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Albania

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It stipulates there is no official religion and that the state is neutral in matters of belief, recognizes the equality and independence of religious groups, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government has distinct agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania (VUSH), a Protestant umbrella organization, regarding recognition as one of the country’s main faith communities, property restitution, and other arrangements. The law stipulates the government will give financial support to faith communities, but the government’s agreement with the VUSH under the law does not specifically designate it to receive such funding. The VUSH reported, despite the State Committee on Religion’s written commitments to advocate for financial support from the government for evangelical Christian churches, the government did not allocate funds. Religious communities noted positively the State Committee on Religion’s engagement with them and the work of the Interreligious Council, a forum for the country’s religious leaders to discuss shared concerns, although the VUSH expressed concern the government showed indifference towards it relative to other faith communities. The government legalized 135 buildings owned by religious groups during the year, compared with 105 in 2018, and the status of 11 additional properties was under review. The Agency for the Treatment of Property (ATP) reported that, through February, it rejected 150 claims for title. The law then required the ATP to send the remaining 410 pending cases to the court system. The Albanian Islamic Community (AIC) and the Bektashi community raised concerns about having to start over with their claims in the judicial system. VUSH leaders continued to report difficulties in acquiring land to construct places of worship and problems concerning municipal government fees. The Bektashi and the AIC reported problems defending title to certain properties. The AIC reported it had not received a permit, requested in early 2018, to build a new campus for Beder University, but Beder’s religious studies program received accreditation for another five years in November. The State Committee on Religion and the AIC reported the government did not recognize diplomas received from foreign institutions in theology and religious studies. The Council of Ministers still had not finished adopting regulations to support implementation of a 2017 law on the rights and freedoms of national minorities, including religious freedom.

During antigovernment protests, religious leaders issued statements condemning violence and calling for calm and dialogue. The Interreligious Council held several meetings domestically and internationally. The council signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Albanian Center for the Coordination against Violent Extremism in May to enhance cooperation on preventing violent extremism and monitoring school texts to highlight misleading statements about religion. On March 2, the AIC elected its new chairman, Bujar Spahiu, to a five-year term, a contest that attracted significant commentary from the media regarding the candidates, allegations of foreign influence, and concerns about the process. Spahiu, the former deputy chair, joined the AIC in 2006.

U.S. embassy officers again urged government officials to accelerate the religious property claims process and return to religious groups buildings and other property confiscated during the communist era. Embassy officers also urged the government to recognize diplomas granted by foreign universities. In May the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar for Muslim students and leaders from the AIC and Bektashi communities, stressing the value of religious dialogue and harmony. Embassy-sponsored programs focused on promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities and the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy continued its work with religious communities to discourage the appeal of violent extremism related to religion among youth. In August a visiting Department of State official met with faith community leaders, the Commissioner of the State Committee on Religion, and officials from the Ministry of Education to explore the relationship between religious harmony and efforts to counter violent extremism and radicalization.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2011, Sunni Muslims constitute nearly 57 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 10 percent, members of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania nearly 7 percent, and members of the Bektashi Order (a form of Shia Sufism) 2 percent. Other groups include Protestant denominations, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a small Jewish community. Nearly 20 percent of respondents declined to answer the optional census question about religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates there is no official religion, recognizes the equality of all religious communities, and articulates the state’s duty to respect and protect religious coexistence. It declares the state’s neutrality in questions of belief and recognizes the independence of religious groups. According to the constitution, relations between the state and religious groups are regulated by agreements between these groups and the Council of Ministers and ratified by the parliament.

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, and free expression. It affirms the freedom of all individuals to choose or change religion or beliefs and to express them individually, collectively, in public, or in private. The constitution states individuals may not be compelled to participate in or be excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or be prohibited from doing so. It prohibits political parties and other organizations whose programs incite or support religious hatred. The criminal code prohibits interference in an individual’s ability to practice a religion and prescribes punishments of up to three years in prison for obstructing the activities of religious organizations or for willfully destroying objects or buildings of religious value.

By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice. The law specifies the State Committee on Religion, under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Prime Minister, regulates relations between the government and religious groups, protects freedom of religion, and promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding. The law also directs the committee to maintain records and statistics on foreign religious groups that solicit assistance and to support foreign employees of religious groups in obtaining residence permits.

