Commission’s Report on the Holocaust.  The government also adopted a 2017-19 action plan based on the commission’s recommendations.  In October it adopted a decision to establish a National Holocaust Museum in Chisinau, renovate the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau, one of the largest in Europe, and approve a high school curriculum on historic lessons of the Holocaust, to be introduced in the 2019 school year.  There was progress on other commitments taken under the action plan, such as holding special sessions of parliament and government to commemorate Holocaust victims and developing content on the Holocaust for history textbooks.  In July the Supreme Court of Justice upheld a decision recognizing the validity of a building permit for a Kingdom Hall in Ceadir-Lunga.  After more than two years of opposition from local authorities, Jehovah’s Witnesses were able to proceed with the building’s construction.  A number of religious entities benefited from a 2017 law allowing individuals to direct 2 percent of their income tax to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or religious organizations.  The Islamic League of Moldova (Islamic League) reported an increase in actions taken against girls in public schools for wearing the hijab.  The Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research (Ministry of Education) did not take action following complaints submitted by the parents and advised them to take the case to the Anti-Discrimination Council.

In the separatist Transnistria region, NGOs continued to report the de facto authorities discriminated against, restricted the activities of, and monitored activities of, minority religious groups.  Jehovah’s Witnesses’ attempts to reregister their charters in Transnistria were unsuccessful.  The Muslim community said it continued to refrain from overt religious activities because of past intimidation by the de facto authorities.  The imam who led Friday prayers fled the region after the local Committee for State Security put him on their “wanted” list.  Three Jehovah’s Witnesses’ complaints of discriminatory acts in Tiraspol to the UN Human Rights Committee involving the de facto authorities and the Russian Federation remained pending at year’s end.

Representatives of the Pentecostal Church said that on February 20, unknown individuals entered a Pentecostal church’s premises in Pirlita Village in Falesti District and beat and threatened the guard with retaliation if he attempted to thwart their actions.  The individuals set several new doors in the church on fire.  This was the second attempt since 2010 to set the church on fire.  There were also arson attacks and other forms of destruction against churches in the Falesti District during the year.  The Jewish community reported an increase in hate speech during the year, particularly in online forums.  A Chisinau-based representative of the World Jewish Congress reported the presence of anti-Semitic comments and hate speech on social media sites such as VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Facebook, and in the comments section of local news websites.  The Jewish community reported one act of vandalism in which unknown individuals drew swastikas in a Jewish cemetery in Balti.

The chairman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad and embassy officials held discussions in August with the government on the treatment and maintenance of Jewish heritage sites and the opening of a Jewish heritage museum in Chisinau.  The embassy also sponsored several events that focused on religious freedom and tolerance.  On June 1, the embassy hosted an iftar with leaders and representatives of the Muslim community and diplomatic representatives.  The community discussed its concerns over rising societal intolerance toward Muslims in media, politics, education, and employment.  The Ambassador and embassy officials called for enhancing interfaith tolerance and dialogue.  Embassy officials discussed respect for the rights of religious minorities and combating religious intolerance with representatives of religious groups.  In December the Ambassador hosted an event with leaders of minority religious groups to facilitate dialogue and cooperation between religious communities in the country.  The Ambassador also met with the heads of the MOC, Bessarabian Orthodox Church (BOC), and Roman Catholic Church in the country to discuss the prospects of creating an official platform for cooperation among various faiths.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 3.44 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2014 census, the predominant religion is Orthodox Christianity, with 90 percent of the population belonging to one of two Orthodox Christian groups.  Of Orthodox adherents, approximately 90 percent belong to the MOC, which is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church, and the remaining 10 percent belong to the BOC, which falls under the Romanian Orthodox Church.  Nearly 7 percent of the population did not identify a religious affiliation.  The largest non-Orthodox religious groups, accounting for 15,000 to 30,000 adherents each, are Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostals.  Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Seventh-day Adventists, evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Muslims, Jews, and atheists.

Smaller religious groups include Baha’is, Molokans, Messianic Jews, Presbyterians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Evangelical Christian Church, Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), other Christians, Falun Gong, and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.

In the separatist Transnistria region, an estimated 80 percent of the population belongs to the MOC.  Other religious groups in the region include Catholics, followers of Old Rite Orthodoxy, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, evangelical and charismatic Christians, Jews, Lutherans, Muslims, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates equal treatment for all citizens regardless of religion and guarantees freedom of conscience, manifested in “a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect,” and of religious worship.  It states religious groups may organize and operate according to their own statutes, independent from the state.  The constitution prohibits all actions instigating religious hatred and “any manifestation of discord” between religious groups.  The constitution stipulates the state shall support religious worship, including facilitating religious assistance in the army, hospitals, penitentiaries, nursing homes, and orphanages.

The law states every person has the right to belong or not belong to a religion, to have or not have individual beliefs, to change religion or beliefs, and to practice religion or beliefs independently or as a group, in public or in private, through teaching, religious practices, or rituals.  According to the law, religious freedom may be restricted only if necessary to ensure public order and security, to protect public health and morality, or to protect a person’s rights and freedoms.  The law also prohibits discrimination based on religious affiliation.

The law stipulates that the state recognize the “exceptional importance and fundamental role” of Orthodox Christianity, particularly that of the MOC, in the life, history, and culture of the country.

The law allows religious groups to establish associations and foundations.  It permits local religious groups to change their denominational affiliation or dissolve themselves.  The law exempts registered religious groups from paying real estate and land taxes.

The law allows individuals to redirect 2 percent of their income tax to NGOs or religious groups.  Religious groups wanting to benefit from the provisions must register with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and use the amounts received only for social, moral, cultural, and/or charitable activities.  The law exempts religious organizations from registration fees and from paying tax on the income received as donations under the 2 percent law.

In March parliament amended legislation to transfer the power to register and monitor noncommercial organizations from the MOJ to the Public Services Agency (PSA).  The new law provides for a registration process in which a religious group must present to the PSA a declaration including its exact name, fundamental principles of belief, organizational structure, and scope of activities, financing sources, and rights and obligations of membership.  The law also requires a group to show it has at least 100 founding members.  A religious group must present proof of having access to premises where it can conduct its religious activities, but the law does not specify that the group must own this property.  The PSA is required by law to register a religious group within 15 days if the registration request is made according to law, a change from the previous 30-day deadline.  The applicant may request an extension if the government determines the documentation submitted is insufficient.  Under the new provisions, the MOJ retains the right to request a suspension of the registered status of a religious group if it “carries out activities that harm the constitution or laws” or “affects state security, public order, [or] the life and security of the people.”  The law also provides for suspension or revocation of a religious group’s registration in case of violation of international agreements or for political activity.  The PSA makes all registration entries into the State Registry of Legal Entities.

The law does not require registration, but only registered religious groups possess status as legal entities, allowing them to build houses of worship, own land in cemeteries or other property, publish or import religious literature, open bank accounts, or employ staff.  Registration also exempts them from land taxes and property taxes.  Individual churches or branches of registered religious groups are not required to register with the PSA as long as they do not carry out legal transactions and do not receive donations as local legal entities.  The parent organization must exercise authority in those areas for unregistered local branches.

The law allows all religious groups to hold services at state facilities, including prisons, orphanages, hospitals, schools, and military and police institutions, at the request of individuals in such institutions, provided they obtain the approval of the institution’s administration.

Through an agreement with the MOJ, MOC chaplains have free access to detention facilities for religious assistance without prior approval of the prison administration.  In addition, the MOC has a separate agreement with the Ministry of Defense, which allows MOC priests to preach to army units, bless military personnel prior to their deployment in peacekeeping missions, and distribute religious literature to libraries within the army.

The law bans religious entities from engaging in political activity and prohibits “abusive proselytism,” defined as the action of changing religious beliefs through coercion.

Although the law provides for restitution of property confiscated during the successive fascist and Soviet regimes to politically repressed or exiled persons, the provision does not apply to property confiscated from religious groups.

The constitution provides for freedom of religious education and stipulates the state educational system should be secular.  According to the law, religion classes in state educational institutions are optional.  Students submit a written request to the school’s administration to enroll in a religion class.  Religion classes are offered in grades one through nine.  No alternative classes are offered for those who choose not to enroll in religion classes.  The religion curriculum offers two types of courses:  one for Orthodox denominations and Roman Catholics; and the second for evangelical Christians and Seventh-day Adventists.  The religious curriculum for Orthodox and Catholic groups derives from instructional manuals developed by the Ministry of Education with input from the MOC and includes teaching guidelines developed with the support of the BOC.  Teachers and Orthodox priests teach these optional courses, which focus on Orthodox Christianity.  Teachers and representatives of the Evangelical Christian Church teach the second course, which is based on translated religious manuals and literature from Romania, the United States, and Germany.  Both courses teach religious doctrine as well as moral and spiritual values.

The law mandates immunization of all children before they may enroll in kindergarten.  It does not provide an exception for religious reasons.

The Anti-Discrimination Council, established by law, is an independent institution charged with reviewing complaints of discrimination, including discrimination of a religious character or based on religious affiliation.  Parliament chooses members through a competitive process, appointing them to five-year terms.  The council does not have sanctioning powers; however, it may determine if an act of discrimination took place, offer advice on how to remedy the situation, and send requests to prosecutors to initiate criminal proceedings.  It may also suggest pertinent legislative amendments or participate in working groups authoring legislative initiatives.

According to the law, male citizens ages 18 to 27 have the right to choose civilian over military service if the latter runs counter to their religious beliefs.  The standard duration of both alternative civilian and military service is 12 months; university graduates may choose six months of civilian service or three months of military training.  Those who choose civilian service may complete it at public institutions or enterprises specializing in such areas as social assistance, health care, industrial engineering, urban planning, roads and road construction, environmental protection, agriculture or agricultural processing, town management, and fire rescue.  There are no blanket exemptions for religious groups from the civilian service alternative, but higher-ranking clergy, monks, and theology students are exempted from alternative service.  Refusal to enroll in civilian service is punishable by a fine up to 32,500 lei ($1,900) or between 100 and 150 hours of community service, and those punished are still obliged to enroll in civilian service.

The law defines as “extremist” and makes illegal any document or information justifying war crimes or the complete or partial annihilation of a religious or other kind of societal group, as well as any document calling for or supporting activities in pursuit of those goals.

Foreign missionaries may submit work contracts or volunteer agreements to apply for temporary residency permits and may reside and work in paid status or as unpaid volunteers.  Only missionaries working with registered religious groups may apply for temporary residency permits.  Foreign religious workers with these permits must register with the National Agency for the Occupation of the Workforce and the Bureau for Migration and Asylum.  They must present documents confirming the official status of the registered religious group for which they will work, papers confirming their temporary residence, and proof of valid local health insurance.  Other foreign missionaries belonging to registered religious groups may remain for 90 days on a tourist visa.

In separatist Transnistria, Transnistrian “law” affirms the special role of the Orthodox Church in the region’s culture and spirituality.  The de facto law “recognizes respect” for Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and other religious groups historically present in the region.  All religious groups, whether registered or not, officially have freedom to worship, but the law permits restrictions on the right to freedom of conscience and religion “if necessary to protect the constitutional order, morality, health, citizens’ rights and interests, or state defense and security.”  Foreign citizens also have the freedom to worship.  The prosecutor’s office oversees implementation of the law on religious freedom.

Transnistrian “law” prohibits proselytizing in private homes and limits distribution of religious literature to houses of worship and special premises designated by the “authorities.”  Transnistrian “law” requires the reregistration of religious groups to operate legally in the region.  The region’s registration body registers religious groups and monitors their adherence to the goals and activities set forth in their statutes.  Registration provides a number of advantages to religious groups, including the ability to own and build places of worship, open religious schools, and publish literature.

To register, a local religious group must present proof of activity in the region for at least 10 years; a list comprising at least 10 members ages 18 years or older with permanent residence in one of the seven administrative-territorial units in the region and Transnistrian “citizenship”; a list of founders and governing members and their personal details; the group’s charter, statutes, and minutes of its constituent assembly; basic religious doctrine; contact details of its governing body; and a receipt indicating payment of the registration fee.  Local religious groups may also register as part of a centralized religious organization, which must consist of at least three local religious groups that have previously registered separately as legal entities.  In that case, their application must additionally include a copy of the registration papers of the centralized organizations.  The central religious organizations must inform the registration authority on a yearly basis about intentions to extend their activities.

The de facto authorities must decide to register a religious group within 30 days of the application.  If they decide to conduct a religious assessment, which is a law enforcement investigation of the group’s background and activities, registration may be postponed for up to six months or denied if the investigating authorities determine the group poses a threat to the security or morality of the region, or if foreign religious groups are involved in its activities.

Foreign religious groups may not register or undertake religious activities.  Foreigners may only worship individually; they may not be founders or members of religious groups.

Religious groups disband on their own decision or upon a “court’s” decision.  The “prosecutor’s office” or the region’s de facto executive, city, or district authorities can request the courts to disband or suspend a religious group on multiple grounds.  Such grounds include:  disturbing public order or violating public security; conducting extremist activities; coercing persons into breaking up their families; infringing on citizens’ identity, rights, and freedoms; violating citizens’ morality and well-being, using psychotropic substances, drugs, hypnosis, or perverse activities during religious activities; encouraging suicide or the refusal of medical treatment for religious reasons; obstructing compulsory education; using coercion for alienation of property to the benefit of the religious community; and encouraging refusal to fulfill civic duties.

The “law” allows the use of private homes and apartments to hold religious services.  It does not, however, allow religious groups to use homes and apartments as their officially registered addresses.  The “law” also allows such groups to hold religious services and rituals in public places such as hospitals, clinics, orphanages, geriatric homes, and prisons.

The authorities screen and may ban the import and export of religious printed materials, audio and video recordings, and other religious items.

According to the “law,” citizens have the right to choose alternative civilian service over military service if the latter contradicts an individual’s religion and beliefs.  Alternative civilian service may be performed only at organizations under the Transnistrian authority or “other military forces,” and at institutions subordinate to the “executive bodies of the state or local administration.”

The de facto authorities do not allow religious groups to participate in elections or other political party activities or to support NGOs involved in elections.

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

Government Practices

Throughout the year, President Dodon expressed his support for Orthodox Christianity and particularly the MOC.  President Dodon took part in a number of publicized church celebrations and events promoting “traditional family values” together with the MOC head.  During a meeting with the MOC head in October, President Dodon declared the MOC would keep its unity with the Russian Orthodox Church forever.  In October, following the Russian Orthodox Church’s break from the Constantinople Patriarchate, Dodon expressed concern over the fate of the Orthodox Church, adding that Moldova would remain in the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Under previous agreement between the Ministry of Education and the MOC, the government transferred control of most churches and monasteries confiscated during the Soviet era to the MOC.  The Ministry of Education is responsible for the remaining churches and monasteries not under the control of the MOC.  Local authorities working through the Ministry of Culture may arrange with local parishes to return or lease those churches or monasteries to religious groups.  Other religious groups, including the Lutheran and Jewish communities, reported they had not benefitted from a similar agreement with the government to reclaim religious property confiscated during the Soviet era.  In previous years, the Jewish community’s attempts to restitute property were unsuccessful, and its requests for the government to adopt a law enabling it to restitute historically Jewish properties and sites remained unheeded.

The PSA registered 19 religious entities during the year, consisting of new religious subgroups that are part of existing religious denominations, including the Baptist Church, MOC, BOC, Evangelical Church, Seventh-day Adventists, Union of Pentecostal Churches, Orthodox Slavonic Church, and Orthodox Metropolis of Chisinau and all Moldova.  The PSA did not reject any registration applications.

During the year, 83 religious groups received funds from income tax payments directed toward religious groups.

The Falun Gong association’s two complaints to the European Court of Human Rights, which were filed in 2015, remained pending at year’s end.  The association exhausted all national court avenues regarding charges against it of violating the law on extremist activity by the Falun Gong’s symbol’s incorporation of five swastikas based on Buddhist and Chinese tradition, remained pending at year’s end.  A case also remained pending in the courts on the liquidation of the organization.

Minority religious groups, including Baptists, Pentecostals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, reported local authorities remained reluctant to allocate land to them to construct houses of worship.  They also reported Orthodox priests often pressured local mayors or councilors to discriminate against Jehovah’s Witnesses by refusing to execute court orders allowing use of facilities by Jehovah’s Witnesses for worship.

Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders reported fewer restrictions from local authorities and an overall improvement in the registration process for acquiring properties to build houses of worship.  Several cases related to obtaining zoning permits were ongoing, however.  For example, in Olanesti Village Jehovah’s Witnesses could not use their Kingdom Hall, renovated in 2016, because the local authorities refused to provide a zoning permit.  The case remained pending at year’s end.  Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders said police failed to prosecute individuals who threatened or verbally abused members of Jehovah’s Witnesses in rural localities.

In July the Supreme Court of Justice upheld a decision recognizing the validity of a building permit for a Kingdom Hall in Ceadir-Lunga.  After more than two years of opposition from local authorities, Jehovah’s Witnesses were able to proceed with the building’s construction.

On January 5, police in Ciorescu summoned two Jehovah’s Witnesses, alleging they had violated a law passed in 2017 by the village council banning religious preaching and distribution of religious literature in the village, which the council termed “propaganda.”  Police issued fines worth 600 lei ($35) each.  The two members submitted an appeal to the Chisinau court, which annulled the fines on March 28.  The Ciorescu police department appealed this decision, which the Court of Appeals rejected on May 22.

In May the Jewish Community of Moldova (JCM) submitted a request to the Chisinau mayor’s office to renew a building permit to renovate a historical Jewish synagogue and yeshiva.  The request followed a successful resolution of a long-standing court dispute with the Public Property Agency, which argued the JCM had taken too long to renovate the property and denied the permit.  In September 2017, the Supreme Court ruled against the agency and awarded the property to the JCM.  At year’s end, the JCM reported it had received the building permit but had not yet started reconstruction efforts on the synagogue property.  The JCM had purchased the site in 2010.

The Union of Pentecostal Churches reported that the process of importing social and humanitarian assistance had improved.  During the year, however, the Union reported that it remained unable to obtain a building certificate for a building in Copceac Village it bought in 2006 and used for religious services.  In August the Union challenged the local authorities’ refusal to issue the building certificate in court.

In October the government adopted a decision to build a Jewish museum in Chisinau.  According to the decision, the museum would provide education on the Holocaust, combat anti-Semitism, and promote culture, tolerance, and peace.  The new museum will host a Jewish library and an educational center.  Prime Minister Pavel Filip also announced in October the government would renovate the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau, one of the largest in Europe, with more than 40,000 graves.  The government also pledged to build a Yad Vashem-style Jewish historical and cultural center that would include a number of historical sites of importance to the Jewish community in the country.  These actions constituted partial implementation of the government’s 2017-19 action plan responding to recommendations of the Elie Wiesel Commission’s 2016 Report on the Holocaust.

The Jewish community reported progress in fulfilling the action plan and an enhanced openness by the authorities at the national level to address Jewish community concerns.  This included the government partnership with the Jewish community to design and build a Jewish heritage museum in Chisinau, government renovation of Chisinau’s 30-acre Jewish cemetery, building a Jewish historical and cultural center, and approving a high school curriculum on historic lessons of the Holocaust to be introduced the following school year.

Through an earlier agreement with the Ministry of Labor, Social Protection, and Family, the MOC continued to develop a network of social assistance sites, including opening day-care centers and temporary shelters within churches and monasteries.  The MOC also has agreements with other state institutions such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs and National Penitentiary Association to provide spiritual guidance and services to police officers, state workers, and prison inmates.  Representatives of the BOC contended their attempts to obtain similar agreements with state institutions were unsuccessful.

According to minority religious groups and civil society leaders, authorities continued to exhibit preferential treatment toward the MOC, compared to other religious groups.  The government invited MOC priests to officiate at state-sponsored events, national holidays, and blessing ceremonies at schools.  During the year, President Dodon praised the role of the MOC in the lives of citizens and attended multiple MOC-led religious events.  The MOC, however, reported problems receiving building and other types of permits from the Chisinau mayor’s office.  Ahead of a planned visit by Russian Patriarch Kirill to the country in October, the Chisinau mayor’s office denied the MOC’s request for a permit to place billboards in the city to promote his visit.

An outbreak of measles during the year sparked social debate about the legal requirement for immunization.  According to the Ministry of Education, of the 5,664 children who were not enrolled in schools at the beginning of the academic year, 800 were denied admission because their parents refused immunization for religious reasons.

The Islamic League stated that the principal and teaching staff at Mihai Berezovschi Public High School in Chisinau subjected three young Muslim girls who wore the hijab to constant pressure and intimidation, causing the parents to transfer the girls to schools outside the country.  The principal reportedly tried to persuade the girls to give up their belief in Islam and banned the girls from attending school wearing a hijab, warning their dress did not comply with school norms.  The principal also reportedly expressed “fear for herself and the other 2,000 students at the school.”  The Ministry of Education did not take action following complaints submitted by the parents and advised them to take the case to the Anti-Discrimination Council.

NGOs and advocacy groups continued to note the government had no laws or mechanisms in place to address Holocaust-era claims of communal property restitution and reported the government had made no progress on resolution of these claims, including for foreign citizens.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Reports of discriminatory treatment of minority religious groups in Transnistria continued.  According to such groups, local security forces in Transnistria continued monitoring their activities.

Jehovah’s Witnesses said the Transnistrian de facto authorities continued to refuse to reregister two local Jehovah’s Witnesses groups, in Tiraspol and Rybnitsa.  Local authorities refused several times to accept the required documents.  On April 12, the de facto ministry of justice filed a claim with the Rybnitsa city court to prohibit the reregistration of a local Jehovah’s Witnesses group.  The case was pending in court at year’s end.  On August 14, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Rybnitsa resubmitted papers for reregistration, which were ultimately denied.

The Muslim community continued to run a cultural and educational center in Transnistria, but the Islamic League again stated it chose not to register it as an official religious entity.  The Muslim community continued to avoid undertaking any overt religious activity because of previous intimidation attempts by the region’s authorities.  According to the Islamic League, during the year, the local security services declared the imam that led Friday prayers to be wanted for questioning by “authorities” in Transnistria, and he later fled the region.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported some incidents of societal abuse, consisting mainly of verbal intimidation and property destruction.

Pentecostal representatives reported that on the evening of February 20, unknown individuals who posed as representatives of a company delivering construction materials entered the Pentecostal church premises in Pirlita Village in the district of Falesti.  The individuals reportedly beat the guard and threatened him with retaliation if he attempted to thwart their actions.  The perpetrators set several new doors of the church on fire.  The individuals tried to forcibly enter the entrance to the attic to set it on fire as well but were not successful.  Following the incident, the guard extinguished the fire and called the police.  This was the second attempt since 2010 to set the same church on fire.  Churches throughout several locations in Falesti were repeatedly the target of attacks, including arson and other forms of destruction.

According to the Islamic League, societal attitudes toward Muslims worsened compared with previous years, and local media continued to exhibit a critical attitude and bias against Islam.  During the Chisinau mayoral election in June, a fake news story attempted to stir negative public opinion on Islam by claiming that one of the candidates intended to build mosques and a neighborhood for Arabs in Chisinau.  The Islamic League reported Muslims, particularly Muslim women, faced discrimination when seeking employment.  Employers were often reluctant to employ Muslim women choosing to cover their hair by wearing a hijab.  Negative attitudes and bias against women wearing a hijab continued on public transportation, including drivers reportedly failing to stop to pick up women wearing a hijab and disapproving looks from other passengers.

Property disputes between the MOC and BOC Churches continued during the year.

Leaders of the Jewish community reported one case of vandalism during the year.  Unknown individuals drew swastikas in a cemetery in Balti.

Anti-Semitic discourse and attitudes, particularly by politicians and public figures, increased during the year.  In July the mayor of Orhei, an Israel-born Moldovan of Jewish descent, posted a video on social media criticizing his political opponents.  This video triggered a wave of reactions and criticism from politicians, commentators, and media.  According to the Jewish community, some of the comments were anti-Semitic in nature.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In August the chairman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad and embassy representatives met with the foreign minister, speaker of parliament, and minister of education, culture, and research, as well as Jewish community leaders, to discuss the treatment and maintenance of Jewish heritage sites and the opening of a Jewish heritage museum in Chisinau.  Embassy officials met with leaders and representatives of the MOC, BOC, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslim groups, Baptist Church, and Pentecostal Church to discuss societal attitudes and government actions or inaction with regard to religious groups.  Embassy representatives also continued to meet regularly with leaders of the Jewish community to discuss respect for their rights and the challenges faced by the community.

On January 28, the embassy attended the unveiling of a new monument in Tiraspol dedicated to victims of the Holocaust who were killed in Transnistria.  Subsequently, embassy representatives participated in a roundtable discussion on lessons learned from the Holocaust at the State University of Tiraspol with the dean, the de facto minister of education, and several of the region’s government representatives.  The conference discussed ways to introduce Holocaust education into academic curriculums and broadly educate the public on the events of the Holocaust that took place in Moldova.

On June 1, the embassy hosted an iftar with leaders and representatives of the Muslim community and diplomatic representatives.  The community discussed its concerns over rising societal intolerance toward Muslims in media, politics, education, and employment.

In December the Ambassador hosted a lunch with leaders of minority religious groups to discuss issues important to these groups and facilitate a better dialogue and cooperation between religious communities in the country.  The Ambassador also had separate meetings with the heads of the MOC, BOC, and Roman Catholic Church to discuss prospects of setting up an official platform for cooperation between various faiths.

Russia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion.  The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.”  The law lists Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).  Authorities continued to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist” and reportedly detained at least 47 Witnesses and put 72 under investigation.  Authorities banned Jehovah’s Witnesses literature, raided homes, seized personal property and religious literature, and subjected individuals to lengthy interrogations.  Authorities continued to detain, fine, and imprison members of other minority religious groups and minority religious organizations for alleged extremism, including followers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi.  At least 11 of his followers were tried or jailed during the year, with four convicted of allegedly belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir, and seven more detained on the suspicion that they were members of the organization.  In one case, according to the nongovernmental human rights organization (NGO) Memorial, authorities beat and verbally abused an individual allegedly from Hizb ut-Tahrir in a pretrial detention facility.  Memorial stated the government held 177 political prisoners who were jailed because of their religious beliefs, the majority of whom were Muslim.  Authorities convicted and fined several individuals for “public speech offensive to religious believers.”  In some cases, it was difficult for minority religious organizations to obtain state registration.  The government prosecuted members of many Christian denominations and others for alleged unlawful missionary activity under the amendments to antiterrorism laws passed in 2016, known as the Yarovaya Package.  Police conducted raids on the private homes and places of worship of religious minorities.  Religious minorities said local authorities used anti-extremism laws to add to the government’s list of banned religious texts.  Local officials continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land and denied them construction permits for houses of worship.  The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to any other church or religious association, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions.  The government fined and issued deportation orders for foreign nationals engaging in religious activity, including a rabbi and two African Pentecostals.

