The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam are free to exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, which is punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property according to the Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” There were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy during the year, but converts from Islam to other religions reported they continued to fear punishment from the government as well as reprisals from family and society. The law prohibits the production and publishing of works contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions. The new penal code, which went into effect in February, includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam. Shia leaders continued to state that the government neglected security in majority-Shia areas. The government sought to address security issues in Western Kabul’s Shia Hazara Dasht-e Barchi area, a target of major attacks during the year, by announcing plans to increase Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) presence. Media reported the government arrested 26 militants preparing attacks on the Shia community during the community’s observance of Ashura in Kabul. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils. Representatives of minority religious groups reported the courts’ continued failure to grant non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. The Independent Elections Commission (IEC) granted an extension on July 5 for the registration for a Sikh candidate to run in the October parliamentary elections following the death of the only Sikh candidate in a suicide attack in Jalalabad on July 1. Shia Muslims continued to hold some major government positions; however, Shia leaders said the number of positions still did not reflect their demographics.
The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, again targeted and killed members of minority religious communities, and the Taliban again targeted and killed individuals because of their beliefs or their links to the government. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), consistent with trends observed in the past two years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras. During the year, UNAMA recorded 22 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, causing 453 civilian casualties (156 deaths and 297 injured), all attributed to ISKP and other antigovernment elements. The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam. Taliban gunmen killed imams and other religious officials throughout the country. On November 20, a suicide bomber killed more than 50 religious scholars gathered at a Kabul wedding hall to celebrate the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials and to punish residents in areas under Taliban control according to their interpretation of Islamic law, including stoning any person suspected of adultery or other “moral crimes.” Insurgents claiming affiliation with the ISKP reportedly engaged in similar activities. On February 27, in Tangi Wazir, Nangarhar Province, the ISKP stoned to death a man accused of engaging in extramarital sexual relations (zina), and subsequently issued a press statement about the killing. In April the ISKP stoned to death a 60-year-old man accused of raping a woman in Darzab District, Jawzjan Province. According to some religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISKP in their sermons.
Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported continued harassment from some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they were able to practice their respective religions in public. Christian groups reported public opinion remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims stated they continued to worship privately to avoid societal discrimination and persecution. Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering. Observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. The authoritative body of Islamic scholars, known as the Ulema Council, announced plans to establish a special committee to oversee social reform to address government corruption and “moral corruption” in society that religious clerics deemed incompatible with the teachings of Islam. According to minority religious leaders, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities. Community leaders reported that 500 to 600 Sikhs and Hindus, representing almost half their numbers, fled to either India or Western countries during the year, particularly in the aftermath of the July 1 bombing in Jalalabad. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported interference with their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, from individuals who lived near cremation sites. On June 4, the Ulema Council convened approximately 3,000 religious scholars in Kabul to issue a propeace fatwa that also condemned discrimination based on religion.
U.S. embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and the protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. In October the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met with government officials and civil society leaders to promote religious tolerance. To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism, facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, and create policies to foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met frequently with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC). Embassy officials met regularly with leaders of major religious groups, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify means and ways to counter violent religious extremism, and promote tolerance for religious diversity. During the month of Ramadan, the embassy used social media platforms to share information on Islam in America, based on Department of State-created materials that profiled prominent Muslim-Americans and organizations. The embassy also used social media to highlight the National Religious Freedom and International Religious Freedom Days.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions. Members of the Hindu community continued to report they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress. Both groups attributed fewer cases of harassment of members of their communities to the decline in the Sikh and Hindu populations in the country.
Although in past years media reported cases of local religious leaders forcing young men to fast during Ramadan, there were no cases reported during the year.
Women of several different faiths, including Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, the women said they continued to wear burqas in public in rural areas and in some districts of urban areas, including in Kabul, in contrast to other more secure, government-controlled areas where women said they felt comfortable without burqas. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and increase their security in public. MOHRA and the National Ulema Council both continued to state there was no official pressure on women regarding their attire.
Ahmadi Muslims continued to report verbal abuse on the street and harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith. They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad. They said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Ahmadis maintained a place of worship but kept it unmarked, without minarets or other adornments identifying it as an Ahmadi Muslim community mosque. Overall, Ahmadis reported the need to increasingly conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public, or to depart the country permanently.
Christian representatives reported public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. There continued to be no public Christian churches.
According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few places of worship. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were 12 gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and four mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, compared with a combined total of 64 in the past. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Following past seizures of their places of worship by residents of Kandahar, Ghazni, Paktiya, and other provinces, the Hindu community had presented a list of its places of worship to MOHRA in 2016 in an effort to stop further seizures and to reclaim the land and buildings previously lost. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said these problems were still unresolved at year’s end.
Community leaders said they perceived the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul as a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons. Sikh and Hindu leaders also reported neighboring residents tended to place household trash in their temples of worship. Although they filed official complaints to police, neither local authorities nor local imams took action to remedy the situation.
The government attempted to honor the Sikh and Hindu community following the July 1 suicide attack that killed several members of their community in Jalalabad by renaming the location of the attack as Daramsal, after the Sikh parliamentary candidate who died in the bombing. Community leaders, however, said the government’s decision brought more unwanted attention and harassment to Hindus and Sikhs in the area.
According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and one school in Kabul remained operational. Sikh and Hindu representatives, however, said these schools were still underequipped to teach students.
Sikh leaders continued to state the main cause of Hindu and Sikh emigration was a lack of employment opportunities; they said one factor impeding their access to employment was illiteracy. Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples (gurdwaras and mandirs) because they could not afford permanent housing. Both communities stated emigration would continue to increase as economic conditions worsened and security concerns increased. Community leaders estimated between 500 to 600 Sikhs and Hindus had fled the country during the year to either India or Western countries.
Observers reported societal discrimination against the Shia minority by the Sunni majority continued to decline, although there were reports of discrimination in some localities, especially involving employment opportunities. There were also instances, however, where Sunnis and Shia joined in prayer or to donate blood in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Shia clerics and NGOs reported instances of Sunni religious leaders openly condemning attacks against the Shia community and attending the funeral processions of Shia victims.
Media published reports of both Shia and Sunni leaders condemning particular secular events as contrary to Islam; however, there were no prominent reports of joint condemnations.
Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump. The lone Jew said he was able to perform all his religious rituals. He said in the past Jews from international military forces and foreign embassies attended the synagogue but could no longer do so due to security concerns and threats.
Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul.
Media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports.
According to media reports, the Ulema Council sought an expanded role in public life; on August 4, it announced plans to establish a special committee to oversee social reform to address government corruption and “moral corruption” deemed incompatible with the teachings of Islam. Media reported that President Ghani and the public welcomed the council’s initiative to cooperate with the government in tackling government corruption. Media outlets however, conveyed public concerns that the council’s social reform plans infringed on freedoms and rights provided under the country’s constitution, referring to the country’s past history of religious social repression under the Taliban regime. According to religious community representatives, however, the council did not implement these plans during the year. Early in the year, a video clip went viral on social media of a prominent mullah of a registered madrassah in Kabul, praising the Taliban and strongly criticizing the government for permitting the continued presence of international forces in the country.
NGOs reported Muslim residents remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.
China (Includes Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Macau)
IN THIS SECTION: CHINA (BELOW) | TIBET | XINJIANG | HONG KONG | MACAU
Reports on Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet are appended at the end of this report. Given the scope and severity of reported religious freedom violations specific to Xinjiang this year, a separate section on the region is also included in this report.
The constitution states citizens have freedom of religious belief but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” and does not define “normal.” The government continued to exercise control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents when the government perceived these as threatening state or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests, according to nongovernmental organization (NGO) and international media reports. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant) are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services. There continued to be reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices.
Multiple media and NGOs estimated that since April 2017, the government detained at least 800,000 and up to possibly more than 2 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other Muslim groups, mostly Chinese citizens, in specially built or converted detention facilities in Xinjiang and subjected them to forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity. There were reports of deaths among detainees. Authorities maintained extensive and invasive security and surveillance, particularly in Xinjiang, in part to gain information regarding individuals’ religious adherence and practices. The government continued to cite concerns over the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as grounds to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Muslims in Xinjiang. Authorities in Xinjiang punished schoolchildren, university students, and their family members for praying. They barred youths from participating in religious activities, including fasting during Ramadan. The government sought the forcible repatriation of Uighur Muslims from foreign countries and detained some of those who returned.