The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the VUSH. These bilateral agreements codify arrangements pertaining to official recognition, property restitution, tax exemptions on income, donations and religious property, and exemption from submitting accounting records for religious activities. A legal provision enacted in 2009 directs the government to provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it had agreements at the time. This provision of the law does not include the VUSH, whose agreement with the government dates from 2011. There is no provision of the law to provide VUSH with financial support from the government.

The 2016 law that established the ATP imposed a three-year deadline for the agency to address claims by all claimants, including religious groups, for properties confiscated during the communist era. As of February, ATP’s jurisdiction in these cases ceased and the law requires the ATP to forward open cases to the court system for judicial review. Religious communities must take their cases to court for judicial review, as must all other claimants.

The law allows religious communities to run educational institutions as well as build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.

Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits instruction in the tenets of a specific religion, but not the teaching of the history of religion or comparative religions as part of a humanities curriculum. Private schools may offer religious instruction. Religious communities manage 114 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, preschools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages. By law, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards. Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox, and VUSH communities operate numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities. Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes but offer them as an elective. The AIC runs six madrassahs that teach religion in addition to the state-sponsored curriculum.

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

Government Practices

The government continued the process of legalizing unofficial mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and tekkes (Bektashi centers of worship) built after the 1990s. The Agency for the Legalization, Urbanization, and Integration of Informal Construction (ALUIZNI) reported that through September it legalized 135 religious buildings, including four Catholic churches, 71 mosques, 12 Orthodox churches, and 48 tekkes. There were some discrepancies between the figures reported by ALUIZNI and those of the religious communities. The AIC reported it obtained legalization papers for 245 legalized mosques out of 850 applications remaining. The Orthodox Church reported that during this year ALUIZNI considered 13 of its requests for objects in Tirana and legalized two of them.

The AIC expressed concern that ALUIZNI only gave it title to the buildings and not to the land. ALUIZNI reported that it compensated the AIC with 231.6 square meters (2,500 square feet) and the Bektashi community with 1,320.7 square meters (14,200 square feet) of new land in exchange for land illegally occupied by unpermitted construction. In addition, ALUIZNI issued titles for religious buildings constructed on government or third-party land. ALUIZNI also issued titles, thereby legalizing ownership, for 1,569.7 square meters (16,900 square feet) of land to the AIC, 1,303 square meters (14,000 square feet) of land to the Bektashi, and 227.7 square meters (2,450 square feet) of land to the Orthodox Church.

The ATP reported that it rejected 150 claims for title to land and compensation through February. The ATP typically rejected claims because material documents were missing from the claimant’s file or due to competing claims for the same property, over which the courts rather than the ATP have jurisdiction. The ATP ceded jurisdiction on the remaining 401 cases to the court system, as required by law. Religious communities brought court actions on 71 of those 401 cases. The AIC, Bektashi, and the Orthodox Church expressed concerns about court proceedings, which required them to begin their claims again in a new forum.

The AIC reported it had applied in early 2018 for a permit to build a campus for Beder University to save funds spent on renting the university’s current facilities, but the government has not issued the permit or explained the delay.

Bektashi leaders reported construction continued on two places of worship in Gjirokaster, one in Permet, and one in Elbasan, and the government legalized four tekkes and other Bektashi facilities in Elbasan. The Bektashi community reported it continued to have problems with local registration offices in Gjirokaster regarding one property, stating the registration process was slow, bureaucratic, and vulnerable to corruption. The Bektashi community expressed concerns that ALUIZNI had legalized nonreligious buildings on Bektashi property. The Ministry of Finance, according to the Bektashi community, did not reimburse it for the value-added tax paid for the 2016 construction of a multipurpose center at the World Bektashi Headquarters in Tirana, even though they said the law required the reimbursement. The Orthodox Church also raised concern about paying approximately 25 million leks ($31,000) in value-added tax as well as paying other taxes and fees, and stated those payments violated the agreement with the government.

The Bektashi community stated the State Advocate unfairly challenged title to properties in Berdanesh and Ksamil. The community received a favorable ruling on title for the property in Berdanesh, while the claim for the Ksamil property remained in the court system at year’s end.