Media, NGOs, and religious groups reported a number of attacks on individuals based on their religious identity.  For example, since the 2017 Supreme Court ruling classifying the religion as “extremist,” Jehovah’s Witnesses reported beatings, arson attacks on their homes, and employment discrimination.  Reports also indicated that hundreds fled the country in fear of persecution.  According to the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis (SOVA Center), a local NGO, there were several reported cases of vandalism during the year targeting religious properties.  These included unknown assailants knocking down crosses and desecrating Jewish cemeteries.  In separate instances, arsonists attacked two Orthodox churches and set fire to a Jewish leader’s vehicle.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials met with a range of government officials to express concern over the treatment of religious minorities, particularly the use of the law on extremism to restrict the activities of religious minorities, and the revocation of the registration of some minority religious organizations.  Throughout the year, the Ambassador met with representatives of the ROC and minority faiths to discuss concerns about religious freedom in the country, including with leaders of the Russian Jewish Congress (RJC), the National Coalition of Supporting Eurasian Jewry, the Church of Scientology (COS), and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).  In addition, consular officers participated in many administrative hearings involving U.S. citizens accused of violating visa or other administrative requirements.  Some of the U.S. citizens in these cases said the government targeted them because they were members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or other religious minorities.  Other representatives from the embassy and Consulates General in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok met regularly with religious leaders and representatives from multiple faiths to discuss developments related to religious legislation, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases.  The embassy sponsored visits of members of different faiths from several regions of the country to the United States to engage in the topics of religious freedom and countering violent extremism.  The embassy also used its social media platforms during the year to highlight religious freedom concerns.

On November 28, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Russia on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 142.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  A 2015-2016 poll by the Pew Research Center reported 71 percent of the population is Orthodox, while 10 percent identify as Muslim.  Religious groups constituting less than 5 percent of the population each include Buddhists, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), pagans, Tengrists, Scientologists, and Falun Gong practitioners.  The 2010 census estimates the number of Jews at 150,000; however, the RJC stated in October that the actual Jewish population is nearly one and a half million, most of whom live in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Immigrants and migrant workers from Central Asia are mostly Muslim.  The majority of Muslims live in the Volga Ural region and the North Caucasus.  Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia also have sizable Muslim populations.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the state is secular and provides for religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship, including the right to “profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion, or to profess no religion.”  It provides the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and provides equality of rights and liberties regardless of attitude toward religion.  The constitution also bans any limitation of human rights on religious grounds and prohibits actions inciting religious hatred and strife.  The constitution states all religious associations are equal and separate from the state.  The law acknowledges Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, constituting an inseparable part of the country’s historical heritage.  The law recognizes the “special contribution” of Russian Orthodox Christianity to the country’s history as well as to the establishment and development of its spirituality and culture.

The law states the government may restrict religious rights only to the degree necessary to protect the constitutional structure and security of the government; the morality, health, rights, and legal interests of persons; or the defense of the country.  It is a violation of the law to force another person to disclose his or her opinion of a religion, or to participate or not participate in worship, other religious ceremonies, the activities of a religious association, or religious instruction.

The law states those who violate religious freedom will be “held liable under criminal, administrative, and other legislation.”  The administrative code and the criminal code both punish obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and belief with imprisonment of up to three years and fines of up to 200,000 rubles ($2,900) or 500,000 rubles ($7,200), depending upon which code governs the offense.

Incitement of “religious discord” is punishable by up to four years in prison.  Under the criminal code, maximum fines and prison sentences for “actions directed to incite hatred or enmity” on the basis of religion may be punished by fines of 300,000 to 500,000 rubles ($4,300 to $7,200), compulsory labor for up to four years, or imprisonment for up to five years.  If these actions are committed with violence by a person with official status (a term which applies to anyone working for the government or state-owned entities, as well as people in management roles at commercial or nongovernment entities), or by a group of individuals, the punishment is 300,000 to 600,000 rubles ($4,300 to $8,600), compulsory labor for up to five years, or imprisonment for up to six years.

The law criminalizes offending the religious feelings of believers; actions “in public demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the religious feelings of believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,300), compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to one year.  If these actions are committed in places of worship, the punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($7,200), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.

By law, officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.”  The law criminalizes a broad spectrum of activities as extremism, including incitement to “religious discord” and “assistance to extremism,” but the law does not precisely define extremism or require that an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremism.

Being a member of a banned religious association designated as extremist is punishable by up to six years in prison for individuals and up to 12 years for persons with official status.  First time offenders who willingly forsake their membership in banned religious organizations are exempt from criminal liability if they committed no other crimes.

Local laws in several regions, including Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism” in the territories of these republics but do not define the term.  Administrative penalties are applied for violating these laws.

A Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist” and banned their activities.  The court’s ruling says that the constitution guarantees freedom of religious beliefs, but this right is limited by other rights, including the “existing civil peace and agreement.”

The law creates three categories of religious associations with different levels of legal status and privileges:  groups, local organizations, and centralized organizations.  Religious groups or organizations may be subject to legal dissolution or deprivation of legal status by a court decision on grounds including violations of standards set forth in the constitution or public security.

The “religious group” is the most basic unit and does not require registration with the state; however, when a group first starts its activities, it must notify authorities in the “location of the religious group activity,” typically the regional Ministry of Justice (MOJ) office.  A religious group may conduct worship services and rituals (but the law does not specify where or how) and teach religion to its members.  It does not have legal status to open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces.  Individual members of a group may invite foreigners as personal guests to engage in religious instruction, and may import religious material.  According to the law, a religious group may use property bought for the group’s use by its members, or residential property owned or rented by its members, or public spaces rented by its members, to hold services.

A “local religious organization” (LRO) may register with the MOJ if it has at least 10 citizen members who are 18 or older and are permanent local residents.  LROs have legal status and may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces.  “Centralized religious organizations” (CROs) may register with the MOJ at the regional or federal level by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination.  In addition to having the same legal rights as LROs, CROs also may open new LROs without a waiting period.

To register as an LRO or CRO, an association must provide the following:  a list of the organization’s founders and governing body, with addresses and passport information; the organization’s charter; the minutes of the founding meeting; certification from the CRO (in the case of LROs); a description of the organization’s doctrine, practices, history, and attitudes towards family, marriage, and education; the organization’s legal address; a certificate of payment of government dues; and a charter or registration papers of the governing body in the case of organizations whose main offices are located abroad.  Authorities may deny registration for reasons including incorrect paperwork, failure to meet different administrative requirements, national security reasons, or placement on the list of extremist or terrorist organizations.  Denial of registration may be appealed in court.  The law imposes reporting requirements on CROs and LROs receiving funding from abroad.  They are required to report an account of their activities, a list of leaders, the source of foreign funding, and plans for how the organization intends to use any funds or property obtained through foreign funding.  Reports are annual by default, but the MOJ may require additional ad hoc reports.

Foreign religious organizations (those created outside of the country under foreign laws) have the right to open offices for representational purposes, either independently or as part of religious organizations previously established in the country, but they may not form or found their own religious organizations in the country and may not operate houses of worship.  Foreign religious organizations able to obtain the required number of local adherents may register as local religious organizations.

The government (the MOJ or the Prosecutor General’s Office) oversees a religious organization’s compliance with the law and may review its financial and registration-related documents when conducting an inspection or investigation.  The government may send representatives (with advance notice) to attend a religious association’s events, conduct an annual review of compliance with the association’s mission statement on file with the government, and review its religious literature to decide whether the literature is extremist.  The law contains ongoing reporting requirements on financial and economic activity, funding sources, and compliance with antiterrorist and anti-extremist legislation.  The government may obtain a court order to close those associations that do not comply with reporting or other legal requirements.

The law allows the government to limit the places where prayer and public religious observance may be conducted without prior approval.  LROs and CROs may conduct religious services and ceremonies without prior approval in buildings, lands, and facilities owned or rented by these associations, as well as in cemeteries, crematoria, places of pilgrimage, and living quarters.  Baptism ceremonies in rivers and lakes, as well as services conducted in parks, open spaces, or courtyards, do not fall under this exemption.  In these cases, LROs and CROs must seek government approval at least one week in advance and provide the government with the names of organizers and participants as well as copies of any written materials to be used at the event.

A Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program requires members of a religious group to comprise at least 10 percent of a military unit before an official chaplain of that group is appointed.  Chaplains are not enlisted or commissioned, but are classified as assistants to the commander.  Chaplains are full-time employees of the Ministry of Defense, paid out of the defense budget.  The program allows for chaplains from the four traditional religions only, and calls for at least 250 chaplains.

Federal law, as amended by the so-called Yarovaya Package passed in 2016, defines missionary activity as the sharing of one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbelievers with the aim of involving these individuals in the “structure” of the religious association.  According to the law, in order to share beliefs outside of officially sanctioned sites (which include buildings owned by a religious organization, buildings whose owners have given permission for activities to take place, pilgrimage destinations, cemeteries and crematoria, and indoor spaces of educational organizations historically used for religious ceremonies), an individual must have a document authorizing the individual to share beliefs from a religious group or registered organization.  This letter must be provided to the authorities and the individual must carry a copy of it.  The law explicitly bans any beliefs from being shared in residential buildings without such documentation (unless in the form of a religious service, rite, or ceremony), or on another organization’s property without permission from that organization.  Materials disseminated by missionaries must be marked with the name of the religious association providing the authorization.

Engaging in missionary activity prohibited by law carries a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($72 to $720) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,400 to $14,400) for legal entities (which includes both LROs and CROs).  Foreign citizens or stateless persons who violate restrictions on missionary activities may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($430 to $720) and are subject to administrative deportation.

Several regional governments have their own restrictions on missionary activity.

Republics in the North Caucasus have varying policies on wearing the hijab in public schools.  Hijabs are banned in public schools in Stavropol and Mordovia, rulings that have been upheld by the Supreme Court.  The law in Chechnya permits schoolgirls to wear hijabs.

The law does not provide precise criteria on how written religious materials may be classified as “extremist.”  Within the MOJ, the Scientific Advisory Board reviews religious materials for extremism.  Composed of academics and representatives of the four traditional religions, the board reviews materials referred to it by judicial or law enforcement authorities, private citizens, or organizations.  If the board identifies material as extremist, it issues a nonbinding advisory opinion, which is then published on the MOJ website and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation.  In addition to the Scientific Advisory Board, regional experts also may review religious materials for extremism.  In 2009 the MOJ established the Expert Religious Studies Council and gave it wide powers to investigate religious organizations.  Some of the council’s powers include reviewing organizations’ activities and literature and determining whether an organization is “extremist.”  The council also advises the MOJ on the issue of giving religious organization status to a religious group.

Prosecutors may take material to a court and ask the court to declare it extremist, but materials introduced in court during the consideration of administrative, civil, or criminal cases may also be declared extremist sua sponte (i.e., of the court’s own accord).  By law, publications declared extremist by a federal court are automatically added to the federal list of extremist materials.  Courts may order internet service providers to block access to websites containing materials included on the federal list of extremist materials.  There is no legal procedure for removal from the list even if a court declares an item no longer classified as extremist, but lists are reviewed and re-issued on a regular basis and publications may be dropped from lists.  The law makes it illegal to declare the key texts (holy books) of the four traditional religions – the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Tibetan Buddhist Kangyur (Kanjur) – to be extremist.

According to the administrative code, mass distribution, production, and possession with the aim of mass distribution of extremist materials by private individuals may result in 15 days’ imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($14 to $43), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($29 to $72) for public officials, as well as the confiscation of these materials.  Courts may suspend for 90 days the operations of legal entities found to be in possession of extremist materials and fine them 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,400 to $14,400).  Individuals who produce materials later deemed extremist may not be punished retroactively but must cease production and distribution of those materials.

The law allows the transfer of state and municipal property of religious significance to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and movable property.  The law grants religious organizations using state historical property for religious purposes the right to use such state property indefinitely.  The law prohibits the transfer of living quarters for religious use and the use of living quarters for missionary activity, unless the activity is a part of a “religious service, rite, or ceremony.”

In July the State Duma adopted, and on August 3 the president signed, a new law allowing religious organizations to use buildings that were not originally authorized for religious purposes to be used as such if they were part of a property which served a religious purpose.  The law allows, for example, a group to establish a Sunday school in a warehouse on the property of a church.  If a structure (i.e. the warehouse) does not meet legal requirements and is not made legal by submitting proper paperwork by 2030, it would be destroyed.

Religious education or civil ethics classes are compulsory in all public and private secondary schools.  Students may choose to take a course on one of the four traditional religions, a general world religions course, or a secular ethics course.  Regional and municipal departments of education oversee this curriculum at the local level in accordance with their capacity to offer the courses, and according to the religious makeup of the given location.  There is no requirement for representatives of religious organizations to be licensed to conduct religious education in Sunday schools and home schooling.  Religious instructors in any other state or private school must be licensed to teach religious courses.

The Office of the Director of Religious Issues within the Office of the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman handles complaints about the government’s actions on religious freedom.  The ombudsman may intercede on behalf of those who submit complaints; however, the ombudsman may not compel other government bodies to act or directly intervene in complaints not addressed to the government.

The law entitles individuals and organizations to take religious freedom cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg.  The state must pay compensation to a person whose rights were violated as determined by the ECHR and ensure his or her rights are restored to the extent possible.  The Constitutional Court determines whether judgments by international and regional courts, including the ECHR, are consistent with the constitution.

There is compulsory military service for men, but the constitution provides for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience, including religious belief.  The standard military service period is 12 months, while alternative service is 18 months in a Ministry of Defense agency or 21 months in a nondefense agency.  Failure to perform alternative service is punishable under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from an 80,000 ruble ($1,100) fine to six months in prison.

By law, religious associations may not participate in political campaigns or the activity of political parties or movements, or provide material or other aid to political groups.  This restriction applies to religious associations and not to their individual members.

The ROC and all members of the Public Chamber (a state institution established in 2005 and made up of representatives of public associations) are granted the opportunity to review draft legislation pending before the State Duma on a case-by-case basis.  No formal mechanism exists for permanent representation of religious organizations in the Public Chamber, but individuals from both traditional religions and others may be selected to serve on the Chamber, first by the president, then subsequently the selectees themselves select additional members to serve in the group.  The Duma passed legislation in 2007 barring any member of an organization who had been accused of extremism from serving on the Public Chamber.

The law states foreigners or stateless individuals whose presence in the country is deemed “undesirable” are forbidden to become founders, members, or active participants in the activities of religious organizations.  The same is true for individuals whose activities are deemed extremist by the courts or who are subject to prosecution under the law on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism.  The Duma passed a bill in September restricting any foreign citizen or person without citizenship from entering the country if he or she “participates in the activities of the organizations included in the list of organizations and individuals in respect of whom there is information about their involvement in extremist activities or terrorism[.]”

Religious work is not permitted on humanitarian visas, nor are there missionary visas.  Those engaging in religious work require both a contract with a legally registered religious organization and a work visa.

Under the criminal code, an individual convicted of committing an act of vandalism motivated by religious hatred or enmity may be sentenced to up to three years of compulsory labor or prison.

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

Government Practices

Reports indicated authorities continued to physically abuse individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation.  For instance, authorities detained Eduard Nizamov, the purported head of the Russian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, in Kazan on October 11, and, according to Memorial, beat and verbally abused him while in pretrial detention.  He was charged with organizing a terrorist organization.  Hizb ut Tahrir remained banned by the government as a terrorist organization, but according to Memorial, it was a “non-violent international Islamic organization.”  On October 12, the Vakhitovsky District Court of Kazan ordered Nizamov detained until November 21.  Nizamov refused to testify, and remained in detention at year’s end.  At the same time, authorities arrested Ildar Akhmetzyanov and Raisa Gimadeev as alleged leaders of the Hizb ut-Tahrir regional group in Tatarstan, and also charged them with organizing a terrorist organization, according to Memorial.

According to Memorial, in December the North Caucasian Military District Court in Rostov-on-Don sentenced Crimean Tatar Remzi Memetov to 17 years in a penal colony.  The court also sentenced Crimean Tatar Enver Mamutov, Rustem Abiltarov, and Zevri Abseitov to nine years each in a penal colony.  The four were arrested in Crimea, Ukraine in 2016, accused of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir and “preparing for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order,” and transported to Russia.  Human Rights advocates noted that the case appeared to be retaliation against these men for their opposition to Russia’s occupation of Crimea.

Memorial reported that in December Babushkinsky district court in Moscow found eight Muslims guilty of “organization and participation in an extremist organization” for their involvement in Tablighi Jamaat, an organization designated by the Supreme Court as “extremist” which Memorial characterized as an international Islamic missionary movement.  The district court sentenced the men to prison terms ranging from four to six and a half years.

In its annual October report, Memorial published a list of political prisoners in the country, which included 177 persons persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation (meaning they were in custody or under arrest and being criminally prosecuted) – more than double the previous year’s figure of 70.  The report stated that none of the persons on the list used violence, called for violence, or planned violent acts.  The majority of persons included in Memorial’s list were Muslims.  Memorial also published a separate list of approximately 240 people in detention as of the end of the year for alleged involvement with the banned organization Hizb ut-Tahrir.

According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, the government continued to restrict the exercise of freedom of religion during the year.  Forum 18 found that authorities continued to pursue multiple cases against Muslims on extremism charges for reading the works of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi, many of which were banned as extremist.  On August 21, the NGO reported that three Muslims were on trial or under investigation, and another three were sentenced to prison terms for being members of “Nurdzhular,” an organization reportedly based on Nursi’s teachings banned as extremist by the authorities.  Experts from the SOVA Center continued to maintain that “Nurdzhular” did not actually exist in the country.

Forum 18 reported that on August 14, a Krasnoyarsk court handed Sabirzhon Kabirzoda a two-year suspended sentence for “extremism” after participating in a meeting to study Nursi’s works.  FSB (Federal Security Service) “experts” said he had incited religious hatred by comparing Muslims to non-Muslims.  According to the NGO, a suspended sentence could include a travel ban and voting restrictions.  District court staff, however, told Forum 18 they were not “authorized” to specify the conditions of the court’s decision.  In the town of Sharypovo, criminal cases against Andrei Rekst in Krasnoyarsk and Yevgeny Sukharev in connection with reading Nursi’s teachings were ongoing at year’s end.  Andrei Dedkov of Krasnoyarsk, also an alleged member of Nurdzhular, was released in July after paying a 250,000 ruble ($3,600) fine for organizing the activity of a banned religious organization in connection with extremism.  Prosecutors lodged an appeal in June and argued for a longer jail sentence.

The ECHR found in August that court decisions to prohibit Nursi’s books violated the guarantee of the right to freedom of expression contained in the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.  It ruled that the country’s courts did not provide sufficient and relevant grounds for interfering with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression and that their intervention could not be considered necessary in a democratic society.  The court further ruled that the government should pay one of the plaintiffs 7,500 euros ($8,600) in compensation for non-pecuniary damages.  As of year’s end, the government had not acted on the ECHR ruling.

The SOVA Center, Memorial, and the media reported that during the year at least six Muslims were serving prison terms on charges connected to reading Nursi’s work:  Ziyavdin Dapayev was serving a four-year term; brothers Sukhrab and Artur Kaltuyev three year terms; Yevgeny Lvovich Kim, a three year, nine-months term; Ilgar Aliyev an eight-year term after losing his appeal in July.  On June 29, a court sentenced Komil Odilov to two years in prison.

The media reported official harassment against Muslims.  In October police officers wearing masks and fatigues surrounded approximately 100 Muslims exiting a mosque in Mytishi, Moscow Oblast.  The police told the crowd they were not arresting anyone, but detained them on a bus for five hours.  The worshipers were subsequently released without explanation.

In December the NGO Free Russia Forum said that during the year “the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses reached mass levels.”  A report by Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that police, Special Purpose Police Unit (OMON) forces, and Federal Security Service (FSB) personnel raided the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year.  During these raids authorities reportedly entered homes, sometimes by forcing the door open; conducted unauthorized and illegal searches; failed to declare their purpose or show a court order; ordered people (including children and the elderly) around at gunpoint and pushed them to the floor or against the wall; seized personal belongings, including mobile phones, tablets, Bibles and Bible-related literature, documents, and money; brought adults and children to police stations for interrogation; and charged some with extremist activity and held them in pretrial custody.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, at 7:00 A.M. on July 4 in Omsk, police forces raided the homes of at least four Witnesses and searched their houses, land plots, outbuildings, and vehicles until the late afternoon.  In one instance, a couple was asleep when the police invaded their home.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that although the husband offered no resistance, the police beat him severely.

From January through April authorities raided the homes of more than 45 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Shuya, Vladivostok, Polyarny, Zaton, Oryol, Belogorod and Kemerovo, according to the official Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website jw.org.  This was twice the number reported during the corresponding period in 2017.  In May Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that a Jehovah’s Witnesses spokesman said that 150 law enforcement personnel raided more than 20 Witnesses home in Birobidzhan in the Jewish Autonomous Region on May 16.

The Investigative Committee, the FSB, and officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism carried out raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses in 22 regions between January and August.  As of year’s end, 79 Jehovah’s Witnesses were subject to criminal investigations, according to Forum 18.  Of these, 22 were in pretrial detention, 17 were under house arrest, and 30 were under travel restrictions.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities detained 72 individuals during the year, including minors.

According to the SOVA Center, in October alone, authorities arrested two Jehovah’s Witnesses in Smolensk and another five in Kirov, ordered two who had been arrested in April in Murmansk to remain in detention, and told seven not to leave Orenburg.  In the same month, authorities began auctioning Jehovah’s Witnesses’ properties in Krasnodar, Tatarstan, and Buryatia, and voided initiatives by Jehovah’s Witnesses to transfer properties to foreign affiliates.

International media reported that Denis Christensen, a Danish citizen and elder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Oryol Congregation who was detained in May 2017, remained in detention and on trial in Oryol’s Railway District Court at year’s end for “extremist activity.”  According to Forum 18, between October 2017 and September 2018 Christensen appeared in court 38 times.

On February 14, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Ruslan Sokolovsky, a blogger from Yekaterinburg, who was arrested in 2016 for “inciting enmity and hatred” and “offending the feelings of believers” by playing the game Pokemon Go in an Orthodox church and posting antireligious videos online.  In 2017, the Sverdlovsk District Court on appeal upheld his conviction of incitement to hatred and offense of religious feelings but overturned his convictions on other charges and reduced his suspended prison sentence to two years and three months.

According to COS representatives and media, in October authorities extended through February 2019 the detention of Ivan Matsitsky and Sahib Aliyev, director and accountant, respectively, of the St. Petersburg branch of the COS.  Matsitsky and Aliyev were arrested in June 2017 along with three other COS St. Petersburg leaders as part of a probe into what police said was possible “illegal entrepreneurship” (i.e., selling religious books), incitement of hatred, and organizing an extremist conspiracy.  As of the year’s end, two other defendants in the case remain under house arrest, and one was released from house arrest in June but remained under investigation.  Authorities continued to refuse to register the St. Petersburg and Moscow COS branches as religious organizations despite a 2014 ECHR ruling that the government’s refusal was a violation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

According to the Russian Legal Information Agency, the government opened a criminal case in April against one of the COS leaders in St. Petersburg, who was alleged to have laundered 17 million rubles ($244,000), but the agency did not name the individual.

Imam Makhmud Velitov of Moscow’s Yardam Mosque filed a case with the ECHR in October 2017 related to his conviction in 2017 on terrorism charges for advocating the “doctrine of political Islam” of the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization.  The ECHR communicated the complaint to the government in January and in October the government asked the ECHR to reject the case.  The ECHR’s decision remained pending at year’s end.

In January the Kurgan Regional Court dismissed a prosecutor’s appeal of the acquittal of Imam Ali Yakupov of the Kurgan Mosque, who was charged in 2015 with inciting hatred for comments he allegedly made saying God would punish Chinese Communists for prohibiting hijabs.  According to the SOVA Center, the court found that the case had already been thoroughly investigated by lower courts.

In January the Magistrate Court of Sochi dismissed a case against Viktor Nochevnova, who was found guilty in 2017 of insulting the feelings of believers and fined 50,000 rubles ($720) for reposting seven cartoon depictions of Jesus on his social media VKontakte page.

Maria Motuznaya, from Barnaul, was put on trial on August 6 for publishing two side-by-side images on her VKontakte page, one depicting Jesus Christ expelling cigarette smoke through a hole in his palm, and another depicting a religious procession along a broken road, accompanied by the comment, “Two main evils of Russia.”  The government charged her with “demeaning the dignity of race and insulting the feelings of believers.”  On October 9, a court returned the case to the prosecutor for further development.  The case remained pending at year’s end.  According to the SOVA Center, Motuznaya said in October she had left the country for Ukraine, and intended to seek political asylum abroad.

According to the Ministry of Justice, at the end of the year there were 31,054 registered religious organizations in Russia, most of which were ROC-affiliated.

In some cases it was difficult for minority religious organizations to obtain state registration.  In September the SOVA Center reported that the parish of St. Maria Gatchinskaya in the Leningrad Region convinced the city court to invalidate the MOJ’s opinion blocking its registration as a religious organization.  While the court directed the MOJ to reconsider the registration, it refused to require the MOJ to register the parish.  The parish belonged to the Suzdal Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church, which is not affiliated with the ROC.

Media, NGOs, and religious minorities reported continued efforts by authorities to dissolve minority religious associations, often on the grounds they were conducting “extremist” activity.

The SOVA Center, the NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers International, and religious groups said the Expert Religious Studies Council members lacked appropriate academic and religious credentials to advise the MOJ about which groups should be permitted to register as religious organizations or to review an organization’s literature and activities to determine whether the organization was “extremist.”  In June the Expert Religious Studies Council recommended the MOJ deny religious organization status to the “Community of Slavic Faith on Vyatka (Kirovskaya).”

The government continued to restrict missionary activity, with officials often citing concerns about missionaries being sources of foreign influence.  For example, according to the SOVA Center, in July in Bryansk Region, Vitaly Boksha, a Baptist layperson, was fined for “illegal” missionary work occurring on May 15, when the court said he gave neighbors literature describing evangelical Baptist beliefs.  Neighbors stated that they received the literature, but did not attend a service at the church.  On July 3, the Mglinsky District Court convicted Boksha and fined him 5,000 rubles ($72).  Boksha filed an appeal with the regional court, and in August the higher court vacated the conviction and fine.

Representatives of minority religious associations and NGOs continued to state that the Yarovaya Package, enacted for the stated purpose of enhancing the country’s antiterrorism capability, was employed by authorities to limit religious freedom.  They said the broad definition of “missionary activity” in the legislation meant it included not only proselytizing, but also disseminating religious materials, preaching, and engaging in interfaith discussions about religion, including in private residences, without prior authorization.  In April Forum 18 said the legal framework for an individual exercising his or her beliefs outside a designated place of worship was unclear and that the authorities applied the law inconsistently.  Forum 18 stated, “This imposes a large burden on individuals and organizations in fines, legal costs, and bureaucratic hurdles – particularly for smaller religious communities.”  In April ISKCON attorney Mikhail Frolov told Forum 18, “The fines are large, and where the boundaries of lawful behavior lie is incomprehensible….  [E]veryone has become much more cautious in their public actions.  The public activity of religious associations has decreased noticeably.”  In April Pentecostal Union attorney Vladimir Ozolin told Forum 18 that “religious associations are also worried because they do not know how to profess their religion now and share it with others without violating the law.  Churches face extra problems here, because no one knows what the permission to carry out missionary activity should look like – its form has not been established by law.  In addition, state bodies do not conduct explanatory work and do not use warnings, but immediately issue fines.”