Religious groups reported deaths in or shortly after detentions, disappearances, and arrests and stated authorities tortured Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, and members of Falun Gong. The Church of Almighty God reported authorities subjected hundreds of their members to “torture or forced indoctrination.” Although authorities continued to block information about the number of self-immolations of Tibetan Buddhists, including Buddhist monks, there were reportedly four self-immolations during the year. The government began enforcing revised regulations in February that govern the activities of religious groups and their members. Religious leaders and groups stated these regulations increased restrictions on their ability to practice their religions, including a new requirement for religious group members to seek approval to travel abroad and a prohibition on “accepting domination by external forces.” Christian church leaders stated the government increased monitoring even before the new regulations came into effect, causing many churches to cease their normal activities. Authorities continued to arrest Christians and enforce more limitations on their activities, including requiring Christian churches to install surveillance cameras to enable daily police monitoring, and compelling members of house churches and other Christians to sign documents renouncing their Christian faith and church membership. An ongoing campaign of church closings continued during the year, and authorities removed crosses and other Christian symbols from churches, with Henan Province a particular focus area of such activity. In September the Holy See reached a provisional agreement with the government that reportedly would resolve a decades-long dispute concerning the authority to appoint bishops.
Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities. In Xinjiang, tension between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese continued.
The Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other embassy and consulates general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom. On July 26, the Vice President said, “Religious persecution is growing in both scope and scale in the world’s most populous country, the People’s Republic of China…Together with other religious minorities, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians are often under attack.” On September 21, the Secretary said, “Hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions of Uighurs are held against their will in so-called re-education camps, where they’re forced to endure severe political indoctrination and other awful abuses. Their religious beliefs are decimated. And we’re concerned too about the intense new government crackdown on Christians in China, which includes heinous actions like closing churches, burning Bibles, and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith.” A statement from the July 24-26 U.S. Government-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom said, “Many members of religious minority groups in China – including Uighurs, Hui, and Kazakh Muslims; Tibetan Buddhists; Catholics; Protestants; and Falun Gong – face severe repression and discrimination because of their beliefs. These communities consistently report incidents, in which the authorities allegedly torture, physically abuse, arbitrarily arrest, detain, sentence to prison, or harass adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and peaceful practices. Authorities also restrict travel and interfere with the selection, education, and veneration of religious leaders for many religious groups….” The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with Chinese officials, members of registered and unregistered religious groups, family members of religious prisoners, NGOs, and others to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom.
Since 1999, China 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, the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because the government and individuals closely link religion, culture, and ethnicity, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of societal discrimination as being solely based on religious identity. The Council on Foreign Relations reported religious and ethnic minority groups, such as Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims, experienced institutionalized discrimination throughout the country because of both their religious beliefs and their status as ethnic minorities with distinct languages and cultures.
Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread, despite the government’s announcement in September 2017 that it would censor some anti-Muslim expression on the internet.
In some online forums, anti-Muslim speech regarding the Hui Muslims in Shadian, Yunnan Province persisted. Some individuals said imams in Shadian colluded with Rohingya Muslims from Burma on drug use and drug trafficking in Shadian. Other criticisms in these online forums include labelling the imams in Shadian as radicals for encouraging Hui Muslims in the city to marry Rohingya individuals and not to send their children to school.
Despite labor law provisions against discrimination in hiring based on religious belief, some employers openly discriminated against religious believers. Some Protestant Christians reported employers terminated their employment due to their religious activities. There were also reports from Falun Gong practitioners that employers dismissed them for practicing Falun Gong. In some instances, landlords discriminated against potential or current tenants based on their religious beliefs. Falun Gong practitioners reported having a very difficult time finding landlords who would rent them apartments. Following government crackdowns in May and December, members of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, reported local authorities pressured their landlords to evict them due to their affiliation with the unregistered church. The members also said their universities and employers received pressure from the local authorities to expel them from the schools or terminate their employment.
The Guardian reported Uighurs faced difficulty in finding accommodation because local hotels frequently told Uighur visitors no rooms were available. One individual, who was initially mistaken as a foreigner, said hotel staff denied him entry to a hotel after they saw the word Uighur on his Chinese identification card. Hotels are required to report on guests to local police authorities, and hoteliers could face punishment for hosting Uighurs.
On April 19, the son of a pastor from the Shenzhen-based Canaan House Church in Guangdong Province said the church’s landlord relented to authorities’ pressure to terminate the lease and cut off the church’s electrical supply. The pastor’s son said the church faced “constant persecution” after unidentified people repeatedly harassed the church, broke into the church’s property, and requested members leave the building for what authorities said were safety or fire hazards.
On July 5, a Uighur woman in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province reportedly posted a letter online addressed to Shenzhen Party Secretary Wang Weizhong complaining about the frustrating restrictions she experienced as an ethnic minority in finding a rental apartment. The Uighur woman identified herself as a CCP member holding a senior management position in a big company in Shenzhen. After receiving discouraging messages from the local community, several landlords broke her rental contracts. Local officials told the woman they required her landlord and her to report in person each week to the police, which she said no landlord wanted to do. The woman was staying in a colleague’s apartment at year’s end.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief. The 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK, however, concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and in many instances, violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity. In October the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK reported to the UN General Assembly the country’s use of arbitrary executions, political prison camps, and torture amounting to crimes against humanity remained unchanged despite a series of diplomatic engagements between the country and other nations. In December the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that condemned “the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” The assembly specifically expressed its very serious concern at “the imposition of the death penalty for political and religious reasons,” and “all-pervasive and severe restrictions, both online and offline, on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association.” In May, after diplomatic discussions involving the U.S. Secretary of State, the government released a U.S. citizen pastor who had been arrested in 2017. A South Korean nongovernmental organization (NGO) said defectors who arrived in South Korea from 2007 until March 2018 and other sources reported 1,341 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by DPRK authorities, including 120 killings and 90 disappearances. The government deported, detained, and sometimes released foreigners who allegedly engaged in religious activity within its borders. According to NGOs and academics, the government’s policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make arrests and punishments difficult to verify.
Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear their activities would be reported to the authorities. There were conflicting estimates of the number of religious groups in the country and their membership.
The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the country. In July the Secretary of State hosted the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, at which the Vice President said, “…North Korea’s persecution of Christians has no rival on the Earth. It is unforgiving, systematic, unyielding, and often fatal.” The United States cosponsored a resolution at the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council condemning the government’s systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations. In December the Department of State submitted the Report on Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea to Congress, identifying three entities and three North Korean officials responsible for or associated with serious human rights abuses or censorship. Since 2001, the country 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 the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to the fear their activities would be reported to the authorities.
The COI report concluded government messaging regarding the purported evils of Christianity led to negative views of Christianity among ordinary citizens.
In 2017, KINU reported accounts of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious activity remained difficult to quantify. While some NGOs and academics estimated up to several hundred thousand Christians practiced their faith underground, others questioned the existence of a large-scale underground church or concluded it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers. Individual underground congregations were reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes. Some defector reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available and secret religious meetings occurred, spurred by cross-border contact with individuals and groups in China. Some NGOs reported individual underground churches were connected to each other through well-established networks. The government did not allow outsiders access to confirm such claims.
According to KINU, defectors reported being unaware of any recognized religious organizations that maintained branches outside Pyongyang. Religious ceremonies such as for weddings and funerals were almost unknown.
IN THIS SECTION: CHINA | TIBET | XINJIANG | HONG KONG (BELOW) | MACAU
The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), as well as other laws and policies, states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Falun Gong practitioners reported generally being able to operate openly, however, they reported harassment from groups they said were connected to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and difficulty renting venues for large events, including from the SAR government. Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in October to raise awareness of what they said was 19 years of CCP persecution of the Falun Gong in the Mainland.
