The constitution states that everyone has freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) as the national church and preserver of national identity but also establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. The law prohibits, but does not define, proselytism, which may be interpreted as forced conversion. The trial continued of a prominent Baha’i lawyer, charged in 2017 with organizing illegal migration to the country. Baha’i community members said they believed the charges were brought because of his religion. On February 18, the Constitutional Court ruled as unconstitutional the blanket restriction on religious membership among law enforcement in the Law on Police Service. Following the ruling, a police officer dismissed in 2018 for his religious affiliation was reinstated in his position. Societal debate continued concerning government plans to review the public school curriculum on the history of the Armenian Church, which was in progress at the end of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. During the hostilities, the government declared martial law, under which restrictions were imposed on freedoms of expression, assembly, and movement. Most of the restrictions were lifted December 2. In the territories previously controlled by Armenia-supported separatists, numerous incidents of neglect, destruction, and desecration of religious sites were reported. The Azerbaijani government stated 63 of the 67 mosques in these territories had been destroyed. It was unknown how many were damaged during earlier hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a result of neglect, or due to intentional damage. Some mosques were reportedly used to house livestock, including pigs. International journalists visiting these territories following the fall fighting confirmed the destruction of Muslim graves and graveyards while under Armenia-supported separatist control.
Religious minorities said they continued to face hate speech and negative portrayals of their communities, especially in social media, although many reported a decrease in negative commentaries in mid-November after the end of intensive fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. According to observers, anti-Semitism increased in the country after Israeli-supplied weapons were used by Azerbaijan during the conflict. The Holocaust and Genocide Memorial – a memorial in downtown Yerevan marking the Holocaust and mass killing of more than one million Armenians by Ottoman Turkey – was vandalized on two occasions under unknown circumstances. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were no instances of verbal harassment towards the group’s members during the year. One other minority religious group that preferred not to be identified reported a single incident of harassment during the year. Sources stated that societal and family pressure remained a major deterrent for ethnic Armenians to practice a religion other than the Armenian Apostolic faith.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance, respect for religious minorities, and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly consulted with minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, as well as with individual members of the Muslim community, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Embassy officials engaged government officials and civil society representatives to discuss the impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on religious groups and religious sites of significance to Armenian communities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 92 percent of the population identifies as Armenian Apostolic. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics; Armenian Uniate (Mekhitarist) Catholics; Orthodox Christians; and evangelical Christians, including Armenian Evangelical Church adherents, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, charismatic Christians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are also followers of the Church of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East; Molokan Christians; Yezidis; Jews; Baha’is; Shia Muslims; Sunni Muslims; and pagans, who are adherents to a pre-Christian faith. According to an International Republican Institute (IRI) poll released in December 2019, 97 percent of the country’s population identifies as Armenian Apostolic, 2 percent other, and 1 percent none. According to members of the Jewish community, there are approximately 800 to 1,000 Jews in the country.
According to the country’s 2011 census, there are more than 35,000 Yezidis, with some more recent estimates suggesting approximately 50,000. Yezidis are concentrated primarily in agricultural areas northwest of Yerevan around Mount Aragats. Armenian Uniate Catholics live primarily in the north. Most Muslims are Shia, including Iranians and temporary residents from the Middle East.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs and the freedom to manifest religion or belief in rituals of worship, such as preaching or church ceremonies, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private. The constitution allows restrictions on this right to protect state security, public order, health and morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. The constitution establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. It recognizes the “exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Church” as the national church in the “spiritual life, development of the national culture, and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.” The constitution prohibits the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms to incite religious hatred.
The law prohibits, but does not define, “soul hunting,” a term describing both proselytism and forced conversion. The law prohibits religious organizations with spiritual centers located outside the country from receiving funding from those foreign centers, but there is no mechanism to enforce the law. The law also prohibits religious organizations from funding or being funded by political parties.
The law does not categorize or regulate the residence status of foreign religious volunteers.
By law, a registered religious group may minister to the religious and spiritual needs of its faithful; perform religious liturgies, rites, and ceremonies; establish groups for religious instruction; engage in theological, religious, historical, and cultural studies; train members for the clergy or for scientific and pedagogical purposes; obtain and utilize objects and materials of religious significance; use media; establish ties with religious organizations in other countries; and engage in charity. The law does not require religious groups to register, but they must do so to conduct business in their own name (e.g., to own property, rent property, and establish bank accounts). The law does not stipulate rights accorded to unregistered groups.
To register as a legal entity, a religious community must present to the Office of the State Registrar an assessment from the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities stating its expert opinion whether the community complies with the requirements of the law that it be based on “historically recognized holy scripture.” It also must be “free from materialism and [be] of a spiritual nature,” have at least 200 adult members, and follow a doctrine espoused by a member of the “international modern system” of religious communities. The law does not define “free from materialism” or state which religious communities are part of the “international modern system.” The law specifies that this list of registration requirements, to which the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities must attest, does not apply to a religious organization based on the faith of one of the groups recognized as national minorities, including Assyrians, Kurds, Russians, and Yezidis, among others. A religious community may appeal a decision by the Office of the State Registrar through the courts.
The criminal code prohibits “obstruction of the right to exercise freedom of religion” and prescribes punishment ranging from fines of up to 200,000 drams ($390) to detention for up to two months.
The Office of the Human Rights Defender (ombudsman) has a mandate to address violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion, committed by officials of state and local governments.
The penitentiary code allows penal institutions to invite clergy members to conduct religious ceremonies and use religious objects and literature. Prisoners may request spiritual assistance from the religious group of their choice. A joint Ministry of Defense-AAC agreement allows only AAC clergy to serve as military chaplains.
The law allows the AAC free access and the right to station representatives in hospitals, orphanages, boarding schools, military units, and places of detention, while other religious groups may have representatives in these locations only with permission from the head of the institution. The law also stipulates the state will not interfere with the AAC’s exclusive right to preach freely and spread its beliefs throughout the entire territory of the country.
The law mandates public education be secular and states, “Religious activity and preaching in public educational institutions is prohibited,” with the exception of cases provided for by law. While adding a course in the history of the Armenian Church (HAC) in a public or private school is optional, once a school chooses to do so, the course becomes mandatory for all students in grades five to 11; there is no opt-out provision for students or their parents.
The AAC has the right to participate in the development of the syllabi and textbooks for the HAC course and to define the qualifications of the teachers. While the Church may nominate candidates to teach the course, HAC teachers are state employees. The law grants the AAC the right to organize voluntary extracurricular religious instruction classes in state educational institutions. Other religious groups may provide religious instruction to their members in their own facilities but not within the premises of state educational institutions.
The labor code prohibits employers from collecting and analyzing data on the religious views of employees. Changes to the labor code, adopted by the National Assembly on June 2, authorize up to four days of unpaid leave for observing national and religious holidays or remembrance days, regardless of religious affiliation.
The law provides for two types of service for conscientious objectors as an alternative to compulsory, two-year military service: alternative (noncombat) military service for 30 months or alternative labor service for 36 months. Evasion of alternative service is a criminal offense. Penalties range from two months detention to eight years imprisonment, depending on the circumstances of the case.
The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred calling for violence through public statements, mass media, or using one’s public position and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($390 to $970) to prison terms of between three and six years.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During the year, Edward Manasyan, a prominent member of the Baha’i community, continued to face 2017 charges of facilitating illegal migration to the country by advising Iranians wishing to settle in the country. He was held in pretrial detention for eight months before the trial court judge released him on bail in 2018. On July 17, the Court of Appeals rejected two of the 2019 appeals filed by the Baha’i community against the NSS in connection with concerns over surveillance of Baha’i community members preceding Manasyan’s arrest. The Baha’i appeal stated the NSS illegally used wiretaps to surveil the community’s office as well as the community secretary and used the information gathered as the basis to charge Manasyan. The community’s appeal of these decisions with the Court of Cassation remained pending by year’s end. At year’s end, Manasyan’s trial was also ongoing.
According to sources, throughout the year, Narek Malyan, the founder of the initiative Veto, and his supporters continued to harass the Yezidi Center for Human Rights and its founder, Sashik Sultanyan, as part of their broader online campaign of harassment of Open Society Foundations-Armenia, a donor organization of the Yezidi Center for Human Rights. On September 8, Malyan stated he applied to the NSS to launch a criminal case against Sultanyan, accusing him of inciting national religious enmity, based on an interview Sultanyan gave to an Iraqi-based media outlet in which he discussed the issues faced by the Yezidi community in the country. The NSS launched a criminal case based on what civil society organizations called a fake and baseless accusation. While authorities did not charge Sultanyan as a defendant in the case, according to civil society, at year’s end, the NSS continued to investigate him and the Yezidi Center for Human Rights, hindering the organization’s activities and harassing those affiliated with the NGO.
Most public and private schools continued to teach HAC courses throughout the country in grades five through 11.
Yezidi community representatives again reported dissatisfaction with the mandatory HAC course, terming it “religious indoctrination.” While schools with an all-Yezidi student body were able to remove the course from their curriculum, Yezidi children who attended schools with a mixed student body were obliged to take the course, regardless of parental objections. There were anecdotal reports again stating that at least one public school in Yerevan and two public schools in Yezidi villages did not teach the course.
Several non-AAC religious groups again said they did not object to the inclusion of the HAC course in public schools, although some objected to the prayers and making the signs of the cross that reportedly occurred during the classes, and they said they would like to see a more accurate portrayal of religious groups other than the AAC. One Christian group stated that while religious education was important, it should include “all religions that are traditional to Armenia.”
NGOs, other religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC continued to publicly voice concerns about what they stated were elements of religious indoctrination contained in the HAC course as well as material equating AAC affiliation with national identity.
In June, the government’s announced plans to remove HAC courses from the mandatory school curriculum, generating public debate. While many individuals, including parents, teachers, and AAC clergy, said the course helped to develop a value system based on Armenian identity, others said schools should remain secular and moral values could be developed outside the HAC course. At year’s end, sources stated that a major rethinking of the entire school curriculum by the government remained in process.
The NGO Eurasia Partnership Foundation again stated its concerns about the existing HAC course and how its content affected the rights of religious minority groups. The foundation also welcomed the efforts of the Ministry of Education to develop new criteria for public school curriculums, stating that many of the foundation’s suggestions to address existing concerns were taken into consideration in the drafting process.
Although official figures for the 2020-2021 school year were not available, during the 2019-2020 school year, 74 schools included an optional course, entitled “History of the AAC/Christian Education,” in their curriculum for grades two through four.
The chaplaincy program, a joint Ministry of Defense-AAC initiative, continued to allow only AAC clergy to serve in the program.
According to official information from the Ministry of Justice, to satisfy the spiritual needs of detainees and convicts, AAC clergymen regularly visited penitentiaries, organized baptisms, offered liturgies, and celebrated holidays. The state of emergency announced on March 16 due to COVID-19 prohibited the “organization of religious rites and participating therein,” ending clergy visits to penitentiaries until the quarantine was lifted in September and penitentiaries started providing limited religious services that adhered to strict protection measures.
On February 11, a trial court ruled in favor of an appeal filed in 2019 by the Center for Religion and Law on behalf of a teacher in Yelpin Village in Vayots Dzor Region against her school administration. According to the Center for Religion and Law, the teacher became a subject of discrimination based on her religion when her instruction hours were reduced after parents of students accused the teacher of belonging to a “sect” because she was a member of an evangelical Christian church. The center requested rescission of the 2017 decision reducing her classes, restoration of the number of classes she taught, payment of back wages, and acknowledgement of the fact she was subjected to discrimination on religious grounds. According to the court ruling, the teacher was reinstated to her former position and paid back wages, but the court denied that discrimination had taken place.
On February 18, the Constitutional Court ruled that the article of the Law on Police Service that contained a blanket restriction on membership in a religious organization was unconstitutional. In the ruling, the Constitutional Court also stated that membership in religious organizations – as a form of freedom of expression and a way to exercise the right of freedom of association – is a right that may not be denied regardless of service in any militarized body, including police.
On June 4, a trial court ruled in favor of an appeal filed in 2018 by the Center for Religion and Law on behalf of police officer Edgar Karapetyan, who was dismissed from his position on the grounds he was attending an evangelical Christian church and, according to police, was a member of a religious organization, although it was not customary for religious groups to maintain membership records. Karapetyan was reinstated in his position and paid back wages.
Although there was no mechanism for enforcing the legal provision prohibiting funding of religious organizations by spiritual centers located outside the country, several religious organizations said they adhered to the ban and restricted their operations because they did not want to violate the law.
Beginning in August, some foreign citizen volunteers at local churches were denied requests to renew their residence permits as authorities applied a new interpretation of related laws and procedures. Government officials said churches could start paying their volunteers and apply for work papers or the volunteers could leave the country and return, allowing them to remain in the country for an additional 180 days. The provision affected some churches that decided to limit their volunteers’ service to 180 days.
Jehovah’s Witnesses said that the group halted construction of churches due to COVID-19 and therefore did not face difficulties building places of worship, unlike previous years. They largely suspended construction during the COVID-19 pandemic, although some minor renovations were completed. At year’s end, one case dating from 2016 was pending before the European Court of Human Rights regarding the prohibition by the Yerevan City Municipality on building places of worship on land owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Armenian Missionary Association of America continued its construction projects without interference and was planning additional construction the following spring.
At year’s end, 127 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program, compared with 129 in 2019. The alternative service appointments included positions in various hospitals, local utility companies, park maintenance services, boarding schools, eldercare facilities, and orphanages. During the fall conflict, the government allowed men in the alternative civilian service program to continue in that program. Additionally, in nearly all cases, Jehovah’s Witnesses who had served in the military prior to their conversion and were called up for service during the conflict were released from service after stating that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses or providing relevant documentation. According to government sources, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only individuals participating in these programs, and none chose to serve in the alternative military service (military service that does not involve combat duty or the carrying, keeping, maintaining, or using of arms). Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the Armenia-supported de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities allowed them to worship in the region without hindrance but denied them registration as a religious group, as well as the right to conscientious objection to military service. They also reported all Jehovah’s Witnesses living in Nagorno-Karabakh evacuated to Armenia, and none were forced to serve in the military.
According to AAC spokesperson Vahram Melikyan, following its formation, the working group on government-AAC relations held ongoing meetings to discuss issues of mutual concern, including the spiritual health of the country’s citizens.