Forum 18 said authorities were pursuing more cases under the missionary provisions of the Yarovaya Package and fewer cases using laws regarding procedures for “gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession or picket” during the year, thus yielding potentially larger fines of up to 50,000 rubles ($720).  According to the SOVA Center, the government prosecuted 42 legal entities and 105 individuals during the first six months of the year for missionary activity.  In its December report, Free Russia Forum said that in 2017 (the most recent data available) the courts received approximately 488 cases of illegal missionary activity, sentenced 274 people, and imposed fines totaling 3,594,700 rubles ($51,600).  According to Forum 18, in 2017 (the most recent data available) religious communities and individuals prosecuted for missionary activity included Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Baptist Union, the Council of Churches, ISKCON, Muslims, individuals associated with the Bible distribution organization the Gideons, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus, a Kabbalah teacher, the New Apostolic Church, and the ROC Abroad.  Authorities reportedly charged individuals with unauthorized missionary activity for activities such as holding prayer meetings at home, posting worship times on a religious community’s website, and giving a lecture on yoga.  Forum 18 reported courts often imposed the minimum fines for first time offenses and larger fines for repeat offenses.

Free Russia Forum said that in 2018 authorities began using new means to restrict so-called missionary activity, including confiscating and demolishing Protestant houses of worship and restricting leaders of certain religious communities from entering the country.  According to the SOVA Center, in one instance the Russian Border Service denied entry to Evgeny Peresvotov, a Ukrainian national and pastor of the Russian Christian Center “Vosstanovleniye.”

According to Forum 18, in March the Constitutional Court issued a partial clarification of the Yarovaya Package amendment on missionary activity.  The court ruled that providing information about religious events would constitute an “offense” only if it were aimed at attracting people who were not already members of the religious organization.

Religious minorities said local authorities continued to use the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred religious texts and other books relating to religion, other than the four holy books recognized by law – the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Kanjur.

According to the SOVA Center, during the first half of the year, authorities added several Islamic and Jehovah’s Witnesses texts to the MOJ’s list of extremist materials.  The list grew to 4,514 entries by October, reflecting a slightly smaller increase than in 2017.  During the first six months of the year, authorities imposed 1,133 sanctions for distribution of extremist materials, compared to 1,846 imposed in all of 2017.  The SOVA Center also noted 24 cases through November 1 of prosecutors sanctioning library staff of schools, training centers, and prisons for being noncompliant with the Federal List of Extremist Materials.  According to Forum 18, in some cases, those in charge of places of worship and other public or semipublic spaces were often held responsible for distribution of banned religious publications, which could have been left at the site by anyone at any time, even before the ban.

In February the SOVA Center reported that the local prosecutor’s office in Kabardino-Balkaria Republic sent four cases to the court in order to restrict access to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ websites.  The office noted that the sites included “various sections, publications, magazines, books, videos, [and] news about the religious organization.”  Seventh-day Adventist lawyer Vasily Nichik told Forum 18 a month later that Nizhny Novgorod was “among the foremost in terms of persecution in the field of religious freedoms,” and added, “In these matters, very often everything depends on the personalities within the system.”

According to Forum 18, since 2017 authorities levied several fines or imposed other rulings against Jesus Embassy, a Pentecostal church in Nizhny Novgorod, and its members.  During the year a court fined the church for not specifying its full name in videos of worship services, the posting of which was also alleged to constitute “missionary activity,” resulting in more fines.  Authorities also fined and ordered deported two Pentecostal African students for unauthorized “missionary activity.”  Kudzai Nyamarebvu, a medical student from Zimbabwe, faced prosecution three times in six months, first for posting a video inviting fellow African students to a “welcome party” at the church, which her attorney maintained was a secular event; second, for reposting a video of another African student talking about how God had helped her recover from an illness; and third, for an interview she gave discussing her first two prosecutions, which was published on the Pentecostal Union’s website.  Forum 18 said that in June a Prioksky District Court judge found her guilty of “hidden missionary activity, not expressed in either words or gestures.”

According to Forum 18, an unknown person removed a church sign showing a Seventh-day Adventist church’s full official name in Nizhny Novgorod and replaced it with one bearing an incomplete name.  In the morning, a group of police officers arrived, and the community, primarily composed of retirees, was fined 30,000 rubles ($430) for incorrect signage.

Reports persisted that local officials fined members of religious groups for using land, including their homes, “not for its intended purpose” (i.e., for religious services), continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land, and continued to deny construction permits for houses of worship.  In a March report, Forum 18 stated that, within a contradictory and unclear legal framework, officials increased the numbers of fines for meeting for worship on land designated for residential or commercial use only.  Forum 18 reported one defense lawyer said inspections and punishments were like “a lottery.”

In April a senior member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Development of Civil Society said there was a new tendency among regional authorities to restrict the construction or restoration of houses of prayer and churches on residential lands.  In two separate cases in March, authorities demolished residences on private land that were being used as churches, one in Novorosijsk and one in Abinsk.

Forum 18 reported that after two rounds of appeals, on January 25, a court upheld a 10,000-ruble ($140) fine imposed on Oleg Leshchenko, owner of a house in the Rostov Region town of Volgodonsk in which the Rebirth of the Don Missionary Society of Evangelical Christians held services three times per week.  The court fined Leshchenko for conducting religious services on premises that were not designated for religious services (his own house).

According to the SOVA Center, in September the ECHR informed the government that it had accepted the complaint of the Trinity Parish of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) in the Moscow Region concerning a federal court decision to demolish its church in Noginsk.  Authorities ordered the church, which was erected in 2015, be demolished after an ROC priest reportedly convinced local officials to bring suit against the church in a local court in 2016.  The complaint was pending in the ECHR at year’s end.

The SOVA Center said in January that monks in a Buddhist monastery on Kachkanar Mountain (approximately 125 miles north of Yekaterinburg) challenged the findings of a study commissioned by the regional governor that found it was not a legitimate religious community.  These developments were part of a long-running case in which a metallurgical company sought the demolition of the monastery, which had been tentatively scheduled to occur during the winter of 2017-18 but had not begun by year’s end.

According to a November article in World Religion News, the government continued to criticize the Enlightenment Stupa in Moscow.  In September local authorities tried to remove the stupa but backed down due to protests.  Authorities denied Buddhists access to the stupa in 2017, resulting in it falling into disrepair.  The article stated that the International Center of the Roerichs, an art museum, tried to fix the stupa, but authorities prevented its repair.  The article said the shrine continued to await possible repair or relocation.

As in years past, according to NGOs, the government continued to cooperate more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations.  Although neither the constitution nor the law explicitly accorded privileges or advantages to the ROC, they said the ROC continued to benefit from a number of formal and informal agreements with government ministries, giving it greater access than other religious organizations to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, the police, and the military.  The government also continued to provide the ROC patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded to no other religious organization.

In October the Ecumenical Patriarchate released a statement agreeing to grant autocephalous (independent) status to a new unified Ukrainian Church.  According to a September 30 article in The Wall Street Journal, the Russian government had pressed Patriarch Bartholomew not to take this step.  Prior to Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision, a group of government-connected hackers, indicted in the United States in July, reportedly stole thousands of email messages from his aides.  According to article, the government also “resorted to traditionally bullying, issuing unspecified threats and denouncing Patriarch Bartholomew as an agent of the U.S. and the Vatican.”

Members of the Jewish community reported President Vladimir Putin stated during an interview in March that interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections came from “Ukrainians, Tatars, and Jews.”

On December 11, at a Kremlin meeting with the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, political scientist Yekaterina Shulman told President Putin,  “Of the 489 entries on the list of extremist organizations, 404 of them were Jehovah’s Witnesses chapters even though they do not incite violence or carry it out.”  President Putin responded, “Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, too.  I don’t quite understand why they are persecuted.  So this should be looked into.”  According to the state-run news agency TASS, on December 18, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters, “Here we need to analyze each particular case.”  TASS quoted Peskov as saying, “It is impossible here to solve this problem conceptually because there are various pros and cons, but an additional study on this issue will be carried out at least.”

In January the ECHR informed the government that it had accepted Pentecostal pastor Victor-Immanuel Mani’s challenge of a fine levied against him under the Yarovaya Package for missionary activity.  According to Forum 18, Mani, an Indian national with a Russian-citizen wife and child, had held religious meetings in rented premises in Naberezhnye Chelny and advertised them on the church’s social network VKontakte page without necessary authorization documents from the local religious organization.  In November 2017, the Supreme Court overturned a deportation order of the lower court but left a 30,000-ruble ($430) fine in place.

Novaya Gazeta and international media reported that in October the Supreme Court upheld the deportation of Chief Rabbi of Omsk Asher Krichevsky, an Israeli-born U.S citizen.  In January officials revoked his residency permit, along with those of his wife and six children, after the FSB accused him of planning or supporting “terrorist activity.”  In May a lower court ordered him deported for “threatening national security and the constitutional order.”  Krichevsky was the ninth foreign-born rabbi deported in the past 10 years, according to The Jewish Chronicle.

According to the SOVA Center, in August the Borisoglebsk City Court of the Voronezh Region discontinued proceedings in the case of the pastor of the local religious organization, the Restoration Christian Center.  In 2017, authorities filed a criminal case against organizers of the center, alleging they illegally held six drug addicts and kidnapped two others, despite other drug addicts at the center testifying they were there voluntarily.  Authorities detained five of the center’s Russian employees, three of whom were later released and placed under house arrest.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 3, the St. Petersburg Court upheld a 2017 ruling by the district court ordering the confiscation of the St. Petersburg headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Jehovah’s Witnesses said that on August 3, the property was officially registered in the name of the government.

In January the ECHR accepted complaints from Jehovah’s Witnesses related to, among other things, the seizure of properties valued at 79.2 million euros ($90.8 million).  On September 17, Deputy Minister of Justice Mikhail Halperin requested an additional three months to respond to ECHR questions.  At end of year, the case was still pending.

Although it lacked legal status as a religious organization, COS of Moscow was able to provide various services such as assistance to drug addicts throughout the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On September 17, two passengers on a subway stabbed a man in the back after they argued with him about Christianity and allegedly took offense at how he wore a cross, according to the SOVA Center.  The man was hospitalized.

Reports indicated that hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses had fled the country in fear of persecution since the start of the government’s crackdown and related societal violence.  Since the 2017 Supreme Court ruling that the religion is “extremist,” Jehovah’s Witnesses have reported beatings and arson attacks on their homes.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents were increasingly harassed at their workplaces and in some cases dismissed or forced to resign when their coworkers became aware of their religious beliefs.  For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses said two members were forced to resign in Saint Petersburg and the Sverdlovsk Region, and four were fired, two in the Murmansk region and two in the Smidovichskiy Region.

On July 19 in Razdolnoye, Primorskiy Territory, seven people, including three armed men wearing masks, reportedly broke into the apartment of an elderly Jehovah’s Witness couple and their ill daughter.  The assailants shouted, “Lie down!  Hands behind your back!”  They forced the husband’s hands behind his back, knocked him down, and bruised his nose and cheek.  The 52-year-old daughter lost consciousness during the attack, and the mother suffered severe shock.

The SOVA Center reported 21 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism in 14 regions of the country during the year.  These included vandalism in December of the obelisk commemorating concentration camp victims in St. Petersburg and the Church of Elijah the Prophet in Petrozavodsk in the Republic of Karelia.  According to the SOVA Center, on November 6, a temporary structure housing the Orthodox Church of St. John the Divine in Moscow was burned beyond repair, with damage estimated at 1 million rubles ($14,400).  In October in Pervouralsk, vandals twice damaged a foundation stone for a church dedicated to a figure revered by the ROC.  The local priest said he believed the vandals opposed the building of a church at the site.  In the same month, unknown individuals knocked down a cross in Stavropol and painted a swastika and other symbols on it.  In August unknown persons left graffiti, including “Jews get out of Russia,” on the fence of a Hassidic cemetery in Lyubavichi, Smolensk Region.  Several graves were desecrated at a Jewish cemetery in Voronezh in June, as were tombstones in three others in Skopin in April.  In March vandals cut down a cross in the Artemye-Verkolsky Monastery, Arkhangelsk.  In January unknown individuals set fire to an Orthodox church and a trailer used to teach Sunday school in Mytishchi.  In the same month, the vehicle of a Jewish leader in Murmansk was set on fire twice in three days.

According to a study published in May by the SOVA Center and the NGO Fare Network, during the 2017-18 soccer season, the display of discriminatory banners, some of which included neo-Nazi symbols, continued to decline.  The number of discriminatory chants, however, including neo-Nazi songs, increased considerably.  The report noted soccer league and law enforcement agencies were making efforts to curb the presence of far-right symbolism at matches.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy representatives met with a range of government officials throughout the year and expressed concern regarding the treatment of religious minorities and the revocation of the registration of some religious organizations.

Consular officials attended many administrative hearings of U.S. citizens accused of violating visa or other administration requirements.  Some of the U.S. citizens in these cases stated they believed the government targeted them for being members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or other religious minorities.

The Ambassador and embassy representatives also met with members of religious and nongovernmental organizations, and held discussions with leaders from multiple religious organizations to emphasize a commitment to religious freedom and the value of interfaith dialogue.  For example, in January the Ambassador met with Mufti Sheikh Gaynutdin, the head of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque.  In October the Ambassador met with the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry and attended the Russian Jewish Congress International Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism.  He met with Jewish leaders, including Berel Lazar, Chief Rabbi of Russia, and emphasized the U.S. commitment to combating anti-Semitism, and discussed the challenges the Jewish community faced.  Throughout the year, the Ambassador also met with representatives of the ROC, legal representatives of the COS, and a leader of the Church of Jesus Christ to discuss concerns about religious freedom in the country.

Other representatives from the Consulates General in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok met regularly with the ROC, rabbis and leaders of the Jewish community, muftis and other Islamic leaders, Protestant pastors, Catholic priests, and representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  These discussions covered developments related to legislation impacting religious liberty, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases.

The embassy sponsored the visits of 10 Russians to the United States on two exchange programs focusing on religious freedom, engagement, and countering violent extremism.  The groups were made up of Muslim, Jewish, and Baptist community leaders, and represented four Russian regions.  Participants met with U.S. government, nongovernmental, research, and civil society organizations.

The embassy used its social media platforms during the year to highlight issues related to religious freedom, including expressing specific concern over the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

On November 28, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Russia on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Tajikistan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the right, individually or jointly with others, to adhere to any religion or to no religion, and to participate in religious customs and ceremonies.  The constitution states both that “[t]he citizen shall have the right to participate in the creation of political parties, including parties of democratic, religious and atheistic character” and, separately, that “[r]eligious organizations shall be separate from the state and shall not interfere in state affairs.”  The law restricts Islamic prayer to specific locations, regulates the registration and location of mosques, and prohibits persons under 18 from participating in public religious activities.  Amendments to the religion law, which came into effect in January, require religious organizations to report all activity to the state, require state approval for the appointments of all imams, and increase control over religious education within the country and on those traveling abroad for religious education.  The amendments allow restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of foundations of the constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country.  The government Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies (CRA) maintains a very broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature.  A Khujand city court sentenced Abdullo Saidulloev, former imam of Sari Sang mosque in Khujand to six years’ imprisonment for promulgating Salafi ideas.  Since 2016, authorities sentenced approximately 20 imams to prison in Sughd Region for membership in banned extremist organizations.  A Khujand city court sentenced Shukrullo Ahrorov, former imam of Ikhlos Mosque, to five years in prison for involvement in an extremist organization.  Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at mosques.  Officials continued to prevent members of minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, from registering their organizations.  Both registered and unregistered religious organizations continued to be subject to police raids, surveillance, and forced closures.  On October 5, the State National Security Services (SNSS) detained a group of 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including minors, who were leaving a private home in Dushanbe after a religious service.  After holding 10 of the members for most of the day, the SNSS released them but threatened they soon would be charged and prosecuted.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a separate incident on January 21, when authorities summoned a male Jehovah’s Witness to the police station in Khujand; the police had raided his home in 2017.  During the four-hour interrogation, Jehovah’s Witnesses sources stated that a police officer beat the individual so severely that he suffered a concussion and sought immediate medical treatment.  Authorities continued a pattern of harassing women wearing hijabs and men with beards, and government officials again issued statements discouraging women from wearing “nontraditional or alien” clothing, including religious dress.  According to the NGO Forum 18, on September 28, authorities set up a roadblock on the outskirts of the capital to stop cars carrying men with beards and women in hijabs.  Police forced the bearded men into a barber’s shop to have their beards shaved off and forced the women to take off their hijabs and wear shawls showing their necks.

A group pledging allegiance to ISIS claimed responsibility for the July killing of four foreign tourists, including two Americans, and the injuring of three others when the attackers drove a car into a group of cyclists.  Authorities said the leader of the attack was a member of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, which the government outlawed in 2015.  Members of the Christian community reported that cemeteries in southern Khatlon Region were desecrated, with fences, crosses, memorial plates, and tomb ornaments looted for the value of their metal.  Citizens generally remained reluctant to discuss societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, and some individuals who converted from Islam reported they experienced social disapproval.

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy staff encouraged the government to adhere to its commitments to respect religious freedom.  Embassy officers also raised concerns about government restrictions on religious practices, including the participation of women and minors in religious services; rejection of attempts of minority religious organizations to register; restrictions on the religious education of youth; harassment of those wearing religious attire; and limitations on the publication or importation of religious literature.  Embassy officers met with religious leaders and civil society groups to address the same issues and discuss concerns over government restrictions on the ability of minority religious groups to practice their religion freely.

On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a Country of Particular Concern (“CPC”) under section 402(b) of the Act, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  The Secretary also announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.6 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to local academics, the population is more than 90 percent Muslim and the majority adheres to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam.  Approximately 4 percent of Muslims are Ismaili Shia, the majority of whom reside in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region located in the eastern part of the country.

Other religious minorities include Christians, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and Jews.  The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox; there are also Baptists, Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, and other Protestants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares the country a secular state and “religious associations shall be separate from the state and shall not interfere in state affairs.”  According to the constitution, everyone has the right individually or jointly with others to profess any religion or no religion, and to take part in religious customs and ceremonies.

The establishment and activities of religious associations promoting racism, nationalism, enmity, social and religious hatred, or calling for the violent overthrow of constitutional order and organizing of armed groups is prohibited.  The constitution states, “The citizen shall have the right to participate in the creation of political parties, including parties of democratic, religious and atheistic character.”  The constitution prohibits “propaganda and agitation” encouraging religious enmity.  In accordance with provisions of the constitution, no ideology of a political party, public or religious association, movement, or group may be recognized as a state ideology.

The law prohibits provoking religiously based hatred, enmity, or conflict, as well as humiliating and harming the religious sentiments of other citizens.

The law defines extremism as the activities of individuals and organizations aimed at destabilization, subverting the constitutional order, or seizing power.  This definition includes inciting religious hatred.

The law defines any group of persons who join for religious purposes as a religious association.  The government subdivides associations formed for “conducting joint religious worship” into religious organizations and religious communities, which also are defined by law.  In order to operate legally, both are required to register with the government, a process overseen by the CRA.

A religious association is a voluntary association of followers of one faith, with the purpose of holding joint worship and celebration of religious ceremonies, religious education, as well as spreading religious beliefs.  In order to register a religious association, a group of at least 10 persons over the age of 18 must obtain a certificate from local authorities confirming adherents of their religious faith have lived in a local area for five years.  The group must then submit to the CRA proof of the citizenship of its founders, along with their home address and date of birth.  The group must provide an account of its beliefs and religious practices and describe its attitudes related to education, family, and marriage.  It must also provide documentation on the health of its adherents.  A religious association must provide information on its religious centers such as mosques, central prayer houses, religious educational institutions, churches, and synagogues.  The group must specify in its charter the activities it plans to undertake, and once registered as a religious association, must report annually on its activities or face deregistration.

A religious community is a voluntary and independent association of citizens, formed for the purpose of holding joint worship and the satisfaction of other religious needs.  Types of religious communities include Friday mosques, five-time prayer mosques, prayer houses, and places of worship.  A religious community functions on the basis of a charter, after registering with the CRA without forming a legal entity.  The nature and scope of its activities are determined by the charter.  Religious communities are required to register both locally and nationally and must register “without the formation of a legal personality.”  A religious community must adhere to the “essence and limits of activity” set out in its charter.

A religious organization is a voluntary and independent association of citizens, formed for the purpose of holding joint worship, religious education, and spreading of religious faith.  Types of religious organizations include the Republican Religious Center, central Friday mosques, central prayer houses religious education entities, churches, and synagogues.  Religious organizations are legal entities and function on the basis of charters.  They can be a district, city, or national organization.

The law provides penalties for religious associations that engage in activities contrary to the purposes and objectives set out in their charter, and assigns responsibility to the CRA for handing down fines for such activities.  The law imposes fines for carrying out religious activities without state registration; violating its provisions on organizing and conducting religious activities; providing religious education without permission; performing prayers, religious rites, and ceremonies in undesignated places; and performing activities beyond the purposes and objectives defined by the charter of the religious association.  For first-time offenses, the government fines individuals 350 to 500 somoni ($37 to $53), heads of religious associations 1,000 to 1,500 somoni ($110 to $160), and registered religious associations, as legal entities, 5,000 to 10,000 somoni ($530 to $1,100).  For the same offenses repeated within a year of applying first fines, fines are increased to 600 to 1,000 somoni ($64 to $110) for individuals, 2,000 to 2,500 somoni ($210 to $270) for heads of religious associations, and 15,000 to 20,000 somoni ($1,600 to $2,100) for registered religious associations.  If a religious association conducts activities without registering, local authorities may impose additional fines or close a place of worship.

In late 2017 parliament amended the Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, which entered into force in January.  According to these amendments, restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion are allowed only to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of foundations of the constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country.

The amended law states that freedom of conscience and worship may only be restricted for reasons such as ensuring the rights of others, maintaining public order, ensuring state security, defending the country, upholding public morality, promoting public health, and safeguarding the country’s territorial integrity.  The amendments also stipulate that no party, public or religious association, movement or group may be recognized as state ideology.  Religious activities that promote racism, nationalism, hostility, social and religious hatred, or calling for violent overthrow of the constitutional order or the organization of armed groups are prohibited.  The amended law also says that the state maintains control over the order of religious education in order to prevent illegal training, propaganda, and the dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and hostility.

The amendments broadly empower the CRA to create regulations to implement state policies on religion, such as establishing specific guidelines for the performance of religious ceremonies.  The CRA maintains a very broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature.

The state controls activities of religious associations related to the performance of religious rites, and developing and adopting legal acts aimed at the implementation of a state policy on the freedom of conscience and religious associations.  Religious associations must submit information on sources of income, lists of property, expenditures, numbers of employees and payments of wages, paid taxes, and other information upon request by an authorized state body for religious affairs.

The law recognizes the “special status” of Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence with respect to the country’s culture and spiritual life.

The CRA is the government body primarily responsible for overseeing and implementing all provisions of the law pertaining to religion.  The Center for Islamic Studies, under the Executive Office of the President, helps formulate the government’s policy toward religion.

The law restricts Islamic prayer to four locations:  mosques, cemeteries, homes, and shrines.  The law regulates the registration, size, and location of mosques, limiting the number of mosques which may be registered within a given population area.  The government allows “Friday” mosques, which conduct larger Friday prayers as well as prayers five times per day, in districts with populations of 10,000 to 20,000 persons; it allows “five-time” mosques, which conduct only daily prayers five times per day, in areas with populations of 100 to 1,000.  In Dushanbe, authorities allow Friday mosques in areas with 30,000 to 50,000 persons, and five-time mosques in areas with populations of 1,000 to 5,000.  The law allows one “central Friday mosque” per district or city, and makes other mosques subordinate to it.

Mosques function according to their self-designed charters in buildings constructed by government-approved religious organizations or by individual citizens, or with the assistance of the general population.  The law states the selection of chief khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders at a central Friday mosque), imam-khatibs (prayer leaders in a Friday mosque, who deliver a sermon at Friday noon prayers) and imams (prayer leaders in five-time mosques) shall take place in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.”  The CRA must approve the imam-khatibs and imams elected by the founders of each mosque.  Local authorities decide on land allocation for the construction of mosques in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.”  The CRA regulates and formulates the content of Friday sermons.

The law regulates private celebrations, including weddings, funeral services, and celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.  The law limits the number of guests and controls ceremonial gift presentations and other rituals.  The law states mass worship, religious traditions, and ceremonies must be carried out according to the procedures for holding meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and peaceful processions prescribed elsewhere in the law.  The law bans the traditional sacrifice of animals at ceremonies marking the seventh and fortieth day after a death and celebrating the return of Hajj travelers.

According to the law, “Individuals and legal entities are obliged to protect the values of the national culture, including the state language, and national dress.”  According to customary interpretation, “national dress” does not include the wearing of the hijab.  The Code of Administrative Violations does not list the wearing of a beard, hijab, or other religious clothing as violations.

The law allows registered religious organizations to produce, export, import, and distribute religious literature and materials with religious content with the advanced consent of appropriate state authorities.  Only registered religious associations and organizations are entitled to establish enterprises to produce literature and material with religious content.  Such literature and material must indicate the full name of the religious organization producing it.  The law allows government authorities to levy fines for the production, export, import, sale, or distribution of religious literature without permission from the CRA.  According to the law, violators are subject to confiscation of the given literature, as well as fines of 1,500 to 3,500 somoni ($160 to $370) for individuals; 2,500 to 7,500 somoni ($270 to $800) for government officials; and 5,000 to 15,000 somoni ($530 to $1,600) for legal entities, a category including all organizations.

The law prohibits children and youth under 18 from participating in “public religious activities,” including attending worship services at public places of worship.  Children may attend religious funerals and practice religion at home, under parental guidance.  The law allows children to participate in religious activities that are part of specific educational programs in authorized religious institutions.

The law requires all institutions or groups wishing to provide religious instruction to obtain CRA permission, but in practice such permission is not granted.  Central district mosques may operate madrassahs, which are open only to high school graduates.  Other mosques, if registered with the government, may provide part-time religious instruction for younger students in accordance with their charter and if licensed by the government.

With written parental consent, the law allows minors between the ages of seven and 18 to obtain religious instruction provided by a registered religious organization outside of mandatory school hours.  According to the law, this may not duplicate religious instruction that is already part of a school curriculum.  The CRA is responsible for monitoring mosques throughout the country to ensure implementation of these provisions.

According to the CRA, parents may teach religion to their children at home provided they express a desire to learn.  The law forbids religious instruction at home to individuals outside the immediate family.  The law restricts sending citizens abroad for religious education and establishing ties with religious organizations abroad without CRA consent.  To be eligible to study religion abroad, students must complete a higher education degree domestically and be enrolled at a university accredited in the country in which it operates.  The law provides for fines of 2,500 to 5,000 somoni ($270 to $530) for violating these restrictions.

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

Government Practices

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on January 21, authorities summoned a male Jehovah’s Witness to the police station in Khujand; the police had raided his home in 2017.  During a four-hour interrogation, Jehovah’s Witnesses sources stated that a police officer beat the individual so severely that he suffered a concussion and sought immediate medical treatment.  A police officer followed him, pressured the hospital staff not to provide medical test results, and compelled the doctor to write a false statement denying the injuries.  On February 1, the chief of the Police Department and the chief of the Criminal Investigation Department summoned the victim and his wife for interrogation.  The police ordered the couple to write a statement declaring they were Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Fearing for their safety, the couple moved to another city.