The VUSH reported it had asked the government in March 2017 for land to build a main church similar to the main cathedrals and mosques of other faith communities but had not received an answer.

The VUSH reported it continued to have problems registering the property of one of its churches with the local registration office in Korca. The VUSH also stated the Tirana municipal government unlawfully issued a permit for construction of residential and commercial buildings on VUSH land.

Leaders of the five main religious groups expressed concern with a pilot project curriculum for teaching religion as part of the humanities curriculum for sixth and 10th grade students, which started in 2016 but stalled. They stated they were concerned because they did not participate in the drafting and were never informed about the results of the piloting stage or the postpilot plans for the project.

The State Committee on Religion and the AIC expressed concern that the government continued not to recognize diplomas received from foreign institutions in theology and religious studies. The AIC reported the government in November accredited the religious studies program of the AIC’s Beder University, the only university in the country offering degrees in Islamic studies, for another five years.

VUSH leaders stated the central government continued to exempt the organization from property taxes on its churches, but local authorities imposed fees they said were not taxes. The VUSH continued to dispute the municipalities’ position.

The Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities reported their total government financial support was 109 million leks ($1.01 million), the same level since at least 2015. The Sunni Muslim community continued to receive approximately 29 percent of the funding, while the remaining three each continued to receive 23.6 percent. The communities continued to use the funds to cover part of the salaries for administrative and educational staff. The Bektashi community, which had fewer staff members than the others, continued to use part of these funds for new places of worship.

The VUSH continued to state that, although the organization still was unable to obtain a formal written agreement with the government on receiving financial support, in 2018 the State Committee on Religion provided a written commitment to advocate for extending financial support to evangelical Christian churches. Although the committee submitted a request for financial support to the government in 2018, the VUSH reported it had not received any funds.

The five religious communities expressed appreciation for the State Committee on Religion’s engagement with them. The VUSH, however, also expressed concern that the government and some media outlets showed indifference towards it in comparison with other faith communities, stating the government sent officials to attend iftars during election years but did not attend non-Islamic holy day ceremonies.

The Council of Ministers again did not finish adopting regulations to implement a 2017 law providing additional protection for minority rights, including freedom of religion.

A State Committee on Religion census of religious organizations conducted during the year counted 611 groups, including 248 foundations, 323 religiously related nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and 40 centers. The AIC has one foundation, while the Orthodox Church has three. The Catholic Church has 16 foundations and NGOs, while the VUSH has 160.

In June the Office of the President and the Embassy of the Netherlands held an international conference on interfaith dialogue in Tirana that addressed interreligious harmony as a factor in social stability and policies for managing religious diversity. In his opening remarks, President Ilir Meta said that he was proud that his country was “based on the coexistence and harmony of religious communities.”

On November 18 and 19, the Office of the President held a regional conference on advancing religious freedom, following through on a commitment to hold a follow-on, regional event after the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During antigovernment protests in the spring and summer, religious leaders from all five groups issued statements jointly and separately condemning violence and calling for calm and dialogue.

On October 11, the Interreligious Council, established as a forum for leaders of the Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, VUSH, and Bektashi communities to discuss shared concerns, held its first meeting of the year, during which it established a section of the council focused on women and another on youth.

The AIC elected its new chairman, Bujar Spahiu, to a five-year term on March 2. Spahiu, the former deputy chair, earned a degree in theology from Al-Azhar University in Egypt and joined the AIC in 2006. He declared in his acceptance address his priority would be to preserve and strengthen interfaith harmony in the country. Observers and media deemed the election free and fair and Spahiu’s election as a victory for the continuation of the AIC’s moderate and cooperative approach to interfaith relations. The run-up to the election spurred speculation in the media that third countries sought to sway the outcome. Some members of the political opposition stated the government sought to manipulate the election. International representatives, including from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, observed the election.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

At the November regional conference on advancing religious freedom, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom addressed the audience on religion as a means of reconciliation, gave interviews on the importance of religious freedom in Albania, and visited religious sites in the northern part of the country together with leaders of the country’s faith communities.

Embassy officials promoted religious tolerance in meetings with the Sunni Muslim, Bektashi, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities, and in visits to religious sites. In May the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar for Muslim students and leaders from the AIC and Bektashi community; the Charge stressed the value of religious dialogue and tolerance during the event.