The government’s National Security Strategy, adopted in July, recognized the importance of the Armenian Catholic Church, Armenian Evangelical Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, and Christianity in the formation of national values. The strategy recognized respect and tolerance toward other peoples, nations, and religions as a national value. It emphasized the important role played by the three churches within the context of Armenia-diaspora relations and the government’s commitment to fully protecting the rights and freedoms of every person residing in the country. The strategy also stressed the importance of fully integrating ethnic minorities and vulnerable groups into every area of public life and the system of state governance. The strategy also stated the country’s commitment to protecting the right to life of ethnic, religious, and racial groups and their members as well as the prevention of genocide.
During 44 days of intensive fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan, as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region.
The Azerbaijani government reported 63 of the 67 mosques in the territories previously controlled by Armenia-supported separatists were completely destroyed. It was unknown how many were damaged during earlier hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a result of neglect, or due to intentional damage. There were also reports of desecration of Muslim religious sites. Videos circulated on social media showed pigs in a mosque in Zangilan with defaced interior religious calligraphy; livestock in the Juma Mosque in Aghdam; and pigs in a mosque in Mamar, in the region of Qubadli. Armenian observers said the videos were staged or stated livestock entered the mosques of their own accord. International journalists visiting the territories following the intensive fighting confirmed the destruction of Muslim graves and graveyards while under Armenia-supported separatist control.
After Azerbaijan reestablished control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani government accused the Armenia-supported de facto authorities who previously controlled the territory of seeking to sever some religious sites’ connections with their Azerbaijani heritage. For example, de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities in Shusha renovated the Yukhari Govhar Aga Mosque with Iranian funding and labeled it a “Persian mosque.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh contributed to a rise in anti-Semitism, according to members of the Jewish community and other observers who largely attributed this to the Azerbaijani use of Israeli-produced weapons. According to observers, anti-Semitic slurs were again posted on social media platforms, in some cases together with cartoons depicting Jews in an offensive manner. The use of offensive slurs was particularly prevalent in posts on Facebook by anonymous antigovernment individuals targeting the Jewish leader of an international foundation. During the intensive fall fighting, the number of anti-Semitic posts increased, according to members of the Jewish community and other observers. Members of the Jewish community also reported anti-Semitic comments directed at them on public transport. The Hebrew and Armenian sides of Yerevan’s Holocaust and Genocide Memorial were defaced on two occasions, first on October 14 with paint, and again on October 22, when a fire was lit with wood around the bronze monument, resulting in discoloration and damage. Members of the Jewish community repaired the damage.
Other religious groups reported incidents of harassment during the year. A religious volunteer reported a car with a passenger drove up next to him when he was returning to his residence in Artashat, showing him what appeared to be a weapon through the window. On several occasions, persons walking past religious volunteers in Gyumri reportedly slapped them. The volunteers did not report the incidents to police.
The NSS continued its 2018 criminal case, on charges of incitement of religious hatred, against the creators of a 2018 Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated both with the Word of Life Church and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party. The case remained pending at year’s end.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, unlike previous years, there were no incidents of verbal harassment toward the group’s members publicly manifesting their religious beliefs during the year. One other minority religious group that preferred not to be identified reported a single incident of harassment during the year.
One Shia mosque, located in Yerevan, served all Islamic groups.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials, including from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and political party representatives. Embassy officials engaged government officials from the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport and the Office of the Human Rights Defender to discuss the impact of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh on religious groups and religious sites of significance to Armenian communities.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly consulted minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants; Jehovah’s Witnesses; the Church of Jesus Christ; Yezidis; the Jewish community; Apostolic Assyrians; Pentecostals; and Baha’is, as well as individual Muslims, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. On several occasions, the Ambassador publicly underscored the importance of fostering an inclusive society in which a diversity of viewpoints and beliefs is welcomed and encouraged. Embassy officials also discussed religious freedom with civil society, including addressing religious discrimination faced by minority religious groups and the impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on religious groups and religious sites that were significant to Armenian communities.
The constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions. It also protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and to practice religious rituals, provided these do not violate public order or public morality. The law prohibits the government from interfering in religious activities; it also states the government and citizens have a responsibility to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law specifies the government may dissolve religious organizations if they cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; proselytize in a way that “degrades human dignity”; or hinder secular education. In two separate decisions in January and June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government had violated the religious freedom rights of five individuals by subjecting them to excessively long pretrial detention (between five and 10 months) under the European Convention on Human Rights and ordered it to pay compensation. According to Forum 18, an international human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), three of the five were arrested for gathering to study the works of the late Turkish Sunni theologian Said Nursi. One of the men said authorities physically abused him during his detention. In September, the ECHR accepted the government’s admission it had violated the rights of multiple Muslim individuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses to meet for worship or religious study at members’ homes. Throughout the year, courts continued reviewing appeals and sentencing individuals detained after a July 2018 attack on the then-head of the Ganja City Executive Committee and the subsequent killing of two police officers. Authorities alleged those sentenced were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” that sought to undermine the constitutional order. Civil society activists and human rights groups considered the vast majority of the verdicts to be politically motivated and estimated 43 individuals remained in prison at year’s end in connection with the events in Ganja. Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with the unregistered Muslim Unity Movement (MUM), which the government characterized as an extremist group. Civil society activists and human rights advocates considered the incarceration of MUM members to be politically motivated. Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists. According to these groups, the number of religious activists who were political prisoners or detainees ranged from 41 to 48 at the end of the year. Religious communities continued to express frustration that communities with fewer than 50 members were not allowed to legally register. The government stated that reducing the minimum number of members below 50 would promote extremism. The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. In June, amendments to the criminal code entered into force that added “restriction of freedom” (i.e., probation) to preexisting penalties that included fines and imprisonment for publishing or distributing material with religious content without government approval. The government did not exercise control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region or surrounding territories throughout much of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. During the conflict, Human Rights Watch reported two separate attacks on October 8 on the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha by Azerbaijani forces. In connection with attacks on and vandalism of religious sites following the Fall fighting, Armenian officials, religious leaders, and civil society representatives expressed concerns for the protection of Armenian cultural and religious heritage as the sites passed from Armenian to Azerbaijani control.
Civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate and, in some cases, financially support “traditional” minority religious groups (i.e., those historically present in the country), including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics. Groups viewed as “nontraditional,” however, were often viewed with suspicion and mistrust.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate for the release of individuals NGOs stated were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers urged government officials to address longstanding issues with the registration process for smaller religious communities and to implement an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution. The Ambassador advocated at the highest levels of government for the protection of religious and cultural sites in the newly returned territories. The Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with representatives of registered and unregistered religious groups and civil society to discuss religious freedom in the country. Embassy officers also had consultations with theologians.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to 2011 data from the State Committee on Religious Associations in Azerbaijan (SCWRA) (the most recent available), 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni. Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include the Russian Orthodox Church; Georgian Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Seventh-day Adventists; Molokan Church; Roman Catholic Church; other Christians, including evangelical churches, Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jews; and Baha’is. Ethnic Azerbaijanis are mainly Muslims and non-Muslims are mainly Russians, Georgians, Armenians, and other national minorities. Others include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and those professing no religion.
Christians live mainly in Baku and other urban areas. Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Baku, with smaller communities throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions and all individuals regardless of belief. It protects freedom of religion, including the right of individuals to profess, individually or together with others, any religion, or to profess no religion, and to express and spread religious beliefs. It also provides for the freedom to carry out religious rituals, provided they do not violate public order or public morality. The constitution states no one may be required to profess his or her religious beliefs or be persecuted for them; the law prohibits forced expressions or demonstrations of religious faith.
According to the code of administrative offenses, an administrative offense is applicable to nonviolent crimes. An administrative arrest may last up to three months.
The law requires religious organizations – termed “associations” in the country’s legal code and encompassing religious groups, communities, and individual congregations of a denomination – to register with the government through the SCWRA. The SCWRA manages the registration process and may appeal to the courts to suspend a religious group’s activities. A religious community’s registration is tied to the physical site where the community is located, as stated in its application. A subsequent move or expansion to other locations requires reregistration. Registration allows a religious organization to hold meetings, maintain a bank account, rent property, act as a legal entity, and receive funds from the government.
To register, a religious organization must submit to the SCWRA a notarized application signed by at least 50 of its members, a charter and founding documents, the names of the organization’s founders, and the organization’s legal address and bank information.
By law, the government must rule on a registration application within 30 days, but there are no specified consequences if the government fails to act by the deadline. Authorities may deny registration of a religious organization if its actions, goals, or religious doctrine contradict the constitution or other laws. Authorities may also deny registration if an organization’s charter or other establishment documents contradict the law or if the information provided is false. Religious groups may appeal registration denials to the courts.
The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) is registered by the SCWRA as a foundation and oversees the activities of registered Islamic organizations, including training and appointing clerics to lead Islamic worship, periodically monitoring sermons, and organizing pilgrimages to Mecca. Muslim communities must receive an approval letter from the CMB before submitting a registration application to the SCWRA.
While the law prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, there are exceptions for suspected extremist or other illegal activity. The law states government entities and citizens have rights and responsibilities to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law defines religious extremism as behavior motivated by religious hatred, religious radicalism (described as believing in the exceptionalism of one’s religious beliefs), or religious fanaticism (described as believing no one outside of one’s religious group may criticize that group). According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals. It also includes activities seeking to change by force the constitutional structure of the country’s government, including its secular nature; setting up or participating in illegal armed groups or unions; and engaging in terrorist activities. The law penalizes actions that intend to change the constitutional order or violate the territorial integrity of the country on the grounds of religious hatred, radicalism, or fanaticism, with prison terms ranging from 15 years to life.
The law specifies circumstances under which religious organizations may be dissolved, including if they act contrary to their founding objectives; cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; or proselytize in a way that degrades human dignity or contradicts recognized principles of humanity, such as “love for mankind, philanthropy, and kindness.” Other grounds for dissolution include hindering secular education or inducing members or other individuals to cede their property to the organization.
Rituals and ceremonies related to Islam may be performed only by citizens of the country. The law allows foreigners invited by non-Islamic registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they obtain special permission from the CMB. Penalties for violating the law include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 manat ($590) to 5,000 manat ($2,900). A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.
The administrative code prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations from holding special meetings for children and young people as well as the organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies.”
The law restricts the use of religious symbols and slogans to inside places of worship.
According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution. Punishments for “production, sale and distribution of religious literature (on paper and electronic devices), audio and video materials, religious items, and other informational materials of religious nature with the aim of importation, sale and distribution without appropriate authorization” are proscribed by law. Punishments for first-time offenders include a fine of between 5,000 and 7,000 manat ($2,900 and $4,100), up to two years’ restricted freedom, or up to two years’ imprisonment. Violations by a group of people “according to a prior conspiracy,” an organized group, an individual for a second time, or an official carry a fine of between 7,000 and 9,000 manats ($4,100 and $5,300), between two and four years’ restricted freedom, or imprisonment of between two and five years. In June, amendments to the criminal code entered into force that added the alternative punishment of “restriction of freedom” (probation) – two to four years in cases involving an individual first-time offender and two to five years in aggravated cases – to the preexisting punishments.
There is no religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions. Students may study religion at higher educational institutions, such as the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad. The law prohibits individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government from holding official religious positions, preaching, or leading sermons after returning to the country.
Although the constitution allows alternative service “in some cases” when military service conflicts with personal beliefs, there is no legislation permitting alternative service, including on religious grounds. Refusal to perform military service is punishable under the criminal code with imprisonment of up to two years or forced conscription.
The law stipulates the government may revoke the citizenship of individuals who participate in terrorist acts; engage in religious extremist actions; undergo military training abroad under the guise of receiving religious education; propagate religious doctrines in a “hostile” manner, which the law does not further define; or participate in religious conflicts in a foreign country under the guise of performing religious rituals.
According to the constitution, the law may restrict participation of “religious officials” in elections and bars them from election to parliament. By law, political parties may not engage in religious activity. The law does not define “religious officials.” The law prohibits religious leaders from simultaneously serving in any public office and in a position of religious leadership. It proscribes the use of religious facilities for political purposes.
The constitution prohibits “spreading propaganda of religions humiliating people’s dignity and contradicting the principles of humanism” as well as “propaganda” inciting religious animosity. The law also prohibits threats or expressions of contempt for persons based on religious belief.
The law prohibits proselytizing by foreigners but does not prohibit citizens from doing so. In cases of proselytization by foreigners and stateless persons, the law sets a punishment of one to two years in prison.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists.
On June 4, the ECHR ruled the government had violated the religious freedom rights of four individuals whom it arrested between 2013 and 2015 by subjecting them to excessively long pretrial detention (between five and 10 months) in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. According to Forum 18, authorities arrested the four – Taleh Bagirov (aka Bagirzade), Zakir Mustafayev, Ismayil Mammadov, and Eldaniz Hajiyev – for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. The government acknowledged the length of pretrial detention had been excessive. The ECHR ordered the government to pay each of the men 3,000 euros ($3,700) in compensation. It awarded Mustafayev an additional 500 euros ($610) for costs associated with applying to the court. Representatives of the men said the compensation was too low and wanted the court to continue hearing the case, but it refused. The ECHR ruling in June followed a similar decision by the same court on January 16 concerning the extended detention of Hajiyev, Mammadov, and a third man, Revan Sabzaliyev, arrested in April 2014 when they met to study the works of Nursi. Hajiyev and Mammadov were also among the four men included in ECHR’s June decision. Bagirov said authorities tortured him during his detention. In 2015, authorities arrested Bagirov on charges of extremism following a police raid of a home where he was preaching. Five attendees and two officers died in the raid.
In nine cases concluded in September, the ECHR accepted the government’s admission that it had violated the rights of multiple individuals to freedom of religion or belief. One case involved seven Muslims who were detained when they met at a home in Baku in 2015 to discuss the works of Nursi. In another case, authorities detained four Jehovah’s Witnesses when they met at a member’s home in Ganja in 2010. The government paid 4,400 euros ($5,400) in compensation to the Muslims and 4,000 euros ($4,900) to the Jehovah’s Witnesses following the decisions. In these cases, as well as in earlier cases where the government admitted culpability, the victims said they were concerned by both the low level of compensation the government offered and what they saw as its failure to change the laws to ensure similar violations did not occur again. Forum 18 said there were 34 cases alleging violations of freedom of religion or belief involving 61 individuals and five religious communities that were pending before the ECHR at year’s end.