According to April 22 media reports, the Khujand city court sentenced Abdullo Saidulloev, former imam-khatib of the Sari Sang five-time prayer mosque in Khujand, to six years’ imprisonment.  Authorities charged him with promulgating Salafi ideas.  He had studied in a Saudi Arabia madrassah from 2004 to 2006, and after returning started working in the clergy.  Police detained him in October 2017 after law enforcement seized 200 copies of banned literature from his home, which was described as extremist by the authorities.

Since 2016, the government sentenced approximately 20 imams to prison in Sughd Region for membership in banned extremist organizations.  Most received religious education abroad.  Local and international human rights organizations, however, said the government suppressed opposition figures under the aegis of combating terrorism and extremism.

On April 30, Radio Ozodi, part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported Khujand city court sentenced Shukrullo Ahrorov, former imam of Ikhlos Mosque, to five years in prison for involvement in Ikhvon-al-Muslimin, which the government banned in 2006 as an extremist organization.  The court ruling also stated that Ahrorov preached extremist ideas to worshipers at the mosque in 2015.  The court said law enforcement officers seized illegal religious literature from Ahrorov’s home.  Police charged Ahrorov with the article of the criminal code that covers participation in the activities of political parties, public associations, and religious or other organizations banned by the court.  Ahrorov’s relatives stated he might appeal.

In December police arrested Mukhtadi Abdulkodyrov shortly after he returned to the country after working for four years in Saudi Arabia.  Sources stated that police arrested him for his ties to Salafi Islam, which the Supreme Court banned from the country in 2009.  Prior to his return from Saudi Arabia, the Interior Ministry contacted him through social media promising to drop all charges against him if he agreed to abandon Salafism.  Abdulkodyrov agreed and wrote a “repentance letter” to the ministry, but still faced a possible eight-year prison sentence.

In September Belarusian border guards arrested Parviz Tursunov, a former soccer player, based on an extradition request from the government.  The government sought his extradition for being a member of a Salafi Muslim group.  He and his family crossed into Belarus from Ukraine in an attempt to reach Poland and apply for asylum.  In November Belarusian officials rejected the extradition request and released Tursunov back into Ukraine.  Tursunov remained in Ukrainian custody at the end of the year.

Bakhrom Kholmatov, former pastor of the Sunmin Sunbogym Protestant Church in Khujand, remained in prison and continued to refuse to undertake a second appeal of his sentence.  His wife stated that she had visited him and he appeared well, but said prison authorities would not allow her to visit for months at a time and they did not give him letters of encouragement written to him from Christians around the world.  After Forum 18 contacted prison authorities about the letters, they said that Kholmatov was now receiving them.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on October 5, the SNSS detained a group of 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including minors, who were leaving a private home in Dushanbe after a religious service.  The police released eight young women, but detained the rest of the group, comprised of both men and women, for questioning before releasing all 10 late in the day.  The SNSS reportedly threatened that they shortly would be charged and prosecuted.  On January 24 and 30, Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that police in a settlement near Khujand summoned and interrogated more than a dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses “for converting from Islam to Christianity.”  The police demanded that they renounce their faith.

On October 2, media reported that Daniil Islomov, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was sent to a military unit in Bokhtar city (formerly Qurghonteppa), after completing a six-month prison sentence for evading military conscription.  The government also denied Islomov an opportunity to perform alternative civilian service, although he was soon discharged from the army.  Stefan Steiner, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, told the media that authorities had effectively punished Islomov twice:  first with a prison sentence and second by forcing him to wear a military uniform.  In addition to his prison sentence, Islomov spent six months in pre-trial detention.  At year’s end, Islomov was in the process of filing a complaint with the UN Human Rights Council about his arrest and imprisonment.

In November an eight-year-old elementary school student and member of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the northern city of Konibodom was reported to school authorities for refusing to sing the national anthem or wear the school uniform tie which contained national symbols.  He was labeled a “traitor” and threatened with expulsion.  On November 28, after complaints from school officials, police reportedly took him to a local police station without parental notification and showed him a jail cell.  The city prosecutor’s office also threatened to take action against the boy’s mother for “raising him in an unacceptable way.”  Soon after the incident, Konibodom city police opened a criminal case against the mother, but did not explain what crime she allegedly committed.  On December 11, police presented her with a written summons for questioning, but she refused to comply with the summons.

On August 21, media reported that after Eid al-Adha prayers, police detained several young men with beards near a mosque in Obi Garm town.  There was no information on the identity of those detained.

In November police detained three residents of Ruknobod village in Panjakent District, including two teenagers, on charges of cooperating with extremist groups.  Residents of the village said these three individuals were arrested for clicking the “like” button on “extremist” social media posts.

Officials continued to prevent members of minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, from registering their groups as associations with the government.

Media reported that the government denied religious funerals for approximately 50 prisoners killed in a November Khujand prison camp riot.  The mother of one of the dead prisoners stated that authorities brought the body to a cemetery in Khujand and quickly buried it, forbidding family members to approach the coffin or perform religious rituals.  She said that police claimed the ritual had already been carried out in prison.

Government officials continued to take measures they stated would prevent individuals from joining or participating in what they considered extremist organizations and continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or supporting such banned opposition groups.  Those groups included Hizb ut-Tahrir, al-Qaida, Muslim Brotherhood, Taliban, Jamaat Tabligh, Islamic Group (Islamic Community of Pakistan), Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan, Islamic Party of Turkestan (former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – IMU), Lashkar-e-Tayba, Tojikistoni Ozod, Sozmoni Tablighot, Salafi groups, Jamaat Ansarullah, and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).

On April 21, media reported on an April 11 public meeting in Dushanbe between General Sharif Nazarzoda, chief of the city’s Department of Internal Affairs and imam-khatibs of local mosques.  Nazarzoda warned the imam-khatibs to be vigilant about congregants’ behavior and pay attention to those worshipers who did not observe Hanafi belief or practices.  Nazarzoda also reproached the clergy for not cooperating sufficiently with law enforcement agencies in the fight against extremism.  Nazaroda reportedly reinforced his words by showing the photographs of 20 imam-khatibs in Sughd Region sentenced to long prison terms on charges of extremism.

At an August 2 press conference in Sughd, Suhrob Rustamzoda, head of the regional Department on Religious Affairs and Regulation of National Traditions, announced the dismissal of 16 imam-khatibs.  Rustamzoda stated they did not pass certification.  At the same time, he noted that the government preferred imams who were graduates of local universities.  Rustamzoda also noted that operations in all five madrassahs in Sughd Region remained suspended until the Ministry of Education and Science (MES) granted them permission to operate and they had rectified shortcomings in their documentation.  They have not been in operation since 2013.

On January 4, media reported that dozens of imams did not pass annual certification.  A commission including CRA representatives and the government-supported Ulema Council conducted examination of imam-khatibs.  The report did not specify the exact number of those dismissed.  According to the report, the government has been requiring such an annual certification for the last nine years.  Some imam-khatibs who did not pass the certification stated their dismissal was improper.  CRA stated that some imam-khatibs could not answer questions on basic rules of performing prayers in accordance with the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, and could not differentiate between theology and Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh).  At a July 25 press conference, head of the department on religious associations of the CRA Husein Shokirov said that 35 imam-khatibs did not pass certification and were dismissed from their duties at mosques.  Authorities suspended the imam-khatibs from their jobs because they could not answer the questions of the certification commission; all questions were sent to the clergy 20 days in advance of the certification, Shokirov said.

Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at mosques.

NGOs reported authorities put restrictions on imam-khatibs, such as centrally selecting and approving sermon topics, as well as prohibiting some imam-khatibs from performing certain ceremonies.

On August 30, media reported police officers stopped women wearing hijabs and men with beards in Dushanbe’s Shohmansur district.  Authorities demanded that the women remove their hijabs and men shave their beards.  According to Forum 18, on September 28, authorities set up a roadblock on the outskirts of the capital to stop cars carrying men with beards and women in hijabs.  Police forced the bearded men into a barbershop to have their beards shaved off and forced the women to take off their hijabs and wear shawls showing their necks.  Forum 18 also reports hijab-wearing women were consistently refused medical care and employment.  Tajik State Pedagogical University in Dushanbe announced on September 30 that female students wearing a traditional shawl covering the head could not attend lectures.

On March 2, Radio Ozodi reported that Fathullo Nazriev, imam-khatib from a five-time prayer mosque in Rasht District, sent an open letter to the country’s president in which he stated that police officers in Rasht Valley pressured him to sign a statement accusing Junaidullo Khudoyorov of being a member of an illegal Salafi group.  Khudoyorov previously criticized local authorities on social media and was arrested on January 22.

Media reported that the CRA dismissed an imam of a mosque in Panjakent for not knowing the national anthem.  Naqibkhon Qoriev, a resident of the Yori District of Panjakent who was imam of the mosque early in the year, went through certification procedures in Dushanbe in early June.  He told media on August 27 he was notified only then about the reason for his dismissal and that as a result, authorities appointed another clergyman in his place.  He stated he was flustered during the certification procedure and could not fully read a verse about rules of performing pilgrimage, but stated he knew the anthem and recited part of it.  Officials at the local Department of Religious Affairs confirmed that Qoriev was dismissed, stating he did not know the anthem and also had difficulties answering a question on rules for reading namaz (Islamic prayer).  Saidjon Shodiev, head of the Religious Affairs Department, said that Qoriev failed on two occasions to pass the certification procedures and he could again apply for certification and be reinstated in his position.

Multiple sources reported on the conversion of mosques into other facilities.  During a press conference on January 24, Chairman of Isfara city Dilshod Rasulzoda said that during 2017 the government closed down 45 mosques in Isfara due to poor sanitation.  According to the official, local residents devised a proposal to convert the mosques into social facilities, kindergartens, and medical clinics.  At a January 30 press conference, Chairman of Bobojon Ghafurov District Zarif Alizoda stated that authorities closed down 46 mosques operating without authorization in his district in 2017.  Ghafurov said the government was converting what he termed “illegal” mosques into social service centers, sewing workshops, crafts training centers, trading centers, and other types of public facilities.

During a July 25 press conference, CRA Chairman Sulaymon Davlatzoda stated that some previously closed mosques would be allowed to reopen.  According to Davlatzoda, an interdepartmental working group had been set up to review closure cases and facilitate the reopening of mosques.  “There are mahallas (neighborhoods) where two or three mosques are registered, and there are mahallas and settlements where there is not a single mosque or religious association.  The interdepartmental working group is studying all these issues, and on the results of the group’s work, appropriate decisions will be made,” stated Davlatzoda.  He also stated that when the parliament in late 2017 amended the religion law, “all religious associations had to be reregistered, but some failed to do so out of negligence… which led to the closure of some mosques.”

At a February 5 press conference, CRA officials stated that the government had converted 1,938 mosques that were functioning without authorization into cultural spaces, medical centers, kindergartens, teahouses, or residences for needy families.  Authorities often closed mosques for lack of appropriate documentation, because many mosques were not registered at relevant offices as religious organizations after they were built.  The government gave mosques a deadline to obtain proper documentation and those that failed to meet the deadline were shut down and public facilities set up at their location.  Another 231 mosques were given time to formalize all relevant documents.  According to CRA data, as of the end of 2017, 48 central Friday mosques, 326 Friday mosques, 3528 five-time prayer mosques, 67 non-Islamic religious associations, one Islamic center, and three prayer houses – a total of 3,973 religious associations, were registered in the country and all of them were functioning in accordance with the law and satisfying the religious needs of citizens.

Forum 18 stated the 2017 amendments to the Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations allowed the state to restrict manifestations of freedom of religion based on a wide range of grounds not permitted under international human rights obligations, increased religious organizations’ requirements to report all activity to the state, required state approval for the appointments of all imams, and increased state control on both religious education at home, and on those traveling abroad for religious education.  Separately, representatives of a church group said the newly amended law transferred some authority from the Ministry of Justice to the CRA, which now had the right to register religious associations, control their activities, collect financial and other data, and adopt bills that could restrict (or expand) a religious association’s activity.

The government stated that it controlled religious education both domestically and of its citizens abroad in order to prevent “illegal education, propaganda and dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and enmity.”  There were reports of governmental action against students studying abroad.  At a February 5 press conference, CRA Chairman Davlatzoda said 3,694 citizens had been studying abroad at religious educational institutes.  According to the CRA, 3,377 people had returned to the country; 88 of them returned to their former places of education.  According to Davlatzoda, they went back abroad under the pretext of labor migration but in fact resumed religious studies.  Some were working again but were also studying “illegally” on the side.  Davlatzoda stated that 405 citizens were studying illegally at religious institutions in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan.  According to 2017 CRA data, 60 individuals returned home from foreign madrassahs, with some of them continuing education inside the country.

On May 12, during a meeting with civil society representatives, President Emomali Rahmon stated that more than 3,400 citizens who had studied religion outside the country without authorization had returned to the country.  He said parents and relatives should actively work to prevent their children from falling prey to destructive radical, terrorist, and extremist forces.  He also noted that one of the main reasons youth attended religious educational institutions abroad in violation of the law was because some parents did not want them to have a purely secular education.

NGOs reported authorities continued to enforce the ban on “nontraditional or alien” clothing.  On February 9, the Tajikistan Times published an op-ed by journalist Abdumudassir Ahmadov criticizing the decision of the National Library of Tajikistan to prevent the entrance of bearded men.  Ahmadov said that in the past he had argued about beards with the members of the banned IRPT and asked them not to make beards a religious issue.  He stated that now he was doing the same with state agencies to stop politicizing the issue of whether or not men wore beards.

On February 26, the Khovar state-run news agency reported that the Ministry of Culture (MOC) had proposed guidelines for national dress, which were awaiting government approval.  An official from the MOC told the media the reason for creating clothing guidelines was “to prevent the impact of foreign cultures” on national traditions.  Minister of Culture Shamsiddin Orumbekzoda told journalists during a February 7 press conference that the ministry would soon publish a book about the “ethics of wearing clothes.”  He said the book was a recommendation aimed at presenting national culture and national and historical values so that citizens adequately represented their country.  He noted the book would take into account norms of both national and European clothing and that throughout the world there were certain rules and “ethics of wearing clothes.”

On March 19, the Asia Plus news agency reported that the MOC issued recommendations on women’s clothing.  The ministry published a book with sketches of female models entitled “Instruction on recommended clothes for girls and women in the Republic of Tajikistan” with guidance on how to dress for work in state agencies, for national and state holidays such as Navruz and Mehrgon, as well as for brides at weddings and family celebrations.  It also described clothing not recommended for girls and women, which included forms of Islamic dress such as hijabs.

The government continued to restrict distribution of religious literature; reportedly scheduled a major exam on a date widely anticipated to be designated Eid al-Adha; limited the numbers of those allowed to go on the Hajj; and defined acceptable practices for children attending mosques and for funeral observances.  The government continued to close for one-day national holidays in observance on both Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.

On June 6, the Ulema Council refuted media reports stating that the MES had decided to hold exams on June 16, the Eid al Fitr holiday.  On the following day, June 7, the Ulema Council declared that Eid al Fitr would be June 15.

On August 27, Asia Plus news agency reported that authorities set new restrictions on acceptable dimensions for graves “to prevent pomposity and the material well-being of citizens.”  CRA representatives and local authorities are responsible for enforcing the decree.

On July 3, media reported that Imam of Nuri Islom Mosque in Khujand Ibodullo Kalonzoda proposed introducing Islam into the school curriculum strictly as an academic subject.  Speaking at a roundtable entitled “Countering Terrorism and Extremism – the Main Factor in creating a Democratic and Legal society” held in Guliston in July, Kalonzoda noted that offering such a subject in high schools would be a way to counteract “distorted perceptions” of Islam.

On July 3, the Radio Ozodi website reported that the court of Norak town fined cleric Abdukarim Saidov 350 somoni ($37) for providing illegal religious education.  Authorities charged him with organizing religious education for eight children between six and 16 years old beginning in June 2017.  The children’s parents had paid Saidov 300 to 500 somoni ($32 to $53) a month along with groceries as payment.  Saidov, a graduate of the Islamic Institute of Tajikistan, told the media he did not know it was illegal to organize religious lessons for children at home.

On July 8, Akhbor news agency reported that Khairullo Najmiddinov, Mahmadayub Junaidov, and Husein Rizoev, three imams from Tojikobod District, were fined 500 somoni ($53) each for establishing an illegal madrassah at home.  The government also fined the children’s parents.

On May 17, Radio Ozodi reported that imam-khatibs in mosques throughout the country were ordered to watch the play “Obu Otash” (“Water and Fire”) by writer and playwright Mansur Surush, which, according to proponents, promoted tolerance and mocked religious fanaticism.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

A group pledging allegiance to ISIS claimed responsibility for the July killing of four foreign tourists, including two Americans, and the injuring of three others when the attackers drove a car into a group of cyclists.  Following the collision, the assailants attacked the victims with knives and firearms.  Authorities said the leader of the attack was a member of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, which the government had outlawed in 2015.

Individuals outside government continued to state that they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief.  Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations between members of various religious groups, remained a subject they avoided.  People said they felt more comfortable discussing violations of civil rights than discussing sectarian disagreements or government curtailment of religious freedom.

Leaders of some minority religious groups stated their communities had positive relationships with the majority Hanafi Sunni population, whom they said did not hinder their worship services or cause concern for their congregations.  Other minority religious group leaders, especially from proselytizing religious groups, stated their members experienced social disapproval from friends and neighbors because they were no longer Muslims.  Members of the Baha’i Faith particularly noted they faced discrimination from many ordinary citizens.  They said there were some in the country that viewed the Baha’i Faith as incompatible with Tajik nationality.

Members of the Christian community reported on the desecration of cemeteries in the southern Khation Region, with fences, crosses, memorial plates, and tomb ornaments looted for the value of their metal.  According to local statistics, half of the 3,000 Christian graves in the region, which dated to the Soviet era, had been looted.  An Orthodox Church rector in Bokhtar said he had visited the city’s Christian cemetery and noted cattle grazing and children playing on the graves.  In Yavan, another Khation district, thieves looted items from 50 graves in the area’s two Christian cemeteries.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In August a visiting Department of State officer conducted an in-depth working visit to the country, meeting with independent analysts, religious leaders, and members of a wide array of faith communities, as well as government representatives from the CRA and the Center for Islamic Studies, to assess conditions on the ground and advocate for greater religious freedom.  In meetings with government officials, the Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers continued to raise concerns regarding the restrictions on minors and women participating in religious services, rejection of attempts by minority religious groups to register, restrictions on the religious education of youth, and limitations on the publication or import of religious literature, as well as the lack of due process in court cases involving religious belief.  Embassy officers also raised the issue of harassment of women and men for religious dress and grooming.

On June 8, the embassy held an iftar with religious community leaders, civil society representatives, and government officials responsible for policy on religious issues, including representatives from the CRA and the Center for Islamic Studies.  Topics of discussion included the state of religious freedom in the country, local religious traditions, and the impact of government policies.

On February 8, the embassy hosted a dinner for Religious Tolerance Day.  Representatives of various religious groups, including religious minorities, attended the event.  Participants discussed the state of religious freedom in the country and ways religious groups could further collaborate.

The Charge d’Affaires released an op-ed dedicated to Religious Freedom Day (January 16), which was published in all the local newspapers, including those printed in Tajik, Russian, and English.  The Charge candidly discussed the challenges related to religious freedom in the country and the role religious freedom plays in the stability of a country.

Since 2016, Tajikistan has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompanies designation as required in the important national interest of the United States.

Turkmenistan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the freedom of religion and for the right of individuals to choose their religion, express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and participate in religious observances and ceremonies.  The constitution maintains the separation of government and religion, stipulating religious organizations are prohibited from “interference” in state affairs.  The religion law requires all religious organizations, including those previously registered under an earlier version of the law, to register with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to operate legally, a process also involving the concurrence of numerous government agencies.  The law states the MOJ will not register a religious organization if its goals or activities contradict the country’s constitution or if it is not recognized as a religion by the relevant state body under the grand mufti’s leadership.  The law also states that the government may dissolve a religious organization for activities violating the lawful interests of the country’s citizens or for harming their “health and morale.”  It prohibits all activity by unregistered religious groups.  According to the international religious freedom advocacy nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18, 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors were imprisoned for refusing military service.  Authorities arrested and detained individuals, including members of religious communities, in harsh conditions.  Forum 18 said there were more than 100 Muslim prisoners of conscience, most being held in the high-security Ovadan Depe Prison.  According to Forum 18, in July the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of five Muslim men who were sentenced in 2017 to 12 years’ prison labor for meeting to pray and study the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi.  The government did not register any new religious groups during the year.  The government does not offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors, and in September rejected the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendation that it do so.  Local human rights activists stated Ministry of National Security (MNB) and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) officers responsible for fighting organized crime and terrorism continued to monitor members of religious minorities, including Christian groups, through telephonic and undercover surveillance.  According to local religious communities and international advocacy groups, members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups continued to face harassment, raids, fines, seizure of literature, and house searches.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that authorities detained and questioned both adults and children regarding possessing religious material and participating in religious activities.  The government continued to appoint all senior Muslim clerics, to prevent the importation of religious literature, and to create difficulties for religious groups attempting to purchase or lease buildings or land for religious purposes.  Ethnic Turkmen who converted from Islam continued to say the government scrutinized them more closely than ethnic non-Turkmen converts.

Individuals deviating from so-called “traditional” religious beliefs and practices continued to report societal criticism, harassment, and occasional physical violence, including denunciation by family members, friends, and neighbors for converting to a different religion.  Members of registered Christian religious organizations continued to report ongoing hostility from acquaintances due to their religious affiliation.  Ethnic Turkmen who had converted from Islam received more societal scrutiny than ethnic non-Turkmen converts and continued to be ostracized at community events, especially in rural areas, according to representatives of religious minorities.

In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the U.S. Ambassador, embassy representatives, and visiting U.S. government officials continued to express concern about arrests and detention of members of religious communities, and harsh prison conditions.  U.S. officials, including the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, met with government officials and urged the government to improve its treatment of religious minorities, create civilian service alternatives to military service for conscientious objectors, clarify registration and reregistration procedures for religious organizations, and lift restrictions on the importation and distribution of religious literature.  In October the embassy held a roundtable with various religious organizations to discuss the status of their reregistration, limitations to the importation of religious literature, and restrictions to their religious rights.

Since 2014, Turkmenistan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, 2018 the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to U.S. government estimates, the country is 89 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), 9 percent Eastern Orthodox, and 2 percent other.  There are small communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Shia Muslims, Baha’is, Roman Catholics, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and evangelical Christians, including Baptists and Pentecostals.

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

There are small pockets of Shia Muslims, made up of ethnic Iranians, Azeris, and Kurds, located along the border with Iran and in the western city of Turkmenbashy.

According to the Israeli embassy, 200-250 Jews live in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The 2016 Law on Religious Organizations and Religious Freedom requires all religious organizations, including those that had registered previously, to register with the MOJ to operate legally within the country.  The law permits only the registration of “religious organizations,” which must have at least 50 resident members above the age of 18.  The law defines a religious organization as a voluntary association of citizens affiliated with a religion, organized to conduct religious services and other rites and ceremonies, as well as to provide religious education, and registered in accordance with the country’s legislation.

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

To register, organizations must submit to SCROEERIR their contact information; proof of address; a statement requesting registration signed by the founders and board members of the organization; two copies of the organization’s charter; a registration fee of 200 manat ($57); and the names, addresses, and dates of birth of the organization’s founders.  Once SCROEERIR endorses an application for registration, it is submitted to the MOJ, which coordinates an interministerial approval process involving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), MNB, MVD, and other government offices.  According to government procedures, the MOJ may additionally request biographic information on all the members of an organization applying for registration.  The law states that leaders of registered religious organizations must be citizens who have received an “appropriate religious education,” but does not define that term.  Each branch of a registered religious organization must also register, and the registration process is the same as that which applies to the parent organization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The criminal and administrative codes provide punishment for the harassment of members of registered religious organizations by private individuals.  According to the administrative code, obstructing the exercise of religious freedom is punishable by a fine up to 1,000 manat ($290) or detention for 15 days.  The criminal code states such an obstruction is punishable with a fine up to 6,500 manat ($1,900) or one year of “corrective labor,” which involves serving in a government-assigned position in a prison near one’s home or at a location away from one’s home.  If an obstruction involves a physical attack, the punishment may entail up to two years in prison.

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

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

In June the government amended the family code to ban polygamy, effective September 1.  Under the criminal code, polygamy carries penalties of up to two years of labor or fines of 8,800 to 13,200 manat ($2,500 to $3,800).

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

The law on religious freedom and religious organizations states religious customs, rituals, and ceremonies may be held on residential property, but the housing code states communal housing should not be used for activities other than habitation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

According to Forum 18, during the year, 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors aged 18 to 24 were imprisoned for refusing military service.  According to Forum 18 and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the conscientious objectors were sent to the Seydi Prison in Turkmenabat Province.

According to Forum 18, on July 11, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of five Muslim men who were sentenced in 2017 to 12 years prison labor for meeting to pray and study the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi.  Four of the five were reportedly held at the high-security Ovadan Depe Prison in the Karakum Desert, where, according to Forum 18, “prisoners have suffered torture and death from abuse or neglect.”  The fifth man, reportedly a former police officer or other official, was sent to a special labor camp for former law enforcement officials at Akdash near Turkmenbashi.  Forum 18 said authorities in various states in the region accused Muslims who meet to study Nursi’s works of being members of an “extremist” group named “Nurjylar” (from the Turkish word “Nurcular,” meaning “Nursi followers”); however, Muslims who study Nursi’s work denied any such group exists.

According to the Christian rights advocacy NGO Open Doors USA, in April authorities raided a house meeting of Christian converts.  They arrested everyone present, took them to the police station, and questioned them for several hours.  Police released them after questioning, but group members remained under strict police surveillance.

Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that because the group was not registered, officials “mistreat the Witnesses, raid their peaceful meetings, seize their religious publications, try to restrict any religious activity, and pressure them to renounce their faith.”  Jehovah’s Witnesses said authorities searched homes, seized religious literature, confiscated mobile phones they said contained religious material, and interrogated individuals at police stations.  Police also interrogated children of Jehovah’s Witnesses at their schools and forced them to sign statements about participating in religious events.  Courts fined individuals for possessing religious material.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, in one case, authorities interrogated two female Witnesses, searched their apartment, seized a Bible and other religious literature, and then took them to the police station.  The officers accused one woman of being a spy, and threatened to jail her and send her child to an orphanage.  In another case, a court fined two students who had the JW Library application (which contained religious publications) installed on their mobile phones for storage and distribution of materials of religious extremism.

According to reports, prison conditions for individuals, including members of religious communities, were harsh, including overcrowding, lack of heat or air conditioning, poor food, lack of bathing facilities, and poor medical care.  Forum 18 reported the government continued to refuse to provide information on persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs.  Severe restrictions on communication with prisoners prevented Forum 18 from establishing their status, including whether they remained alive.

According to Forum 18, more than 100 Muslims from in and around Turkmenabad remained in prison, most of them held in the high-security Ovadan Depe Prison, accused of meeting to study and pray.  The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, an international NGO, reported in its online media outlet Chronicles of Turkmenistan that in September the country rejected the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendation, made in the Universal Periodic Review of the country in May, to end incommunicado detention of prisoners, including those held in Ovadan Depe.