The embassy continued its youth education programs and work with religious communities to decrease the potential appeal of violent religious extremism. As part of these programs, students at Islamic, Catholic, and Orthodox religious schools and students from public schools planned and carried out projects highlighting religious diversity and tolerance, focusing on youth activism and common civic values. Other embassy-sponsored programs in Cerrik and Peqin helped establish “schools as community centers,” which promoted tolerance through partnerships with local schools, regional education directorates, municipalities, and law enforcement. The success of the program led to its expansion into six additional municipalities by the end of the year.

Costa Rica

Executive Summary

The constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as the state religion; the law requires the state to contribute to the Catholic Church’s maintenance. The constitution prohibits the state from impeding the free exercise of religions that do not impugn “universal morality or proper behavior” and provides for redress in cases of alleged violations of religious freedom. In May a legislator presented a bill that would reform the constitution to make the country a secular state. According to media reports, the bill engendered significant public debate between a growing constituency calling for official secularism in the constitution and members of the Catholic community opposing the change. The bill was pending in the National Assembly at year’s end. Some civil society leaders continued to state that the constitution did not sufficiently address the specific concerns of non-Catholic religious groups, in particular regarding organizational registration processes. The Constitutional Chamber received 10 claims of denial of the free exercise of religious freedom at government institutions and discrimination by government entities. The chamber dismissed eight of the claims, stating there was insufficient evidence or no basis for claiming discrimination. In the other two cases, the chamber ruled in favor of the claimants: a student who wanted to reschedule her exams to observe the Jewish Sabbath and a non-Catholic teacher who did not want to participate in a Catholic Mass.

Instances of anti-Catholic language on social media continued, reportedly spurred by high-level investigations into priests charged with sexual abuse. There were also reports of anti-Semitism on social media, with Juan Diego Castro, a former presidential candidate and former minister of security, making anti-Semitic comments about an owner of a major media outlet. An interreligious forum created in 2017, with participants from Catholic, evangelical Christian, Lutheran, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Muslim, and indigenous communities, continued to promote dialogue among the country’s faith communities. The group met periodically throughout the year and hosted a variety of events, including a visit from Sagi Shalev, an interfaith dialogue activist from Israel, and the signing of a declaration to promote fraternity among Latin American and Caribbean cultural and religious traditions.

U.S. embassy representatives engaged with public officials to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. They also engaged religious leaders throughout the year, including those representing religious minorities, to discuss their views on religious freedom. The embassy conducted outreach with leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant communities; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ); and other religious groups. The embassy drew on the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the Department of State to share messages of tolerance and understanding with religious leaders and government officials. The embassy used social media to send congratulatory messages to religious groups on special religious occasions.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at five million (midyear 2019 estimate). A 2018 survey by the Center for Research and Political Studies of the University of Costa Rica (UCR) estimates 52 percent of the population is Catholic (compared with 71.8 percent in the UCR 2016 survey); 22 percent Protestant, including evangelical Christians (12.3 percent in 2016); 9 percent other religious groups (2.9 percent in 2016); and 17 percent without religious affiliation (12.3 percent in 2016).

The majority of Protestants are Pentecostal, with smaller numbers of Lutherans and Baptists. There are an estimated 32,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, predominantly on the Caribbean coast. The Church of Jesus Christ estimates its membership at 50,000. The Jewish Zionist Center estimates there are between 3,000 and 3,500 Jews in the country. Approximately 1,000 Quakers live near the cloud forest reserve of Monteverde, Puntarenas. Smaller groups include followers of Islam, Taoism, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Scientology, Tenrikyo, and the Baha’i Faith. Some members of indigenous groups practice animism.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Catholicism as the state religion and requires the state to contribute to its maintenance. The constitution prohibits the state from impeding the free exercise of other religions that do not undermine “universal morality or proper behavior.” Unlike other religious groups, the Catholic Church is not registered as an association and receives special legal recognition. Its assets and holdings are governed consistent with Catholic canon law.