Some Hong Kong pastors’ exchanges with Mainland counterparts reportedly were negatively affected by changed regulations on the Mainland. Religious leaders reported hosting and participating in interfaith activities, such as a local mosque and a Jewish synagogue maintaining regular interaction between religious leaders of each community.
The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with the government. The Consul General and consulate general officials met regularly with religious leaders and community representatives to promote religious equality.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Some religious groups expressed concern that new PRC religious affairs regulations that entered into force in February had a negative impact on exchanges and interactions with counterparts in the Mainland. Media reported that Hong Kong Christian churches provided underground churches on the Mainland with monetary support, Bibles, blacklisted Christian literature, theological training, and assistance in founding new churches. Under the new regulations in the Mainland, however, many Hong Kong pastors were suspending or canceling their work with Mainland churches to avoid endangering people there, according to media reports.
Religious groups, some of which received government funding, provided a wide range of social services open to those of all religious affiliations including welfare, elder care, hospitals, publishing services, media and employment services, rehabilitation centers, youth and community service functions, and other charitable activities.
Religious leaders reported hosting and participating in interfaith activities. For example, a local mosque and a local Jewish synagogue maintained regular interaction between religious leaders of each community. Jewish leaders also hosted public events to raise Holocaust awareness.
The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic, and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians (excluding converts from Islam) are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and to form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” The government continued to execute individuals on charges of moharebeh, including two Kurdish minority prisoners at Rajai Shahr Prison on September 8. Human rights groups raised concerns regarding the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel. On June 18, the government executed Mohammad Salas, a member of the minority Gonabadi Sufi Dervish Order, for allegedly killing three police officers during clashes between Gonabadi Sufis and security forces in February. Human rights organizations widely decried Salas’ conviction and execution, noting marked irregularities in his case and allegations of forced confession under police torture. The authorities reportedly denied Salas access to a lawyer and dismissed defense witnesses who could have testified to the fact that Salas was already in custody at the time of the police officers’ deaths. Salas’ execution and alleged show trial was largely seen by the international community as being part of the region’s broader crackdown on Sufi dervishes. International media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities detained more than 300 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes after police open fired on them during February 19-20 demonstrations in Tehran where they were protesting the house arrest of their spiritual leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh. One of the Sufi dervishes arrested in February, Mohammed Raji, died in police custody. The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced 20 of the detained Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms for crimes of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disturbing public order,” “disobeying law enforcement agents,” and “propaganda against the state.” The Iran Prison Atlas, compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 272 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners. The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Baha’is, Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing. The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported that the government banned Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the country’s leading Sunni cleric and Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, from traveling outside of Zahedan. Mohabat News, a Christian news website, reported the detention and abuse of Karen Vartanian, an Armenian Christian. Vartanian reportedly experienced physical and psychological abuse and suffered a heart attack as a result of beatings. According to media and NGO reports in early December, the government arrested 142 Christians across multiple cities in one month, including 114 in one week. According to Sufi media and NGOs, Shia clerics and prayer leaders continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements, and the government closed Sufi websites, such as the Gonabadi Sufi Order’s websites, in an attempt to erase their online identity. Yarsanis stated they continued to face discrimination and harassment by authorities. The government reportedly denied building permits for places of worship and employment and higher educational opportunities for members of religious minorities, and confiscated or restricted their religious materials. There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down. On November 23, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in multiple cities in the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan, Mazandaran, and East Azerbaijan over the course of two weeks. On October 16, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in Shiraz, Karaj, and Isfahan on unknown charges in August and September. CHRI reported the government detained Shiraz city council member Mehdi Hajati for 10 days for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees. The judiciary subsequently placed Hajati under judicial surveillance and banned him from his seat on the council.
According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, and employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private sector jobs. Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.
The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country. The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. In July the Secretary of State called attention to the situation of religious freedom in the country in a speech and USA Today op-ed piece. In his opinion piece, he said, “Hundreds of Sufi Muslims in Iran remain imprisoned on account of their beliefs, with reports of several dying at the hands of Iran’s brutal security forces. The religious intolerance of the regime in Iran also applies to Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other minority religious groups simply trying to practice their faiths.” At the July U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S. and four other governments issued a statement on Iran. In the statement, the governments said, “As representatives of the international community, we stand together in condemning the systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom taking place in Iran and call on authorities to ensure religious freedom for all.” During a September press briefing, the Special Representative for Iran called for an end of religious persecution in the country, stating: “What we are demanding of the Iranian regime…stop persecuting civil society, please provide all Iranian citizens with due process regardless of their political and religious beliefs.” In June a Department of State spokesperson condemned the “the Iranian government’s execution of Mohammad Salas, a member of the long-persecuted Iranian Gonabadi Sufi dervish community.” The United States supported the rights of members of religious minority groups in the country through actions in the UN, including votes to extend the mandate of the special rapporteur. The U.S. government also supported resolutions expressing concern over the country’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.
Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights reported that Baha’is continued to be major targets of social stigma and violence, and that perpetrators continued to act with impunity or, even when arrested, faced diminished punishment following admissions that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.
There continued to be reports of non-Baha’is dismissing or refusing employment to Baha’is, sometimes in response to government pressure, according to BIC and other organizations monitoring the situation of Baha’is in Iran. BIC continued to report instances of employment discrimination and physical violence committed against Baha’is based on their faith. Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.
In October IPC reported “tens of thousands more [Baha’is] experience educational, economic and cultural persecution on a daily basis for merely practicing their faith.” According to BIC, anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years. In August a BIC report noted the continued harassment, vilification, and psychological pressure children and adolescents known to be Baha’is experience in primary, middle, and high schools throughout the country.
Yarsanis outside the country reported that widespread discrimination against Yarsanis continued. They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and shared community facilities. Yarsani men, recognizable by their particular mustaches, often faced employment discrimination. According to reports, Shia preachers often encouraged such social discrimination against Yarsanis.
According to CSW, Open Doors USA, and others, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members.
Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements.
Sunni students reported professors routinely continued to insult Sunni religious figures in class.
IN THIS SECTION: CHINA | TIBET | XINJIANG | HONG KONG | MACAU (BELOW)
The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education. The law also protects the right of religious assembly and the rights of religious organizations to administer schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and to provide other social services. The law states the government does not recognize a state religion and explicitly states all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad. Falun Gong continued to hold rallies and protests of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in Mainland China.
There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.
In meetings with religious leaders and civil society representatives, representatives from the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong and Macau stressed the importance of religious freedom and tolerance for all religious groups and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the Mainland and in Hong Kong.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.
The constitution designates Islam as the state religion, requires citizens to be Muslim, and requires public office holders, including the president, to be followers of Sunni Islam. The constitution provides for limitations on rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.” The law states both the government and the people must protect religious unity. Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense. The law criminalizes “criticism of Islam” and speech “in a manner likely to cause religious segregation.” Antiterror legislation bans the promotion of “unlawful” religious ideologies. The penal code permits the administration of certain sharia punishments, such as stoning and amputation of hands. In November the parliament repealed the Anti-Defamation Act, which had criminalized expression deemed to be at odds with Islamic tenets. In July then President Abdulla Yameen publicly stated his government intended to impose harsh legal punishment against individuals who insulted Islam, including stripping them of state benefits. In April then Minister of Defense and National Security Adam Shareef Umar said the government would not allow religions other than Islam in the country. Also in April the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MIA) published a policy paper proposing financial penalties and either prison or house arrest for individuals who insult Islam. In September police destroyed a semi-submerged sculpture gallery installed by a resort after a court ruled the installation posed a threat to “Islamic unity and the peace and interests of the Maldivian state.” In February the Civil Service Commission dismissed a teacher and a school janitor for refusing to take off their niqabs in compliance with civil service dress code guidelines. The MIA continued to maintain control over all matters related to religious affairs, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday prayers. The government continued to prohibit resident foreigners and foreign tourists from practicing any religion other than Islam in public.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stated that religiously motivated violent extremists continued to target other individuals on social media, including employees of human rights organizations, and label them “secularists.” They also reported continued community pressure on women to wear a hijab. In April police briefly arrested a male taxi driver who threatened to kill a woman for not wearing a hijab but did not press charges. In May a woman moved away from her island due to harassment after appearing in an online video speaking about societal pressure to wear the hijab and her wish to remove it. NGO representatives also stated they continued to see a rise in what they termed Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism among the populace, asserting the government actively encouraged this trend.