On July 9, the Russia-based human rights NGO Memorial issued a statement citing “a trustworthy source” as saying that authorities allowed more than 30 relatives of inmates convicted on what Memorial said were “charges of so-called ‘Islamic extremism’” to visit their loved ones in Ovadan Depe Prison on June 28.  Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that Memorial said the government granted the visits after pressure from international human rights groups.

Forum 18 and the Russian online news agency Fergananews.com reported that in September the government formally rejected the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendation, made in the Universal Periodic Review of the country in May, to adopt alternatives to military service for conscientious objectors.

According to Open Doors USA, “It is very common for members of Protestant churches to be regarded as followers of an alien sect aiming to depose the government – reinforcing the government’s need to control and eradicate Christians.”

In April the official daily newspaper Neytral’nyy Turkmenistan reported the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe organized a two-day seminar in Ashgabat on combating the threats of extremism and radicalism.  Various ministries and agencies took part in the seminar.  Participants highlighted what they termed the country’s unique experience with preventing youth radicalization.

RFE/RL reported that in July a deputy foreign minister met with foreign ministers from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyz Republic.  The government agreed to increase cooperation against what it termed international terrorism and religious extremism, but did not take any follow up action as of year’s end.

The government did not register any new religious organizations during the year, as compared with reregistering five in 2017.  Several religious groups stated they had submitted applications, which the MOJ returned citing administrative errors.  By year’s end, the government had not provided any new information regarding the registration process for religious organizations, and the registration process remained unclear.  According to the NGO International Christian Concern, in January six evangelical Christian churches submitted a letter to the president asking to be allowed to register as official religious communities.  In the letter, the churches requested permission to open a Christian bookstore and to obtain their own building, which the six groups could collectively share for services.  As of year’s end the government had not acted on the request.

In October the government reported there were 131 registered religious organizations operating in the country.  Of the 131, 107 were Muslim (102 Sunni and five Shia); 13 Russian Orthodox; and 11 categorized as other religious groups, including Baha’is, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

Local human rights activists stated MNB and MVD officers responsible for fighting organized crime and terrorism continued to monitor members of religious minorities, including Christian groups, through telephonic and undercover surveillance.  The activists said the attitudes of senior government officials toward religion reflected Soviet-era practices, despite legal provisions protecting freedom of religion.  According to the Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List Country Report, which covered 2018, “The police, secret services and local authorities monitor religious activities, raid nonregistered churches and infiltrate church services.”  Open Doors USA said Russian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches “may also experience Sunday services being monitored.”

Turkmen who converted from Islam continued to say the government scrutinized them more closely than ethnic non-Turkmen converts.

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

Local religious groups continued to report that security services regularly interviewed members of religious organizations and demanded they provide information on their communities’ activities.

Representatives of registered Christian groups said some government officials continued to require them to obtain approval to carry out routine religious activities, such as weekly services, as well as social and charitable activities, including summer camps for children.  Multiple groups said the government denied them permission to conduct study groups and seminars, even when it permitted them to hold weekly services.

In July the government announced it would sponsor Hajj travel for 153 pilgrims, a decrease from previous years and the lowest number since 2009.  In 2017, Forum 18 reported those allowed to join the government-sponsored Hajj group needed approval from several state agencies, including police and the MNB.  Joining the government-sponsored group cost approximately 7,000 manat ($2,000), according to Forum 18.  The government reported 2,100 persons were self-funded but did not report how many individuals applied for the pilgrimage.  As in previous years, the government allowed self-funded pilgrims to make their own arrangements to participate in the Hajj.

Religious groups reported the government continued to prevent them from importing religious literature and from subscribing to foreign religious publications.  Although by law registered religious groups were allowed to import religious literature, they said the government’s complex customs procedures made it extremely difficult.  The Quran remained unavailable in state bookstores in Ashgabat, although many individuals kept a Soviet-era copy in Arabic or Russian in their homes.  Few translations were available in the Turkmen language.  The government continued to refuse to authorize distribution of a Turkmen-language translation of the Bible printed in Russia.

Members of various religious groups reported the government and state-affiliated enterprises continued to interfere in the purchase or long-term rental of land and buildings for worship or meeting purposes.  Registered religious groups reported continued difficulty in renting space for holiday celebrations from private landlords, which they attributed to landlords’ concerns about potential government disapproval.

In September a new mosque opened in Ashgabat’s Parahat 7/3 district.  This was the first mosque built in Ashgabat in the last 14 years.  Mosques were under construction in Tejen and in Turkmenabat at year’s end.

Theology faculty in the Turkmen State University history department in Ashgabat continued to be the only university-level faculty members allowed to provide Islamic higher education.  The MNB reportedly continued to vet student candidates for admission to this program.  It was not possible to study theological subjects other than state-approved Islamic theology.  Women remained banned from the program.

According to members of the Protestant community, clergy in Protestant organizations continued to receive their religious education abroad or via distance learning.

The government continued its practice of approving the appointment of all senior Muslim clerics.  The Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups continued to be financed independently; the government was not involved in appointing their leadership, but the senior Russian Orthodox priest was required to be a Turkmen citizen.

According to Forum 18, the MVD and security services continued to place many religious believers on a “travel blacklist.”  Officials subjected persons permitted to travel abroad to close scrutiny upon departure and re-entry into the country.

According to an article published by the Alternative News of Turkmenistan website habartm.org, officials at the Ashgabat airport questioned returning travelers from Turkey, particularly if they had Turkish residence permits.  Authorities questioned women wearing the hijab.  According to the article, in January one woman said authorities asked her why she was wearing the hijab, how often she prayed, whether she attended a mosque, and how long she had been practicing these religious activities.  She said the officials also questioned her about her Turkish husband’s religious practices.

The government continued its practice of denying visas to foreigners suspected of conducting or intending to conduct missionary activity.  Religious groups able to obtain religious visitor visas for foreign religious speakers said the government continued to grant such visas for very short durations and required the groups to complete burdensome paperwork.  As in previous years, the government did not report the number of religious visitors it allowed to visit the country, nor did it report the number of visa applications of foreign religious visitors it had denied.

In October the government reported religious representatives from Germany, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia, Sweden, and the United States visited the country at various times during the year and met with fellow believers.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local sources said persons deviating from traditional religious beliefs and practices continued to report harassment, such as public shaming, by their family members, friends, and neighbors.  Members of registered Christian groups continued to report hostility from acquaintances due to their religious affiliation.

Persons who joined so-called “nontraditional” religious groups reported continuing societal criticism.  Ethnic Turkmen who converted from Islam received more societal scrutiny than ethnic non-Turkmen converts and continued to be ostracized at community events, especially in rural areas, according to representatives of religious minorities.

According to Open Doors USA, Muslims who converted to Christianity faced pressure and occasional physical violence from families, friends, and local communities to return to their former faith.  Open Doors USA said some converts were locked up by their families for long periods, beaten, and sometimes expelled from their communities.

Forum 18 reported the level of societal harassment again increased for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who stated they continued to be treated with suspicion and scrutiny by fellow citizens.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador, embassy representatives, and visiting U.S. government officials continued to express concerns about the arrests and detention of individuals, including members of religious communities, in harsh conditions.  In October the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities and other Department of State officials met with high-level MFA representatives to discuss abuses of religious freedom, such as the imprisonment of members of religious communities for engaging in peaceful religious practice, and to urge the government to take positive steps to improve religious freedom.  The Special Advisor and other U.S officials urged the government to create civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors to military service, clarify registration procedures for religious organizations, streamline the process of registering new groups, and lift restrictions on the importation and distribution of religious literature.

In October the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities and other Department of State officials met with five religious organizations to discuss the registration and reregistration process, limitations to the importation of religious literature, and restrictions to their religious rights.

Since 2014, Turkmenistan has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”

Ukraine

Executive Summary

In February 2014, Russian military forces invaded and occupied Crimea.  United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262 adopted on March 27, 2014, and entitled Territorial Integrity of Ukraine, states the Autonomous Republic of Crimea remains internationally recognized as within Ukraine’s international borders.  The U.S. government does not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and considers that Crimea remains a part of Ukraine.

IN THIS SECTION: UKRAINE (BELOW) | CRIMEA


The constitution protects freedom of religion and provides for the separation of church and state.  By law, the objective of domestic religious policy is to foster the creation of a tolerant society and provide for freedom of conscience and worship.  In October the Ecumenical Patriarchate announced its intention to grant autocephaly (independence) to a new Ukrainian church after receiving a joint appeal from the government and bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), as well as several bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC-MP), affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate.  In November Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew initiated steps to implement that decision.  In December the UOC-KP, UAOC, and several UOC-MP representatives formed the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and elected its leader at their Establishment Council in Kyiv.  Government leadership called on all parties to refrain from violence and respect the choice of those who decided to remain within the Moscow Patriarchate.  According to human rights groups, documented acts of anti-Semitism declined from previous years.  Some Jewish leaders continued to state their concerns about what they considered impunity for and long delays in completing investigations of acts of anti-Semitism.  Religious leaders also continued to urge the government to establish a transparent legal process to address property restitution claims.  In various regions of the country, minority religious groups continued to report discriminatory treatment by local authorities in land allocation for religious buildings.  According to the UOC-MP, law enforcement gave far-right groups a “free hand” to pressure UOC-MP parishioners into leaving the Church, although some media reports stated the Russian government sought to spread trumped up charges of pressure on the UOC-MP.

According to media sources, religious freedom activists, the UOC-KP, Muslims, Protestant churches, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian proxy authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (regions) intensified pressure on minority religious groups.  In Luhansk, proxy authorities banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization and the “Supreme Court” in Donetsk upheld a similar ban.  In June proxy authorities raided and later closed the one remaining independent mosque in Donetsk.  Proxy authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk adopted laws requiring all religious organizations except the UOC-MP to undergo “state religious expert evaluations” and reregister with them.  According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), more than 1,000 religious groups recognized under Ukrainian law had not reregistered because of stringent legal requirements under Russian legislation preventing or discouraging reregistration of many religious communities.  Many religious groups refused to reregister because they did not recognize the self-proclaimed proxy authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk.  Russia-led forces also continued to occupy religious buildings of minority religious groups and use them as military facilities.  Crimea is reported in an appendix following the report on the rest of Ukraine.

There were continued reports of what some media and political observers characterized as far-right nationalist political groups physically assaulting and pressuring UOC-MP supporters and vandalizing UOC-MP property.  In July supporters of the Svoboda Party physically assaulted the chief editor of a newspaper in Chernihiv Oblast for reportedly publishing a report about a UOC-MP-organized summer camp.  In January representatives of C14, which observers describe as a far-right group, and others tore down an information board near UOC-MP churches in Kyiv.  Two individuals doused the same UOC-MP church with flammable liquid, stating the act was in retaliation for the Moscow Patriarchate’s endorsement of Russian aggression against Ukraine.  UOC-MP leaders stated the UOC-KP continued to seize churches belonging to the UOC-MP.  The UOC-KP again stated parishioners and not the UOC-KP had initiated the transfers of affiliation.  A group of local residents tried to prevent the construction of a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) facility in Bila Tserkva, Kyiv Oblast.  Members of the Jewish community stated their continued concern about new construction on a site at Lviv’s Krakivskiy Market located on the grounds of an ancient Jewish cemetery.  There were again reports of vandalism of Christian monuments; Holocaust memorials, synagogues, and Jewish cemeteries; and Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Halls.  The All-Ukraine Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO) and the All-Ukrainian Council of Religious Associations (AUCRA) continued to promote interfaith dialogue and religious diversity.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials met with the Administration of the President, ministry officials, and members of parliament to discuss the protection of religious heritage sites, manifestations of anti-Semitism, and issues within the Orthodox Churches.  In connection with the move towards autocephaly for the OCU, the Ambassador urged government and religious leaders to practice tolerance, restraint, and mutual understanding to ensure respect for all individuals’ religious freedom and preferences.  The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to urge religious groups to resolve property disputes peacefully and through dialogue with government officials, in particular the dispute regarding the location of parts of the Krakivskiy Market on the site of Lviv Old Jewish Cemetery.  Embassy officials continued to meet with internally displaced Muslims from Crimea to discuss their continuing inability to practice their religion freely in Crimea.  In September the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Kyiv.  He met with government, religious, and community leaders to promote religious freedom, encourage interfaith dialogue, and assure leaders of U.S. support for all people to practice freely their faiths.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 44 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the annual March national survey conducted by the Razumkov Center, an independent public policy think tank; 67.3 percent of respondents self-identify as Christian Orthodox; 9.4 percent Greek Catholic; 2.2 percent Protestant; 0.8 percent Roman Catholic; and 0.4 percent Jewish.  Another 7.7 percent self-identify as “simply a Christian” and 11 percent say they do not belong to any religious group.  Small percentages of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, adherents of other religions, and individuals who chose not to disclose their beliefs constitute the remainder of the respondents.

The same survey breaks down the 67.3 percent identifying as Christian Orthodox:  28.7 percent UOC-KP (26.5 percent in 2017); 12.8 percent UOC-MP; 23.4 percent “just an Orthodox believer”; 0.3 percent the UAOC; 0.2 percent Russian Orthodox Church (as distinct from the UOC-MP); and 1.9 percent undecided.  In a separate Razumkov survey conducted in September after the government, UOC-KP, UAOC, and some bishops representing the UOC-MP petitioned the Ecumenical Patriarchate for autocephaly, the number of respondents self-identifying as UOC-KP increased to 45.2 percent, while 16.9 percent of respondents self-identified as UOC-MP, and 33.9 percent “just as an Orthodox believer.”

According to the Ministry of Culture, the UOC-KP has followers primarily in the central and western oblasts, with a smaller number in Zakarpattya Oblast.  The UOC-MP is present in all regions of the country, but it has a smaller presence in Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv Oblasts in the western part of the country.  Most UAOC adherents are in the western part of the country.  According to the Ministry of Culture, the UOC-MP had 12,348 congregations throughout the country, compared with 12,328 in 2017, while the UOC-KP had 5,167, compared with 5,114 in 2017, and the UAOC had 1,167, compared with 1,195.

According to government statistics, followers of the UGCC reside primarily in the western oblasts of Lviv, Ternopil, and Ivano-Frankivsk.  Most Roman Catholic Church congregations are in Lviv, Khmelnytsky, Zhytomyr, Vinnytsya, and Zakarpattya Oblasts in the western part of the country.

The Evangelical Baptist Union of Ukraine is the largest Protestant community.  Other Christian groups include Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).

Government agencies and independent think tanks estimate the Muslim population at 500,000.  Some Muslim leaders put the number at two million.  According to government figures, 300,000 of these are Crimean Tatars.

The Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities (VAAD) states there are approximately 300,000 persons of Jewish ancestry in the country.  According to VAAD, before the Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, approximately 30,000 Jewish persons lived in the Donbas region.  Jewish groups estimate between 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish residents lived in Crimea before Russia’s attempted annexation.  There are also Buddhists, practitioners of Falun Gong, Baha’is, and adherents of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship.  By law, the government may restrict this right only in the “interests of protecting public order, the health and morality of the population, or protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons.”  The constitution provides for the separation of church and state and stipulates, “No religion shall be recognized by the state as mandatory.”

By law, the objective of religious policy is to “restore full-fledged dialogue between representatives of various social, ethnic, cultural, and religious groups to foster the creation of a tolerant society and provide for freedom of conscience and worship.”

The law requires a religious institution seeking official status as a legal entity to register both as a religious organization and as a nonprofit organization.  Religious organizations include congregations, theological schools, monasteries, religious brotherhoods, missions, and religious associations consisting of religious organizations.  To obtain official religious status, an organization must register either with the Ministry of Culture, the government agency responsible for religious affairs, or with regional government authorities, depending upon the nature of the organization.  Religious centers, administrations, monasteries, religious brotherhoods, missions, and religious schools register with the Ministry of Culture.  Religious congregations register with the regional authorities where they operate, either with the city government in Kyiv or the respective oblast government outside of Kyiv.  While these religious congregations may form the constituent units of a nationwide religious organization, the nationwide organization does not register on a national basis and may not obtain recognition as a legal entity; rather, the constituent units register and obtain legal entity status.

To be eligible for registration, a religious congregation must have at least 10 adult members and must submit its statutes to the registration authorities.  To obtain status as a nonprofit organization, a religious organization must register with the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for maintaining the government’s register of legal entities.  This register lists all entities with this status, including religious ones.  The law does not specify which of the two registration procedures must be undertaken first.

Without legal entity status, a religious group may not own property, conduct banking activities, or publish materials.  Per the stipulation against national registration, only the registered constituent units of a nationwide religious organization may own property or conduct business activities, either for themselves or on behalf of the nationwide organization.  The law grants property tax exemptions to religious organizations and considers them nonprofit organizations.

The law requires commanders of military units to allow their subordinates to participate in religious services but bans the creation of religious organizations in military institutions and military units.  The Ministry of Defense defines selection criteria for clerics to become chaplains, the status of chaplains in the chain of command, and their rights and duties in the armed forces, National Guard, and State Border Guard Service.

The law gives prison chaplains access to both pretrial detainees and sentenced inmates.  It also protects the confidentiality of confession heard by prison chaplains, prohibits the use of information received during confession as evidence in legal proceedings, and does not allow the interrogation of clerics, interpreters, or other persons about matters associated with the confidentiality of confession.

According to the constitution, organizers must notify local authorities in advance of any type of planned public gathering, and authorities may challenge the legality of the planned event.  According to a 2016 Constitutional Court decision, religious organizations need only inform local authorities of their intention to hold a public gathering, and need not apply for permission or notify authorities within a specific period in advance of the event.

The law allows religious groups to establish theological schools to train clergy and other religious workers, as well as seek state accreditation through the National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance for their curriculum.  The law states theological schools shall function based on their own statutes.

Government agencies authorized to monitor religious organizations include the Prosecutor General, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and all other “central bodies of the executive government.”

Only registered religious groups may seek restitution of communal property confiscated by the Communist regime.  Religious groups must apply to regional authorities for property restitution.  The law states the authorities should complete their consideration of a restitution claim within a month.

The law prohibits religious instruction as part of the mandatory public school curriculum and states public school training “shall be free from interference by political parties, civic, and religious organizations.”  Public schools include ethics of faith or similar faith-related courses as optional parts of the curriculum.

The law provides for antidiscrimination screening of draft legislation and government regulations, including based on religion.  The law requires the legal department of each respective agency responsible for verifying the draft legislation conduct the screening, in accordance with instructions developed by the Cabinet of Ministers, to ensure the draft legislation does not contain discriminatory language and to require changes if it does.  Religious groups may participate in screening draft legislation at the invitation of the respective agency.

The law allows alternative nonmilitary service for conscientious objectors.  The law does not exempt the clergy from military mobilization.

The Office of the Parliamentary Human Rights Ombudsman is constitutionally required to release an annual report to parliament with a section on religious freedom.

The law restricts the activities of foreign-based religious groups and defines the permissible activities of noncitizen clergy, preachers, teachers, and other representatives of foreign-based religious organizations.  By law, foreign religious workers may “preach, administer religious ordinances, or practice other canonical activities,” but they may do so only for the religious organization that invited them and with the approval of the government body that registered the statute of the organization.  Missionary activity is included under permissible activities.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  Since 2015, the government has exercised the right of derogation from its obligations under the ICCPR with regard to the portions of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts under the control of foreign forces, including the ICCPR provisions pertaining to religious freedom.

Government Practices

On December 26, President Petro Poroshenko signed amendments to a 1991 law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations.  The objective of the amendments was to require religious organizations with a “governing center” in a country designated by law as a state that “committed military aggression against Ukraine and temporarily occupied Ukraine’s territory” to use the full title of the foreign religious organization in its name.  In practice, this meant the UOC-MP was required to change its official title to reflect its affiliation with the Moscow Patriarchate.  The amendments also restricted access of clerics belonging to such organizations to the armed forces and other military organizations.  President Poroshenko stated, “It is easier to make a choice when all things are called by their names, when there is enough information to make this choice voluntary.  The implementation of the law will give the citizens full information.”  The UOC-MP criticized the bill as governmental interference in religious life.

On October 26, the Odesa Regional Administrative Court overturned a decision by the State Migration Service to deny refugee status to a young Jehovah’s Witness woman, an Iranian citizen, and allowed her to remain in the country.

On June 14, following intervention by the parliament’s Human Rights Ombudsman, the village council in Zvedenivka, Vinnytsya Oblast dropped its demand that local Jehovah’s Witnesses conduct their ministry “under control of village council members or police officers.”

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, between September 2017 and November 2018, its congregations reported 19 cases involving municipal officials or police officers demanding that they stop public missionary work, comparing it to commercial advertising.  At times, the officials reportedly used abusing language and threats.

In his annual address to parliament on September 20, President Poroshenko noted that the creation of a united autocephalous Orthodox Church would help strengthen national unity.  He said the state would not interfere in internal affairs of the church and would respect the choices of those who decide to remain with the Moscow Patriarchate.

On October 10, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul stated it would proceed towards granting autocephalous status to a Ukrainian Orthodox Church after receiving a joint appeal from the Ukrainian government and bishops from the UOC-KP and UAOC and some UOC-MP bishops on April 20.  The statement said the Holy and Sacred Synod in Istanbul also revoked the right of the Patriarch of Moscow to ordain the Metropolitan of Kyiv.

On November 3, Patriarch Bartholomew and President Poroshenko signed a Bilateral Agreement on Cooperation and Coordination “within the framework of granting autocephaly to the unified Orthodox Church in Ukraine.”  On November 29, the Holy and Sacred Synod in Istanbul announced it had drafted the Constitutional Charter for an autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine.  Also on November 29, President Poroshenko announced publicly that the Ecumenical Patriarchate had approved the text of a decree that would grant autocephaly to a new Ukrainian Church.

In mid-December the UAOC and UOC-KP disbanded themselves to create a united Orthodox Church.  On December 15, representatives of the UOC-KP, UAOC, and some UOC-MP representatives, including two metropolitans, formed the OCU and chose Metropolitan Epiphaniy of the former UOC-KP as its head at an Establishment Council in Kyiv.  The UOC-MP declared the OCU as a “union of schismatics” that had “no relation” to the UOC-MP, and suspended the clerics who participated in the Establishment Council.  At year’s end, administrative centers of the UOC-KP and UAOC continued to exist as legal entities pending state registration of the OCU administration.

The UOC-MP stated law enforcement gave far-right groups a “free hand” to pressure and intimidate UOC-MP parishioners to leave the Church, although some media reports stated the Russian government sought to spread trumped up charges of pressure on the UOC-MP.

On October 12, following UOC-MP allegations of possible attempts by radical groups to seize its major monasteries, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov issued a statement that religion-based violence and extremism were “unacceptable.”  He called on political and public figures to refrain from provocations and attempts to destabilize the situation in the country.  The minister promised a “tough” response to extremism and religious hatred.  He repeated the pledge in an Interfax-Ukraine interview on December 29.

On November 22, the government hosted a meeting with Muslim community leaders, discussing ways to amend regulations that would allow Muslim women to wear head coverings for internal passport (passport for domestic use only) photographs.

On October 3, the Rivne Oblast State Administration registered a statute of a local Jehovah’s Witnesses organization pursuant to a court order overturning the 2017 refusal by the administration to approve the registration request.  The court had rejected the administration’s 2017 claim that members of the organization were not allowed to preach or study the Bible outside Kingdom Halls because by law religious groups may preach outside their places of worship and there is no regulation banning missionary work.

On October 10, the Supreme Court upheld a petition by a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation in Tetiyiv, Kyiv Oblast, against the local government’s attempts to fine the congregation for an alleged violation of zoning regulations during the recent construction of its Kingdom Hall.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that from September 2017 to November 2018 local authorities in Myropil, Zhytomyr Oblast, Tetiyiv, Kyiv Oblast, Torun, Transcarpathia Oblast, and Kharkiv denied zoning permits or created other impediments to construction of Kingdom Halls.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, UOC-MP representatives campaigned against the construction of a Kingdom Hall in Myropil, Zhytomyr Oblast.  On June 19, UOC-MP representatives reportedly prevented the Myropil town council from designating a Jehovah’s Witnesses-owned plot of land for the constriction project, advocating that other religious denominations should not be present in the town.  On August 3 and November 2, the council rejected a resolution to designate the land for construction.  On December 3, the Lviv District Administrative Court began examining a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ appeal against the council’s inaction on their request.

On April 19, the government revived the Interagency Commission to Realize the Rights of Religious Organizations.  Although inactive since 2012, the commission was established in 2008 to address complex restitution issues as well as promote dialogue between the government and religious groups.  The commission discussed ways to streamline registration procedures for religious organizations, respond to what it characterized as massive violations of religious freedom in the occupied areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, and address religious property restitution.

The Pastoral Council for Religious Support of the Penitentiary System, an advisory interfaith board designed to promote prison chaplaincy established in 2017, worked with the Ministry of Justice to develop guidance for chaplains ministering to prisoners who faced torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.

The UOC-MP said that on July 25, representatives of the Svoboda Party, which political observers describe as a nationalist party, threatened to burn the buses of local bus companies in Nizhyn, Chernihiv Oblast, if they provided transportation for local pilgrims planning to participate in the July 27 UOC-MP procession in Kyiv celebrating St. Volodymyr’s Day.

On November 30, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) searched a country residence of Metropolitan Pavel, abbot of the UOC-MP Kyiv Pechersk Monastery, and the monastery farm office, calling the search an investigation into charges of incitement to religious hatred.  On December 3, the metropolitan rejected the hate speech charges and condemned the searches as political pressure.

On December 5, following several days of searches at UOC-MP buildings in Kyiv and Zhytomyr Oblast, the SBU said it had identified an organized network that distributed materials inciting religious hatred.  The SBU posted copies of several confiscated UOC-MP leaflets presenting the Church’s view on Orthodox Church autocephaly, and labeling Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “sect.”

On November 5, officers of the SBU Rivne Oblast branch interrogated 12 UOC-MP priests as part of an investigation into cases of hate speech and high treason.  The religious news website risu.org.ua and news website charivne.info said a local UOC-MP priest faced treason charges because the Russian media were using his commentaries about regional parish jurisdiction disputes in false reports about “religious war” in Ukraine.  The UOC-MP denied the charges.

On March 6, according to the Umma Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine, approximately two dozen SBU and Kyiv City procuracy representatives conducted a search of the Kyiv Islamic Cultural Center.  According to the search warrant, SBU officials were looking for materials promoting “violence, racial, interethnic or religious hatred.”  Members of the Umma said the law enforcement officials did not allow the cultural center’s security guard to inform them by phone about the raid.  According to the Umma representatives who witnessed the search, the law enforcement representatives planted and immediately “found” “extremist” materials in the library, school premises, and bookstore and also planted and “found” two “extremist” publications during a search in a librarian’s apartment.  The Kyiv City procuracy said authorities conducted the search “in strict accordance with the law.”  It described the search as part of SBU-initiated operations to stop distribution of materials promoting violence.  In 2012, an Odesa court banned distribution of the books seized by the SBU.

Umma Administration leaders said the SBU did not follow legal protocols for search and seizure because it did not employ independent witnesses required to observe the search to prevent attempts to fabricate evidence.  Instead, the law enforcement officers reportedly brought “their own” witnesses who were biased and paid no attention to SBU officers planting the publications.  Umma representatives said this was the third search of congregations associated with Umma in less than a year in which they said law enforcement authorities planted the same books.  In 2017, law enforcement authorities conducted searches at Islamic centers in Sumy and Zhytomyr.