The constitution recognizes the right to practice the religion of one’s choice. By law, a person claiming a violation of religious freedom may file suit with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court and may also file a motion before the Constitutional Chamber to have a statute or regulation declared unconstitutional. Additionally, a person claiming a violation of religious freedom may appeal to the Administrative Court to sue the government for alleged discriminatory acts. Legal protections cover discrimination by private persons and entities.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religion is responsible for managing the government’s relationship with the Catholic Church and other religious groups. According to the law, a group with a minimum of 10 persons may incorporate as an association with judicial status by registering with the public registry of the Ministry of Justice. The government does not require religious groups to register; however, religious groups must register if they choose to engage in any type of fundraising. Registration also entitles them to obtain legal representation and standing to own property.

The constitution forbids Catholic clergy from serving in the capacity of president, vice president, cabinet member, or Supreme Court justice. This prohibition does not apply to non-Catholic clergy.

An executive order provides the legal framework for religious organizations to establish places of worship. Religious organizations must submit applications to the local municipality to establish a place of worship and to comply with safety and noise regulations established by law.

According to the law, public schools must provide ecumenical religious instruction by a person who is able to promote moral values and tolerance and be respectful of human rights. If a parent on behalf of a child chooses to opt out of religious courses, the parent must make a written request. The Ministry of Public Education provides assistance for religious education to private schools, both Catholic and non-Catholic, including directly hiring teachers and providing teacher salaries and other funds.

The law allows the government to provide land free of charge to the Catholic Church only. Government-to-church land transfers are typically granted through periodic legislation.

Only Catholic priests and public notaries may perform state-recognized marriages. Wedding ceremonies performed by other religious groups must be legalized through a civil union.

Immigration law requires foreign religious workers to belong to a religious group accredited for migration control purposes by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religion, and it stipulates religious workers may receive permission to stay at least 90 days but not more than two years. The permission is renewable. To obtain accreditation, a religious group must present documentation about its organization, including its complete name, number of followers, bank information, number of houses of worship, and names of and information on the group’s board of directors. Immigration regulations require religious workers to apply for temporary residence before arrival.

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

Government Practices

In May a legislator presented a bill that would reform the constitution to make the country a secular state. According to media reports, the bill engendered significant public debate between a growing constituency calling for official secularism in the constitution and members of the Catholic community opposing the change. The bill was pending in the National Assembly at year’s end.

Some non-Catholic leaders continued to state the constitution did not sufficiently address the specific concerns of non-Catholic religious groups, in particular regarding organizational registration processes. Members of Protestant groups registered as secular associations continued to state they preferred a separate registration that would specifically cover church construction and operation, permits to organize events, and pastoral access to hospitals and jails for members of non-Catholic religious groups. In the case of the Catholic Church, the government continued to address such concerns through the special legal recognition afforded the Church under canon law.

The Constitutional Chamber received 10 claims of denial of the free exercise of religious freedom at educational institutions, Catholic institutions, or public places. The court dismissed eight claims due to insufficient evidence proving discrimination or because it found no basis for claiming discrimination. One of the claims dismissed regarded a police raid on the headquarters of the Catholic Church in search of evidence for an alleged sexual abuse case involving a priest. The court dismissed the complaint after finding the evidence did not support the claim. In the other two claims sustained, the chamber ruled in favor of the claimants. In one case, the chamber ordered the Ministry of Education to reschedule exams for a Jewish minor for her observation of the Sabbath. In the other case, the chamber ruled that a non-Catholic teacher should be excused from attending a Mass to celebrate the end of the school year.

The government again included financial support for the Catholic Church and evangelical Christian groups in its annual budget. It earmarked approximately 72.7 million colones ($128,000), compared with 20.2 million colones ($35,000) in 2018, for various projects requested by the Catholic Church and evangelical Christian groups during the year, including funds to make improvements at churches and parish buildings in different parts of the country. This funding for religious groups was included in a supplemental budget for the year. A semiautonomous government institution again sold lottery tickets and used the proceeds to support social programs sponsored by both Catholic and non-Catholic religious groups.

In April the Ministry of Education issued a directive stating that school directors should make decisions on whether to place religious images in educational institutions based on “mutual respect for the rights and liberties of all, as well as the values and principles under which the education system functions.” The director of religious education for the Ministry of Education stated he objected to the directive because the criteria were too subjective and broad and would have a chilling effect on school directors displaying any religious material.