There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country, but the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka is also accredited to the country, and U.S. Embassy Colombo staff represent U.S. interests there. In meetings with government officials in both Colombo and Male, embassy officials regularly encouraged the government to be more tolerant of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam and to ease restrictions preventing non-Sunnis from practicing freely.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
NGOs reported continued community pressure on women to wear veils and harassment of women who chose not to do so. In January local media published reports concerning the stigma faced by women who chose to remove their veils. In April police briefly arrested a male taxi driver who threatened to kill a woman for not wearing a hijab. The woman told media the man had produced a police identity card, but police did not confirm whether the man was a police officer. Police released the man within hours without charges. In May a popular travel blogger blocked his Facebook page in the country after a young woman was harassed for appearing in one of his videos speaking about societal pressure to wear the hijab and her wish to take it off. Although she appeared with her face covered, local media identified her by name and she relocated from her home island due to continuous harassment.
In January a small group verbally harassed two Buddhist monks for wearing their robes on a public street in Male City. Police intervened to escort the monks back to their hotel for safety but took no action against the harassers.
In January the Ministry of Education reported that parents of secondary school students had submitted complaints over the inclusion of the names of Roman gods in a grade eight textbook. Parents said the lesson covering the naming of the planets in the solar system encouraged polytheism and weakened the religious beliefs of their children. The ministry reported receiving similar complaints in 2017, but the schools continued to teach the lessons after explaining planets were named after gods in Roman and Greek mythology.
The trial of seven men for the April 2017 killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed, a critic of religious fundamentalism and violent extremism, remained pending at year’s end.
NGOs reported numerous instances of secular bloggers receiving death threats, being cyberbullied, and being followed on the street by individuals with records as criminal gang members. Victims said they felt vulnerable because of the lack of police responsiveness to their complaints and because similar occurrences had preceded the 2014 disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan and the 2017 killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed.
The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Islam as the sole religion of the citizenry and state. Only Muslims may be citizens. In April the National Assembly voted to amend the penal code to remove the discretion of the courts in imposing death sentences for apostasy or blasphemy. The amendment removed all references to repentance, essentially making the death penalty a mandatory sentence in both cases. Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheytir, a blogger sentenced to death in 2014 for apostasy after he allegedly posted statements on social media critical of the Prophet Muhammad, hereditary slavery, and discrimination, remained detained in an unknown location, despite a 2017 appeals court decision that he be released. On May 28, government authorities closed a Shia religious center, the Ali bin Abi Talib complex in Nouakchott’s Dar al-Na’im district, after which the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Traditional Education (MIATE) confiscated the property. In September authorities closed a religious training center and Abdallah Ibn Yasin University, a private Islamic studies graduate school, that had affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamist political party, Tawasoul. For the first time in the country’s history, the government accredited an ambassador of the Holy See to the country. The MIATE continued to collaborate with independent Muslim religious groups as well as with foreign partners to combat extremism, radicalization, and terrorism through a series of workshops in all 15 provinces.
During the annual Eid al-Adha observance, Imam Ahmedou Ould Lemrabott Ould Habibou Rahman, the imam of the Grand Mosque of Nouakchott, renewed his warnings about the growing influence of Shia Islam in the country and stated the government should sever ties with Iran in order to stop the spread of Iranian-backed Shia Islam.
U.S. embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, discussed religious tolerance with senior government officials, such as the minister of Islamic affairs. Embassy officials raised apostasy and religious freedom-related issues with authorities on multiple occasions and urged them to follow through on the court decision concerning Mkheytir. The Ambassador and embassy officials hosted two iftars, during which they discussed religious tolerance with government officials and religious and civil society leaders.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On August 21, during the annual Eid al-Adha observance, Imam Ahmedou Ould Lemrabott Ould Habibou Rahman, the imam of the Grand Mosque of Nouakchott, renewed his warnings about the growing influence of Shia Islam in the country. Rahman stated for a third successive year that government authorities should sever ties with Iran in order to stop the spread of Iranian-backed Shia Islam.
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution also states, “subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” It also states “a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), is a non-Muslim.” The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, punishment for which ranges from life in prison to execution for a range of charges, including “defiling the Prophet Muhammad.” According to civil society reports, there were at least 77 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 28 of whom had received death sentences, although the government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. Some of these cases began before the beginning of the year but were not previously widely known. According to data provided by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), police registered at least seven new blasphemy cases against seven individuals. On October 31, the Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. In what was described as an effort to end widespread violent protests orchestrated by the antiblasphemy movement Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) against the government in the wake of Bibi’s acquittal, the government promised protestors it would not oppose a petition seeking further judicial review of the case. Following violent antistate threats, the government later undertook a sustained campaign of detentions and legal charges against the TLP leadership and violent protestors. The original accuser’s petition for a judicial review of Bibi’s case remained pending at year’s end, although most sources believed it was likely to be dismissed. In October Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Noor-ul Haq Qadri said the government would “forcefully oppose” any change to the blasphemy laws. NGOs continued to report lower courts often failed to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders and human rights organizations continued to express concerns that the government targeted Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, and Ahmadis continued to be affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation that denied them basic rights. Throughout the year, including during the general election campaign, some government officials engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities, and perpetrators of such abuses often faced no legal consequences due to what the NGOs said was a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases. Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in public schools and tertiary education, and in private and civil service employment. In September the newly-elected government withdrew its invitation to economist and Ahmadi Muslim Atif Mian to join the Economic Advisory Council after significant public criticism, including from religious leaders. In a conference organized by UN-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed in October, Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Qadri said the “Government and the Prime Minister of Pakistan will always stand against Ahmadis.” In March the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued a judgment requiring citizens to declare an affidavit of faith to join the army, judiciary, and civil services and directed parliament to amend laws to ensure Ahmadis did not use “Islamic” terms or have names associated with Islam.
Armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government as extremist, as well as groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, continued to stage attacks targeting Christians and Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) however, both the number of sectarian attacks by armed groups and the number of casualties decreased compared to 2017, corresponding with an overall decline in terrorist attacks. On November 23, a suicide bombing near a Shia prayer hall in Orakzai district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa killed 33 people, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as some Sikhs. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) claimed responsibility. There were multiple reports of targeted killings of Shia in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, although it was often unclear whether religion was the primary motivation. In February and May several Shia residents were killed by alleged Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militants, the same group believed to be responsible for multiple subsequent killings in the same area in August. On April 2, gunmen shot and killed a Christian family of four traveling by rickshaw in Quetta, Balochistan. An affiliate group of ISIS-K claimed responsibility. The government continued to implement the 2014 National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism, as well as military and law enforcement operations against terrorist groups; however, according to Ahmadi civil society organizations, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, despite this being a component of the NAP. Civil society groups expressed ongoing concerns about the safety of religious minorities.
Throughout the year, unidentified individuals targeted and killed Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazaras, who are largely Shia, and Ahmadi Muslims in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. According to the SATP, attacks against Shia members of the minority Hazara ethnic group decreased relative to 2017. In four separate incidents, unidentified assailants shot and killed six members of the Hazara Shia community in Quetta in April. Assailants killed a member of the Ahmadiyya community in Lahore on June 25 in what appeared to be a targeted attack, and robbers shot and killed another man in his jewelry shop in Syedwala on August 29 after singling him out as an Ahmadi. Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam, including forced conversions of young women; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities. There also continued to be reports of attacks on the holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of the Christian and Ahmadiyya minorities.
Senior officials from the U.S. Department of State, including the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, the Charge d’Affaires, and embassy officers met with senior advisors to the prime minister, the minister for foreign affairs, the minister for human rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss the need to combat sectarian violence, to ensure the protection of religious minorities, and blasphemy law reform. Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts to discuss ways to combat intolerance and promote dialogue on interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom. Visiting U.S. government officials met with minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of the Shia, Ahmadiyya, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and other minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion. The U.S. government provided training for provincial police officers on human rights and protecting religious minorities. The Department of State publicly condemned terrorist attacks throughout the year, including the November attack near a Shia place of worship in Orakzai District, Khyber Pakhtunkha.