Throughout the year, courts continued reviewing appeals and sentencing individuals detained after the July 2018 assault on Elmar Valiyev, the then-head of the Ganja City Executive Committee, and the subsequent stabbing to death of two police officers during a related demonstration against local government authorities. In response to the 2018 events, police killed five persons and detained 77 others during special operations in Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku. The government said the convicted individuals were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country, and that those killed had resisted arrest. Civil society activists and family members disputed the government’s account of events and stated the five individuals whom security forces killed hade not resisted arrest. The Ganja Court of Grave Crimes conducted the trials in Baku in what observers said was an effort to avoid causing further social unrest in Ganja. Those convicted received sentences ranging from 18 months to 18 years imprisonment. With the exception of Yunis Safarov, who was accused of trying to shoot Valiyev, civil society activists and human rights advocates considered the vast majority of the verdicts to be politically motivated. They estimated 43 individuals connected to the events in Ganja remained in prison at year’s end.
Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with the unregistered group MUM. Authorities stated the movement mixed religious and political ideology and said they were concerned about its ties to Iran. Charges against MUM members included illegal possession of weapons, violation of the COVID-19 quarantine regime, and “resisting police” (a broad offense that includes not obeying police orders). As in prior years, human rights advocates and other civil society activists characterized the charges as baseless and designed to preclude political activity. According to data collected by human rights advocates, at year’s end, the estimated number of believers who were political prisoners ranged from 41 to 48, compared with 45 to 55 in 2019.
On March 13, police detained MUM member Elvin Muradov. On September 25, the Narimanov District Court sentenced him to two years and three months in prison for illegal possession of a weapon. On June 22, police detained MUM member Shamil Hasanov. On October 27, the Binagadi District Court sentenced him to four years and six months in prison for illegal possession of a weapon. During the year, authorities placed multiple members of MUM under administrative arrest for allegedly violating the COVID-19 quarantine regime and “resisting police.” For example, on March 21, the Sabunchu District Court sentenced Samir Babayev to 30 days of administrative arrest. On April 12, the Khatai District Court sentenced Hikmat Agayev to 25 days of administrative arrest. On June 10, the Imishli District Court sentenced Alik Aslanov to 15 days of administrative arrest.
On April 6, a presidential pardon released a number of individuals over the age of 65 because of concerns over COVID-19-related risks to elderly prisoners. The released individuals included two religious activists whom human rights advocates considered political prisoners, including one person arrested after a large November 2015 police operation targeting members of MUM.
Some minority Christian communities said the SCWRA made efforts to create more favorable conditions for their activities than in prior years, such as by becoming more responsive to their requests and concerns and establishing closer communication with them. The groups said there were fewer instances of officials raiding the premises of religious communities or detaining and fining individuals in connection with peaceful practice of their religion or beliefs than in years past. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated there were no detentions related to practice of their religion during the year, compared with 18 in 2019. They attributed the lack of incidents to improved relations with the SCWRA and their reduced public proselytizing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government did not implement alternative military service for conscientious objectors, despite being required to do so by the constitution, or make any draft law public. According to Forum 18, on March 30, ruling party deputy Siyavush Novruzov recommended parliament adopt an alternative service law. In April 2019, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Jehovah’s Witnesses Emil Mehdiyev and Vahid Abilov of their 2018 convictions and one-year probation sentences for criminal evasion of military service. Mehdiyev and Abilov filed an appeal with the ECHR, on which the court had not ruled as of year’s end.
During the year, the SCWRA registered 14 new religious communities (12 Muslim and two Christian), compared with 34 religious communities registered in 2019 (31 Muslim and three Christian). There were a total 963 registered communities at the end of the year, of which 37 were non-Muslim – 26 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The SCWRA also said 2,250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered. There were 23 Christian prayer houses (worship spaces that did not have the status of a church), one Baha’i house of worship, and one Krishna Consciousness house of worship in the country at year’s end.
The SCWRA said it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registration. While the SCWRA maintained its prohibition on these communities’ religious activities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request.
The government said the inability of some groups to obtain registration stemmed solely from the groups’ inability to meet the law’s requirement of 50 members and that the government did not take administrative action against unregistered religious communities. The government said reducing the minimum number of members below 50 would promote extremism. Religious communities continued to state frustration with government registration requirements, particularly the 50-member minimum. For example, Baptist communities in the towns of Zagatala and Shirvan did not have sufficient members to apply for legal registration. Jehovah’s Witnesses were registered only in Baku. Regional branches of Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses stated they were unable to obtain legal registration, although they stated they were able to worship openly despite being unregistered. Forum 18 reported that in January, the SCWRA told the Baptist community in the village of Aliabad, which has been seeking legal status since 1994, that SCWRA had “no objection” to the group meeting once per week for two hours, despite it not having legal status. Some Protestant and home-based church leaders stated their inability to obtain legal registration forced them to keep their activities quiet for fear of government repercussions.
On September 23, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the Baku Administrative Court, which on January 30, 2019 declined to review the complaint of former parliament employee Rahim Akhundov. Akhundov stated that in December 2018 he was forced to resign from his professional position in the International Relations Department due to his Christian faith. He stated he had been threatened with dismissal if he did not resign voluntarily. According to Akhundov, security services conducted surveillance on him and his home, and informed parliamentary leadership that he held prayer meetings at his house and proselytized.
On August 28, authorities did not permit Shia believers to gather in mosques or mosque courtyards to mark the Ashura religious commemoration because of COVID-19 quarantine restrictions that applied to all public gatherings, regardless of the purpose. Police detained numerous individuals in Shamkir, Yevlakh, Barda, and Lankaran for trying to observe Ashura in spite of the prohibition on gatherings. Judges sentenced at least six individuals to administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days.
Forum 18 said government officials sometimes refused to give birth certificates to Georgian-speaking families for children with Georgian first names or to Baptists wishing to give their children biblical names. According to Forum 18, without a birth certificate, a child may not attend kindergarten or school, be treated in a hospital, or travel abroad. The NGO said that in the early part of the year, following a one-year delay, officials granted a birth certificate to a family in Aliabad who had named their son Daniel. An individual close to the family told Forum 18, “The parents chose the name for religious reasons. But officials refused and insisted they choose an Azeri name.”
The SCWRA stated it prohibited the importation of 52 books out of 3,680 and the publication of six books out of 205. By comparison, in 2019 the SCWRA prohibited the importation of 216 books out of 3,888, and the publication of 14 books out of 239.
On October 22, the ECHR ruled in the case of Jehovah’s Witness Nina Gridneva. The court dismissed the case because the parties had reached a settlement in which the government recognized it had violated her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and committed to pay her 4,500 euros ($5,500) as compensation. In 2010, police stopped Gridneva while she was distributing religious literature on the street and officers seized the materials. A local court subsequently fined her for distributing “illegal” religious literature.
The ECHR ruled on February 20 that the government had violated the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses by banning three of their publications from importation and distribution in 2008. The ECHR ordered the government to pay compensation for the violation and refund court fees Jehovah’s Witnesses incurred trying to challenge the bans in local courts.
According to Shia Rights Watch, in June, officials demolished the Hazrat Zahra Mosque in Baku, saying the building was condemned, and undertook construction of a new mosque on the same site. The government had attempted to demolish the mosque in 2008; however, due to demonstrations, demolition was postponed.
The government continued to allocate funds to “traditional” religious groups. On June 2, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree allocating two million manat ($1.18 million) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities and 350,000 manat ($206,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews, the same amounts as in 2019. The decree also allocated 150,000 manat ($88,200) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku, and 100,000 manat ($58,800) to the Moral Values Promotion Foundation, the same amounts as in 2019. Some observers stated the Moral Values Promotion Foundation’s funding amounted to further government control over the practice of Islam.
The government did not exercise control over Nagorno-Karabakh or the surrounding territories throughout much of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting in the fall in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region.
Human Rights Watch stated Azerbaijani forces attacked and damaged the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha in two separate incidents on October 8. Reporters on-site during the attack reported a drone flying overhead at the time and that the two strikes were made by high-precision missiles. There was reportedly no evidence the site was used for military purposes. In an October 26 interview, President Aliyev denied purposefully bombing the church, saying it was bombed by accident or was done by the Armenians themselves to frame Azerbaijan. Armenian religious officials accused Azerbaijan forces of desecrating the Holy Savior Cathedral after taking control of the city of Shusha on November 14. Photographs circulated on the internet showed graffiti on the outer walls of the cathedral. Azerbaijani media said the graffiti in the online images had been photoshopped.
Numerous videos circulated during and after the fall fighting that showed attacks on and vandalism of cultural and religious sites. These videos prompted Armenian officials, religious leaders, and civil society representatives to express serious concerns regarding the preservation of the sites as they passed from Armenian to Azerbaijani control. Following the ceasefire, leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church requested that Russian peacekeepers protect the medieval Dadivank Monastery in the district of Kalbajar, a territory returned to Azerbaijani control after the fall fighting, fearing its carvings could be destroyed and that without protection the site would become inaccessible. Russian peacekeepers took control of the site immediately following a November 14 call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. President Aliyev’s public claim that “the churches in Kalbajar belong to the ancient Caucasian Albanian state” raised concerns among Armenians that Azerbaijan might seek to sever some religious sites’ connections with their Armenian heritage.
Armenian media reported both during and after the fall fighting that representatives of the Azerbaijani armed forces deliberately targeted monuments of historical, religious, and cultural significance. On November 14, a person whom local media identified as Azerbaijani posted a video on Facebook showing the alleged destruction of the dome and the bell tower of the St. John the Baptist Church (also known as Kanach Zham/Green Church) located in Shusha.
There were also videos of soldiers desecrating and damaging the Church of Zoravor St. Astvatsatsin, located in Mekhakavan settlement, including the breaking of the church’s cross. When the Church of Zoravor St. Astvatsatsin was constructed in 2017 by Armenia-supported de facto authorities as a military chapel, Azerbaijan formally protested the construction on “occupied lands” in a depopulated area as a violation of international humanitarian law.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate and, in some cases, financially support “traditional” minority religious groups, such as Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics, but many persons viewed groups considered “nontraditional,” such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with suspicion and mistrust.
The executive director of the Moral Values Promotion Foundation, Mehman Ismayilov, said that during the year, the foundation provided monthly assistance to 984 Muslim religious figures serving in mosques, including imams and deputy imams, and transferred 100,000 manat ($58,800) to 22 non-Muslim communities.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate for the release of individuals that NGOs stated were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers also pressed the government to implement an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution. They met with senior Cabinet of Ministers, SCWRA, and CMB officials to urge resolution of longstanding issues regarding the registration process for smaller religious communities and other obstacles faced by religious minorities. The Ambassador advocated at the highest levels of government for the protection of religious and cultural sites in the newly returned territories. During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and in the months following the ceasefire arrangement, the Ambassador consistently underscored the importance of granting unimpeded access to religious and cultural sites to UNESCO and international journalists with Azerbaijan’s Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with leaders of registered and unregistered religious communities and with representatives of civil society to discuss issues related to religious freedom, alternative military service, and relations with SCWRA. Officials also consulted with theologians. In a program intended to empower women involved in work with religious organizations, the embassy sponsored the travel of a group of five female employees working for the SCWRA and CMB to the United States from March 4 to March 13. In the United States, the group met with representatives of different interfaith and religious organizations, visited different houses of worship, and learned about the role of women in American religious communities.
The constitution grants individuals freedom to profess and practice any religious belief but prohibits religious activities directed against the sovereignty of the state, its constitutional system, and “civic harmony.” A concordat grants the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) rights and privileges not granted to other religious groups, although the law also acknowledges the historical importance of the “traditional faiths” of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. By law, all registered religious groups must seek permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing activities, and must obtain prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The law prohibits all religious activity by unregistered groups. The country experienced massive peaceful protests met with what most observers considered a brutal government crackdown following the August 9 presidential election, which civil society and human rights groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU, the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others, stated was fraudulent. Demonstrators protested electoral fraud, and authorities responded with widespread violence against peaceful protesters, the opposition, journalists, and ordinary citizens. Most of those detained, jailed, or fined – including clergy – were charged indiscriminately with “organizing or participating in unauthorized mass events.” Authorities continued their surveillance of minority and unregistered religious groups. Religious groups met less frequently at their own discretion due to COVID-19 infection concerns. At the same time, authorities focused less on monitoring religious groups as they were preoccupied with other issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a struggling economy, the presidential campaign, and the election-related protests that followed. Some minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to have difficulty registering, and most said they avoided trying to register during the year because of COVID-19 and the unsettled political situation. Roman Catholic groups again stated the government denied visas and requests to extend the stay of some foreign clergy (notably priests from Poland). On August 31, the government blocked the return of Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz from a visit to Poland, despite his being a Belarusian citizen. Authorities allowed the Archbishop to return on December 23. Throughout the year, authorities continued to support commemoration of victims of the Holocaust and preservation of Jewish cemeteries.
Anti-Semitic comments appeared on social media and in comment sections of local online news articles, although it was not clear that all of the comments could be attributed to Belarusians. Interdenominational Christian groups continued to work together on education and charitable projects.
Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged with the government, including at the highest levels, on religious freedom issues, including registration of religious communities, the return of Archbishop Kondruszewicz, and anti-Semitism. The Secretary of State and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom publicly called on the country’s authorities to allow Archbishop Kondrusiewicz to reenter the country and lead the Roman Catholic Church there. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with Jewish groups to discuss anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage. Embassy officials also met with Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups to learn about their religious activities and discuss government actions affecting the exercise of religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2016 survey by the state Information and Analytical Center of the Presidential Administration (the latest such data available), approximately 53 percent of the adult population belongs to the BOC and six percent to the Roman Catholic Church. According to the state survey, eight percent of the adult population is atheist, and 22 percent is “uncertain.” Smaller religious groups together constituting approximately two percent of the population include Jews, Muslims, Greek Catholics (“Uniates” or members of the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church), Old Believers (priestist and priestless), members of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and other Orthodox Christian groups, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Christians, Presbyterians and other Protestant groups, Armenian Apostolics, Latin Catholics, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Buddhists. Jewish groups state there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews. Most ethnic Poles, who constitute approximately 3 percent of the population, are Roman Catholic.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution grants individuals the freedom to profess any religious belief and participating in the performance of acts of worship is not prohibited by law. It stipulates all faiths are equal before the law. The constitution states relations between the state and religious organizations shall be regulated by the law “with regard to their influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural, and state traditions of the Belarusian people.” It prohibits activities by religious groups that are directed against the country’s sovereignty, its constitutional system, and civic harmony; involve a violation of civil rights and liberties; “impede the execution of state, public, and family duties” by its citizens; or are detrimental to public health and morality. The constitution states the law shall determine the conditions for exemption from military service and the performance of alternative service as a substitute.
The Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs (OPRRNA) regulates all religious matters. The office takes part in drafting and implementing state policies on religious affairs, enforces and protects religious rights and freedom, monitors activities of religious organizations and compliance with their charters, regulates relations between the state and religious organizations, liaises with state agencies and religious organizations upon their request, promotes tolerance and mutual understanding between religious organizations of various faiths and nationalities, and researches dynamics and trends in interdenominational relations to prevent “religious exclusiveness” and disrespectful treatment of religions and nationalities. OPRRNA has one deputy and the office has two subdivisions, a section for religious affairs and a section for nationalities affairs. The executive committees of the country’s six regions and Minsk city have departments for ideology and youth engagement, which include religious issues. These departments are independent from OPRRNA but share information. The plenipotentiary representative heading OPRRNA is appointed and dismissed by the President, based on a nomination from the Council of Ministers. The plenipotentiary office performs the functions of a government body and is subordinate to the Council of Ministers.
The law recognizes the “determining role” of the BOC, an exarchate (affiliate) of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the development of the traditions of the people, as well as the historical importance of religious groups commonly referred to as “traditional” faiths: Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. The law does not consider as traditional faiths newer religious groups or older groups such as the priestless Old Believers, Greek Catholics (Uniates), and the Calvinist churches, which have roots in the country dating to the 17th century.
A concordat between the government and the BOC provides the Church with autonomy in its internal affairs, freedom to perform religious rites and other activities, and a special relationship with the state. The concordat recognizes the BOC’s “influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and national traditions of the Belarusian people.” Although it states it does not limit the religious freedom of other religious groups, the concordat calls for the government and the BOC to combat unnamed “pseudo-religious structures that present a danger to individuals and society.” The BOC, unlike other religious communities, receives state subsidies. In addition, the BOC possesses the exclusive right to use the word “orthodox” in its title and to use as its symbol the double-barred image of the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne, the country’s Orthodox patron saint.
The concordat serves as the framework for agreements between the BOC and individual state agencies. There are at least a dozen agreements, including with the Ministries of Defense, Health Care, and Information. There is also an agreement with the Ministry of Education through 2020 that provides for joint projects for the “spiritual and moral education” of students based on BOC traditions and history.
The law establishes three tiers of registered religious groups: religious communities, religious associations, and national religious associations. Religious communities must include at least 20 persons older than 18 who live in one or several adjoining areas. Religious associations must include at least 10 religious communities, and one of these communities must have been active in the country for at least 20 years. National-level religious associations have the ability to institute regional and local level religious associations. National religious associations may be formed only when they comprise active religious communities in at least four of the country’s six regions.
According to OPRRNA data, as of January 1, there were 25 religious faiths and denominations registered in the country, encompassing 3,389 religious communities and 174 religious associations, monasteries, missions, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and schools. The BOC has 1,709 religious communities, 15 dioceses, six schools, 35 monasteries, one mission, 15 brotherhoods, and 10 sisterhoods. (The latter two are clergy-led lay organizations.) The Roman Catholic Church has four dioceses, six schools, 11 missions, nine monasteries, and 498 communities. Protestant religious organizations of 13 denominations encompass 1,038 religious communities, 21 associations, 22 missions, and five schools. There are 34 registered religious communities of Old Believers. There are three Jewish religious associations – Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch, and Reform Judaism – comprising 53 communities, including 10 autonomous communities. In addition, 24 Muslim religious communities – 23 Sunni and one Shia – are registered.
The national religious associations are the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Old Believers Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, Association of New Apostolic Churches, Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches, Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, Jewish Religious Union, Association of Jewish Religious Communities, Union of Reform Judaism Communities, Muslim Religious Association, Spiritual Board of Muslims, and the Religious Association of Baha’is.
To register, a religious community must submit an official application containing the following information: a list of its founders’ names, places of residence, citizenship, and signatures; copies of its founding statutes; the minutes of its founding meeting; and permission from regional authorities confirming the community’s right to occupy or use any property referenced in its founding statutes. A religious group not previously registered by the government must also submit information about its beliefs. The law stipulates authorities may take up to six months to review a new registration application due to an additional evaluation of the religion by a state-appointed religious commission of experts. The commission evaluates the fundamental teachings of the religion as well as its rituals, practices, history, and forms and methods of activities; welfare and charitable services; proselytizing and missionary activities; approaches toward marriage and family; educational activities; attitudes toward health care; and compliance with legal requirements. In addition, the community must submit any texts written by its founder or considered sacred by the followers of the religion, information about prohibitions on clergy or adherents, a list of countries where the religion is widely practiced, and a list of countries officially recognizing the religion. It also must submit information about countries that have refused to recognize the religion and information about court cases against followers of the religion in other countries.
Regional government authorities as well as Minsk city authorities or local municipal authorities (for groups outside of Minsk) review all registration applications. Permissible grounds for denial of registration include failure to comply with requirements for establishing a community, an inconsistent or fraudulent charter or other required document, violations of the procedures to establish religious organizations, and a negative evaluation by the state-appointed religious commission of experts. Communities may appeal refusals in court.
To register as a religious association or national religious association, a group must provide an official application with a copy of the founding statutes, a list of members of the managing body with biographical information, proof of permission for the association to be at its designated location, and the minutes from its founding congress. Religious associations have the exclusive right to establish religious educational institutions and organize cloistered and monastic communities. All applications to establish religious associations and national associations must be submitted to OPRRNA, which has 30 days to respond. Grounds for refusal are the same as for religious communities, except they also include failure to comply with requirements for establishing an association rather than a community. Refusals or a failure by OPRRNA to respond within the 30-day period may be appealed in court.
The law confines the activities of religious communities and associations to the jurisdictional area where they are registered. The law permits state agencies in charge of registration to issue written warnings to a registered religious group for violating any law or undertaking activities outside the scope of responsibilities in the group’s charter. The government may apply to a relevant court, depending upon jurisdiction, to shut down the group if it has not ceased the illegal activity outlined in the written warning within six months or if the activity is repeated within one year of the warning. The government may suspend activities of the religious group pending the court’s decision. The law does not contain a provision for appealing a warning or suspension.
The housing code permits religious groups to hold services at residential premises if local authorities grant permission. Local authorities must certify the premises comply with a number of regulations, including fire safety, sanitary, and health code requirements. The government does not grant such permission automatically, and the law does not permit religious groups to hold services in private residences without prior permission from local authorities.
By law, all religious groups must obtain permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing.
The law requires organizers to notify authorities of a mass event, including those involving religious groups, planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the event. Authorities must inform organizers of a denial no later than five days before the event. Denials may be issued for one of two reasons: the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group; or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the event.
The government has a system of reimbursements for security, medical, and cleaning services required from organizers of mass events, including religious events held outside of religious premises and sites, rallies, competitions, cultural events, festivals, concerts, and similar occasions. If an application is approved, organizers must sign contracts for such services two days in advance and must reimburse all costs within 10 days.
The law requires all religious groups to receive prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The approval process includes official examination of the documents by state-appointed religious studies experts.
Although there is no law providing for a systematic restitution process for property, including religious property, seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods, groups may apply for restitution to local authorities. The law on religion specifically bans the restitution of seized property being used for cultural or sports purposes
The law permits associations and national associations to establish schools to train clergy but does not permit religious communities to do so.
The law permits only registered religious groups that are members of national religious associations to organize extracurricular religious activities at educational institutions. The law states the national religious association must first conclude an agreement on cooperation with the Ministry of Education; the BOC is the only religious group to have such an agreement. Students who wish to participate in voluntary “moral, civic, and patriotic education” in collaboration with religious groups must either provide a written statement expressing their desire to participate or secure their legal guardians’ approval. According to the law, “Such education shall raise awareness among the youth against any religious groups whose activities are aimed at undermining Belarus’s sovereignty, civic accord, and constitutional system or at violating human rights and freedoms.”
The law prohibits religious groups from conducting activities in any school without identifying themselves. It also prohibits visits from representatives of foreign religious groups; missionary activities; collections of donations or fees from students for religious groups or any charity; distribution of religious literature, audio, video, and other religious materials; holding prayer services, religious rituals, rites, or ceremonies; and placing religious symbols or paraphernalia at educational institutions.
The law does not allow private religious elementary, junior, or senior high schools or homeschooling for religious reasons.
The law establishes penalties ranging from fines to five years in prison for failure to fulfill mandatory military service, with an exemption for conscientious objectors for religious reasons. The law allows alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors. By law, individuals who evade alternative civilian service may face up to five years in prison.
Only registered religious associations may apply to OPRRNA for permission to invite foreign clergy to the country. OPRRNA must grant permission before foreign clergy may serve in local congregations, teach or study at local institutions, or participate in charitable work. The government generally grants such permission for a period of one year, which may be reduced or extended. OPRRNA has 30 days to respond to requests for foreign clergy permits (religious visas) and may deny requests without explanation. There is no provision for appeals.
By law, the government permits foreign missionaries to engage in religious activity only in the territorial area where their religious association is registered. Transfers of foreign clergy within a religious association, including from one parish to another, require prior government permission. By law, foreigners may not lead religious groups. Authorities may reprimand or expel foreign citizens who officially are present in the country for nonreligious work if they lead any religious activities. Law enforcement agencies on their own initiative or in response to recommendations from other government entities, such as the security service, may require foreign clergy to depart the country – a decision which cannot be appealed.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The August 9 presidential election, which civil society and human rights groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others, stated was fraudulent, prompted massive peaceful protests. The government responded with what most observers considered a brutal crackdown against what it deemed to be “unauthorized mass events.” Human rights groups reported more than 33,000 persons were detained and at least four killed by security forces by year’s end. Some of the “unauthorized” gatherings were organized by religious groups in response to violent actions by security forces and widely reported human rights abuses. Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents in which religious communities participated as being solely based on religious identity.
The peaceful public protests generally sought an end to violent action by police and called for the release of political prisoners, investigations into human rights abuses by the authorities, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s peaceful departure from office, and new free and fair elections. Those postelection protests that involved public prayer largely focused on calling for peace and an end to violent actions by authorities. Some clergy were among those detained during the postelection protests. For example, on August 13, Orthodox priest Uladzimir Drabysheuski stood in front of the investigative committee office in Homyel holding a banner that said, “Stop the Violence.” A district court convicted him on charges of participating in an unauthorized mass event and sentenced him to 10 days in jail on September 18. He was additionally convicted on similar charges for a protest on September 6 and given a sentence of 15 additional days of arrest on September 28.
Forum 18, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on international religious freedom, said in October there were “violations of freedom of religion and belief and of the interlinked freedoms of expression, association, and assembly in the country” that “worsened amid widespread continuing protests against falsified results of the August 2020 presidential election and against the regime’s other serious violations of the human rights of the people it rules.” The NGO stated that the government detained and charged individuals with civil penalties for participating in unauthorized mass events when they took part in public prayer events that called for peace and an end to violent actions by security forces in Minsk, Hrodna, Lida, and other cities.
On August 26 and 27, members of religious communities were among the protesters in Minsk’s Freedom Square – also the location of Orthodox and Roman Catholic cathedrals – who intended to march to Independence Square. During the protest events, Uladzimir Vladimir Mayoraurov, a Protestant, was detained and sentenced to eight days in jail after preaching against violence to riot police in Freedom Square. On August 27, a group of Protestants led by Pastor Taras Telkouski of Trinity Church prayed outside the doors of the Holy Spirit Orthodox Cathedral on Freedom Square and then marched to the nearby Roman Catholic Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral. Telkouski was detained, charged with “organizing an unauthorized mass event,” and fined 810 rubles ($310).
According to media reports, on August 16, while security forces indiscriminately detained and beat protesters in Minsk, riot police also detained Aleksandr Fruman. Upon learning that he was an Israeli citizen, police beat him with a rubber truncheon while shouting anti-Semitic insults, according to Fruman, and told him that “it was time to get another circumcision.” He was released a few days later. Jewish community leaders said they observed no increase in anti-Semitism during the postelection protests, and they did not express concerns that their community members who participated were targeted for their ethnicity or religious beliefs by police.
Religious leaders spoke out together against violence and in favor of societal dialogue after the August 9 election, expressing sympathy for those hurt in the violence. On August 14, in his address to Lukashenka and government officials, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said, “In the name of such a necessary peace in our Fatherland and national harmony, I appeal to authorities to start a constructive dialogue with society, end the violence, and immediately release all innocent citizens detained at peaceful rallies.” He condemned “the bloodshed on the streets, the beating of peaceful demonstrators who want to know the truth, the cruel treatment of detainees, and their detention in inhuman conditions in prisons” as “a grave sin on the conscience of those who give criminal orders and commit violence.” On August 17, then Belarusian Orthodox Metropolitan Pavel visited a Minsk hospital, where he stated that the BOC was apolitical, but he spoke out against violence and noted the hospital’s patients included protesters, bystanders, and those injured in police custody. On August 18, the Catholic Church in Belarus – together with the BOC, Protestant denominations, and Jewish and Islamic communities – hosted an interfaith service in Minsk to pray for a peaceful resolution to the postelection crisis and an end to violence and hatred among all sides. In response, authorities said remarks by religious leaders constituted interference in political affairs.
On August 31, border guards denied Archbishop Kondrusiewicz reentry into the country after a trip to Poland. The Archbishop had spoken out against violent actions by security forces and prayed in front of a detention center in Minsk after unsuccessfully trying to visit peaceful protesters arrested following the August election. Kondrusiewicz, a Belarusian citizen, said he was given no explanation at the border for why he was denied his legal right to return. Authorities said they placed him on a no-entry list and revoked his passport while they probed allegations he maintained multiple citizenships. The Archbishop reportedly only maintained Belarusian citizenship. On December 23, Lukashenka allowed Kondrusiewicz to return, following repeated intervention by the United States, EU member states, and the Vatican.
Religious community leaders condemned the authorities’ actions barring Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from the country. Bishop of the Pentecostal communities Leanid Varanenka stated on September 1 that Kondrusiewicz “raised his voice in defense of peace, mercy, and unity and in condemnation of violence, lies, and hatred. This is the spiritual, moral, and ethical duty of any clergy and does not represent political activity.”