The place of religion in the electoral process continued to be a subject of much public discussion. Representatives from political parties that defined themselves as evangelical Christian filled 14 of the country’s 57 legislative seats, and evangelical parties prepared to contest municipal elections in 2020. The president of the Evangelical Alliance instructed pastors to refrain from electoral politics, while Catholic leaders defended the right of the Catholic Church to engage in the political process.

Religious groups, including the Catholic Church and Evangelical Alliance, continued to state their opposition to same-sex partnerships, citing moral grounds. A Constitutional Court ruling published in November 2018 held that the National Assembly must pass legislation affirmatively recognizing same-sex partnerships before May 2020 or else all prohibitions against the practice would become null and void. In response, a group of legislators – including members of the major evangelical party Nueva Republica – presented a bill in September to regulate civil unions but prohibit marriage for same-sex partnerships. The bill was still in draft form at year’s end.

Abortion also continued to be a frequent topic of public debate involving religious groups. In the National Assembly, members of the ruling Citizens’ Action Party sought to legalize abortion in limited cases, including when the mother’s life is in danger. Opposition legislators presented a bill penalizing abortion as homicide. The president of the Evangelical Alliance and the president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops supported these opposition-led efforts and criticized any legislation that would permit abortion.

In response to growing concern around sexual abuse cases involving priests and pastors, a legislator proposed a bill to amend the law to require clergy and other religious leaders who have contact with minors to report to the Public Ministry allegations of sexual abuse of minors. The bill stipulates fines for priests who do not report child sex abuses cases heard in confession. According to media reports, Catholic leaders opposed the bill, stating it would violate canon law and Catholic religious practices. Those favoring the bill said Catholic priests should be obligated to help protect minors in “vulnerable situations,” as in the case of teachers and social workers, who must report child abuse.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to UCR polling, the demographic shift to fewer adherents of the Catholic Church continued. Approximately half of those who left the Catholic Church joined evangelical Christian groups, while the other half gave up religious affiliation altogether.

A UCR poll conducted in April showed a decrease in affiliation with the Catholic Church by almost 1 percent from the last poll in November 2018. Political observers and religious leaders said the shift stemmed from continuing public debate about the place of religion in politics. Catholic leaders noted that during the year they received a significant increase in requests from members seeking to formally disaffiliate with the Catholic Church, including removal from baptism ledgers, because of their disagreements with the Church on social policy. Political observers also noted favorable public perception of the Church declined; they said it was likely because of several high-profile accusations of pedophilia and sexual abuse against Catholic priests and evangelical Christian pastors. In one case reported in media outlets, Catholic Priest Mauricio Viquez was accused of sexually abusing minors, which led to government authorities raiding the Catholic archbishop’s office to seek evidence. Viquez fled to Mexico to try and avoid prosecution and was apprehended by Mexican authorities and faced extradition to Costa Rica. In October the government approved Viquez’s extradition, but later in the month, Viquez appealed; the case was still pending at year’s end in Mexico. In another case, an evangelical Christian pastor, Mario Chacon Leandro, was sentenced in October to 14 years in prison after being found guilty of aggravated sexual abuse of a minor. According to media reports, evangelical pastor Carlos Manuel Chavarria Fonseca was arrested in August on five accounts of sexually abusing women.

Debates on same-sex partnerships and abortion on social media networks were occasionally accompanied by insults and remarks disparaging the beliefs of Catholics, other Christians, and nonbelievers. For example, an article posted on Facebook reporting on the Catholic Church’s position on abortion received several comments with slurs directed at Catholic clergy, calling them pedophiles and hypocrites for their stance on social issues. Both issues continued to prompt public debate, both in social and traditional media outlets.

In a public video posted on social media, Juan Diego Castro, a former presidential candidate and former minister of security, used anti-Semitic language in questioning the commercial strategy of a news outlet owned by a Jewish individual, alluding to the Holocaust and calling him an “evil banker.” Government officials, religious leaders, and civil society members all condemned his remarks. In addition to this incident, the Jewish community reported isolated instances of anti-Semitic comments on social media, particularly posts in three Facebook groups making statements that Jews controlled the Costa Rican economy and attacking Israel’s right to exist.