On November 28, the Secretary of State designated Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Throughout the year, unidentified individuals assaulted and killed Shia, including predominantly Shia Hazaras, and Ahmadis in attacks sources believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. According to the SATP, attacks against Shia members of the minority Hazara ethnic group decreased relative to 2017.
In April six Shia Hazaras were killed in four targeted drive-by shooting incidents in Quetta, Balochistan. The killings sparked sustained protest by Quetta’s ethnic Hazara community, who stated that at least 509 Hazaras were killed and 627 were injured in Quetta from 2012 to 2017. Chief of Army Staff Bajwa met with protest leaders in May, and police subsequently provided additional security in Quetta to protect religious minorities from attack. Although the violence subsided, some Quetta Hazara community members complained that increased security measures had turned their neighborhoods into isolated ghettos.
On May 22, Charan Jeet Singh, a leader of the Sikh community in Peshawar and an interfaith activist, was shot and killed by an unknown assailant in his Peshawar store.
On June 1, two gunmen shot and killed Naresh Kumar, a Hindu tailor, in his shop in Gwadar, Balochistan. Two other Hindu tailors were killed in the drive-by shooting. The motive of the assailants was unknown, and there were no arrests reported.
According to Ahmadiyya community representatives, there were two instances of what appeared to be targeted killings of Ahmadiyya community members by unknown individuals. On June 25, masked gunmen entered Qazi Shaban Ahmad Khan’s home in Lahore and shot and killed him. Community representatives said Khan had been threatened by the cleric of a nearby mosque in the preceding days. On August 29, armed robbers raided an Ahmadi-owned jewelry shop in Syedwala, killing Muhammad Zafrullah. According to community representatives, police chased the robbers and killed three of them.
There were numerous reports from Christian legal defense activists of young Christian women being abducted and raped by Muslim men. Victims said their attackers singled them out as vulnerable due to their Christian identity. The Pakistan Center for Law and Justice (PCLJ) stated in January a 28-year-old Muslim farm worker raped a 13-year-old Christian girl working as a sweeper at the same farm. When the girl’s father registered a complaint with local police, the accused reportedly told him to withdraw the complaint or the accused would rape his other daughters. According to CLAAS and the PCLJ, although the victims filed reports with local police, they were treated similarly to most rape cases, in which the cases rarely went to trial or received a verdict due to threats from the accused party’s family, lack of witnesses, or lack of interest from police.
Sources stated that some police branches took actions to improve conviction rates and overall service to victims of rape, regardless of religious affiliation. Inspectors general of police in Islamabad and each province introduced women’s desks at some police stations. Islamabad and Sindh police created formal standard operating procedures and trained policewomen for registering rape complaints. The procedures instruct the policewoman to accompany the victim to a hospital, unless the victim objected, in order to obtain DNA evidence. Despite these changes, by law, to obtain a conviction for rape, the prosecution needed to have corroborating witnesses, and legal experts stated that rape remained among the most difficult cases to prove in court.
According to CLAAS and PCLJ, there were reports of minority women being physically attacked when they spurning a man’s advances. In March Tahir Abbas, a Muslim man, threw Christian high school student Benish Paul from a second-story window and severely injured her. Abbas had urged Paul to convert and marry him. CLAAS stated that police took no action against the accused, and blamed the victim. In April in Sialkot 25-year-old Christian woman Asma Yaqoob suffered extensive burns when Muhammad Rizwan Gujjar threw gasoline on her and lit a match; she died in a hospital two days later. Legal activists said she had refused her attacker’s repeated demands to convert and marry.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a local NGO, said forced conversions of young women of minority faiths, often lower caste Hindu minor girls, continued to occur. The group reported Hindu girls were being kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, and married to Muslim men. The Hindu Marriage Act, 2017 formally recognized Hindu marriages across the country, which many activists said they viewed as beneficial to preventing forced conversions and marriages of women who were already married. However, the law also allowed for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism.
There were media reports of numerous incidents of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy. Following the Supreme Court verdict acquitting Asia Bibi of blasphemy charges, TLP leaders called for the assassination of the Supreme Court judges who ruled in the case and organized three days of nationwide protests that included damage to property and burning of vehicles.
In January a student in Charsadda, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, killed his teacher for marking him absent when he protested with the TLP, claiming the teacher committed blasphemy for opposing his activities.
The Express Tribune reported protesters gathered outside the home of an 18-year-old Christian man in Shahdara, Punjab in February. According to media reports, the crowd accused the man of circulating blasphemous content on social media. According to a post on social media, the crowd carried gasoline and threatened to burn all the houses of Christians. Police ended the protest by charging the man with blasphemy. The report said many Christian families fled the village out of fear. Pakistan Today reported that in September in Gujar Khan, Punjab, assailants attacked a Christian family in their home, beat them, looted jewelry and other valuables, and set the family’s house and van on fire. The attackers reportedly wanted to take the land for themselves and claimed the patronage of a powerful local politician. The Gujar Khan Police filed an incident report against 12 men, but only some were in custody at year’s end. The PCLJ provided legal assistance to the family. According to activists, the attackers threatened the family with a false blasphemy accusation if they did not withdraw their case.
Reports continued of attempts to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam. Rights activists reported victims of forced marriage and conversion were pressured and threatened into saying publicly they had entered into the marriage of their own free will. Christian and Hindu organizations stated that young women from their communities were particularly vulnerable to forced conversions. A report during the year by the NCHR said that Kalash youth were under pressure from Muslim school teachers to convert, and that 80 percent of Kalash converts to Islam were minors.
Throughout the year, Islamic organizations with varying degrees of political affiliation held conferences and rallies to support the doctrine of Khatm-e-Nabuwat. The events, which were often covered by English and vernacular media, featured anti-Ahmadiyya rhetoric, including the incitement of violence against Ahmadis. Speakers at these conferences called on the government to “stop the support of the Qadianis.” Conference speakers also asked the government to refrain from changing the current blasphemy law.
Ahmadis continued to report widespread societal harassment and discrimination against members of their community, especially during the summer election campaign, according to media and Ahmadiyya community reports.
On July 17, human rights activist and candidate for national and provincial assemblies Jibran Nasir faced a crowd in Karachi demanding he label Ahmadis as non-Muslim and state his own religious affiliation. Following his refusal to do so, the crowd reportedly became increasingly agitated, and police intervened. There were no injuries or arrests, but Nasir continued to receive threats for his positions supporting Ahmadis.
Christian activists continued to report widespread discrimination against Christians in private employment. They said Christians had difficulty finding jobs other than those involving menial labor; some advertisements for menial jobs even specified they were open only to Christian applicants.
According to the NCJP, the 2016 execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who was convicted of killing then-Governor of Punjab Province Salman Taseer in 2011 after Taseer publicly criticized the country’s blasphemy laws, and the 2018 Supreme Court acquittal of Asia Bibi continued to spur TLP and other religious groups to defend the blasphemy laws, sometimes by seeking out alleged blasphemers themselves. Thousands of persons continued to pay homage at Qadri’s grave, which his family had turned into a shrine, including Punjab Provincial Minister of Information Fayyaz ul Hassan Chohan, who was recorded paying his respects.
Observers reported that coverage in the English-language media of issues facing religious minorities continued, but that journalists faced threats for covering these issues. Following the government’s reversal of the appointment of prominent Ahmadi economist Atif Mian to the Prime Minister’s Council of Economic Advisers, English-language outlets such as the Daily Times and Dawn published editorials highly critical of the government’s “caving to extremists.”
Observers reported that Urdu-language media continued to show bias in reporting on minority religious groups, including multiple instances in which media censored references to Ahmadis on talk shows, used inflammatory language, or made inappropriate references to minorities. According to Ahmadiyya community reports, in February Geo TV aired an interview in which a politician praised former Foreign Minister Zafrullah Khan, an Amahdi. When the interview aired again the next day, the portion discussing Zafrullah Khan was cut.
Human rights and religious freedom activists and members of minority religious groups reported they continued to be cautious when speaking in favor of religious tolerance because of the societal climate of intolerance and fear. Some activists reported receiving death threats because of their work.