On April 7, the Prosecutor General’s Office refused a request from Russia to extradite member of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Russian citizen Nikolai Makhalichev, who was subsequently released after being arrested during an identity check in Haradok, Vitsebsk Oblast, on February 21. Makhalichev applied for asylum on the day of his arrest, and the government later approved his request. He told the press that he was not aware of a criminal case opened against him in Russia in 2019 on charges of “organizing and financing an extremist organization,” allegedly based on his religious practice as a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses are classified as “extremists” under Russian law.
Human rights defenders said they remained concerned about the authorities’ ability to apply charges arbitrarily for organizing, running, or participating in unregistered religious organizations. Authorities did not use this provision of law specifically against religious organizations during the year, but human rights organizations said they continued to view it as a threat against religious freedom.
Christian groups continued to state the registration requirements for religious groups remained complex and difficult to fulfill, which they said restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs. The government’s guidelines for evaluating registration applications remained sufficiently broad, they said, to give authorities a pretext for denying applications from unfavored groups.
Nontraditional religious groups continued to state the procedure for registering and using residential premises for religious gatherings remained cumbersome and arbitrary. During the year, authorities in Lida and Barysau rejected applications from communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses – two new applications in Lida and an appeal of a denied application in Barysau. In addition, OPRRNA denied two applications from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to register a mission.
Some minority religious groups stated that they did not apply for registration because their members feared harassment by authorities and did not want to submit their names, as required by the application process. Other minority religious groups preferred to negotiate registration and other concerns with local authorities, but few registration attempts were made during the year. Some communities said they decided to postpone their registrations until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic due to health concerns.
As of year’s end, the government had taken no action on a November 2018 UN Human Rights Committee recommendation that the state repeal mandatory state registration of religious communities.
Many unregistered religious groups stated they continued to maintain a low profile because of fear of prosecution and perceived government hostility. Some registered religious communities said they were reluctant to report restrictions because they feared drawing attention to themselves.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities granted permission on a regular basis to clergy who requested access to visit prisoners. Some clergy were denied permission to visit protestors who had been detained after the August 9 election. Many prisons maintained designated Orthodox religious facilities that Belarusian Orthodox clergy were occasionally allowed to visit through the year.
On September 16, a district court in Lida fined local resident Alyaksandr Shor 270 rubles ($100) for praying outside the Catholic Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. He was part of a group of residents who had gathered to pray there for the return of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from Poland.
On October 16, a court in Lida fined Roman Catholic and Polish community activist Irena Bernatskaya 810 rubles ($310) for an “unauthorized mass event” led by a group called “Mothers in Prayer,” in which participants gathered to pray for an end to violent actions by security forces outside the walls of the local Roman Catholic cathedral on August 12.
On October 21, Slutsk police dispersed a flower-laying ceremony by Slutsk residents to commemorate victims of the Holocaust. The traditional red and white carnations used for the commemorations matched the historical Belarusian national colors that the opposition and protestors adopted as their own and authorities opposed. Police arrived after approximately 12 to 14 persons placed the flowers near a Holocaust memorial. The small group left the area after a police detention van arrived. According to the organizer, the group did not plan a large rally and had not applied for permission to gather in advance. On October 26, at least four Slutsk residents were fined or were sentenced to 10 days in jail for participating in an “unauthorized mass event.”
On November 18, the General Prosecutor’s Office issued warnings to BOC spokesperson Father Syarhey Lepin and Catholic Bishop Yury Kasabutski. The two were rebuked for their Facebook criticism of authorities’ decision to destroy an unofficial memorial at the site of the beating of Raman Bandarenka, a Minsk resident who died on November 12 after he had been detained and sustained fatal injuries while in police custody. Lepin wrote, “What was the purpose of this diabolic trampling upon candle lamps and icons?” The General Prosecutor said the clergymen’s “statements were aggressive” and “increased tension in society [and] stirred up hatred against the government and hostility towards these social groups.” The warnings came after Lukashenka’s November 17 remarks that “we can’t tolerate this mockery” and his instructions to law enforcement authorities “to make legal assessments of the church officials’ words,” since “there will be no memorials heralding a civil war, as they say, in Minsk or elsewhere.” Lepin resigned as BOC spokesperson after the warnings.
On November 30, a court in Ivatsevichy in Brest Oblast tried Greek Catholic priest Vitali Bystrou for participating in an alleged “unauthorized mass event” in the city of Brest on October 25 and sentenced him to 10 days in jail. While police claimed Bystrou was among protesters holding red and white flags, the priest explained he was simply walking from the church to a train station in his religious clothing, which “is acceptable for my faith.”
On December 3, a court in Rasony District sentenced local Roman Catholic priest Vyachaslau Barok to 10 days in jail for propagating Nazi symbols. Barok, who is also a well-known blogger, posted a photograph of a red and green swastika (the colors of the official Belarusian flag that Lukashenka introduced in 2012) and an emblem with the slogan “Stop Lukascism” on his Instagram account, referencing Lukashenka.
On December 7, police in Vitsebsk arrested local resident Ala Raschinskaya, who had prayed for victims of political repression outside the Catholic cathedral on November 13, and sentenced her to 10 days in jail.
On December 8, authorities in Vitsebsk detained Greek Catholic priest Alyaksei Varanko, Roman Catholic priest Viktar Zhuk, and layman Alyaksei Karyakau for participating in “unauthorized mass events.” They were released the next day after a court dismissed their cases. In a retrial on December 24, the three were warned not to participate in such events in the future.
According to observers, the government continued surveillance of various Protestant denominations. The sources stated that government “ideology officers” (officials in charge of implementing political and social government policies) continued to monitor the activities of members of unregistered religious groups in their workplaces, although there were no reports of prosecutions. Government officials, including from the security forces, reportedly had occasional “informal” talks with members of religious groups to learn about their activities. According to religious leaders, state security officers also continued to attend religious services of registered Protestant communities to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment.
Religious groups, especially Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to report they remained cautious about proselytizing and distributing religious materials due to their perceptions that they could face intimidation or punishment.
Orthodox literature remained available countrywide. According to media accounts, the BOC was free to proselytize without restrictions on television and in print media as well as in public spaces. Unlike other religious groups, the BOC continued to participate in government-sponsored public events, such as rallies or celebrations, without the need to seek prior approval from authorities. For example, on July 3, the Belarusian Orthodox Metropolitan participated in the annual “Belarus Remembers” Independence Day commemoration along with Lukashenka, veterans, public officials, soldiers, civil society representatives, and Minsk residents. In addition, regional authorities often engaged BOC representatives in their events. On June 5, forestry officials in the town of Slonim and students and faculty of the Minsk Spiritual Seminary planted birch and pine trees, an event which the BOC reported was inspired and organized by Navahrudak Diocese archpriest Dimitri Syemukha.
The national government approved the importation of literature requested by Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year.
After religious leaders called on the security forces to end violent action against peaceful protestors and urged a genuine national dialogue between Lukashenka and the opposition, state-run Radio Belarus One stopped the nationwide broadcast of the 40-minute Roman Catholic Sunday masses from the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Minsk, as well as a brief news summary from Vatican Radio on August 23. Roman Catholic leadership noted the importance of broadcasts during the COVID-19 pandemic, when believers chose not to attend services in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. The state-run Belarusian TV and Radio Company refused to air the annual December 25 Christmas message from the Roman Catholic Church without explanation. The television station did, however, stream the Roman Catholic midnight Mass on December 24.
Authorities continued to deny requests to give the Belarus-based Catholic radio station Radio Mariya a media broadcasting license that would supplement its internet broadcasting. The Ministry of Information denied Radio Mariya’s fifth application in April.
According to local religious groups, communities chose not to pursue many new purchases or rentals of properties as places of worship during the year, partially due to the political situation and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many communities reported that they did not believe that they faced impediments to purchases or rentals of sanctioned places of worship. Some religious communities with outstanding property cases continued to engage with the government and the legal system to resolve them. Converting residential property for religious use remained difficult. Protestant groups stated they continued to be more severely affected than other groups because they were less likely to own religious facilities, and they said they could not apply for permission to conduct religious activities in private homes because residences were too small to accommodate their numbers.
Saint Simon and Helena Roman Catholic Church parish continued to use its existing church building (also known as the “Red Church”), even though it was owned by the government. During the year, Minsk city authorities billed the parish for costs related to 2018-2019 renovation work, in addition to monthly rent, utilities, and real estate and land taxes, which amounted to a total of 160,000 rubles ($61,600) for 2019. The parish continued to refuse to pay for the land tax, property tax, and renovation work. The parish in 2020 was billed 12,000 rubles ($4,600) monthly. On July 21, St. Simon and Helena Church community members launched a petition seeking the return of the building from the government and collected more than 5,000 signatures in support.
Because of its location in one of Minsk’s main protest sites, authorities occasionally restricted access to the Red Church or chased protesters into it. On August 26, riot police pushed peaceful protesters and journalists into the church and stood guard at the doors, effectively locking them in for approximately an hour. Many of those forced inside engaged in prayer until they were allowed to leave. The government changed the locks on the church’s doors the next day, leaving the parish with one set of keys. Authorities also reportedly cut electricity to the building during rallies outside the church on August 23-25. On August 26, the then-vicar general of the Minsk-Mahilyou Archdiocese, Bishop Yury Kasabutski, condemned the “unacceptable and illegal actions” of riot police and the government and called on authorities to investigate incidents and guarantee freedom of conscience and expression. On September 11, riot police blocked entrances into the church to prevent protesters from hiding inside and detained a number of protesters who fled there. Police reportedly did not detain worshippers or individuals in the church who were present to pray.
Representatives of the Roman Catholic, Belarusian Orthodox, and Protestant communities said authorities did not charge them fees for their religious events. In some cases, however, community leaders had to take personal responsibility for maintaining order and safety at such events. Observers stated that the system of reimbursements for security, medical, and cleaning services for organizers of mass events adopted in 2019 was not intended to prohibit regular worship, nor was it doing so in practice. There were fewer religious events in 2020 due in part to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. For the ones that were held, authorities did not charge fees, seek reimbursements, or implement other restrictions that had previously forced organizers to cancel similar events.
According to media reports, school administrators continued to cooperate only with the BOC among registered religious groups, based on the BOC’s concordat with the government. School administrators continued to invite Belarusian Orthodox priests to lecture to students, organize tours of Church facilities, and participate in Belarusian Orthodox festivities, programs, and humanitarian projects.
On January 23, Lukashenka signed a decree allocating 1.2 million rubles ($474,000) from reserve funds to cover salaries of professors and employees, as well as stipends for students, of the Belarusian Orthodox seminaries. Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church said their schools did not receive any financial support from the government.
On March 26, the BOC and the Ministry of Education signed a 2020-2025 program of cooperation, noting the importance of continued engagement between the church and the government. The program included seminars, lectures, tours to BOC sites, and joint commemorations and celebrations.
Religious groups said the government continued to apply visa regulations inconsistently, which affected the ability of foreign missionaries to live and work in the country. On September 2, OPRRNA on short notice canceled permission to work and preach for Father Jerzy Wilk, a Polish citizen and priest of St. Michael the Archangel Church in the village of Varapaeva in the Vitsebsk region. Wilk departed the country shortly afterwards after having served the community since 2003. While OPRRNA gave no explanation for the decision, representatives of religious communities continued to say that unofficially the government wanted local religious communities to train local citizens as clergy rather than rely on foreigners.
On September 29, Bishop Kasabutski denied allegations that the Roman Catholic Church was used by external forces for political purposes. In a sermon, he said the political allegations made by the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Sergei Naryshkin, as reported by the SVR press service on September 29, were “fake.” The bishop added that Naryshkin’s allegations that “the United States of America, the CIA, and other organizations are trying to use the Roman Catholic Church to undermine the state system in [Belarus]” were absurd and were “a lie that has nothing to do with the truth.” He said, “Today the Roman Catholic Church tells the truth about the situation in the country, denounces the violence, and calls for solidarity, unity, concord, peace and forgiveness,” adding, “This is how we probably prevent someone from implementing certain scenarios aimed at causing a split in our society and bloodshed.” The bishop also dismissed speculation about tensions in relations among various religious groups in the country. State media reported only Naryshkin’s allegations against the Catholic Church and not the bishop’s statements.
Roman Catholic bishops continued to state that foreign priests faced multiple challenges, including a lengthy government approval process before obtaining permission to celebrate Mass; visas often issued for only three to six months; and administrative difficulties when trying to renew visas. In August, however, local bishops reported that authorities renewed all requested visa applications that had been submitted or were pending review.
According to Forum 18, the government continued to refuse Klemens Werth, a Catholic priest from Russia, permission to engage in religious work. He was allowed to remain in Vitsebsk to continue building a new church, but since he was a foreigner, he was banned from celebrating Mass or otherwise serving.
During the year, Lukashenka repeatedly stated that the political unrest in the country had been supported and financed by Poland along with the Baltic states and the West more broadly. He said the Roman Catholic Church was involved. After authorities barred Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from reentering the country from Poland, Lukashenka stated on September 1 that the Archbishop, a Belarusian citizen, had received “instructions” while in Poland on how to “destroy” Belarus. On November 2, Lukashenka said, “The BOC is not bringing clergy from abroad, from countries foreign to our country, as it is being done by some other denominations. We cannot accept any clergy from Poland when Catholic Poland has taken such a [hostile] position against us. It is not normal.” He urged the Roman Catholic Church to train “more local clergy.”
During the year, the leaders of New Life Church in Minsk continued discussions with city authorities on its status and operations. The government froze the assets of the Church in 2010. The Church continued to use its building for religious purposes, but there were no developments regarding the asset freeze, which remained in place at year’s end.
Authorities continued to permit the BOC to collect charitable donations in public as well as on its religious property. While the law does not restrict other religious groups from raising donations in public, representatives of these groups said authorities continued to limit their fundraising activities to their own places of worship or other properties. The groups said they faced government harassment if they tried to raise donations at other locations.
Speaking at a January 27 event to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Dapkiunas emphasized the importance of commemorating the Holocaust “in reiterating the moral, political, and social meaning of the call ‘Never Again,’” which, he said, was “a challenge that still faces humanity – one that demands continuous work.” The chairman of the House of Representatives, Uladzimir Andreichanka, joined world leaders at the January 23 World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, and the deputy chairman of the Council of the Republic, Anatoly Isachanka, attended the ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.