The Interreligious Forum of Costa Rica, an interfaith dialogue among religious leaders, continued, with participation of representatives from the Catholic, evangelical Christian, Protestant, Lutheran, Jewish, Baha’i, and Buddhist faiths. The group hosted the visit of Sagi Shalev, an interfaith dialogue activist from Israel, to participate in a public event on religious liberty. In March members of the interfaith dialogue signed a declaration to promote fraternity among Latin American and Caribbean cultural traditions. One of the interfaith dialogue leaders, a former participant in a U.S. government-sponsored program, started a project to create a Museum of Empathy with an emphasis on interfaith dialogue, in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and directors from the country’s museums. The objective of the project, which was established in 2017 as an initiative of the Ombudsman’s Office, was to promote interreligious dialogue among the country’s religious groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed issues of religious freedom throughout the year with public officials, including legislators and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As an outcome of the embassy’s initiative to promote conversations among religious leaders, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a meeting with all religious leaders registered in the country to discuss issues of interest for the religious organizations and the current legal framework regulating them.

Embassy representatives also engaged with civil society leaders and with a wide range of religious leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Church of Jesus Christ, and other religious communities to discuss their views on religious freedom in the country, including the free expression of religious beliefs. Religious leaders were invited to participate in major embassy events and receptions. The Embassy drew on the Department of State Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom to share messages of tolerance and understanding with religious leaders and government officials.

The embassy used social media to send congratulatory messages to religious groups on special religious occasions and highlight tolerance and respect for religious diversity. Examples included messages sent to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the evangelical Christian celebration of Month of the Bible, and the Catholic commemoration of the Day of the Virgin of Los Angeles. The embassy also used social media to amplify messages from the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

Côte d’Ivoire

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and worship, consistent with law and order, and prohibits religious discrimination. It emphasizes that religious tolerance is fundamental to the nation’s unity, national reconciliation, and social cohesion. It forbids speech that encourages religious hatred. In July the Department of Faith-Based Organizations within the Ministry of Interior organized a panel discussion with religious leaders on the use of information and communication technology.

Unknown individuals vandalized two Catholic churches in separate incidents in July and August. In October Muslim and Catholic leaders, along with government representatives, participated in the eighth Inter-Religious Conference for Peace hosted by the Sant’Egidio community. The three-day conference culminated in an interreligious prayer session and a march for peace.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy representatives met with government officials to emphasize the importance of human rights, including religious freedom, throughout the year. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives also met with religious leaders throughout the year, as well as with the director of the nationwide Muslim radio station Al-Bayane. Some discussions focused on the role of religious media outlets in promoting peace, social cohesion, and religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 26.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the most recent census in 2014, among those who responded, 50 percent are Muslim, 41 percent Christian, and 5 percent adherents of indigenous religious beliefs. Approximately 20 percent of the population did not respond to the census. Many individuals who identify as Christian or Muslim also practice some aspects of indigenous religious beliefs.

Christian denominations include Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Harrists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Southern Baptists, Greek Orthodox, Copts, the Celestial Church of Christ, and Assemblies of God. Muslim groups include Sunnis (95 percent of Muslims) many of whom are Sufis; Shia (mostly members of the Lebanese community); and Ahmadis. Other religious groups include Buddhists, Baha’is, Rastafarians, followers of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and Bossonists, who follow traditions of the Akan ethnic group.

Muslims are the majority in the north of the country, and Christians are the majority in the south. Members of both groups, as well as other religious groups, reside throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates a secular state that respects all beliefs and treats all individuals equally under the law, regardless of religion. It specifically prohibits religious discrimination in public and private employment and provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, and worship consistent with the law, the rights of others, national security, and public order. It prohibits “propaganda” that encourages religious hatred. It recognizes the right of political asylum in the country for individuals persecuted for religious reasons.

The Department of Faith-Based Organizations is charged with promoting dialogue among religious groups and between the government and religious groups, providing administrative support to religious groups attempting to become established in the country, monitoring religious activities, and managing state-sponsored religious pilgrimages and registration of new religious groups.