There continued to be reports of attacks on religious minorities’ holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols. In addition to the attacks on Ahmadi places of worship in Sialkot in May and in Faisalabad in August, NGOs reported attacks by angry crowds on churches in Burewala and Yousafwala, Punjab, in March, as well as in Kasur, Punjab, on August 2.
The constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. The constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with “the maintenance of public order and morality.” Religious groups must register with the government to acquire property, raise funds, or hold bank accounts. Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations constitute the only registered religious groups in the country. Unregistered religious groups are illegal but generally may practice their faith privately. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) continued to allow more than 100 house churches to operate in the country. In the wake of the severing of relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and continuing security concerns for Qatari citizens in Saudi Arabia, the government again discouraged citizens and residents from taking part in the Hajj or Umrah. The government reviewed, censored, or banned print and social media religious material it considered objectionable. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported several instances in which the government promoted strident anti-Semitic preachers and stated the government-owned al-Jazeera media network continued “to be a major exporter of hateful content against the Jewish people.” On May 21, the government submitted documents to the United Nations, following cabinet approval on March 14, to accede to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The government formally stated in its accession documents that it would interpret the ICCPR’s Article 18, paragraph 2 (“No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”) “based on the understanding that the article does not contravene” sharia, and that it reserved the right to implement the article in accordance with its understanding of sharia. The government also declared it would interpret several other provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including Article 27 (regarding the rights of minorities “to profess and practice their own religion”), which could impinge upon freedom of religion. New leadership within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) worked to engage with Christian leaders and reported direct contact and dialogue with the Christian Church Steering Committee (CCSC) concerning the Christian community’s desire to develop a positive relationship with the MFA and develop channels of communication for addressing concerns such as the impact of security measures. The Ministry of Culture and Sports approved the staging of a two-day Christian musical concert in Doha that was attended by 18,000 persons. In April the Maronite Patriarch laid the cornerstone for the first Maronite church in the Gulf region on government-owned land at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex.
Media based in the country periodically published anti-Semitic material. Following the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in May, national newspapers published a number of anti-Semitic editorial cartoons. One appeared in al-Watan on May 15, showing a pig marked with the Star of David resting on a pillow with the pattern of the U.S. flag, with its stars replaced by Stars of David. In December the ADL criticized the Doha International Book Fair for including anti-Semitic books. Members of the CCSC stated pamphlets containing anti-Christian and anti-Semitic content that had previously been removed from some public places such as schools and hospitals had sporadically reappeared.
In November embassy officials met with the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) to discuss means to spread tolerance and raise awareness of the rights of religious minorities. After outreach from the U.S. embassy to the Ministry of Culture, which organized the book fair, the government reported removing the offensive content and pledging to take a more proactive approach to prohibiting anti-Semitic content in the next book fair. The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers continued to meet with relevant government bodies, as well as quasi-governmental religious institutions, concerning the rights of religious minorities, Sunni-Shia relations in the country, interest in international exchange programs for imams and MEIA officials, and government efforts to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies within mosques. In November the embassy participated in the eighth roundtable discussion by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), which was an opportunity for Christian church leaders to meet with Muslim scholars. In December the embassy hosted a Thanksgiving dinner with an interfaith theme. Participants represented a wide spectrum of faiths, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Private media in the country published anti-Semitic material. In March a cartoon in al-Arab depicted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Jewish leaders with stereotypical “Jewish features” meeting in New York and discussing the Palestinian issue. Following the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in May, newspapers published anti-Semitic editorial cartoons. One appeared in al-Watan on May 15, showing a pig marked with the Star of David resting on a pillow with the pattern of the U.S. flag, with its stars replaced by Stars of David.
Members of the Church Steering Committee stated that select pamphlets containing anti-Christian and anti-Semitic content, which had previously been removed from some public places such as schools and hospitals, had sporadically reappeared. The members reported the government was generally receptive to removing the content when it was identified.
In October the Doha branch of Georgetown University faced backlash from Qatari social media users, including threats of violence against campus staff, following publicity surrounding an advertisement for a discussion titled “This House Believes That Major Religions Should Portray God as a Woman.” The event was eventually cancelled by campus management, who stated that the organizers had failed to follow standard operating procedures to obtain permission to hold the event.
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 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.
According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted within the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In March UN experts said 15 Shia were convicted of spying for Iran and financing terrorism and were facing execution after legal processes that human rights organizations deemed lacking in fair trial guarantees and transparency. In January the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib to seven years in prison after the Public Prosecution’s objection to his 2017 acquittal. Some human rights organizations stated convictions of Shia on security charges, including several carrying the death penalty, stemming from 2017-18 clashes were motivated by sectarianism, while the government stated the individuals were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced as a result of security-related crimes and in accordance with the law. A December report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism expressed concern at the “systemic repression against the country’s Eastern Province, where the majority Shia population lives.” Charges announced by the government during the year for prominent clerics, religious scholars, and academics, reportedly detained in September 2017, include alleged connections to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or MB-affiliated groups. The government continued to censor or block some religion-related content in the media, including social media and the internet. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV, commonly known outside the country as the “religious police”) monitored social behavior to encourage obedience to laws and regulations protecting “public morals.” Many observers noted a continued decreased public presence of CPVPV officers in major cities, with the exception of Mecca and Medina, and fewer reports of CPVPV harassment. On March 4, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met publicly with Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral. On November 1, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Riyadh.
Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment. Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” In addition, terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in public discourse.
Embassy, consulate general, and other U.S. government officials continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs. In discussions with the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other relevant ministries and agencies, senior embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. Embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained and imprisoned individuals and discuss religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia Muslims and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment. Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” In addition, terms like “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in public discourse.
Open Doors, an international NGO, reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution. Women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.
While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, according to Freedom House, “self-censorship [on social media] remained prevalent when discussing topics such as politics, religion, or the royal family.”
Anti-Semitic comments continued to appear in the media. For example, in May the newspaper Al-Iqtisadiyya printed an editorial cartoon showing a grinding machine in the shape of the Star of David, grinding Gazans into skulls.
According to MEMRI.org, Abdulwahab al-Omari, a government-licensed imam in Bisha, preached in January that Jews would be turned into apes and pigs, and that on Judgment Day, they would be the soldiers of the Antichrist. According to MEMRI.org’s translation, al-Omari said Jesus would descend before the Judgment Day, accept sharia, and pursue and kill the Antichrist. The Muslims would then “pounce on the Jews and kill them.”
The provisional federal constitution (PFC) provides for the right of individuals to practice their religion, makes Islam the state religion, prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and stipulates all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia. Most areas of the country beyond greater Mogadishu remained outside federal government control. Federal Member State (FMS) administrations, including Puntland, Jubaland, South West State, Hirshabelle, Galmudug, and self-declared independent Somaliland, governed their respective jurisdictions through local legislation but did not fully control them. The constitutions of Somaliland and Puntland State declare Islam as the state religion, prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion, bar the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and require all laws to comply with the general principles of sharia. In August Somaliland officials arrested a U.S. citizen employed by a Catholic relief organization in Burao, Somaliland and accused her of proselytizing. The federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education unveiled a national curriculum framework, announced in 2017, and new legislation for public and private primary and secondary schools in an effort to develop a national curriculum. These initiatives would require Arabic language and Islamic religion, taught in Arabic, as mandatory subjects.
The terrorist group al-Shabaab killed, maimed, or harassed persons suspected of converting from Islam or those who failed to adhere to the group’s religious edicts. During the year, al-Shabaab was responsible for the killings of civilians, government officials, members of parliament, Somali national armed forces, police, and troops from contributing countries of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Al-Shabaab continued its campaign to characterize the AMISOM peacekeeping forces as “Christians” intent on invading and occupying the country. According to Morning Star News reports, in March al-Shabaab forces continued to seek out 35 orphans of underground Christians living in Mogadishu. In July the militant group attacked the Baar Sanguni military camp in the lower Juba region, killing four Somalia National Army (SNA) soldiers and resulting in the deaths of seven al-Shabaab militants. In March al-Shabaab attacked the position of Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) troops serving in Bulamarer as a component of AMISOM, killing at least eight troops. Al-Shabaab, which launched a primary and secondary curriculum in June 2017, continued during the year to threaten parents, teachers, and communities who failed to adhere to al-Shabaab’s precepts.
Strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islamic traditions continued. Conversion from Islam to another religion remained illegal in some areas and socially unacceptable in all. Those suspected of conversion faced harassment by members of their community.
In December the U.S. government reestablished a permanent diplomatic presence in the country for the first time since 1991. Travel by U.S. government officials to the country continued to increase from previous years, although trips remained limited to areas when security conditions permitted. In late August and September embassy officials engaged with Somaliland authorities to secure the release of an American citizen arrested on charges of proselytizing. U.S. government engagement to promote religious freedom focused on supporting efforts to bring stability, reestablish rule of law, and advocate for freedom of speech and assembly.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There reportedly continued to be strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islam traditions.
Conversion from Islam to another religion continued to be socially unacceptable, and individuals suspected of conversion and their families were reportedly subject to harassment from members of their local communities.
Christians and members of other non-Muslim religious groups continued to report their inability to practice their religion openly due to fear of societal harassment across most of the country. The small Christian community continued to keep a low profile with regard to religious beliefs and practices. Other non-Islamic groups likely also refrained from openly practicing their religion.
There continued to be no public places of worship for non-Muslims in the country.
Private schools continued to be the primary source of education. The majority offered religious instruction in Islam. Quranic schools remained key sources of basic formal education for a majority of the country’s children. Externally funded madrassahs throughout the country provided inexpensive basic education, and many taught Salafist ideology, especially in al-Shabaab controlled areas.
The Interim National Constitution provides for freedom of religious creed and the rights to worship, assemble, and maintain places of worship. Some laws and government practices are based on the government’s interpretation of a sharia system of jurisprudence, which human rights groups state does not provide protections for some religious minorities, including minority Muslim groups. The law criminalizes apostasy, blasphemy, conversion from Islam to another religion, and questioning or criticizing the Quran, the Sahaba (the Companions of the Prophet), or the wives of the Prophet. While the law does not specifically address proselytizing, the government has criminally defined and prosecuted proselytizing as a form of apostasy. According to international reports, on October 13, a group of security agents raided the private home of Tajedin Yousif in South Darfur and arrested 13 Christian men who were participating in a series of prayer meetings. Nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports stated that of the 13 persons arrested, 10 were of Darfuri origin and converts from Islam. The reports said the individuals were abused in detention, threatened with apostasy charges, and forced to denounce Christianity. Authorities released the detainees within two weeks and dropped the charges against them. Human rights groups continued to accuse the government of interfering in internal religious community disputes over the sale of church lands to investors, including on cases related to the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) and the Sudan Church of Christ (SCOC), and to highlight the inability of these Christian groups to seek legal recourse. According to church leaders, authorities continued to influence the internal affairs of churches through intimidation, harassment, and arrests of those opposed to government interference within evangelical Christian churches. In February authorities demolished a church belonging to the SCOC in the Haj Youssef neighborhood of Khartoum North and confiscated the property of the church, including Bibles and pews. As of year’s end, the government had not provided compensation for the damage nor provided an alternative space for worshipping, according to church leaders. While the law does not prohibit the practice of Shia Islam, authorities took actions against Shia Muslims. Some Shia Muslims reported authorities continued to prevent them from publishing articles about Shia beliefs. According to multiple sources, authorities again regularly charged and convicted Christian and Muslim women with “indecent dress” for wearing pants and fined and lashed them. The Ministry of Education for Khartoum State continued to mandate that Christian schools operate on Sundays in order to meet minimum required instruction hours.
Muslims and non-Muslims said a small and sometimes vocal minority of Salafist groups that advocated violence continued to be a concern. Some Christian leaders noted the lack of representation of minority religious groups within government offices and the lack of a strong Council of Churches to advocate for the legal rights of churches and their members.
In high-level discussions with the government, U.S. officials encouraged respect for religious freedom and the protection of minority religious groups. The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officials raised specific cases of demolitions of houses of worship and court cases against religious leaders with government officials, including officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They also emphasized the government’s need to take concrete steps to improve religious. Embassy officials stressed that respect for religious freedom is crucial to improved relations with the United States and a precursor to peace in the country. In meetings with the minister of foreign affairs, the Charge d’Affaires raised the denial of licenses for new churches, the demolition of houses of worship without an alternative, the harassment of Muslim religious minorities, government interference in internal church affairs, and enforcement of “indecent dress” laws. The embassy maintained close contact with religious leaders, faith-based groups, and NGOs, and embassy representatives monitored and attended many of the legal proceedings for those prosecuted in connection with their religious beliefs. In May the embassy cohosted a workshop on interreligious dialogue with the Canadian embassy in Khartoum and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In his opening remarks, the Charge d’Affaires stressed the importance of leaders from different faith backgrounds and professions ensuring that their laws and actions are in line with international guiding principles of religious freedom.
Since 1999, Sudan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated Sudan as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the restriction in the annual Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act on making certain appropriated funds available for assistance to the Government of Sudan, currently set forth in section 7042(i) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2018 (Div. K, P. L. 115-141), and any provision of law that is the same or substantially the same as this provision, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Individual Muslims and Christians reported generally good relationships at the societal level and stated that instances of intolerance or discrimination by individuals or nongovernmental entities were generally isolated.
The Sudan Inter-Religious Council, a registered nonprofit, nonpolitical organization consisting of scholars, half of whom were Muslim and the other half Christian, was mandated by its constitution to advise the MGE/HCGE and to encourage interfaith dialogue.
A segment about gender equality in the country on the Deutsche Welle’s (DW) Arabic-language talk show “Shabab Talk” went viral on September 21. During the segment, a young woman, Weam Shawky, addressed Mohammed Osman Saleh, the chair of the Sudan Scholars Association, and criticized the widespread harassment and intimidation of women because of their clothing. Immediately following the episode, Saleh gave a press conference in which he said the show was put on by “enemies of our culture.” Muslim clerics responded by calling for protests and violence against DW’s production partner, television channel Sudania 24, in Khartoum. Several Muslim clerics decried the show in their Friday sermons, and one cleric accused the host, Jaafar Abdul Karim, of “spreading atheism.” Many human rights activists and other members of the local community defended the show and praised Sudania 24 for initiating an open discussion on the topic of women’s rights and the public order system.
IN THIS SECTION: CHINA | TIBET (BELOW) | XINJIANG | HONG KONG | MACAU
The United States recognizes the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan autonomous prefectures and counties in other provinces to be part of the People’s Republic of China. The constitution of the People’s Republic of China states citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” Central government regulations implemented February 1 stipulate religious activity “must not harm national security” and place new restrictions on religious schools, donations, and travel. In the TAR and other Tibetan areas, authorities continued to engage in widespread interference in religious practices, especially in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries. There were reports of forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, prolonged detention without trial, and arrests of individuals due to their religious practices. Travel restrictions hindered traditional religious practices and pilgrimages. Repression increased around politically sensitive events, religious anniversaries, and the Dalai Lama’s birthday, according to numerous sources. Self-immolations leading to death in protest of government policies continued, and four individuals reportedly set themselves on fire and died during the year. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), reported in May torture, including sexual abuse of Tibetan Buddhist nuns, took place in a re-education camp in the TAR. According to TCHRD, authorities also subjected inmates to collective punishment, food and sleep deprivation, prolonged wall standing and beatings. According to local sources, during the year authorities continued an ongoing multi-year project to evict approximately 3,000 monks and nuns from Buddhist institutes at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, destroying as many as 1,500 of their residences and subjecting many of them to “patriotic and legal re-education.” Authorities often justified their interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by saying the religious institutions engaged in separatist or pro-independence activities, and undermined the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The government routinely denigrated the Dalai Lama, whom most Tibetan Buddhists revered as their most important spiritual leader, and forbade Tibetans from venerating him and other religious leaders associated with him.
Some Tibetans continued to encounter societal discrimination when seeking employment, engaging in business, and traveling for pilgrimage, according to multiple sources. Because expressions of Tibetan identity and religion were closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religion.