On October 15, the Vitsebsk Jewish community, private donors from Russia, and local authorities unveiled a memorial honoring the 350-year-long history of the local Jewish population at the site of the Jewish cemetery in the village of Yanavichy in Vitebsk Oblast. Community members and local authorities also cleaned the cemetery and cataloged unearthed gravestones.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
An interreligious working group comprising the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, and Jewish religious communities organized seminars and educational events, some of which were virtual due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. The theme for 2020 was “Religions in Belarus in the Period of Social Transformations.” The group held an in-person seminar on February 12 on spiritual development of the country’s society in the context of social justice. In April, the group held an interreligious youth forum that involved seminars dedicated to the “contribution of different religious communities in resolving environmental issues in the interest of Belarus’s sustainable development.” In June, the group organized a seminar targeting youth and discussing different faiths and new methods for the spiritual and moral upbringing of youth and children. On December 21, the group held an online seminar, “Religions in the Context of Innovations in Society and the Economy.”
Anti-Semitic comments appeared on social media and in comment sections of local online news articles, although it was not clear that all of the comments could be attributed to Belarusians.
The BOC continued its annual commemoration in honor of Hauryil Belastoksky (Gabriel of Bialystok), a child allegedly killed by Jews in Bialystok in 1690. The Russian Orthodox Church considers him one of its saints and martyrs, and the BOC falls under the authority of the Russian Church on traditional practices such as this. Jewish community leaders continued to express concern over the traditional memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Belastoksky’s death on May 3, which states the “martyred and courageous Hauryil exposed Jewish dishonesty” although a trial after the boy’s death acquitted the Jew who was charged with the crime. The BOC in recent years removed some anti-Semitic references about Belastoksky from its online materials and focused more on his role as a regional patron saint of children. Prayers for the commemoration reportedly continued to include anti-Semitic references, however.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with government representatives to discuss religious issues. Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires regularly engaged with officials at the highest levels of government on issues related to religious freedom, registration of religious communities, and anti-Semitism.
The U.S. Secretary of State and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom issued several public statements in support of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, calling for authorities to allow him to return to the country to lead his religious community after being refused reentry from Poland.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials continued to meet regularly with representatives of the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Protestants, and minority religious groups as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups to learn about religious activities and discuss government actions that affected religious freedom. They discussed anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage with Jewish religious groups as well as government restrictions on registration and operations with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups. Embassy officials also continued to hold regular discussions about restrictions on religious freedom with religious freedom activists, religious leaders, lawyers for religious groups, and representatives of the For Freedom of Religion initiative, a group of civil society activists promoting religious tolerance. Embassy officials posted the Secretary of State’s speeches and other materials related to religious freedom on social media.
Read A Section: Crimea
In February 2014, armed forces of the Russian Federation seized and occupied Crimea. In March 2014, Russia claimed that Crimea had become part of the Russian Federation. The UN General Assembly’s Resolution 68/262 of March 27, 2014, entitled “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine,” and Resolution 75/192 of December 28, 2020, entitled “Situation of Human Rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol (Ukraine),” declared continued international recognition of Crimea as part of Ukraine. The U.S. government recognizes Crimea is part of Ukraine; it does not and will not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea. Russian occupation authorities continue to impose the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory of Crimea.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, one of the country’s oldest human rights groups, following Russia’s occupation of Crimea, many religious communities were essentially driven out of the peninsula through registration requirements under newly imposed Russian laws. Only the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) was exempt from these registration requirements. The Russian government reported there were 907 religious communities registered in Crimea, including in Sevastopol, compared with 891in 2019, representing a drop of more than 1,000 since the occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available. Religious activists, human rights groups, and media reports said Russian authorities in occupied Crimea continued to persecute and intimidate minority religious congregations, including Muslim Crimean Tatars, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) members and clergy. At year’s end, two Jehovah’s Witnesses were serving prison sentences for their faith. According to the NGO Crimea SOS, as of October, 69 Crimean residents remained in prison in connection with their alleged involvement with the Muslim political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia but legal in Ukraine. Russian occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to imprisonment and detention, especially if authorities suspected the individuals of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. In September, Russia’s Southern Area Military Court sentenced seven Crimean Muslim Tatar prisoners arrested in 2017 and 2018 to a maximum-security penal colony. All were initially arrested for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai. According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, Russia continued to prosecute individuals for some types of worship, including imams leading prayers in their own mosques, as “illegal missionary activity.” Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation authorities and that they continued to be required to operate under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Crimean Tatars reported police continued to be slow to investigate attacks on Islamic religious properties or refused to investigate them at all. The OCU reported continued seizures of its churches. According to the OCU, Russian occupation authorities continued to pressure the OCU Crimean diocese in an effort to force it to leave Crimea. Religious and human rights groups continued to report Russian media efforts to create suspicion and fear among certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, whom media repeatedly accused of having links to Islamist groups designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian media also portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.”
According to the Krym Realii news website, on the eve of the 76th anniversary of the Soviet authorities’ forced deportation of the Crimean Tatar people from Crimea, unidentified vandals destroyed several tombstones in an Islamic cemetery in Vladyslavivka Village, Nyzhnyohirsk Region. Local police reportedly refused to investigate the incident, attributing it to a family dispute. In April, on the eve of Ramadan, unidentified vandals threw rotten eggs at a mosque in Cheremyzivka Village.
The U.S. government condemned the continued intimidation of Christian and Muslim religious groups by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea and called international attention to religious abuses committed by Russian forces through public statements by the Secretary of State and other senior officials as well as messaging on social media. In a February press statement, the Secretary stated, “Russian occupation authorities continue their assault on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Russian occupation authorities severely limit religious freedom, target religious believers with bogus terrorism charges, and seized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine cathedral in Simferopol. The United States calls on Russia to free all Ukrainians it has wrongfully imprisoned in retaliation for their peaceful dissent and to end Russian abuses of fundamental freedoms in Crimea.” U.S. government officials remained unable to visit the peninsula following its occupation by the Russian Federation. Embassy officials, however, continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Crimean Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders to discuss their concerns over actions taken against their congregations by the occupation authorities and to demonstrate continued U.S. support for their right to practice their religious beliefs.
Section I. Religious Demography
The Crimean Peninsula consists of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC) and the city of Sevastopol. According to State Statistics Service of Ukraine 2014 estimates (the most recent), the total population of the peninsula is 2,353,000. There are no recent independent surveys with data on the religious affiliation of the population, but media outlets estimate the number of Crimean Tatars, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, is 300,000, or 13 percent of the population.
According to information provided by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture in 2014 (the most recent year available), the UOC-MP remains the largest Christian denomination. Smaller Christian denominations include the OCU, the RCC, UGCC, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with Protestant groups, including Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Lutherans. Adherents of the UOC-MP, Protestants, and Muslims are the largest religious groups in Sevastopol.
There are several Jewish congregations, mostly in Sevastopol and Simferopol. Jewish groups estimate between 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish residents lived in Crimea before the 2014 Russian occupation; no updates have been available since the occupation began. The 2001 census, the most recent, records 671 Karaites.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Pursuant to international recognition of the continued inclusion of the ARC within Ukraine’s international borders, Crimea continues to be officially subject to the constitution and laws of Ukraine. In the aftermath of Russia’s occupation, however, Russian occupation authorities continue their implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory. The Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir is considered a terrorist organization under the law of the Russian Federation, but not under Ukrainian law. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian occupation authorities continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea under a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.
According to occupation authorities, fines for individuals conducting illegal missionary activity range from 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($67 to $670); the fine for legal entities is 100,000 to one million rubles ($1,300 to $13,400).
In December, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution urging Russia to end its “temporary occupation” of Crimea. In his February speech at the UN General Assembly plenary meeting, then-Foreign Affairs Minister of Ukraine Vadym Prystaiko told the UN delegates of the continued large-scale abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms by Russian occupiers, spotlighting discrimination against Ukrainians of various ethnic and religious minority groups, including Crimean Tatars, Muslims, and members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
According to the Ukrainian human rights organization Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG), which has offices in Kyiv, 109 individuals were unlawfully incarcerated or imprisoned due to politically or religiously motivated persecution in Crimea during the year, compared with 89 in 2019.
Human rights groups said occupation authorities continued to impede the rights of Crimean Tatars following the 2016 designation of the Mejlis, recognized under Ukrainian law as the democratically elected representative council of Crimean Tatars, as an “extremist organization.” Detentions and forced psychiatric examinations of Crimean Tatar Muslim prisoners continued throughout the year. According to Crimea SOS, as of October, 69 Crimean residents remained in prison in connection with their alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Occupation authorities placed three additional Crimean residents under supervision and two more under house arrest. Russian authorities often accused Muslims of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. In June, OHCHR reported Russian occupation authorities had detained 63 citizens of Ukraine for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir activities, 20 of whom had been convicted, including seven individuals who were sentenced in 2019 to prison terms ranging from seven to 19 years.
On September 21, Russian occupation authorities released Tatar blogger Nariman Memedeminov after he had served nearly one year of his sentence. Occupation authorities had detained Memedeminov on terrorist charges in 2018, citing his involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russia’s North Caucasus Military Court in Rostov-on-Don had sentenced him to two and a half years in prison in October 2019. Human rights activists linked the original verdict to his reporting on the human rights situation in Crimea.
In September, Russia’s Southern Area Military Court sentenced seven Crimean Muslim Tatar prisoners arrested in 2017 and 2018 to a maximum-security penal colony. Marlen Asanov received 19 years, Memet Belialov 18 years, Timur Ibragimov 17 years, Seyran Saliyev 16 years, Server Mustafayev 14 years, and Server Zakiryayev and Edem Smailov both 13 years. The judge found Ernes Ametov not guilty and released him. All were initially arrested for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai.
According to the CHRG, in December, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended into January 2021 the detention of Imam Bilyal Adilov, Erfan Osmanov, Seyran Murtaza, Server Gaziyev, Mejit Abdurakhmanov, Tofik Abdulgaziyev, Rustem Seitkhalilov, Akim Bekirov, Farkhat Bazarov, Seitveli Seitabdiyev, Shaban Umerov, Riza Izetov, Jemil Gafarov, Alim Karimov, Yashar Muyedinov, Izet Abdulayev, Asan Yanikov, Enver Ametov, Raim Aivazov, and Ruslan Suleimanov. Their cases were under judges’ consideration at year’s end. The group was arrested in March 2019 when armed representatives of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Russian National Guard, and police searched 30 Crimean Tatar homes in Simferopol, Volodymyrivka, Strohanivka, Kamyanka, Bile, Akropolis, and Alkavan, detaining 23 individuals for their alleged links to Hizb ut-Tahrir. During the searches, law enforcement representatives reportedly planted and “found” Hizb ut-Tahrir materials. The detainees’ lawyers were not allowed to be present during the searches.
On December 8, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended the detention period to January 14, 2021 for Krymska Solidarnist (Crimean Solidarity) activist Remzi Bekirov. On December 10, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended the detention period to January 14, 2021 for his fellow activists Osman Arifmemetov and Vladlen Abdulkadyrov. The Kyivsky District Court in Simferopol had ordered the arrest of all three men in 2019 on charges related to “terrorism” for their suspected involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir following searches of their homes. Law enforcement officers reportedly beat Abdulkadyrov while he was in detention.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian occupation authorities continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea under a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. According to the OHCHR, all 22 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses registered in Crimea had lost their right to operate since the Russian Supreme Court’s 2017 ban on the religious group. As a result, Jehovah’s Witnesses who practice their faith risked retaliation by law enforcement. According to Forum 18, in 2019, a Russian court charged Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergei Filatov and Artyom Gerasimov with organizing an “extremist” organization following a raid by Russia’s FSB on eight homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Alupka and Yalta. The Russian FSB had arrested Filatov, a former head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Dzhankoy, in 2018. On March 5, the Yalta City Court initially fined Gerasimov 400,00 rubles ($5400); the Dzhankoy District Court sentenced Filatov to six years imprisonment on extremism-related charges. On May 26, Filatov lost his appeal. On June 4, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” revoked Gerasimov’s fine and sentenced him to six years in prison, matching Filatov’s sentence. Forum 18 stated authorities transferred Filatov and Gerasimov to a prison in Russia during the summer and, as of September 30, had not allowed them to receive letters.
Forum 18 reported authorities transferred Muslim prisoner of conscience Renat Suleimanov to Russia in January and did not allow him to receive letters written in his native Tatar language.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on May 26, armed FSB, Russian National Guard, and masked riot police raided four homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kerch, arresting Artem Shabliy. Reportedly, Shabliy was accused of having “drawn others into the activities of an extremist organization” by discussing the Bible with them.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on October 1, armed searches on nine Jehovah’s Witness homes in Sevastopol led to the arrests of four men: Yevhen Zhukov, Volodymyr Maladyka, Volodymyr Sakada, and Ihor Schmidt. All four remained imprisoned at year’s end. According to Forum 18, in November, Svetlana Sakada, the wife of one of the four detained, said her husband was not guilty of extremism-related charges. Forum 18 reported the four faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted on “extremism”-related charges, and that another Jehovah’s Witness, Viktor Stashevsky, was on trial on the same charges.
OHCHR reports consistently found that a pattern of criminalization of affiliation with or sympathy toward Muslim groups banned in the Russian Federation that continued to disproportionately affect Crimean Tatars. According to the report, these cases raised concerns about the right to a fair trial, as the detainees’ hearings often banned cameras, media, and family members from the courtroom. OHCHR reported that Russian courts in Crimea cited the “need to ensure the safety of the participants in the proceedings,” but that the defendants’ lawyers and family members said Russian occupation authorities excluded the public from court hearings to limit public awareness of trials, restrict public scrutiny, and exert additional pressure on the defendants.