The law requires all religious groups to register with the government. Foreign religious groups with a presence in the country require authorization from the Department of Faith-Based Organizations, and local religious associations need to register with the same department. To register, a group must submit an application to the Department of Faith-Based Organizations. The application must include the group’s bylaws, names of the founding members and board members, date of founding, and general assembly minutes. The department investigates the organization to ensure the religious group has no members or purpose deemed politically subversive and that no members are deprived of their civil and political rights. There are no penalties prescribed for groups that do not register, but those that register benefit from government support such as free access to state-run television and radio for religious programming to groups that request it. Registered religious groups are not charged import duties on devotional items such as religious books and rosaries. Registered religious groups are exempt from property tax on the places of worship they own.

Religious education is not included in the public school curriculum but is often included in private schools affiliated with a particular faith. Religious groups running the schools normally provide opt out procedures. Teachers and supervisory staff in religiously affiliated schools must participate in training offered by the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training before the school receives accreditation from the ministry. According to an official survey from the Directorate for Strategy, Planning, and Statistics of the ministry, only 343 of 2,781 of Islamic schools are authorized by the ministry and follow the national curriculum, as well as an Islamic curriculum.

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

Government Practices

In July the Department of Faith-Based Organizations organized a panel discussion on the use of information and communication technology and encouraged religious leaders and groups to be more cautious in social media messaging to prevent potentially inflammatory communications. Approximately 50 religious leaders, lawyers, and police officers attended. A representative from the Ministry of Security and Civil Protection explained there were legal penalties for posting information on social media that contributed to a disruption in public order. The law allows a prison term of one to five years and a fine 300,000 to 3,000,000 CFA francs ($520 to $5,200) for “anyone who by means of press or by other means of publication” incites violence, xenophobia, hateful speech, or other acts considered to be against national security.”

The government continued to supervise and organize Hajj pilgrimages for Muslims and fund pilgrimages to Israel, Portugal, Spain, and France for Christians, as well as fund local pilgrimages for members of independent African Christian churches. The government organized and transported 6,005 pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, compared with 6,800 the previous year. The government also supervised the organization of the pilgrimage for 2,459 private pilgrims. The government funded pilgrimages for 1,200 Christians to Europe and Israel, compared with 942 the previous year. The government also assisted 725 adherents of traditional religions in pilgrimages within the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During the night of July 1, according to media, unidentified individuals vandalized a Catholic church in Grand-Yapo, north of Abidjan. The parish priest said assailants destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary, scattered the fragments at the entrance to the church, and trampled on them. Authorities investigated the incident but made no arrests. The following day the Bishop of Agboville called for prayer, calm, and social cohesion.

On the evening of August 2, unknown individuals removed the head from a statue of the Virgin Mary in a Catholic church in Abobo-Doume, north of Abidjan.

During an October 12 religious service, the Catholic Archbishop of Abidjan encouraged political figures and members of the government to contribute to a calm and peaceful electoral year in 2020. He said that many citizens lived in fear because in the recent past, minor disputes had sometimes led to intercommunal (but not religiously motivated) conflict in the country.

Christian and Muslim religious leaders, civil society, government officials, and political leaders took part in the eighth Inter-Religious Conference for Peace hosted by the Sant’Egidio Community in Abidjan on October 4-6. Religious and political leaders as well as civil society representatives criticized what they called attempts by government officials to use their groups to advance their own causes. An imam from the Higher Council of Imams of Cote d’Ivoire (COSIM) said Christians and Muslims should work together to send messages of peace and unity to the population.

The director of the nationwide Muslim radio station Al-Bayane, an imam, told participants in a discussion on religious media outlets that he had a strong relationship with the Archbishop of Abidjan and stressed that listeners of his station included non-Muslims.

According to religious leaders and civil society, many persons reportedly regularly celebrated each other’s religious holidays by attending household or neighborhood gatherings, regardless of their own faith.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy representatives met with government officials, including from the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights and the Ministry of Solidarity, Social Cohesion, and the Fight against Poverty, to emphasize the importance of human rights, including religious freedom, throughout the year. Embassy representatives also discussed with government officials opportunities to partner with the international community to promote religious freedom. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with senior Christian and Muslim religious leaders to urge respect for all faiths and promote freedom of belief. Embassy officers also met regularly with the director of the nationwide Muslim radio station Al-Bayane, affiliated with COSIM, to discuss the role of religious media outlets in promoting peace, social cohesion, and religious freedom.

International Religious Freedom Reports
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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future