The U.S. government repeatedly pressed Chinese authorities to respect religious freedom for all people and to allow Tibetans to preserve, practice, teach, and develop their religious traditions and language without interference from the government. In July during the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, the Vice President and Secretary of State met with Kusho Golog Jigme, a former Tibetan political prisoner, to highlight continued U.S. government support for religious freedom in Tibet. U.S. government officials expressed concerns to the Chinese government at senior levels about the severe restrictions imposed on Tibetans’ ability to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom and cultural rights. Embassy and other U.S. officials urged the Chinese government to re-examine the policies that threaten Tibet’s distinct religious, cultural, and linguistic identity, including the continuing demolition campaign at the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute. U.S. officials underscored that decisions on the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should be made solely by faith leaders and also raised concerns about the continued disappearance of the Panchen Lama. While diplomatic access to the TAR remained tightly controlled, four U.S. visits occurred.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because expressions of Tibetan identity and religion are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religion. Tibetans, particularly those who wore traditional and religious attire, regularly reported incidents in which they were denied hotel rooms, avoided by taxis, and discriminated against in employment opportunities or business transactions.
According to local sources, in November 13 monks from Kirti Monastery were in Chengdu for scheduled medical examinations, but they missed the appointment. Taxi drivers were not willing to serve them because they were Tibetan monks. Young Tibetan entrepreneurs in Chengdu reported Chinese companies often denied them employment opportunities once the employers identified them in person as ethnic Tibetans, despite prior offers of employment when discussions had taken place solely by phone.
Many Han Buddhists continued to demonstrate interest in Tibetan Buddhism and donated money to Tibetan monasteries and nunneries, according to local sources in such monasteries and nunneries. Tibetan Buddhist monks frequently visited Chinese cities to provide religious instruction to Han Buddhists. In addition, a growing number of Han Buddhists visited Tibetan monasteries, although officials sometimes imposed restrictions that made it difficult for Han Buddhists to conduct long-term study at many monasteries in Tibetan areas.
IN THIS SECTION: CHINA | TIBET | XINJIANG (BELOW) | HONG KONG | MACAU
This separate section on Xinjiang is included given the scope and severity of reported religious freedom violations specific to the region this year.
Multiple media and NGOs estimated the government detained at least 800,000 and up to possibly more than 2 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other Muslim groups, mostly Chinese citizens, in specially built or converted detention facilities in Xinjiang and subjected them to forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity since April 2017. There were reports of deaths among detainees. Authorities maintained extensive and invasive security and surveillance, in part to gain information regarding individuals’ religious adherence and practices. The government continued to cite concerns over the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as grounds to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Muslims in Xinjiang. The reported intensification of detentions accompanied authorities’ implementation of a Xinjiang counterextremism regulation, enacted in March 2017, which identified many of the behaviors deemed “extremist,” as well as continued implementation of the National Counterterrorism Law, revised during 2018, which addressed “religious extremism.” In October the Standing Committee of the 12th People’s Congress in Xinjiang revised its regulation to insert guidance on “vocational skill education training centers.” Authorities in Xinjiang punished schoolchildren, university students, and their family members for praying and barred youths from participating in religious activities, including fasting, during Ramadan. The government sought the forcible repatriation of Uighur Muslims from foreign countries and detained some of those who returned.
Uighur Muslims reported severe societal discrimination in employment and business opportunities. In Xinjiang, tension between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese continued.
Embassy officials met with government officials regarding the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. According to a statement issued at the July 24-26 U.S. government-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, “We are particularly troubled by reports of the Chinese government’s deepening crackdown on Uighurs and members of other Muslim minority groups… [including] the detention of hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, in facilities ranging from makeshift holding centers to prisons, ostensibly for political re-education,” in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. There are reports of deaths in these facilities. We call on the Chinese government to release immediately all those arbitrarily detained.” On September 21, the Secretary of State said, “Uighurs are held against their will in so-called reeducation camps where they’re forced to endure severe political indoctrination and other awful abuses. Their religious beliefs are decimated.” On December 21, in discussing why China remained a Country of Particular Concern, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom said what is happening to Muslim Uighurs is one of the “worst human rights situations in the world.” In October the then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations said, “In China, the government is engaged in the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities that is straight out of George Orwell.” She added, “It is the largest internment of civilians in the world today” and “It may be the largest since World War II.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because the government and individuals closely link religion, culture, and ethnicity, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of societal discrimination as being solely based on religious identity. Muslims in Xinjiang faced discrimination in hiring and retaining their positions.
In Xinjiang, policies discriminating against Uighurs, as well as greater access to economic opportunities for Han Chinese, exacerbated tensions between Uighur Muslims and both the Han Chinese and the government.
The constitution declares Islam the state religion and sharia the source of all legislation. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion. The law prohibits denunciation of Islam, conversion from Islam to another religion, and proselytizing directed at Muslims. The conflict that broke out in 2014 between the government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Houthi-led Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement, continued through year’s end. While the president, vice president, and foreign minister remained in exile in Saudi Arabia, the remainder of the cabinet moved to Aden in October. The government did not exercise effective control over much of the country’s territory. Although causes for the war were complex, sectarian violence accompanied the civil conflict, which observers described as “part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.”
In January the Houthi-controlled National Security Bureau (NSB) sentenced to death Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, a Baha’i, on charges of espionage. He had been imprisoned since 2013, accused of apostasy, proselytizing, and spying for Israel. He remained in prison awaiting execution at year’s end. According to the Baha’i International Community (BIC), in October armed soldiers in Sana’a arrested Baha’i spokesperson Abdullah Al-Olofi and detained him at an undisclosed location for three days. According to the BIC, in September a Houthi-controlled court in Sana’a charged more than 20 Baha’is with apostasy and espionage. A group of UN independent experts reported that authorities arrested 24 individuals in the incident, at least 22 of whom are Baha’is. Amnesty International reported the charges could possibly result in death sentences. The five UN experts said charges “must be dropped and discriminatory practices based on religion outlawed” and added, “We reiterate our call to the de facto authorities in Sanaa to put an immediate stop on the persecution of Baha’is.” According to the BIC, as of October there were six Baha’is in prison in the country for practicing their faith. During a speech in March, Houthi leader Abd al-Malik al-Houthi called on his followers to defend their country from the Baha’is, who he described as infidels. According to media reports, Houthi authorities modified the University of Sana’a student and faculty identification cards to include the Houthi flag and slogan “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam.” Houthi Cultural Supervisor Yahya Abu Awadah introduced a mandatory course into the university curriculum called “The Arab-Israeli Conflict.” Course material included the glorification of Hezbollah and condemnation of Zionism. Sectarian polarization stimulated by the war with the Zaydi Houthis attracted recruits to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). United Arab Emirates (UAE) government forces aligned with local tribal fighters forced AQAP out of Mukalla during the year. While in control of the city, AQAP institutionalized and enforced its interpretation of sharia. It continued to have an operational presence in Wadi Belharith and Azzan in Shabwah, Wadi Obaidah in Ma’rib, Radda’a city in Bayda’, and Lawdar, Wadi and Mudiyah in Abyan. The estimated number of AQAP operatives inside the country was between 6,000 and 7,000. On January 23, Khaled Batarfi, a senior AQAP leader, recorded a video calling for knife and vehicle attacks against Jews in response to the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
According to media reports, as of August, unknown gunmen killed 27 Muslim clerics in Aden during the last two years. Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in print. Jewish community members reported their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices.
On May 14, the Department of State spokesperson issued a statement expressing U.S. government concern about the treatment of the Baha’i population in the country and called on the Houthis to end their unacceptable treatment of the Baha’is. On November 8, the Yemen Affairs Unit, based in Saudi Arabia, posted a statement cosigned by the governments of Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom expressing deep concern about the worsening treatment of Baha’is in Yemen. On November 28, the Secretary of State designated the Houthis as an “Entity of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Media reports indicated that as of August, unknown gunmen killed 27 Muslim clerics in Aden during the last two years.
Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in print.
Jewish community members reported their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices.
Ismaili Muslims continued to complain about discrimination. The outbreak of the conflict hindered the ability of Indian Ismailis to perform pilgrimages to sites of religious significance within the country.