On April 1, “prosecutors” reportedly charged Imam Yusuf Ashirov with conducting “illegal missionary activity” for leading Friday prayers at the Yukhary-Jami Mosque in Alushta. Ashirov denied the charges, explaining to the “deputy prosecutor” that he preached only to other mosque members and that he had “no desire to break the law.” Ashirov stated he suspected the charges against him stemmed from authorities’ attempts to transfer the mosque to the “state.” Similarly, in March, a court in Simferopol reportedly fined Imam Rasim Dervishev for “illegal missionary activity” for leading services. Devishev’s lawyer stated, “It is absurd to require anyone to ask permission to conduct religious rituals,” and he argued that Dervishev had not spoken to anyone outside the mosque about his religious belief. Dervishev paid a fine of between 5,000 and 30,000 rubles ($67 and $400). Reportedly, in April, Imam Dilyaver Khalilov faced similar charges for leading services at a mosque in Zavetnoye. Occupation authorities withdrew charges against Khalilov after the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In August, authorities seized Khalilov’s mosque, stating it was not registered as a mosque but rather as a sports complex. The Muslim community had repaired the dilapidated building and registered it as a mosque with the Ukrainian authorities in 2000.
According to the CHRG, in September, occupation authorities charged members of four churches (Catholic, Baptist, and two evangelical) with “illegal missionary activity.”
Forum 18 reported that occupation authorities brought 20 cases against individuals and religious communities for failing to use the full legal name of a registered religious community on websites or meeting places, compared with 11 such cases the previous year. Sixteen of the cases involved fines of 30,000 rubles ($400, one month’s average local wage), while three defendants received a warning. The remaining case was under review at year’s end. On November 20, a member of one of the fined religious communities told Forum 18, “The prosecutor told us we would get a warning, but when the case came to court, it was a different prosecutor, who demanded that we be fined. We didn’t expect this turn of events.”
According to Krymska Solidarnist and Forum 18, local authorities continued a ban on the Tablighi Jamaat Muslim missionary movement in Crimea under a 2009 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. The movement is legal in Ukraine. A Russian labor camp relocated Tablighi Jamaat Muslim Renat Suleimanov from the camp’s punishment cell to its “strict section.” The camp administration stated he was being punished for a conflict with another prisoner, but Suleimanov’s lawyer stated the accusation was fabricated as an excuse to punish his client. In January 2019, a Simferopol court had jailed Suleimanov for four years on “extremism”-related charges for meeting openly in mosques with three friends to discuss their faith.
The Ministry of Justice of Russia said 907 religious organizations were registered in Crimea, including 108 in Sevastopol, as of year’s end, compared with 891 and 105, respectively, in 2019. The number of religious organizations had dropped by more than 1,000 since the occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available. Registered religious organizations included the two largest – the Christian Orthodox UOC-MP and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea – as well as various Protestant, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Greek Catholic communities, among other religious groups.
Human rights groups reported Russian occupation authorities continued to require imams at Crimean Tatar mosques to inform them each time they transferred from one mosque to another.
The RCC reported it continued to operate in the territory as a pastoral district directly under the authority of the Vatican. Polish and Ukrainian RCC priests were permitted to stay in the territory for only 90 days at a time and required to leave Crimea for 90 days before returning.
UGCC leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation authorities and continued to have to operate as a part of the pastoral district of the RCC.
According to the OCU, Russian occupation authorities continued to place pressure on the OCU Crimean diocese in an effort to force it to leave Crimea. Only six of the 15 churches, identifying as OCU but required to reregister after the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) joined the unified OCU, were functioning in 2019-2020, compared with five in 2018 and eight in 2017. At year’s end, three of those were “on the verge of closure.” According to RFE/RL, Halya Coynash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group stated the OCU was one of the few remaining symbols in Crimea of “Ukrainian identity,” making it a target for the local Russia-installed leaders. Describing Russia’s treatment of believers in Crimea, OCU Metropolitan Epiphaniy told RFE/RL, “This is reminiscent of the Stalin era of the U.S.S.R., when churches were destroyed.”
In March, Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers placed the Saints Volodymyr and Olha Cathedral, the only OCU church building in Simferopol and the location of the OCU diocesan administration, under state ownership in an attempt to draw international organizations’ support to help defend it from the occupiers. On July 23, Russian occupation authorities ordered Archbishop Klyment, elevated to Metropolitan on August 9, to demolish the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Yevpatoriya or face criminal prosecution. Klyment’s appeal of the order continued through year’s end.
According to Freedom House, the Russian FSB encouraged residents to inform on individuals who expressed opposition to the purported annexation, including support for Crimean Tatars, condemnation of the designation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hizb ut-Tahrir as extremist groups, or the oppression of the OCU.
Religious and human rights groups continued to report Russian media efforts to create suspicion and fear of certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, whom media repeatedly accused of having links to Islamist groups that were designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian media also portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to Krym Realii, on the eve of the 76th anniversary of the Soviet authorities’ forced deportation of the Crimean Tatar people from Crimea, unidentified vandals destroyed several tombstones in an Islamic cemetery in Vladyslavivka Village, Nyzhnyohirsk Region. Local police reportedly refused to investigate the incident, attributing it to a family dispute. According to the Advet.org news website, in April, on the eve of Ramadan, unidentified vandals threw rotten eggs at a mosque in Cheremysivka Village.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. government continued its efforts to focus international attention on the religious freedom-related abuses committed by Russia-led forces and occupation authorities in Crimea, especially on actions taken by those forces and authorities against Muslims and Christians, through public statements by the Secretary of State and other senior officials, as well as messaging on social media. In a statement on February 26, the Secretary said, “Russian occupation authorities continue their assault on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Occupation authorities severely limit religious freedom, target religious believers with bogus terrorism charges, and seized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine cathedral in Simferopol. The United States calls on Russia to free all Ukrainians it has wrongfully imprisoned in retaliation for their peaceful dissent and to end Russian abuses of fundamental freedoms in Crimea.” U.S. government and embassy officials condemned the continuing intimidation of Crimean citizens. The Acting Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs participated in an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe side event on Crimea, stating, “Russian occupation authorities continue to harass, arrest, and prosecute activists, journalists, and members of civil society, simply for their expressing their opposition to the occupation or for being a member of an ethnic or religious minority group on the peninsula. They sustained a brutal campaign of repression against Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Crimea, raiding mosques, homes, and workplaces without justification or process and leaving these communities in a state of constant fear.”
Although embassy and other U.S. government officials remained unable to visit Crimea following the Russian occupation, embassy officials continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders from Crimea. The leaders discussed their concerns over actions taken against congregations by Russian occupation authorities and reassured the religious leaders of continued U.S. support for the right of all to practice their religious beliefs. In August, embassy officials met with Metropolitan Klyment and discussed pressures on his church in Crimea. Embassy officials told religious leaders the United States would continue to support religious freedom in Crimea and would press Russian occupation authorities to return confiscated property and release prisoners incarcerated for their religious or political beliefs.
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The constitution recognizes equality for all regardless of religion, subject to considerations of public safety or health or the rights of others, and it stipulates the independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) from the state. The constitution recognizes the “outstanding role” of the GOC in the history of the country. It prohibits persecution based on religion. Laws and policies continue to grant the GOC unique privileges. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Tolerance and Diversity Institute (Tolerance Institute) stated that prosecutors continued to fail to indict individuals for religiously motivated crimes. NGOs criticized the government during the COVID-19 state of emergency between March 22 and May 22 for allowing the GOC exceptions from restrictions on in-person religious services while not responding to minority religious groups’ requests for clarification on applying restrictions. The government did not approve the registration application of any new religious group. It rejected the application of the Christian Church for All Nations for the second year in a row. Parliament again failed to pass legislation to comply with a court order to amend the law under which the GOC received exclusive tax and property privileges. Some religious groups advocated legislation that would address a broader range of religious issues, while others expressed concerns about the potential impact of such a law on smaller groups. Religious leaders criticized parliament for passing amendments in May that grant only the GOC ownership rights to state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries. Some Muslim community leaders said the government continued to influence and favor the state-funded religious group All Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG). Following the December 2019 election of Mufti Adam Shantadze as the new AMAG leader, AMAG education department head Rezo Mikeladze, AMAG press center head Otar Nadiradze, and two other leaders within the organization resigned, and Mikeladze made a televised statement saying Shantadze was the candidate of the State Security Service and his appointment would not benefit the interests of Muslims. Mikeladze and Nadiradze subsequently rejoined AMAG. The Armenian Apostolic, Evangelical Lutheran, and Roman Catholic Churches and some Muslim groups reported continued difficulties in obtaining government recognition of their ownership claims of religious properties. Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions on mosques and their construction. NGOs continued to state there was bias in public schools favoring Georgian Orthodox religious teachings, although the government took some steps to involve human rights groups in the textbook selection process. NGOs and some religious groups continued to criticize legislation that excluded some religious groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, from receiving compensation for damages suffered during the Soviet era.
According to religious leaders, de facto authorities in the Russia-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which remained outside the administrative control of the central government, continued to restrict or prohibit the activities of some religious groups. De facto authorities in both areas continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to anecdotal reports, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses could continue to rent space for Kingdom Halls in Abkhazia. Both the GOC and the Russian Orthodox Church formally recognized Orthodox churches in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as belonging to the GOC, but GOC representatives said de facto authorities in South Ossetia pressured Orthodox churches to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church. Sources stated that the Russian Orthodox Church tacitly and unofficially supported breakaway churches that did not have official autocephaly from the GOC. De facto South Ossetian authorities permitted GOC religious services but said they were illegal. De facto Abkhaz authorities prohibited Georgian Orthodox clergy from entering the occupied territory. Some religious figures in Abkhazia reportedly continued to advocate the establishment of an autocephalous Orthodox Church in the territory or a merger with the Russian Orthodox Church.
According to NGOs and minority religious groups, religiously motivated crimes declined compared to 2019 due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public activity. During the year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MOIA) investigated 22 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, compared with 44 cases in 2019. The Public Defender’s Office received seven complaints of religiously based crimes or discrimination during the year, compared with 19 complaints in 2019. Two of these complaints involved violence. The Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) obtained convictions for two individuals for crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses motivated by religious intolerance, and a case against a third was pending at year’s end. Jehovah’s Witnesses said attacks against members declined because the group, in response to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, shifted to online activities and ceased conducting public outreach or door-to-door evangelism. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported eight incidents against the group, its members, or Kingdom Halls, including one involving violence, compared with 20 in 2019. According to the Public Defender’s Office, the PGO made improvements compared to prior years in classifying crimes targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses as motivated by religious intolerance. The Public Defender’s Office and religious minorities continued to state there was widespread societal perception that religious minorities posed a threat to the GOC and the country’s values. The NGO Media Development Foundation documented 20 instances of religiously intolerant remarks in national media by media figures, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared with 55 in 2019. In May, Georgian Orthodox clergyman Basil Mkalavishvili said the prayers of the Roman Catholic Church “have no merit.” In April, Sandro Bregadze, leader of the nativist movement Georgian March, told a news outlet that Jehovah’s Witnesses were the main source of COVID-19 in the city of Zugdidi. In December, the Tolerance Institute condemned as anti-Semitic a sermon by Georgian Orthodox Metropolitan Ioane Gamrekeli in which he referred to nonbelievers as “a lineage of infidels.” The Georgian ambassador to Israel said Gamrekeli’s words had been misinterpreted, and the GOC subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials, including the leadership of the State Agency for Religious Affairs (SARI), the public defender, the Prime Minister’s adviser on human rights, and officials at various ministries to encourage dialogue and tolerance between the government and minority religious groups. The Ambassador met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II and other senior Church leaders to stress the importance of the GOC in promoting religious diversity and tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with minority religious groups throughout the country, and the embassy and its regional information offices sponsored events in Tbilisi and elsewhere in the country to encourage religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. In November, the Secretary of State met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi to discuss the promotion and protection of religious freedom. The embassy continued to support long-term programming to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and promote greater integration.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2014 census, GOC members constitute 83.4 percent of the population, followed by Muslims at 10.7 percent and members of the Armenian Apostolic Church at 2.9 percent. The remaining 3 percent includes Roman Catholics, Yezidis, Greek Orthodox, Jews, growing numbers of “nontraditional” religious groups, such as Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and individuals who profess no religious preference.
Ethnicity, religious affiliation, and region of residence are strongly connected. Most ethnic Georgians affiliate with the GOC. A small number of mostly ethnic Russians are members of several Orthodox groups not affiliated with the GOC, including the Russian Orthodox Church, Molokani, Staroveriy (Old Believers), and Dukhoboriy (Spirit Wrestlers). Ethnic Azeris are predominantly Shia Muslims and form the majority of the population in the southeastern region of Kvemo-Kartli. Other Muslim groups include ethnic Georgian Muslims in Adjara and Chechen Kists in the northeast; both groups are predominantly Sunni. Ethnic Georgian Sunni Muslims are also present in the south-central region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. Ethnic Armenians belong primarily to the Armenian Apostolic Church and constitute the majority of the population in Samtskhe-Javakheti.
Reliable information from the Russia-occupied regions in Georgia continued to be difficult to obtain. According to a census conducted in 2016 by the de facto Abkhaz authorities, there were 243,000 residents of Russia-occupied Abkhazia. A survey conducted in 2003 by the de facto government listed 60 percent of respondents as Christian, 16 percent as Muslim, 8 percent as atheists or nonbelievers, 8 percent as followers of the pre-Christian Abkhazian religion, and 1 percent as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, or adherents of other religions. The remaining 7 percent listed no preference.
According to a 2015 census conducted by de facto South Ossetian authorities, there were 53,000 residents of Russia-occupied South Ossetia. The majority of the population practices Orthodox Christianity; other minority groups include Muslims and the Right Faith, a revival of the pre-Christian ethnic Ossetian religion.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religion, subject to considerations of public safety and the health and rights of others, and equality for all regardless of religion. It prohibits persecution based on religion and prohibits compelling anyone to express his or her opinion about religion. It also prohibits political parties that incite religious strife. The law provides for freedom of religious belief, denomination, and conscience, including the right to choose and change religious affiliation.
The constitution recognizes the GOC’s special role in the country’s history but stipulates the Church shall be independent from the state and that relations between the GOC and the state shall be governed by a constitutional agreement (concordat). The concordat grants rights not given to other religious groups, including legal immunity for the Georgian Orthodox patriarch, exemption of Church clergy from military service (although by law, clergy from all religious groups are exempted), and a consultative role in government, especially in state education policies. The concordat states that some of its provisions require additional legislation before they may be implemented, including the GOC’s right to a consultative role in state education policies. There is currently no implementing legislation for the concordat.
A religious group may register with the National Agency of the Public Registry (NAPR) as a legal entity of public law (legal entity) or as a nonprofit organization, both of which offer benefits, including legal recognition, tax exemptions for donations and other “religious activities” (a term not clearly defined by law), and the right to own property and open bank accounts. The civil code defines the activities and rights of denominations registered for legal entity status. Unregistered religious groups may conduct religious activities but do not receive the legal status or benefits conferred on registered groups.