Small religious groups stated local governments continued to discriminate with regard to allocating land for religious buildings in Chernivtsi, Mykolayiv, Odesa, and Ternopil Oblasts, and the city of Kyiv.  Roman Catholics, UOC-KP members, UGCC members, the UAOC, and Muslims continued to report cases of discrimination.  UGCC representatives said local authorities in Sumy and Odesa were still unwilling to allocate land for UGCC churches.  UOC-MP representatives said local authorities in the Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk Oblasts continued to refuse to allocate land for UOC-MP churches.  UOC-KP representatives said the Haisyn District State Administration refused their request to build a church in the town.  Roman Catholic Church leaders stated they continued to ask authorities to return former Church properties in the western part of the country and elsewhere.  Roman Catholics stated the government continued to refuse to support the restitution of Odesa’s Roman Catholic seminary building, which the Soviet regime had confiscated.  Church of Jesus Christ representatives stated the Kyiv City government continued to fail to reinstate a lease, first revoked in 2015, on land to build a house of worship.  The UAOC said the Chernivtsi City Council was unwilling to finalize allocation of land for a UAOC diocesan administration office in the city.

According to the UOC-MP, in February the village council in Stary Hvizdets, Ivano Frankivsk Oblast, illegally transferred ownership of the local UOC-MP Annunciation Church from the government to the UOC-KP.  Local police reportedly opened an investigation.

On February 7, the Volyn Oblast Appellate Court rejected a petition by the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ) to remove a private industrial facility from the grounds of a Jewish cemetery near Toykut village in Volyn Oblast.

Kyiv’s Muslim community said the local government, which allocates land for cemeteries, had not acted on the community’s request for additional free land in Kyiv for Islamic burials, which was their legal right.  Muslim community leaders said they were running out of land for burials of their members.

All major religious organizations continued to appeal to the government to establish a transparent legal process to address property restitution claims.  Most organizations said they experienced continued problems and delays in the restitution process to reclaim property seized by the Communist regime.  They said the consideration of claims often took longer than the month prescribed by law.  Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups stated a number of factors continued to complicate the restitution process, including intercommunity competition for particular properties, current use of some properties by state institutions, the designation of some properties as historic landmarks, local governments disputing jurisdictional boundaries, and previous transfers of some properties to private ownership.  They continued to report local officials taking sides in property restitution disputes, such as the case of the Lviv city government continuing to deny Roman Catholic Church requests for restitution of several properties turned over to the UGCC.

Muslim community leaders expressed concern over the continued lack of resolution of restitution claims involving historic mosques in Mykolayiv.

The AUCCRO, a longstanding independent interfaith board representing more than 90 percent of all religious organizations in the country, continued to appeal to parliament to impose a moratorium on the privatization of previously confiscated religious buildings.  Despite renewed government promises to address the issue, the government had taken no action by the end of the year.

The Jewish community expressed concern over the continued failure of national and local government authorities to protect historic religious properties, particularly historic synagogues in Lviv, Brody, Sokal, Stryi, Zhokva, Berezhany, Husyatyn, Pidhaytsi, and Dubno.

Jewish community leaders said they continued to experience difficulties with the Ternopil municipal and district governments with regard to property restitution.  The Ternopil District Council continued to reject local Jewish community requests to return a prayer house confiscated during the Soviet regime.  On October 25, local authorities in Chortkiv, Ternopil Oblast, transferred a former synagogue building that had been used as a warehouse to the Jewish community.

On July 25, the Dnipro City Council returned to the Muslim community a mosque confiscated by the Soviet government.

On February 5, the Ministry of Culture issued a statement saying that the UOC-MP had constructed Sts. Volodymyr and Olga Church in central Kyiv on the grounds of a state-run national museum.  On February 9, the Municipal Development Commission of the Kyiv City Council upheld a petition to demolish the building.  The government stated that in 2013, the UOC-MP built the church without legal permission.  The building was still standing at year’s end.

UOC-MP representatives continued to object to what they characterized was the central government’s inadequate response to discrimination and intolerance toward its members by UOC-KP and UGCC representatives and high-ranking UOC-KP and UGCC supporters in some local governments.  According to the UOC-MP, law enforcement agencies ignored its requests to bring to justice a Sokal District administration official who intimidated UOC-MP parishioners in Shpykolosy village, Lviv Oblast, over their refusal to join a newly created local UOC-KP congregation.

On December 11, the Lviv Oblast Council declared 2019 as the Year of Stepan Bandera and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN).  The Council issued the decision to mark the 110th anniversary of Bandera’s birth and the 90th anniversary of OUN’s establishment.  Jewish community representatives criticized the decision.  In the 1940s, OUN led the nationalist partisan movement, some of whom were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews.

On December 18, the parliament adopted a resolution to mark a number of significant anniversary dates in 2019, including the 110th anniversary of the birth of Ivan Klymiv, one of the leaders of the OUN.  Jewish community representatives criticized the decision due to his role in instigating anti-Semitic pogroms in Nazi-occupied Lviv in 1941.

On September 20, the Kyiv District Administrative Court reaffirmed its 2017 ruling against a proposal to rename a city street in honor of Roman Shukhevych, one of the OUN leaders and commander of the Nazi-controlled Nachtigall Battalion.

In an interview with the Insider news website published on June 25, Deputy Prosecutor General Anatoliy Matios suggested, “Jews seek to drown Ukraine in blood.”  He compared a Jew facing terrorism charges to Jewish communist Alexander Parvus.  Matios said Parvus “who brought money to Lenin for the revolution that flooded Slavs with streams of blood” was also Jewish.  “In this case, they want to do the same to Ukraine,” he said.  Eastern Europe Simon Wiesenthal Center Director Efraim Zuroff publicly condemned Matios’ statements as “outrageous and false,” and called for his dismissal.

On May 14, Ukrainian Jewish Committee Director Eduard Dolinsky filed a formal complaint to authorities regarding anti-Semitic remarks Skole mayor and Right Sector member Volodymyr Moskal reportedly made in 2017 that “the government of Moskovites and Yids” is running Ukraine and Jews seek to dominate the world, treat all other nations as “subhumans” and destroy them.  The local procuracy and police opened an investigation.  There was no progress reported in the investigation by year’s end.

On May 2, Odesa Oblast Right Sector leader Tetyana Soykina said during a rally held by representatives of Svoboda, Right Sector, and National Militia in the city that “Ukraine will belong to Ukrainians, not to kikes, not to oligarchs!”  On May 4, President Poroshenko condemned all manifestations of intolerance and anti-Semitism and pledged the government’s “swift” and “resolute” reaction to any attempt to sow enmity in society.

During a meeting with Kyiv Chief Rabbi Jonathan Markowitz on May 7, Interior Minister Avakov condemned the Odesa rally and all other manifestations of anti-Semitism as “unacceptable.”  He added that the Russian government might have orchestrated some anti-Semitic acts in an effort to destabilize Ukraine.  The Odesa police investigated the May 2 act as a criminal code violation of racial and ethnic equality.

According to media reports, on April 18, the Kostopil District State Administration, Rivne Oblast, urged law enforcement agencies to identify and bring to justice perpetrators who in mid-April painted a swastika on a Holocaust memorial near the town.  Local college students removed the graffiti, and an investigation into the case continued at year’s end.

The AUCCRO continued to appeal to the government to adopt a draft bill entitled, “The Concept of Relations between the State and Religious Denominations,” which would shape cooperation between the government and religious groups and provide long-term basis for legislation on religious issues.

In an April 16 meeting with UOC-KP Patriarch Filaret and again during a July 4 meeting with the AUCCRO, Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman reaffirmed the government’s commitment to promoting religious freedom and dialogue with religious communities.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Russia-led forces in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts continued to detain and imprison members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as other religious leaders.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on November 30, representatives of the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (“LPR”) detained Jehovah’s Witness Mykhailo Papeta as he was travelling to Luhansk through an “LPR” checkpoint.  During a search of his vehicle, they found a business card containing a jw.org address.  They told him that all Jehovah’s Witnesses material and ministry had been banned.  According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, “LPR” representatives took the detainee to a police station, handcuffed, and beat him.  While under detention, “LPR” personnel searched Papeta’s home and confiscated some of his religious books.  After several hours, they released Papeta, threatening to imprison him again in the future.

According to media, on September 26 the “Supreme Court” of the Russia-controlled “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”) upheld the “DPR’s” acting prosecutor general’s request to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization.  The “LPR” authorities introduced a similar ban earlier in the year.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian government reportedly sent seven FSB (Federal Security Service) representatives to the “DPR” to intensify harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In October and November, “DPR” and “LPR” “law-enforcement agencies” reportedly received orders to identify and prosecute Jehovah’s Witnesses who did not comply with the ban on their ministry.  The authorities summoned several Jehovah’s Witnesses for interrogation.

During home visits in Boykovske (formerly Telmanove), “DPR police” warned all local Jehovah’s Witnesses about the ban on their activity and collected their signatures to acknowledge receipt of the warning.

On February 2, the Russia-controlled “LPR People’s Council” adopted the Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations.  The law requires all religious organizations except for the UOC-MP to undergo “state religious expert evaluation” and reregister by August 2.  The council later extended the deadline to October 15.  In October the Ukraine-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Institute of Religious Freedom quoted Protestant leaders as saying that the “LPR” had denied reregistration applications of Baptist and Pentecostal churches and Seventh-day Adventists, citing negative results of the “evaluation.”  The leaders described the refusal as a complete ban on their religious activities, including prohibiting religious ceremonies held by believers at their homes.  According to “LPR” proxy authorities, to be eligible for registration a “local religious organization” must have at least 30 adult members, while a “centralized religious organization” must be composed of at least five such local organizations.  These requirements effectively outlawed some smaller religious associations.  The law requires Christian Orthodox congregations to register as part of a “diocese recognized by the Orthodox Churches around the world within the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate,” putting at risk the further existence of several remaining UOC-KP parishes.

On April 13, the Russia-controlled “DPR People’s Council” amended the 2016 Law on the Freedom of Worship and Religious Associations banning all religious organizations that do not meet a March 1, 2019, registration deadline.  The revised law gave the “DPR’s Ministry of Culture” additional powers to monitor the registration of religious associations in the region and to abolish them on various grounds.  The requirement remained for a “religious group,” a newly created religious association not seeking legal entity status, to submit written notification to authorities about its function, location, administration, and the names and home addresses of its members.  The “DPR” authorities had 10 days to either put the group on the Register of Religious Groups or cancel the group’s legal status.  The “DPR” authorities had a month to examine the application documents of “religious organization,” a religious association seeking legal status.  In either case, the “DPR” authorities could conduct a “state religious expert evaluation” of the documents, which could take up to six months, or deny a registration request on a number of grounds, such as missing required information or if authorities had banned the registration of the religious entity that was applying.  All religious organizations and religious groups had to notify authorities about their continued existence annually.  The law required the UOC-MP to undergo a simplified “legalization” procedure without reregistration and “state religious expert evaluation.”

According to Muslim community and Ukrainian media reports, in late June the “Ministry of State Security of the DPR” raided Al-Amal Mosque in Donetsk, seizing prayer books and other religious materials.  The proxy authorities interrogated the mosque’s imam and congregation members.  Subsequently, the “DPR” proxy authorities closed the mosque based on what the Muslim community and some Ukrainian media reports called fabricated extremism charges.

According to the All-Ukraine Baptist Union, on June 3, the “LPR State Security Ministry” raided a Baptist church when its members convened for a religious service at a private apartment in Luhansk.  The authorities confiscated religious literature and sealed the entrance to the apartment.  All-Ukraine Baptist Union sources said that on August 2, proxy authorities ordered the head of the congregation to pay a fine of 8,000 Russian rubles ($110).  Following the raid, in July the “LPR State Security Ministry” labeled the All-Ukraine Baptist Union as an “extremist” religious organization.  The “LPR” proxy authorities accused the Baptists of “evading mandatory state registration,” promoting the “violent assault of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” and using “psychotropic substances” to put psychological pressure on members of the congregation.

As of August 29, Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives reported “DPR” and “LPR” representatives had seized 16 of their buildings in Debaltseve, Donetsk, Horlivka, Perevalsk, Khrustalny (former Krasny Luch), Boykovske (former Telmanove), Yenakieve, Holubivka (former Kirovsk), Alchevsk, Sorokyne (former Krasnodon), Bryanka, Vyhlehirsk, Luhansk, and Kadiyivka (former Stakhanov), and searched two.

On May 30, a fire destroyed a Kingdom Hall seized by the “LPR” in Luhansk in August 2017.  No additional information on the arson was available.

On January 22, the “LPR” authorities closed down a Kingdom Hall in Antratsyt.

No additional information on the closure was available.

According to NGO reports, Russia-led forces continued to use previously seized places of worship as military facilities.  Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives stated Russia-led forces used some places of worship as barracks.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, since June “DPR” and “LPR” authorities had collected information about their congregations in Donetsk, Torez, Snizhne, Shakhtarsk, Yenakieve, Makiyivka, Bryanka and others, and took some congregation members for questioning.

The “DPR” continued to label materials distributed by the Jehovah Witnesses as “extremist.”  From July 2017 to March 2018, the “Supreme Court” of the “DPR” issued four “rulings” declaring seven of their publications “extremist.”  The “court” did not notify Jehovah’s Witnesses about its “hearings.”  Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said that as a result, they could neither defend themselves against the charges nor appeal the “rulings.”

On August 22, the “DPR Supreme Court” upheld a request by the “DPR Acting Prosecutor General” to declare Jehovah’s Witnesses website as “extremist”.  On September 5, the “DPR Ministry of Communications” instructed telecommunications providers to ban internet access to the website pursuant to the “court’s” order.

On March 15, the “DPR Supreme Court” and “Ministry of Justice” posted a Republican List of Extremist Materials on their websites.  The list included the four latest issues of The Watchtower.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On September 6, the chief of the National Police described the explosion that injured a Jewish boy in Uman in 2017 as a terrorist act orchestrated by a foreign state’s intelligence service to incite interethnic and religious confrontation.  He said he had confirmed earlier police reports alleging that in previous years the same individuals as those responsible for the terrorist acts painted anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of synagogues in Lviv and Odesa, and desecrated a synagogue near the grave of Rabbi Nachman, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement, in Uman.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported three cases of physical assaults during the year, compared with 18 in 2017.  They said one of the attackers had physically and verbally assaulted them on at least 15 previous occasions.  On May 27, he beat up and threw stones at Jehovah Witnesses in Korchivtsi village, Chernivtsi Oblast, injuring one of them and damaging the victims’ car.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, police ignored their complaints and “mildly reprimanded” the attacker.  On June 13, police began to investigate the May 27 assault as a hate crime after the Jehovah’s Witnesses took the case to court.  The investigation continued at year’s end.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on June 7, an individual attacked several Jehovah’s Witnesses with a wooden stick in Zhytomyr.  He reportedly threw their missionary materials to the ground and punched one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses several times.  During the 20-minute assault, the attacker demanded that the Jehovah’s Witnesses make the sign of the cross.  Police categorized the assault as personal animosity between the attacker and his victims and forwarded the case to court.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 14, an unidentified man in Mykolayiv demanded that a Jehovah’s Witness stop his public ministry and then broke a beer bottle on the victim’s head.  The attacker fled before police arrived at the scene.

A court in Zhytomyr continued hearings on a criminal case against four individuals arrested for allegedly attacking Chabad Rabbi Mendel Deitsch at the city’s train station in 2016.  Deitsch subsequently died from his injuries.

Authorities dropped the investigation of a 2016 case involving a teenager who reportedly shoved a rabbi and used anti-Semitic insults, including “Kikes out of here,” after the teenager apologized to the Jewish community.

On May 31, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a UOC-MP priest who in 2014 physically and verbally assaulted a Jehovah’s Witness in Berezhonka village, Chernivtsi Oblast.  The victim sustained a concussion and was hospitalized.

On May 16, the Baranivka District Court, Zhytomyr Oblast sentenced Oleg Nikitchyn to 160 hours of community work for verbal and physical assault on Jehovah’s Witness Yuriy Vorobei in June 2017.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the court based its “lenient” sentence on the assailant’s statement, disregarding what they called verifiable signs of a hate crime.  The court rejected Vorobei’s demand that the attacker cover the cost of his medical treatment.

On May 8, Kyiv’s Sviatoshyn District Court found R.V. Prokopenko guilty of hooliganism and ordered him to pay a fine of 8500 hryvnias ($310) for insulting and injuring two Jehovah’s Witnesses, and damaging their mobile display of missionary materials in December 2017.  During the pretrial investigation, Prokopenko apologized to the victims and compensated them for damages.

On July 27, the UOC-MP celebrated St. Volodymyr’s feast day with a procession in Kyiv.  Police estimated that 20,000 persons participated in the event.  The UOC-MP put the number at 250,000.  Police detained three individuals linked to the Bratstvo group, which had reportedly intended to disrupt the procession.  Observers of the group described it as a pseudo-nationalist group with a history of provocations in support of pro-Russian causes.  During the march, Bratstvo streamed a live “interview” with one of its members posing as an anti-Ukrainian UOC-MP monk.

On September 16, private Israeli media outlet Mako posted a video appearing to show an allegedly Jewish man setting fire to a large outdoor crucifix located in Uman, Cherkasy Oblast, as Hasidic pilgrims came to a local river to perform a religious ritual.  According to media, the alleged arson provoked a subsequent altercation between some local residents and pilgrims; there we no reports of injuries.  Uman Jewish community leaders condemned the attack.  Law enforcement authorities opened an investigation.

The AUCRA, established in 2017 by a number of mainly smaller religious groups and churches, met on March 20 to discuss ways to promote interfaith dialogue.  The group reiterated its commitment to dialogue and to building partnerships between religious organizations and the government.

According to the UOC-MP, local authorities continued to transfer parish jurisdictions from the UOC-MP to the UOC-KP against the will of the parishioners.  Ternopil Oblast authorities reportedly refused to renew state registration of the UOC-MP parishes whose church buildings in Butyn and Kynakhivtsi villages were transferred to the UOC-KP in 2014 and 2017 following a split within the two congregations.

On April 3, several dozen members of the C14, which observers describe as a far-right group, arrived at the Kyiv Lavra Monastery compound and armed with sticks to “search” for pro-Russian separatists.  They held two monastery guards to cut sleeve patches off the guards’ uniform.  C14 left the monastery upon arrival of a police patrol.  Law enforcement authorities did not press charges against them.  C14 streamed the incident live on its Facebook page.

In a YouTube video posted on April 18, Bratstvo representatives urged Ukrainians to “seize” UOC-MP churches and ignore UOC-KP calls to refrain from violence against the UOC-MP.  Media and civil society characterized Bratstvo as a group of “paid thugs” notorious for their involvement in violent provocations orchestrated by Kremlin-linked political forces since 2004.

Posts on the Right Sector website continued to repeat previous statements by the group stating that, at the request of the UOC-KP, it would continue to visit sites disputed between the UOC-MP and UOC-KP to “facilitate” a change of jurisdiction.

Following the UOC-MP and Right Sector statements, UOC-KP Patriarch Filaret repeated previous UOC-KP statements in an August 2 interview with the UOC-KP press center, rejecting accusations that the UOC-KP was involved in the seizures of UOC-MP churches.  Patriarch Filaret repeated that these were legitimate transfers to UOC-KP jurisdiction initiated by parishioners.  The UOC-KP stated it would continue to act according to the law, but also would continue to accept into its jurisdiction any UOC-MP clergy and laity requesting affiliation with UOC-KP (and after the December 15 Establishment Council, with the OCU).  Following the autocephaly petition from the government and Orthodox bishops to the Ecumenical Patriarchate on April 20, the UOC-KP repeatedly stressed that transition of UOC-MP congregations to a future united Ukrainian Orthodox Church must be voluntary, and free from coercion and violence.

The Jewish community continued to express its concern about the continuing operation of the Krakivskiy Market on the grounds of an ancient Jewish cemetery in Lviv.  The UCSJ urged the government to halt permanently the construction of a multistory building on the cemetery grounds that was initially ordered suspended in 2017.  The UCSJ and civic activists continued to express concern over the possible continuation of construction of a high-rise building at the site of the World War II Jewish ghetto in Lviv.  In 2016, a court suspended the project after human remains were reportedly found and removed from the soil at the construction site.  As of year’s end, the remains had not been returned to the site.

According to UGCC representatives, on July 13, a group of local residents tried to prevent construction vehicles from entering a site designated by the local government for construction of the Nativity of Christ Church in Bila Tserkva, Kyiv Oblast.  One of the local residents reportedly held a hand grenade and threatened to detonate it.  Police detained the protester and brought administrative charges against him.  On August 17, dozens of individuals who UGCC said were “hired” destroyed a fence surrounding the construction site.  Police reportedly detained the suspects and released them after questioning.  The authorities opened an investigation.  On August 20, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement condemning the incident and urging law enforcement agencies to bring the perpetrators to justice.

According to media, on July 25, supporters of Svoboda physically assaulted Chief Editor of Visti Borznyanshchyny newspaper Serhiy Blyznyuk for publishing a positive report on a children’s summer camp organized by a local UOC-MP diocese.  Svoboda supporters described the article as “anti-Ukrainian.”  Under Svoboda’s pressure, the Borzna District State Administration in Chernihiv Oblast reportedly forced Blyznyuk to resign.

According to the UOC-MP, Svoboda supporters verbally abused Borzna District State Administration Deputy Chairman Oleksandr Maksymov and staffers Olena Taran and Yevhen Tarnovsky and forced them to write resignation letters for allowing the UOC-MP to host the camp in the district.  Earlier local Svoboda activists threatened Archbishop Klyment, head of the local UOC-MP diocese, for organizing the camp.  The UOC-MP representatives said on July 21, a group of drunk Svoboda supporters visited the camp but the site was empty because the children had left the day before.

According to the UOC-MP, on November 27, unidentified individuals splashed red paint at the entrance to UOC-MP diocesan office in Rivne and defaced its wall with graffiti, saying, “Our Sailors’ Blood is on Your Hands.”  The graffiti was an apparent reference to Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels and 24 crewmembers near the Kerch Strait.

According to police reports, on November 15, two men threw Molotov cocktails at the door of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s St. Andrew’s Church in Kyiv.  The Molotov cocktails did not ignite and caused no damage.  The attackers fled, using pepper spray against security guards who confronted them.  According to the UOC-KP, the arsonists injured a UOC-KP priest.  The attack occurred after the government gave permission for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to open a representative mission in the historic building.  On November 27, police detained one of suspected arsonists and found flammable liquid in his apartment in Kyiv.

According to the UAOC, on August 30, unidentified individuals burned and destroyed the interior and roof of the Nativity of the Theotokos Church in Hanychi Village, Transcarpathia Oblast.  No suspects were detained.

According to the UOC-MP, on March 14, unidentified individuals set fire to an auxiliary building near the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God Joy of All Who Sorrow in Kyiv.  The fire destroyed the roof and stored construction materials.  Shortly before the fire, two individuals reportedly asked the church’s security guard about the church’s affiliation.  Police could not identify the perpetrators.  There have been six previous arson attacks on the church since 2014.

According to the UOC-MP, on March 10, unidentified individuals set fire to its Transfiguration Church in Kyiv, causing serious damage to the building.  Police opened an investigation; however, no one was detained by year’s end.

According to media sources, on January 25, individuals who self-identified as members of C14 and others, tore down an information board near the UOC-MP Sts. Volodymyr and Olga Church in central Kyiv.  They posted leaflets on church doors describing congregation members as Russian FSB agents.  The individuals fled when police arrived.  C14 then posted footage of the occurrence on its Facebook page.

According to police, on the night of January 25, individuals doused the UOC-MP Sts. Volodymyr and Olga Church with flammable liquid and ignited it, causing minor damage to the building.  They insulted and spit at UOC-MP clerics who arrived at the scene.  Police detained two suspects and found several canisters with flammable liquid near the church.  The detainees said the attack was in retaliation for what they characterized as the Moscow Patriarchate’s endorsement of Russian aggression against Ukraine.  On January 27, Kyiv’s Shevchenkivsky District Court ordered the detention of the suspects for 60 days.  Parliament member Ihor Lutsenko condemned ‎the Shevchenkivsky District Court’s decision to detain the suspects, describing members of the monastic congregation of the church as “FSB agents.”  The Kyiv Appellate Court released the suspects on bail on February 5, following petitions from parliamentarians and a UOC-MP request to mitigate punishment for the suspects.  During the court hearing, the suspects pleaded guilty.  They described the arson attempt as their protest against UOC-MP clerics, saying they were “FSB agents,” and against the “unlawful” construction of the church building at a protected historical heritage site.  On February 6, UOC-KP Patriarch Filaret condemned the arson attack.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 25 cases of vandalism against Kingdom Halls during the year, compared with 30 acts of vandalism in 2017.  The incidents included an arson attack that destroyed a Kingdom Hall in Radomyshl, Zhytomyr Oblast, on March 25.  Police continued to investigate the arson at year’s end.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 19, unidentified individuals broke windows of a Kingdom Hall in Smila, Cherkasy Oblast.  Police made no progress in investigating this occurrence or two previous acts of vandalism against the building committed in 2017.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 2, unidentified individuals defaced a wall of a Kingdom Hall in Kharkiv with graffiti saying “sect.”  Police did not open a criminal investigation of the act, reportedly describing it as a minor case that did not meet the threshold for an investigation.

The National Minority Rights Monitoring Group reported 12 cases of anti-Semitic vandalism during the year, compared with 24 in 2017 and 19 in 2016.

The Jewish community continued to express concern over the local government’s inability to relocate a cross that self-described nationalist activists placed in the old Jewish cemetery in Kolomyia in 2017.  On September 6, the Kolomyia City Council upheld the activists’ request to declare the cemetery a memorial park.  The Jewish community filed a lawsuit against the decision, saying that the new legal status of the areas would make it impossible to seek relocation of the cross.  The hearing continued at the Ivano-Frankivsk District Administrative Court at year’s end.

The case against three suspects who vandalized a local synagogue and cemetery and attempted to set fire to the ohel, a structure covering the grave of Chief Rabbi Gillel Boruch Liechtenstein, continued in Kolomyia, Ivano Frankivsk Oblast.

According to the Jewish community and police reports, Holocaust memorials and Jewish religious monuments were vandalized in various locations, including in Cherkasy, Chernivtsi, Khmelnytsky, Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, Poltava, Rivne, and Ternopil Oblasts and Vinnystya City.  Police investigations into these acts continued at year’s end; according to police, there was no progress on these case or similar cases from 2017.

Jewish community representatives reported systematic desecration of a Holocaust mass grave in Sosonky near Rivne.  On July 21, police detained one of two alleged perpetrators who dug up the mass grave in search of gold.  The second vandal fled the scene.  The detainee reportedly claimed he was only a driver for his associate and was soon released; the case remained under investigation at year’s end.  In April police detained two individuals who dug a tunnel through the Holocaust mass grave in Nemyriv, Vinnytsya Oblast, and removed human remains.  The individuals said they were looking for gold from the grave.

In mid-November unidentified individuals in Kyiv posted leaflets announcing a rally to topple the government to “hand over power to the people.”  Authors of the leaflet featuring a crossed-out Menorah, the president’s photo, and a satanic pentagram, urged the government’s opponents to stop tolerating “genocide.”  According to media reports, on November 18, approximately 300 individuals participated in the announced gathering in central Kyiv.  Its anonymous organizer, wearing a balaclava, and other speakers blamed “Yids” for “seizing power” in the country.  One speaker demanded that Jews be “destroyed.”  The crowd helped the man in a balaclava escape from police, who tried to detain him because of his statements.  After the scuffle, police briefly detained a suspect allegedly involved in the gathering.

On October 29, during a protest against increasing utility tariffs in Vinnytsya, protesters Yuriy Kysil and Mykhailo Siranchuk stated Jews had “seized power” in the country.  On November 23, in response to an inquiry by Member of Parliament Oleksandr Feldman, the Vinnytsya police department said the statements did not constitute hate speech because the activists “had noted they did not mean to fuel ethnic, racial, or religious hatred.”

On February 2, Maryana Polyanska, editor of the Chortkivsky Visnyk newspaper in Ternopil Oblast, published an article titled “Yids or Jews?” stating Jews profiteered at the expense of Ukrainians and dominated the government.  The regional police and procuracy investigated the article as an attempt to incite interethnic hatred.  The local government condemned the publication.  On February 9, the Independent Media Trade Union condemned Polyanska’s article as an expression of “religious and ethnic discrimination” and terminated her union membership.

According to the Vechirniy Kamyanets news website, on October 14, unidentified individuals painted swastikas on a Holocaust memorial in Kamyanets-Podilsky, Khmelnytsky Oblast.

According to media reports, on April 27-28, unidentified individuals smashed windows and scattered prayer books at the ohel over at the grave of renowned 17th century Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, in Ostroh, Rivne Oblast.  Police opened an investigation but did not report any developments by year’s end.

According to media sources, in mid-April unidentified individuals painted neo-Nazi graffiti on a Holocaust monument in Poltava.  Police said they had not made progress in the investigation by year’s end.

On March 22, the SBU announced the detention of several individuals accused of painting anti-Semitic graffiti on a Jewish community center in Sumy in December 2017.  According to the SBU, Russian intelligence agencies had ordered the group to commit anti-Semitic vandalism.

According to media reports, on January 29, a masked individual ran into a Lviv bookstore hosting a Holocaust history lecture and threw a smoke bomb.  The attacker fled after a participant in the event confronted him.  The Lviv mayor’s office condemned the attack, calling on the law enforcement agencies to investigate it.  Police opened an investigation by did not identify the attacker.

According to the Jewish community, police had yet to identify the arsonists who in 2017 damaged parts of the Jewish cemetery in Kolomiya.

Police continued to investigate 2017 acts of vandalism against Holocaust memorials in Lviv, Kyiv, Odesa, Svalyava, Ternopil and Uzhhorod.  Authorities also continued to investigate 2016 acts of vandalism against the Israeli flag in Babyn Yar in Kyiv, the ohel on the grave of Rabbi Aryeh Leib in Shpola, and desecration of the Holocaust monument in Uzhhorod, all reportedly without progress.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, embassy officials, and other U.S. government officials continued to meet with the Administration of the President, the Ministries of Culture, Interior, Justice, and Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, political parties, and local officials to engage on issues of religious freedom.  They discussed the importance of fair and transparent treatment of religious groups during the establishment of the new OCU, preservation of religious heritage sites, support for religious minorities, and increasing manifestations of anti-Semitism.  In meetings with government officials at both the national and local levels, the Ambassador called for unequivocal condemnation and swift prosecution of anti-Semitic acts.  The Ambassador also urged government officials to increase their efforts to ensure the preservation of historic religious sites.

The embassy issued several public statements condemning religiously motivated acts of violence and calling for tolerance and restraint to ensure a peaceful transition period around autocephaly.  The embassy also used social media to amplify U.S. government support for religious freedom, including the rights of religious minorities.

The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with government officials, religious leaders, and activists in September to promote religious freedom.  The Ambassador urged government officials to condemn anti-Semitism and called for the government to protect the right of all religious groups to govern their religion according to their beliefs and practice their faiths freely.  He met with religious activists and former prisoners of war to discuss religious freedom abuses in the “DPR,” “LPR,” and occupied Crimea.

Embassy officials continued their meetings with internally displaced Muslims from Crimea to discuss their abuse by occupation authorities, including regular searches and detentions, a continuing inability to practice their religion freely or express dissent, a lack of restitution of their religious properties, and other continuing problems they faced with the Crimean occupation authorities.

Embassy officials met with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom abuses in the “DPR” and “LPR,” including banning of certain religious groups, registration requirements, and a lack of restitution of their religious properties.

The Ambassador hosted an interfaith iftar in June during Ramadan.  Religious leaders from across faiths, government officials, and members of the diplomatic community attended.  The Ambassador and other embassy officials participated in Hanukkah, Christmas, Holocaust commemoration, and other religious events during which they emphasized the importance of religious dialogue and equality and encouraged efforts to combat anti-Semitism and preserve cultural heritage.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to urge the peaceful resolution of property and jurisdiction disputes in meetings with leaders of prominent Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious groups in Kyiv and Lviv.  In particular, the embassy continued to encourage religious groups involved in the dispute related to the location of parts of Lviv’s Krakivskiy Market on the former site of the city’s Old Jewish Cemetery to resolve the dispute through constructive dialogue.  Embassy officials also discussed other issues affecting religious communities, such as registration procedures for religious groups, desecration of monuments, and the government’s procedures for religious property restitution.


IN THIS SECTION: UKRAINE (ABOVE) | CRIMEA

Uzbekistan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion or belief and separation of government and religion.  In May the parliament approved a religious freedom “roadmap” to implement all twelve of the recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur on Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed.  It simplified rules for registering religious organizations and their reporting requirements.  The government established a consultative body – the Council of Faiths – as a platform for discussing issues with 17 recognized religious groups.  Through presidential pardons, the government released 185 prisoners convicted on religious extremism charges.  In September the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Uzbekistan dismissed Imam Parpiev for diverging from his government-approved sermon.  For the first time in eight years, the government registered a church, Svet Miru, run by a Presbyterian religious community in Chirchick, near Tashkent.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a significant drop in police harassment of their members:  114 cases compared with 240 in 2017.  According to multiple sources, until late in the year, police continued to raid unregistered religious group meetings, detain participating individuals, conduct legal and illegal searches, and seize outlawed religious materials from private residences.  One raid was reported following the government’s announcement in December it would halt raids on religious groups.  Courts continued to sentence detained individuals to fines and prison; however, for the first time, higher courts overturned some of these sentences.  Members of religious groups whose registration applications the government denied remained unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecution.  Authorities fined members of some groups, including unregistered Jehovah’s Witnesses, for engaging in collective worship and other religious activities.  The Ministry of Education issued a new dress code prohibiting the wearing of religious garments and symbols, such as skullcaps, crosses, and hijabs, in schools.  Media reported authorities ordered more than 100 girls at the Tashkent International Islamic Academy to remove their hijabs or face expulsion.  Police detained and fined nine bloggers who called for the government to allow girls to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to attend mosques.  According to press reports, the Tashkent District Department of Public Education instructed educators to schedule school activities on Fridays to prevent the release of pupils for prayers.  Human rights activists said police continued to check the identities of worshippers and blocked entrance to most mosques for anyone under 18 years old.  According to Roman Catholic leaders, the government banned a summer camp for Catholic youth in the Fergana Valley and surveilled Catholic masses.  Media reported the government intentionally blocked access to several websites containing religious content, including Christian and Islamic-related news.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and private persons continued to report social pressure on individuals, particularly among the majority Muslim population, against religious conversion.  Ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity reportedly suffered continued harassment and discrimination, including government pressure to repudiate their new faith and on their family members to convince them to do so.  Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, and Baptists, said they continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.  Some religious minorities said social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials.

Senior officials from the Department of State, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, met with government officials and recommended tangible steps the government could take to improve religious freedom.  Steps raised included releasing individuals detained for engaging in peaceful religious activities; relaxing requirements for registering faith-based organizations so they may all operate legally and not be subject to fines or raids; allowing members of religious groups to practice their faiths freely outside registered houses of worship; removing restrictions on the importation and use of electronic and hardcopy religious literature; and providing protection for public discourse on religion.  Embassy officials urged the government to include religious prisoners of conscience in its annual amnesty and routinely met with religious groups and civil society regarding religious freedom and tolerance.

On November 28, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Uzbekistan on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.  Uzbekistan had been designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 2006-2017 and moved to a Special Watch List after the Secretary determined the government had made substantial progress in improving respect for religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 30 million (July 2018 estimate).  Uzbek government statistics estimate the country’s population at 33 million.  According to U.S. government estimates, 88 percent of the population is Muslim, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates 93-94 percent of the population is Muslim.  Most are Sunni of the Hanafi School.  The government states approximately 1 percent of the population is Shia of the Jaafari School, concentrated in the provinces of Bukhara and Samarkand.  Approximately 3.5 percent of the population is Russian Orthodox, according to reports, and Russian migration statistics indicate this number continues to decline as ethnic Russians and other ethnic Slavs emigrate.  The government states the remaining 3 percent includes small communities of Catholics, ethnic Korean Christians, Baptists, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and atheists.  According to members of the Jewish community, the population, a mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardic (Bukharian) Jews, numbers fewer than 10,000.  There are approximately 6,000 Ashkenazi and fewer than 2,000 Bukharian Jews, concentrated in Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, and the Fergana Valley.  The Jewish population continues to decline because of emigration.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the freedom of religion or belief, including freedom of not professing any religion.  According to the constitution, these rights may not encroach on lawful interests, rights, and freedoms of other citizens, the state, or society.  The law allows for restricting religious activities when necessary to maintain national security, the social order, or morality.  The constitution establishes a secular framework providing for noninterference by the state in the affairs of religious communities, separates the state and religion from each other, and prohibits political parties based on religious principles.

The 1998 law on religion details the scope of and limitations on the exercise of the freedom of religion or belief.  The law criminalizes unregistered religious activity; requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution and storage of religious publications; and prohibits proselytism and other missionary activities.

In June the parliament approved a new law “On Countering Extremism.”  The legislation states it aims to provide for individuals’ security, protect the society and the state, preserve the constitutional order and the territorial integrity of the country, retain peace, and provide for multiethnic and multireligious harmony among citizens.  The law provides a framework of basic concepts, principles, and directions for countering extremism as well as extremist activities.

The criminal code distinguishes between “illegal” groups, which are unregistered groups, and “prohibited” groups viewed as “extremist.”  It criminalizes membership in organizations banned as terrorist groups.  It is a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of four million to eight million som ($480 to $960), to organize or participate in an illegal religious group.  The law also specifically prohibits persuading others to join illegal religious groups, with penalties of up to three years in prison.  The criminal code provides penalties of up to 20 years in prison for organizing or participating in the activities of religious extremist, fundamentalist, separatist, or other prohibited groups.  Charges against alleged members of religious extremist groups may include the stated offenses of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and terrorism.

By law, all religious groups must register with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).  The law states a religious organization may carry out its activities only after the MOJ registers it.  The law lists a series of requirements, including having a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units for central registration; presenting a membership list of at least 100 citizens ages 18 years or older belonging to the group; and providing a charter with a legal, physical address to the local MOJ branch.

Religious groups applying to register in a specific locality require the concurrence of the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), which reports to the Cabinet of Ministers and the neighborhood (mahalla) committee.  They must submit “letters of guarantee” from the regional branches of the Ministry of Construction, the State Sanitary and Epidemiological Service, and the Department of the State Fire Safety Service under the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The law requires notarized documents stating the leading founding members have the religious education necessary to preach their faith, the group’s sources of income, and CRA concurrence to register.  The law also requires that local governments (khokimiyats) concur in registration of groups in their areas and that the group presents notification from khokimiyat authorities stating the legal and postal addresses of the organization conform to all legal requirements, including obtaining authorization certificates from the main architectural division, sanitary-epidemiological services, fire services, and locally selected mahalla committees.  After checking the submitted certificates, khokimiyats grant registration permission and then send the documents to the CRA for review.  By law, the MOJ may take one to three months to review a registration application.  The MOJ may approve or deny the registration, or cease review without issuing a decision.

The law states registered religious groups may expand throughout the country and have appropriate buildings, organize religious teaching, and possess religious literature.

The law limits the operations of a registered group to those areas where it is registered.  The law grants only registered religious groups the right to establish schools and train clergy.  Individual clergy members receive accreditation from the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan.

The CRA oversees registered religious activity.  The Council for Confessions, under the CRA, includes ex-officio representatives from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish groups.  It discusses ways of ensuring compliance with the law, the rights and responsibilities of religious organizations and believers, and other issues related to religion.

The law criminalizes unregistered religious activity.  Any religious service conducted by an unregistered religious organization is illegal.

The law restricts the activities of NGOs, the government classification for religious congregations.

The government must approve religious activities outside of formal worship, as well as religious activities intended for children under 16 years old without parental permission.

The law requires registered religious organizations to inform authorities 30 days in advance of holding religious meetings and other religious ceremonies at the group’s registered address(es).  The administrative code requires all registered religious organizations to seek permission from local authorities and then inform the CRA and MOJ representative 30 days before holding religious meetings, street processions, or other religious ceremonies to occur outside of a group’s registered building(s), including those activities involving foreign individuals or worshippers from another region.  Unregistered groups are prohibited from organizing any religious activity.

The law punishes private entities for leasing premises or other property to, or facilitating gatherings, meetings, and street demonstrations of religious groups without state permission.  The law also criminalizes unauthorized facilitation of children’s and youth meetings, as well as literary and other study groups related to worship.  The administrative penalty for violating these provisions ranges from fines of 9,215,000 to 18,430,000 som ($1,100 to $2,220) or up to 15 days imprisonment.

The administrative code requires all religious organizations to inform the CRA, local magistrate, and the local MOJ representative one month in advance of religious meetings, street processions, or other religious ceremonies that are to occur outside of a group’s registered building(s), including those activities involving foreign individuals or worshippers from another region.

Under the law, state bodies, including mahalla committees and nonstate and noncommercial public organizations, have wide-ranging powers to combat suspected “antisocial activity” in cooperation with police.  These powers include preventing the activity of unregistered religious organizations, ensuring observance of rights of citizens to religious freedom, prohibiting propagation of religious views, and considering other questions related to observance of the law.

The law prohibits all individuals except clergy and individuals serving in leadership positions of officially recognized religious organizations from wearing religious attire in public places.  The government does not enforce this section of law; individuals may appear in public places in religious attire.

The law prohibits proselytism and other missionary activities.  The criminal code punishes proselytism with up to three years in prison, and proscribes efforts to draw minors into religious organizations without parental permission.

The law requires religious groups to obtain a license to publish or distribute religious materials.  The law requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution and storage of religious publications.  Materials include books, magazines, newspapers, brochures, leaflets, audiovisual items including CDs and DVDs, and materials posted to the internet describing the origins, history, ideology, teachings, commentaries, and rituals of various religions of the world.  To receive a Bible, individuals must complete a “Bible application,” which is subject to government clearance before the group or individual may purchase a government-authorized version of the Bible.

The administrative code punishes “illegal production, storage, import, or distribution of materials of religious content” with a fine of 20 to 100 times the minimum monthly wage (3,686,000 to 18,430,000 som – $440 to $2,200) for individuals.  The fine for government officials committing the same offense is 50 to 150 times the minimum monthly wage ($1,100 to $3,300).  The administrative code permits the confiscation of the materials and the “corresponding means of producing and distributing them.”  Courts issue fines under the administrative code.  In instances where an individual is unable to pay the fine, courts will issue an order garnishing wages.  The criminal code imposes a fine of 100 to 200 times the minimum monthly wage (18,430,000 to 36,860,000 som – $2,200 to $4,400) or “corrective labor” of up to three years for individuals who commit these acts subsequent to a judgment rendered under the administrative code.  In practice, criminal code violations for religious literature are rarely applied.

The state forbids banned “extremist religious groups” from distributing any type of publications.  Individuals who distribute leaflets or literature deemed extremist via social networks are subject to criminal prosecution and face prison terms ranging from five to 20 years.  According to the law, individuals in possession of literature by authors the government deems to be extremist, or of any literature illegally imported or produced, are subject to arrest and prosecution.

The law prohibits private teaching of religious principles.  It limits religious instruction to officially sanctioned religious schools and state-approved instructors.  Children may not receive optional religious education in public schools, except for some classes providing religious information or “lessons of enlightenment” (the study of national culture) in the curriculum.

Religious education establishments acquire the right to operate after registering with the MOJ and receiving the appropriate license.  Individuals teaching religious subjects at religious educational establishments must have a religious education recognized by the state and authorization to teach.  These provisions make it illegal for laypersons to teach others any form of religion or belief, or for government-approved religious instructors to teach others outside the confines of an approved educational institution.

The law permits only religious groups with a registered central administrative body to train religious personnel and conduct religious instruction.  Nine madrassahs, including one for women, and a Russian Orthodox and a Protestant seminary have official approval to train religious personnel and provide secondary education.  The Cabinet of Ministers considers madrassah-granted diplomas equivalent to other diplomas, enabling madrassah graduates to continue to university-level education.

The law requires imams to have graduated from a recognized religious education facility and registered for a license with the government.  The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan assigns a graduate to a particular mosque as a deputy imam before he may subsequently become an imam.  According to government officials, clerics from various religions, including the Shia Muslim and Jewish communities, who obtained their qualifications abroad may officiate within licensed premises.

The law allows individuals objecting to military service based on their religious beliefs to perform alternative civilian service.

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

Government Practices

According to the report issued in February by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed, who visited the country in October 2017, freedom of religion or belief was subject to excessive government regulations that prioritized security over freedom.  The rapporteur stated the government continued to constrain the rights of its citizens to freely speak of, publicly profess, or share their religion, faith, or belief with others in defiance of its own laws and international obligations.  He said the various criminal code provisions addressing extremism captured a wide range of activities and could restrict activities protected under international law.  He also said the government imposed strict penalties on those worshipping outside an authorized location.  The special rapporteur provided a list of 12 recommendations, which included revising the 1998 Law on Religion, simplifying registration procedures, and allowing religious education for children.

In May the parliament approved the “Roadmap to ensure freedom of religion or belief” in an effort to implement all 12 recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur Shaheed.  The roadmap also included the mechanisms needed for their implementation, suggested deadlines for these actions, responsible agencies, and the expected results.  In May and September the government reduced the fee for registration of religions organizations from 100 to 20 times the minimum monthly wage (from 18,430,000 to 3,686,000 som – $2,200 to $440); reduced organizational reporting requirements from four times per year to once; and adopted the practice of suspending a religious organization’s activity only at the organization’s discretion or by a court decision.  The government established a consultative body – the Council of Faiths under the Religious Affairs Committee – including representation from the Committee on Religious Affairs and providing a platform for 16 participating religious groups registered in the country, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, to develop recommendations on religious freedom for the committee.

According to the government, 1,503 persons convicted of engaging in terrorist and extremist activities, or those belonging to what the government called religious fundamentalist organizations, were serving sentences in the country’s detention facilities.  President Shavkat Mirziyoyev pardoned 185 individuals who had been previously convicted of membership in movements the government labeled extremist, compared with 399 in 2017.  NGO representatives stated they could not independently verify the numbers of such individuals who remained in detention.

Civil society groups expressed concern that the law’s definition of extremism remained too broad.  NGO representatives said the government continued torture of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of “religious extremism” or of participating in underground Islamic activity.

On September 19, the government issued a presidential decree creating a procedure for citizens to apply for release of criminal liability for joining terrorist, extremist or other banned organizations.  In accordance with the decree, citizens would be exempted from criminal liability if they had not undergone military training, did not participate in terrorism financing, or distributed information promoting terrorism.  The decree established the Republican Interdepartmental Commission to review cases.

Media reported authorities closely observed social gatherings where religious issues were discussed, particularly among men, and arrested several individuals based on their participation in such gatherings.  Religious groups and human rights activists reported armed law enforcement officers continued to raid meetings of unregistered groups and detain their members.  Courts continued to sentence members of minority religious groups to administrative detention following searches, at times without valid search warrants, of homes and offices.

During the year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses recorded 114 episodes of “hostile acts” by authorities against their members, affecting 233 persons, ranging from interrogations to physical abuse in police detention and threats of physical violence against family members, to home raids, unlawful searches and seizures of personal property, and employment discrimination.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses recorded 240 episodes of such acts affecting 480 persons in 2017.

According to unregistered evangelical Baptist Congregation representatives, in August the city court in Chust, Namangan Region, sentenced Pastor Alisher and his assistant Abror to 10 days of administrative detention.  Judge Bokhodir Kazakov found them and six women guilty of “illegal religious activity” for gathering at Alisher’s home.  Authorities fined the women one million som ($120) each and confiscated their mobile phones.

According to human rights groups, in August and September police and secret police officers detained up to nine bloggers in at least five regions of the country.  The bloggers had discussed a range of religious and other themes, including calls for women to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to pray in mosques.  Courts assessed fines and jail terms of up to two weeks.  One of the Tashkent-based bloggers, Adham Olimov (also known as Musannif Adham), was fined and jailed for 15 days.  According to independent local news agencies, the bloggers were released on September 6-11.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists website and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)’s Uzbek Service, blogger Ziyodilla Kabirov (also known as Ziyovuddin Rahim) was sentenced to 10 days’ administrative arrest and fined 184,300 som ($22).  Blogger Otabek Usamov, who wrote commentaries for the religious website Azon.uz, was sentenced to 15 days’ administrative arrest.

According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, on July 17, a Fergana court overturned a district court decision giving Muslim scholar and human rights activist Musajon Bobojonov a three-year suspended prison term on charges of disseminating “extremist material” and using religion to disturb public order.  According to RFE/RL, Bobojonov heads the Ezgulik (Compassion) human right group’s branch in the eastern city of Andijon.

In February two Muslim sisters, Zulhumor and Mehrinisso Hamdamova, were released after spending more than eight years in prison.  Authorities arrested them in 2009 for holding unauthorized religious meetings.  In a closed trial in 2010, the Kashkadarya Regional Criminal Court sentenced the sisters to between six and one-half and seven years in prison.  Authorities convicted both sisters under sections of the criminal code regarding attempting to change the constitutional order, holding materials threating public security and public order, and participation in religious extremist, separatist, fundamentalist, or other banned organizations.

According to Forum 18, in March Zuboyd Mirzorakhimov, a Tajik citizen, was released after serving most of a five-year sentence for possessing an electronic copy of the Quran and Islamic sermons on his mobile phone while transiting through Tashkent.  A court convicted Mirzorakhimov in 2013 under the section of the criminal code covering smuggling material to “propagandize religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism.”

According to Forum 18, on January 8, in the Parkent District of Tashkent Region, a court fined Yevgeni Kupayev, his wife Natalya Kupayeva, and seven other Jehovah’s Witnesses 1,843,000 som ($220) for distributing religious literature on the street.  According to Forum 18, on February 25, police officers in Parkent District, led by Senior Lieutenant Khozhiyev, arrested Kupayev and Natalya Kupayeva, along with Aliya Sadikova and Elmira Davletshina, at a bus stop when they were returning home from sharing their religious beliefs with persons in the village of Karakalpak.  They were all released immediately after questioning.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum 18 that police physically forced them into a patrol car and took them to the police station, where police questioned them and a male officer conducted a body search of all four individuals, including the three women.  Sadikova and Davletshina were not charged.  On March 14, prosecutors opened a criminal case against Kupayev and Kupayeva for “illegal manufacture, storage, import or distribution [of] religious materials.”  On November 9, a Tashkent court ordered their telephones confiscated and fined Kupayev and Kupayeva 10 times the monthly minimum wage each, – 1,843,000 som ($220).

In January Jehovah’s Witnesses Dilbar Odinayeva and Turabek Asadov were summoned to the Samarkand police station and interrogated.  A police officer threatened them and demanded they convert to Islam, according to congregation sources.  Authorities subsequently released them without charges.

In February Jehovah’s Witness Radjabbanu Khodzhayeva reported that mahalla representatives and four police officers in Bukhara came to her home.  They questioned her about her beliefs and demanded she start reading the Quran.

In February Jehovah’s Witness Iroda Razikovna reported that Tashkent police searched her home and interrogated her.  Police demanded she write an explanation of her beliefs and reason for leaving Islam.

Law enforcement officers raided meetings and detained participants of unregistered religious groups and social gatherings where participants discussed religious issues.  According to multiple sources, police continued to raid unregistered religious group meetings, conduct legal and illegal searches, and seize outlawed religious materials from private residences.  One raid was reported following the government’s announcement in December it would halt raids on religious groups.

According to the 2018 Jehovah’s Witnesses Country Report, on March 28, police in the village of Uzinavo in Karshi District interrupted a peaceful religious meeting of six Witnesses in a private home.  The officers conducted what the Witnesses said was an unlawful search of the house and seized a Bible and other religious literature in the Uzbek language.  Police interrogated the group at the police station until 1:30 a.m.  According to the report, police ignored requests for medical assistance from two of the women who suffered from high blood pressure.  Police released the accused after questioning and did not pursue criminal charges.

According to Forum 18 news service, on November 25, 40 plainclothes officials, including members of the National Guard, the State Security Service secret police, the MOJ, and Yashnobod District police, raided Baptist Sunday worship services in the Yashnobod District of Tashkent.  The congregation was part of the unregistered Baptist Council of Churches.  Officials searched the building and confiscated approximately 7,800 items of literature and DVDs.  Forum 18 reported police took 14 individuals, including a 14-year-old boy, to the Yashnobod police station and made them wait outside in the cold while officials tried to force them to sign statements admitting to participating in “an unauthorized meeting.”  When they refused, police interrogated them for nine and a half hours.  According to Forum 18, police recorded names, addresses, workplaces, and other personal details of all the individuals present at the service and on November 27 came to the home of one of the participants for a “passport check.”  Authorities later released all individuals without charges and returned the confiscated literature.

Forum 18 reported that on November 23, police raided the home of Sharofat Allamova in Urgench where she, her two daughters, and four friends, including the pastor of her church Ahmadjon Nazarov, were having dinner.  Police searched the home without a warrant and confiscated a New Testament.  According to Forum 18, police filmed everyone present and recorded their personal details and addresses.  On November 24, Captain Mukhammad Rakhimov, head of the Urgench Police Struggle with Extremism and Terrorism Department, brought one of the dinner participants to the mahalla committee and tried to pressure her to accuse the host and the pastor of holding “unauthorized religious meetings” by threatening to take away her two children.  According to Forum 18, when the woman refused to sign a statement about what one officer called “illegal Christian Wahhabi activity,” police brought her mother-in-law to the station and ordered her to beat the daughter-in-law until she signed.  Forum 18 also stated police tried to pressure Nazarov to sign a statement but he refused.

According to Forum 18, on September 30, police in Tashkent raided a group of 40 Protestants meeting at a private home for a meal and Bible study.  Without a search warrant, police detained the group and confiscated Bibles and other literature, including DVDs and CDs, the group had purchased legally from the state-registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.  Forum 18 said police applied “psychological pressure” to the group; one woman and a five-year-old girl were subsequently hospitalized.

According to local congregation members, in July in Urgench, police officers detained seven Christian teenagers who were decorating greeting cards.  Ten security officials entered the apartment of the leader of a local evangelical Christian community, Akhmed Nazarov, where Nazarov’s wife, Elena, and the teenagers were the only individuals present.  Police confiscated a calendar with popular proverbs, six greeting cards, a notebook that contained Christian music, another notebook with Uzbek-language quotes from the Bible, and two pieces of paper with handwritten scripture.  Authorities charged Nazarov with holding an unauthorized religious meeting and destroyed all the confiscated materials.  In the entire Khorezm Region, where Urgench is located, according to Nazarov, there was one registered Protestant religious organization, commonly known as “the Korean Church.”  Nazarov told Fergananews.ru that he collected the necessary number of signatures for registration, but an employee of the regional department of the Ministry of Justice told him, “Uzbeks will not be registered.”

In April in Chimbay City, Karakalpakstan Region, local police raided an all-Christian birthday party, according to congregation members.  Police took the participants to the local police station and charged them with holding an “illegal religious meeting.”  Police released them early the next morning.  On July 13, a local judge found all the individuals who had been present except the minors guilty of engaging in illegal religious activity.  The judge sentenced all the women to pay penalties of 1,254,000 to 1,672,000 som ($150 to $200) each, and the owner of the house to pay 8,360,000 som ($1,000).  The 11 men involved were sentenced to five to seven days of administrative detention.  Later, the Superior Court of Karakalpakstan vacated the fines and returned all confiscated possessions.

The government continued to ban Islamic groups it defined as “extremist” and criminalized membership in such groups, which included 22 religious organizations.  Groups the government labeled “extremist” were unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecutions.  The government stated its actions against persons or groups suspected of religious extremism were not a matter of religious freedom, but rather a matter of preventing the overthrow of secular authorities and precluding incitement of interreligious instability and hatred.

According to human rights activists and religious community representatives, the government continued to review the content of imams’ sermons as well as the volume and substance of Islamic materials published by the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan (Muftiate, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in the country).  The sources said the government ensured its control over the Muftiate through the CRA by selecting the Muftiate’s staff and circulating approved sermons for prayer services.  The government did not legally limit the volume of public calls to prayer, although many mosques voluntarily did so, according to media sources.

In September the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan dismissed Imam Fazliddin Parpiev from his position at Tashkent’s Omina Mosque after Parpiev posted a video appeal to the president asking him to allow more religious freedom, including lifting the country’s ban on women’s Islamic headscarves and on men’s beards.  In his Friday sermon, Parpiev also addressed the right to mosque attendance and religious education for youth.  While the state-backed Muslim Board of Uzbekistan did not specifically mention the reasons for dismissing Parpiev, the imam told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that shortly prior to his dismissal, an official of the state’s religious affairs department had told him that “You shouldn’t have deviated from the script” – an apparent reference to his questioning state policy on Islam.  The dismissal letter, signed by four top officials of the Muslim Board, said the board’s ethics commission made the decision to terminate Parpiev’s contract.  Parpiev subsequently left the country, according to media reports.

The government stated it did not review mahalla committee decisions and activities related to religious freedom, including local registration decisions, but reports continued to state that there was ongoing coordination.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the new registration rules adopted in May and September contained many of the same obstacles to registration for all groups as the 1998 law.  According to the CRA, by year’s end the country had 2,260 registered religious organizations representing six different faiths.  Muslim religious groups operated 2,052 Sunni mosques, four Shia mosques, 15 scientific centers, and 12 educational institutes.  According to the CRA, the total number of mosques reached 2,056, compared with 2,043 in 2017, and the highest number since 1998.  The 177 non-Muslim groups include 36 Orthodox churches, five Catholic churches, 50 Pentecostal churches, 22 Baptist churches, nine Adventist churches, three New Apostol churches, two Lutheran churches, one Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, one Voice of God church, 27 Korean Protestant churches, two Armenian churches, eight Jewish communities, six Baha’i centers, one Hari Krishna temple, and one Buddhist temple.  There was also a registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that, despite continued efforts to engage with the government, they had no success in registering new congregations, despite their growing numbers.  At year’s end, they had only one registered site, on the outskirts of Tashkent, which they stated did not adequately meet their needs.

Many religious group representatives reported they were unable to meet the government’s registration requirements, which included the need for a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units to acquire central registration, and application by 100 members for registration in a specific locality.  Their inability to register left them subject to harassment by local authorities and criminal sanction for engaging in “illegal” religious activities.

In October Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed to mahalla committees in Fergana and Karshi for permission to open a Kingdom Hall, one of the first steps of a multistep process in receiving government registration.  In Fergana, the mahalla committee categorically refused the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ request, responding “the Jehovah’s Witnesses are dangerous to young persons because of their radical views…have violated the law among Christians…[and are] forbidden in many countries.”  In Karshi, the mahalla committee noted in its rejection that there were already two registered Christian churches (a Korean Evangelical Church and Russian Orthodox Church) in the city and recommended the Jehovah’s Witnesses use those church facilities for their services.

As in previous years, the MOJ continued to explain denials of registration by citing failures of religious groups to report a valid legal address or to obtain guarantee letters and necessary permits from all local authorities.  Some groups stated they did not have addresses because they continued to be reluctant to purchase property without assurance the government would approve their registration application.  Other groups stated local officials arbitrarily withheld approval of the addresses because they opposed the existence of Christian churches with ethnic Uzbek members.  In response, some groups reported providing congregation membership lists with only Russian-sounding surnames.

Churches that previously attempted to register reportedly remained unregistered.  These included the Bethany Baptist Church, Life Water Church, Tashkent Presbyterian Church, Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, Uyushma Church, and Anapa Church in Tashkent; the Pentecostal church in Chirchik; Emmanuel Church and Mir (Peace) Church, United Church, and a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in Nukus, Karakalpakstan; Hushkhabar Church in Gulistan; Association of Independent Churches and Union Evangelical Church in Urgench; Pentecostal Church in Andijan; and a Seventh-day Adventist church, Greater Grace Christian Church, Central Protestant Church, Miral Protestant Church, Samarkand Presbyterian Church, Our Brotherhood Church, and a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in Samarkand.  Catholic congregations in Navoi and Angren remained unable to register their churches after 12 years of unsuccessful attempts.

In April Jehovah’s Witness Fazliddin Tukhtayev reported visiting the Shekhonchi mahalla committee in Bukhara to seek the committee’s approval to register a Kingdom Hall.  Tukhtayev provided a presentation kit about Jehovah’s Witnesses to the committee to explain the mission of the organization and its activities.  Following the presentation, mahalla council officials filed an official complaint with police.  Subsequently, Tukhtayev was charged with production, storage, importation, and distribution of religious materials, and fined 1,722,400 som ($210).

For the first time in eight years, the government registered a church, Svet Miru, a Presbyterian religious community in Chirchick, approximately 50 kilometers north of Tashkent.  The government offered to register a central office for the Jewish community, but members declined the offer, citing lack of funds and community interest to sustain a central office.

According to anecdotal reports, a small number of unregistered “neighborhood mosques” continued to function for use primarily by elderly or disabled persons who did not live close to larger, registered mosques.  The neighborhood mosques remained limited in their functions, and were not assigned registered imams.

Non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious groups reported they continued to have particular difficulties conducting religious activities in Karakalpakstan in the northwest part of the country because all non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious communities continued to lack legal status there.  There was only one registered church, a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church, in all of Karakalpakstan, which has a population of approximately two million persons.

Despite the Jewish community’s efforts to obtain recognition for additional rabbis, the MOJ accredited only one rabbi, a Bukharian, in 2014, and none since.  The Ashkenazi Jewish community continued to lack a rabbi.  Members of the Jewish community said the lack of rabbis limited faith practices, religious interest, and growth of the community.  Jews continued to be concerned about the future of their congregations as the current generation of adherents either emigrated or died.

Representatives of minority religious groups stated the government continued to prohibit peaceful gatherings for worship and other religious activities in communities where a registered house of worship did not exist and imposed strict penalties on those worshipping outside an authorized location.

In some cases, Christians remained separated from an authorized gathering place by more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and gathered in private “house churches,” leaving them vulnerable to police harassment and abuse since such gatherings remained illegal.

Authorities continued to fine representatives of registered religious groups, or representatives of groups that had unsuccessfully attempted to register, for engaging in religious activities, including fining members of Jehovah’s Witnesses for congregating in a place other than their sole registered house of worship in Tashkent Region.

In July authorities fined Tashkent resident Yulduz Baltaeva 10,334,400 som ($1,200), for carrying out illegal religious activity.  Baltaeva accompanied three deaf adult men to Chirchik, the location of the only registered Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregation in the country, for a religious convention.  Because the CRA did not approve the convention, the CRA determined that Baltaeva’s attendance and her assistance to others to attend constituted illegal religious activity.

Media reported security services continued to film participants at Friday prayer services at local mosques.  Parishioners at Catholic masses also reported surveillance and said authorities continued to prohibit a summer camp for children in the Fergana Valley, citing security threats.  Other communities, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, reported surveillance of their facilities.

In September Tashkent District’s department head of public education sent a letter to schools to prevent schoolchildren from attending Friday prayers and instructed that additional school events should be planned for Fridays, according to RFE/RL’s Ozodlik Uzbek Service.  According to the report, Muslims said police had begun cordoning mosque entrances and performing identity checks on youth, as well as prohibiting admission to anyone younger than 18.  Media reported police broadly implemented these measures in the Fergana Valley, Bukhara, and Samarkand.

On October 17, human rights activist Shukhrat Ganiyev told Forum 18 that police and the State Security Service in Bukhara openly monitored individuals who went to mosques, especially during Friday prayers.  According to Ganiyev, authorities paid particular attention to young men and boys under the age of 18.  Ganiyev stated that after they were identified, police would visit their parents’ homes to pressure them into stopping their children from attending mosques.  Ganiyev told Forum 18 that he knew of approximately 50 such cases involving men and boys from July to October.  Ganiyev said officials in Bukhara Region put less pressure on Muslim young men attending mosques during the year than in 2017.

Mahalla committees and imams continued to identify local residents who could potentially become involved in extremist activity or groups, including those who prayed daily or otherwise demonstrated active devotion.  Muftiate authorities stated they and mahalla committee members regularly made home visits in the mahalla’s district to check on what they characterized as a family’s spiritual needs.

The government stated most prisons continued to set aside special areas for inmates to pray, and prison libraries had copies of the Quran and the Bible.  Family members of prisoners said, and UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief Shaheed also stated during his October 2017 visit to the maximum security Jaslyk Prison, that prison authorities did not allow prisoners suspected of religious extremism to practice their religion, including reading the Quran or praying privately.  According to Shaheed, authorities did not permit inmates to pray five times a day and refused to adjust work and meal schedules for the Ramadan fast.  These restrictions remained in place at year’s end.

The government continued to provide logistical support, including charter flights, for Muslims to participate in the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, although pilgrims paid their own expenses.  As in 2017, the government allowed 7,200 Hajj pilgrims, approximately a third of the country’s allotment allowed by Saudi Arabia.  Religious authorities continued generally to limit access to the Hajj to persons over 40 years old.  Local mahalla committees, district administrations, the State Security Services, and the state-run Hajj Commission, controlled by the CRA and the Muftiate, reportedly were involved in vetting potential pilgrims.  According to human rights groups in the Fergana Valley and Karakalpakstan, it remained exceedingly difficult to participate in the Hajj without resorting to inside contacts and bribery.  A commission established in 2017 continued to review participation eligibility.  New regulations require that pilgrims apply to local mahalla committees, which submit a list to the khokimiyats.  The CRA uses the khokimiyats’ lists to coordinate national air carrier flights to Jeddah.  During the year, the government allowed 18,000 pilgrims to travel for the Umrah, compared with 10,000 in 2017.  Beginning in September, the government removed all restrictions on the number of Muslim pilgrims who wish to travel for Umrah.

Representatives of a registered Christian group and of the Baha’i community stated children were able to attend community-sponsored activities, including Sunday school, and services with the permission of their parents, such as Sunday school.  Eyewitnesses continued to report large numbers of children in attendance at both places of worship.

Large, government-operated hotels continued to furnish a limited number of rooms with Qurans and Bibles.  The government reported that 1,000 Qurans were made available for hotels.  Upon advance request, hotels also provided other holy books, prayer mats, and Qiblas, which indicate the direction of Mecca.  All airports and train stations had small prayer rooms on their premises.

According to civil society observers, authorities allowed Muslims for the second year in a row to celebrate Ramadan openly and the number of public iftars was greater than in the previous year.

The government sponsored multi-stage Quranic recitation competitions among men and women followed by Hadith (a collection of Islamic traditions containing sayings of Muhammad) competitions.

In September the minister of education issued a dress code regulating the length of hair and dress, the color of uniforms, and the type of shoes for all pupils in both public and private schools.  The government expressly forbade religious symbols of all types, such as skullcaps and crosses.  The policy continued the ban on students wearing hijab.  In September, at the beginning of the school year, authorities forced more than 100 girls at the Tashkent International Islamic Academy to remove their hijabs under threat of expulsion, according to the BBC Uzbek service.

According to some Muslims, the ban on teaching religious principles in private resulted in the government detaining and fining members of religious communities for “illegally teaching one’s religion to another.”  They said the ban included meetings of persons gathered to discuss their faiths with each other or to exchange ideas on matters of religion.  Some Muslims said religious discussions were considered taboo because no one wanted to risk punishment for “proselytism” or teaching religious principles in private.

The CRA continued to prohibit and penalize religious groups in possession of religious literature uncensored by the CRA.  Officials continued to search homes, offices, and spaces belonging to members of minority religious groups, at times without valid search warrants, and courts sentenced members of such groups to administrative detention or fines, including for possession of Bibles.  The government continued to limit access to certain Islamic publications deemed extremist and arrested individuals attempting to import or publish religious literature without official permission.  It also continued to arrest individuals in possession of literature deemed by the government to be “extremist.”

The government continued to control access to Islamic publications and to require a statement in every domestic publication indicating the source of its publication authority.  According to marketplace shoppers, it remained possible, although uncommon, to obtain a few imported works in Arabic from book dealers in second hand stores or flea markets, but any literature not specifically approved by the CRA was rare.

According to a Jehovah’s Witness, a number of government entities, including the Ministry of Interior, NSS, Customs Service, and local police, continued to confiscate, and in some cases destroy, religious literature and the equipment used to produce it.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 26 in Jizzakh, Director of the Counter Terrorism and Extremism Department Bobur Boymurodov interrogated Jehovah’s Witness Muborak Abdurakhmanova about possessing and sharing religious content.  Officials seized her mobile phone, found e-copies of religious literature and videos, and initiated administrative charges against her.  According to the report, on May 31, police officers separately detained and interrogated three Jehovah’s witnesses:  Dilyafruz Sheralyeva, Nasiba Umarova, and Sarvinov Esonkilieva.  Police inspected their mobile phones and pressured them to write statements admitting to communicating with Abdurakhmanova about religious content.  On June 3, police interrogated Jamshid Umatov and told him to provide a statement admitting that he had received religious content from Abdurakhmanova through his mobile phone.  On June 4, police also interrogated Jamshid’s sister, Dilnavoz Umatova, and told her to provide a statement.

According to congregation members, in April and May authorities raided Jehovah’s Witnesses worship meetings in private homes in Samarkand and Fergana, and twice raided a home in Karshi.  Authorities also raided Jehovah’s Witnesses homes for religious literature in Urgench and in the Yangiyul District of Tashkent Region.  After the Yangiyul search, a court fined two members of the local community 921,500 som ($110) under an article in the administrative code that prohibits production, storage, importation, and distribution of religious materials.

Forum 18 reported that on July 17, a Tashkent court upheld Gayrat Ziyakhojayev’s June 12 conviction for sharing texts that the lower court said contained “a threat to public security and public order,” even though he downloaded the texts from an Uzbek website that was not banned.  The court ordered his phone and computer destroyed.  Ziyakhojayev was immediately released.  According to BBC journalists, the court summoned him again prior to year’s end.

According to congregation members, in July an administrative judge in the Uchkuduk district court of Navoi Region fined Baptists Igor Zherebyatnikov and Iskhok Urazov for possessing various Christian materials, including three Bibles, one copy of “Bible Stories,” and one copy of “Stories from the Holy Scripture.”  The judge ordered the materials destroyed.

According to congregation members, in October approximately 20 officers of the Bostanlyk District police in Tashkent Region raided a group of 40 Protestants, including members of an ethnic Korean church and other Protestant churches, meeting at a Protestant center in Kyzl-Su.  Police searched the center and confiscated numerous items of church property, including a laptop computer, guitar, overhead projector, loudspeaker, three microphones, three electric kettles, music stands, a writing board, and two Christian books.  Police provided no formal record of the confiscations.

According to Forum 18, police fined persons suspected of storing authorized versions of the Bible, purchased from government stores, and confiscated them.  Forum 18 stated that on November 19, police in Pap, in eastern Namangan Region, raided a group of Protestants meeting for a meal and Bible reading in a private home.  Police confiscated Bibles, booklets, and DVDs and CDs containing Christian films, songs and sermons.  Forum 18 reported all of the confiscated literature had been purchased from the state-registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.  Police arrested the eight individuals and took them to Pap Police Station, where police questioned them until 3 a.m. the next morning.  The report stated police forced most of the Protestants to sign statements admitting guilt and said they might prosecute them for illegal possession of religious literature.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses online news service JW.org, between March and November the Supreme Court reversed four lower court decisions that resulted in fines for possessing Bible-based literature and electronic versions of the Bible.  According to the web site, the court of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan also reversed a lower court decision finding an individual guilty of possessing religious material and imposing a fine.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 2, police in Samarkand raided a private home where seven Witnesses had gathered for a religious meeting.  Police inspected the personal belongings of all those present and confiscated an Uzbek-language book of Proverbs from one person and a mobile phone containing electronic religious publications from another.  On May 22, a court found the two Witnesses liable under an article in the administrative code and fined each of them 861,200 som ($100).

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 24, police in Samarkand raided a private home where nine Witnesses had gathered for a religious meeting and seized a phone that contained electronic copies of Jehovah’s Witnesses literature.

The CRA continued to block the importation of both Christian and Islamic literature.

According to worshippers, authorities continued to confiscate, and in some cases destroy, religious literature in the Uzbek and Russian languages imported legally or produced in country, as well as religious items such as prayer beads or incense.

Members of registered minority religious communities reported authorities continued to seize religious literature for alleged customs violations.

The government continued to block access to several websites containing religious content, including Christian- and Islam-related news sites, and to websites run by Forum 18.

The government continued to allow the following groups to publish, import, and distribute religious literature upon review and approval by the CRA:  the Bible Society of Uzbekistan, the Muftiate, Tashkent Islamic University, Tashkent Islamic Institute, and the offices of the Russian Orthodox, Full Gospel, Baptist, and Catholic Churches.

Christian groups stated they needed more than the single authorized version of the Bible in Uzbek to practice their faith.  Religious leaders said they continued to lack access to other important religious materials and texts to explain the teachings and tenets of their faiths in the Uzbek language.

According to Muslim representatives, some official imams said they could not teach Islam to children because the government forbade all religious education not controlled by the state.  In 2017 the government approved fee-based courses on the Arabic language and Quranic studies for the public, but in June it limited participation to adults.

According to the television channel Uzbekistan 24, during the first half of the year, the staff of the State Security Service uncovered 116 illegal Islamic educational institutions (hujras).  Uzbekistan 24 reported that for calendar year 2017, the comparable number uncovered was 33 hujras.  Authorities raided and closed each establishment.  In the summer, the government released a film on what it said were the dangers of underground mosques that featured a number of organized underground hujras.  According to media reports, in Andijan Region, Nosirbek Turgunov created a religious school in the basement of his house where boys 5-6 years of age studied religion.  According to the film, Turgunov locked pupils in a cramped room, deprived them of food, and applied corporal punishment.  According to the film, an investigation revealed Turgunov had had no formal study of theology.  He said his knowledge of Islam came from his parents.

The government continued to fund an Islamic university and the preservation of Islamic historic sites.  No Islamic religious institutions in the country could receive private funding because of a government prohibition.  In April a presidential decree established the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan.  The academy’s stated goals were to provide the country’s religious educational institutions (universities and madrassahs) with highly trained teachers and mentors, improve the research and professional skills of scholars, educate graduate students in the fields of Quranic studies, Islamic law, the science of hadith and kalam (Islamic doctrine), and engage in research, teaching, and public outreach.

The government continued to prohibit separate training of Shia imams inside the country and did not recognize training received outside the country.

At a July 25 event in Washington, D.C., Minister of Justice Ruslanbek Davletov stated the country’s “new religious policy fully acknowledges the adherence to the international standards and treaties,” but that under these treaties “religious rights are not absolute…  when it comes to public security, public order, or moral of the rights, and of the other citizens[.]”  He said religious missionary work and proselytism would continue to be banned under the new laws being created under the road map because such activities could lead to “disagreements in society” that threatened religious peace and could incite hatred among religions in his country.  At a December event in Washington, Uzbek Ambassador to the United States Javlon Vakhabov said there were “some difficulties with the implementation of our [religion] laws, especially at the regional and local level, but they are all reduced to a few incidents and are not systematic in nature.”  Vakhabov also stated Uzbekistan had committed to ceasing raids on unregistered religious organizations as well as simplifying registration procedures.

State-controlled and -influenced media continued to accuse missionaries of posing a danger to society and sowing civil discord.

In the March 29 edition of progovernment newspaper Khordik Plus, an article entitled, “Oh, miserable people … Religion is worship, not a crime!” the author said, “What about the various missionary societies?  We have not forgotten how many young people unable to distinguish between the white and the black, were fraudulently lured by them.”

An article in the June 9 edition of Khordik Plus described police officers searching the house of Anna Mologina (a Jehovah’s Witness) and her mother, Svetlana Mologina (not a Jehovah’s Witness).  Police officers seized printed literature, and authorities opened a criminal case.  The article stated that any illegal missionary activity in Uzbekistan was subject to penalty.

The March 29 edition of Khordik Plus noted that Jehovah’s Witness Matyakubova Zamira, “propagandizes” among her fellow believers.  That article stated that there would be consequences for missionary activity.

The online Russian news magazine Sputnik reported in a July 26 article entitled, “The Minister of Justice helps in ensuring interreligious peace in the country,” that Minister Davletov said missionary activity and proselytizing would lead to a comparison of religions and to social tensions and controversies.  The minister also stated, “Many foreign visiting experts say that we should remove this ban.  But this is a matter of principle for us.”

RFE/RL reported the government banned a “flash-mob protest” set for September 5 in Tashkent at which the singer known as Young Zapik had planned to debut his song “Beautiful Girl in Hijab.”  Young Zapik subsequently released the song on social media.

In October the government rescinded an order issued in March to demolish a Buddhist temple in Tashkent, the only active Buddhist temple in Central Asia and the country’s only legal place of worship for the small, mostly Korean, Buddhist community.  City authorities earmarked the temple, a tourist destination and point of interest for visiting religious officials, including the chief Buddhist monks of Burma and Thailand, for demolition to widen a city road.  The government’s reversal came after members of the Buddhist community registered a protest on the president’s virtual portal and with local area diplomats and journalists.

At year’s end, there were three public Islamic universities in the country:  the Tashkent Islamic Institute, Tashkent Islamic University, and Mir-i-Arab Madrassah in Bukhara.  According to official figures, 593 persons were studying at Islamic universities (509 in Tashkent and 84 in Bukhara).

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Activists and human rights groups reported there was social pressure among the majority Muslim population against conversion from Islam.  Religious community members said ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity faced harassment and discrimination.  Some said social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials and that Muslims in the community forced them to bury individuals in distant cemeteries or allowed burials only with Islamic religious rites.

In February, according to witnesses, a father removed his daughter from a religious meeting at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Chirchik.  The Witnesses said the woman’s father humiliated and beat her in public, demanding that she return home and return to Islam.  According to congregation members, her parents threatened other relatives who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and other fellow believers.  Police officers interrogated her and had a conversation with her regarding her religious convictions.

Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christian, Baptist, and Pentecostal Christian Churches, stated they continued to face societal scrutiny and discrimination.  They said their neighbors regularly called police to report their activities.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses members, in May the counterterrorism police unit detained Lazizbek Isomov and Ilvos Ashrapov in Bukhara, along with their supervisor, after coworkers lodged complaints against them for sharing a religious video.  Police seized their mobile phones and searched their homes for Jehovah’s Witnesses publications.  A judged fined both Isomov and Ashrapov 516,720 som ($62), for sharing the video.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, senior officials from the Department of State and other senior U.S. government officials addressed religious freedom concerns with the country’s leadership.  In September the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited the country and met with the country’s senior leadership, including the president, foreign minister, and members of parliament.  The Ambassador noted ongoing concerns about religious rights and privileges for Muslims including religious education and attire for children, the inability of Christian organizations to register and grow their churches, and systematic and persistent harassment of the Jehovah’s Witness community.  He commended the government for religious freedom reforms under the leadership of the president and noted that implementing the road map would help ensure religious freedom is more fully protected across the country.  In June the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities visited the country and raised issues, including prisoners of conscience, impediments to registration of religious groups, and overly broad application of antiterrorism statutes with the foreign minister, the CRA, and leading members of parliament.

Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador and the Charge d’Affaires met with senior government officials, including the president, foreign minister, and officials from the National Human Rights Center and CRA, to raise concerns about imprisonment of individuals for their religious beliefs, bureaucratic impediments to the registration of religious minority groups, and raids on religious groups.  The Ambassador also raised the lack of access to religious literature and general harassment of religious groups.  At various levels of government and in different forums, U.S. officials continued to urge the government to amend the religion law to allow members of religious groups to practice their faiths freely outside registered houses of worship and relax requirements for registering faith-based organizations.  They pressed the government to provide protection for public discourse on religion and remove restrictions on the importation and use of religious literature, in both hardcopy and electronic versions.  They also discussed the difficulties religious groups and faith-based foreign aid organizations faced with regard to registration, and with authorities confiscating and limiting their access to religious literature.  The U.S. government supported the adoption of a religious freedom roadmap and the drafting of legislation overhauling the law on religion as concrete steps to enhance religious freedom.

Embassy representatives frequently discussed individual religious freedom cases with foreign diplomatic colleagues to coordinate efforts on monitoring court cases and contacting government officials for updates on police cases.

In his remarks at the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, held in Washington, the Secretary of State stated, “When religious freedom flourishes, a country flourishes.  As one example today, we applaud the steps that Uzbekistan is taking towards a more free society.  We have great confidence that a degree of religious freedom greater than before will have a positive ripple effect on their country, their society, and the region as well.”

In its public outreach and private meetings, the embassy drew attention to the continuing inability of Christian groups to register houses of worship, of evangelical Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses to discuss their beliefs openly in public, and of Muslim parents to take their children to mosque or educate them in their faith.  Embassy officials and visiting U.S. officials, including a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, met with representatives of religious groups and civil society, and with relatives of prisoners, to discuss freedom of conscience and belief.  Embassy engagement included meetings with leaders of the Baptist and Catholic Churches on registration of congregations and with members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to address their concerns about police raids on parishioner homes.  They also met with expatriate Bukharian Jews and those still living in Bukhara to discuss their concerns about the future of their community, and with Buddhists about the proposed government demolition of their temple.

In October the Charge d’Affaires posted on the embassy’s website an opinion piece commemorating International Religious Freedom Day.  Several major news websites in the country republished the piece.

On November 28, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Uzbekistan on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.  Uzbekistan was designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 2006-2017 and moved to a Special Watch List after the Secretary determined the government had made substantial progress in improving respect for religious freedom.