To register as a legal entity, the law specifies a religious group must have a historic link with the country or be recognized as a religion “by the legislation of the member states of the Council of Europe.” A religious group must also submit to the NAPR information regarding its objectives and procedures and a list of its founders and members of its governing body. Groups registering as nonprofit religious organizations do not have to demonstrate historic ties to the country or recognition by Council of Europe members but must submit to the NAPR similar information on their objectives, governing procedures, and names of founders and members of their governing body.
The law grants the GOC exceptions from several requirements applicable to other religious groups, including payment of taxes on the construction, restoration, and maintenance of religious buildings and the payment of taxes on property. It exempts the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate, but not other religious groups, from taxes on “profit from the sale of crosses, candles, icons, books, and calendars used…for religious purposes.” In addition, the law states only the GOC may acquire nonagricultural state property through a direct sale by the government. Should other religious groups wish to acquire this type of property, they must participate in public tenders. Only the GOC has the right to acquire agricultural state property free of charge; all others must pay a fee. On May 22, parliament passed amendments to the forest code granting the Church ownership over state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries.
The criminal code prohibits interference with worship services, persecution of a person based on religious faith or belief, and interference with the establishment of a religious organization; the code does not define “establishment.” Interference with the establishment of a religious organization is punishable by a fine, correctional work (community service) for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to two years. Violations committed by public officials are considered abuses of power and are punishable by larger fines or longer terms of imprisonment if committed by force of arms or by insulting the dignity of a victim, although the law does not define “insult” and does not specify an amount or time limit for punishment under those circumstances. In cases of religious persecution, the perpetrator may face imprisonment for up to three years, depending on the use or threat of violence, his or her official position, and the damages caused. In cases of unlawful interference with the right to perform religious rituals involving the use or threat of violence, offenders may face imprisonment for up to two years; in cases where the offender holds an official position, the offender may face up to five years in prison.
According to a 2010 Ministry of Justice decree, accused and convicted individuals may meet only with spiritual representatives of the GOC and registered religious organizations. Prison regulations state prisoners have the right to possess and use religious literature and objects of worship.
Although the law states that public schools may not be used for religious indoctrination, proselytizing, or forcible assimilation, the concordat accords the GOC the right to teach religious studies in public educational institutions, pending additional legislation, and authorizes the state to pay for Georgian Orthodox religious schools. The law states that students may pursue religious study and practice religious rituals on school grounds “of their own accord,” but only after school hours. Outside instructors, including clergy of any denomination, may only attend or direct students’ religious education or activities if students invite them to do so; school administration and teachers may not be involved in this process. The law includes no specific regulations for private religious schools. Private schools must follow the national curriculum, although they are free to add subjects, including religious studies, if they wish.
The MOIA’s Department of Human Rights is responsible for assessing whether crimes are motivated by religious hatred and for monitoring the quality of investigations into hate crimes.
By law, the PGO, which is separate from the MOIA, prosecutes human rights violations involving religious intolerance, while the Public Defender’s Office serves as the country’s human rights ombudsman and monitors complaints of restrictions on religious freedom. The Public Defender’s Office’s Tolerance Center carries out educational activities and monitors and analyzes cases of religious and ethnic discrimination. It also coordinates the Public Defender’s Office-affiliated Council of Religions and Council of Ethnic Minorities. The Council of Religions has a mandate to protect religious freedom; facilitate a constructive multilateral dialogue among various religious groups; promote a tolerant, fair, and peaceful environment for religious groups; and engage religious minorities in the process of civic integration. It produces an annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country that includes policy recommendations.
The State Inspector Service, a separate investigative body from the PGO, investigates crimes such as torture, degrading treatment, and abuse of power and abuse of office perpetrated by representatives of law enforcement and public officials if they are committed by use of force or violate the personal dignity of a person and involve discriminatory elements or features, including religious motives. Following the investigation, the service refers these cases to the PGO for prosecution. Since its creation in May 2019, the service has not received any information on a religiously motivated crime.
SARI’s mandate is to promote and ensure peaceful coexistence based on principles of equality and tolerance. Its stated responsibilities include researching the existing religious situation and reporting to the government, preparing recommendations and draft legal acts for government consideration, and serving as a consultative body and intermediary for the government in disputes arising between religious associations. SARI may issue nonbinding recommendations to relevant state institutions regarding approval of applications for the construction of religious buildings, determination of their locations, and transfer of such properties to religious organizations. SARI distributes government compensation to the GOC and to Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic religious organizations registered as legal entities for “the material and moral damages inflicted upon them during the Soviet period.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Tolerance Institute again stated that the MOIA generally correctly applied the appropriate articles of the criminal code in most cases and the quality of investigations of crimes motivated by religious hatred continued to improve. The institute stated, however, that the PGO continued to fail to determine whether an individual was a “victim” of a crime under law (i.e., a person who has incurred moral, physical, or material damage as a result of a crime) and to indict individuals for religiously motivated crimes.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government declared a state of emergency from March 21 through May 22. According to religious organizations and NGOs, due to the public’s and religious groups’ adherence to government-imposed restrictions, public religious activity declined. NGOs said SARI was unresponsive to minority religious groups’ requests for clarification on restrictions relating to in-person religious services, while it granted the GOC exceptions to or not did not enforce restrictions, thereby enabling the Church to continue hosting in-person religious services, including Orthodox Easter services on April 19.
The NAPR did not register any new religious organization as a legal entity during the year. It rejected the registration application of the Christian Church for All Nations for the second year in a row. The NAPR found the group’s legal documentation was insufficient and requested additional documentation. As of year’s end, the group’s registration process remained suspended pending presentation of additional materials.
Most prisons continued to have Georgian Orthodox chapels and areas for prayer. Muslims were allowed to pray in their cells or prayer areas and to possess Qurans and prayer rugs. According to SARI and Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Muslim, and Jewish groups, prisoners had access to counseling and services for their religion upon request. The government provided accommodation for the dietary restrictions of Muslim and Jewish prisoners. During religious holidays, prisoners were exempt from fulfilling their regular duties.
According to NGOs and minority religious groups, many religious issues, such as tax exemptions and restitution issues, continued to lack a clear legislative framework. SARI and some religious groups’ representatives, including members of the Jewish community and the Armenian Apostolic Church, said they remained in favor of drafting a new, broader “law on religion” to define which groups would be eligible for these and other benefits and to address issues pertaining to the registration and legal status of religious groups and the teaching of religion in public schools. Many civil society representatives and members of other religious groups, including some individuals from the Muslim community, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Baptist Church, however, remained opposed, arguing such legislation would allow the government to discriminate against smaller religious communities and increase its leverage over them. They advocated instead making benefits available to all religious groups or to none.
Parliament failed to take action during the year to amend the law granting the GOC tax and property privileges not available to other religious groups, despite a 2018 Constitutional Court ruling that the law was unconstitutional and mandating parliament make legislative changes to either abolish the privileges or grant them to all religious organizations no later than December 31, 2018.
On May 13, the Constitutional Court announced its decision that the case brought by nine religious organizations claiming the GOC’s exclusive property tax exemption on land used for noneconomic purpose violated the constitutional provision guaranteeing equality before the law had merit and would be admitted for substantive consideration. The court had not started this review at year’s end.
On February 20, the Constitutional Court heard arguments on whether to accept for substantive consideration a case brought by nine religious organizations challenging restrictions on the rights of religious organizations other than the GOC to purchase or exchange state-owned property. As of year’s end, the court had not reached a decision.
The Tolerance Institute and other NGOs criticized as unconstitutional and discriminatory amendments passed in May to the Forest Code that granted only the GOC ownership over state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries.
NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to favor and influence the state-funded AMAG, including by influencing the selection of AMAG’s religious leader and selectively transferring land to AMAG. The groups said AMAG was a “Soviet-style” organization that served as a tool of the state to monitor and control religious groups. A number of Muslim groups remained critical of AMAG for insisting it represented all Muslim communities in the country within one organization. Following the December 25, 2019, election of Mufti Shantadze as the new AMAG leader, head of the AMAG education department Mikeladze resigned and made a televised statement saying Shantadze was the candidate of the state security service and his appointment would not benefit the interests of Muslims. Three other leaders – press center head Nadiradze, advisor to the mufti Temur Gorgadze, and publishing house head Gela Gogitidza – also resigned. During the year, Mikeladze and Nadiradze returned to AMAG, and Mikeladze continued to hold senior offices in the education department. Mikeladze and Nadiradze made no statements addressing their departure or return.
At year’s end, the Tbilisi City Court had not ruled on the Armenia Apostolic Church’s January 2018 appeal of the NAPR’s decision to register as the GOC’s property a church that the Armenian Apolstolic Church claimed to own since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Armenian Apostolic Church continued to petition SARI for restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which the GOC also claimed and authorities registered as state property. As of year’s end, SARI had not officially responded to any of the Armenian Church’s 57 petitions, 20 of which it filed in 2015 and 37 in 2018, for ownership or right-of-usage status. The Armenian Apostolic Church said the only communication from SARI during the year was SARI chairman Zaza Vashakmadze telling the group the issue was “under consideration.” The Church reported it operated all 57 churches in the country but did not own any of them. The Church also stated it had not petitioned NAPR during the year to register them as Church-owned property. SARI said the Armenian Apostolic Church had not provided sufficient evidence of ownership but that it was in communication with the Church and expressed willingness to cooperate in the future.
Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions regarding construction of mosques. The Muslim community continued to dispute the government’s ownership of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara. The government owned the land as a legacy from the Soviet period and, in some cases, said the existing mosques were former Georgian Orthodox houses of worship that had been converted during the Ottoman and Persian empires or were constructed during those periods on land where Georgian Orthodox houses of worship had once stood. AMAG reported that when the government transferred state-owned mosques, it only did so for AMAG to use for a 49-year or unlimited period; the government did not transfer full ownership of the property or land.
The Kutaisi Court of Appeal held hearings in February and July on the Batumi city government’s appeal connected to its 2017 decision to deny the local Muslim community a permit to build a mosque but did not reach a decision by year’s end. In 2019, the Batumi City Court ruled that the Batumi city government had discriminated against the New Mosque Construction Fund (an entity representing members of the Batumi Muslim community seeking to establish a new mosque) by denying the permits necessary to build a new mosque on land the fund owned. The lower court ordered the mayor’s office to reconsider its decision. The Batumi city government rescinded the 3,000 lari ($920) fine it had imposed in 2017 for the construction of a temporary wooden structure built on the fund’s land, pending the outcome of the appeal. The NGO Human Rights Education Monitoring Center (EMC) described the status of the case as “frozen.”
The government continued to pay subsidies for the restoration of religious properties it considered national cultural heritage sites. The National Agency for Cultural Heritage, housed within the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport, allocated 1.91 million lari ($584,000) during the year for the restoration of religious monuments, compared with 2.3 million lari ($703,000) in 2019.
As of year’s end, the Supreme Court failed to act on a 2018 EMC appeal of a lower court ruling that the MOIA had not discriminated against Muslims when it failed to prevent vandalism against an Islamic boarding school that was under construction in Kobuleti, near Batumi, in 2014. The vandalism followed anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim protests concerning the school. As a result of the protests, the local municipality refused to connect sewage and water systems. In 2018, a lower court ruled the municipality had to connect the school to utility services, but the municipality took no action, and the boarding school remained incomplete as of year’s end, without water and sewage services.
Tolerance Institute representatives continued to state that religious education in public schools persisted, although the law provided for religious neutrality and nondiscrimination. The GOC did not offer any formal religious studies classes in public institutions. Although the GOC had the right to have direct involvement in public institutions, such as schools, under the concordat, the government did not define clear legal structures for it to do so. Prior to schools being closed in February due to COVID-19 restrictions, NGOs and non-Georgian Orthodox organizations, such as the EMC, reported Georgian Orthodox clergy often visited classes during the regular school day, sometimes at the initiative of teachers or school administrators, despite the law restricting such visits to after hours.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government shifted the majority of schools to online instruction, and there were no reports of religious discrimination in schools during the year. The Tolerance Institute stated that students were also hesitant to report cases of religious discrimination in schools for fear of reprisal from fellow students, teachers, or school officials. The institute also reported the process for selecting textbooks became more inclusive, with the Ministry of Education inviting human rights experts to review the content for discriminatory or biased language that favored the GOC.
During the year, the Tolerance Institute represented two Seventh-day Adventist university applicants who, due to their religious beliefs, could not take entrance examinations on Saturday and were denied a date change by the government. The institute filed suit with the Tbilisi City Court, and the court ruled that the government was obligated to reschedule the examination to accommodate the applicants’ religious beliefs. The court stressed the importance of freedom of religion and respecting the needs of religious minorities in the context of the right to equality. The Equality Department of the Public Defender’s Office issued a general proposal to the Ministry of Education, based on information provided by the Tolerance Institute, recommending the ministry take into account the needs of religious minorities. Although the applicants successfully passed the examinations and enrolled in university, the case remained pending at year’s end, as the Tolerance Institute asked the court to find that the ministry had discriminated against the applicants because of their religion and to award “symbolic compensation” of one lari (22 cents) for “moral damage.”
During the year, the government through SARI allocated 25 million lari ($7.65 million) to the GOC and 3.5 million lari ($1.07 million) to approved non-Georgian Orthodox religious communities to provide partial compensation for damage caused during the totalitarian Soviet regime. The 3.5 million lari ($1.07 million) was distributed as follows: 2.20 million lari ($673,000) to the Muslim community, represented by AMAG; 400,000 lari ($122,000) to the Roman Catholic Church; 600,000 lari ($183,000) to the Armenian Apostolic Church; and 300,000 lari ($91,700) to the Jewish community. SARI said the remaining one million lari ($306,000) would be distributed among the religious communities “later.” This was a decrease from the 2019 amounts: 25 million lari ($7.65 million) to the GOC; 2.75 million lari ($841,000) to the Muslim community, represented by AMAG; 550,000 lari ($168,000) to the Roman Catholic Church; 800,000 lari ($245,000) to the Armenian Apostolic Church; and 400,000 lari ($122,000) to the Jewish community. SARI’s position was that the payments were of “partial and of symbolic character,” and that the government continued to take into account levels of damage and “present day negative conditions” of religious groups in determining compensation. NGOs and religious groups continued to criticize the exclusion of other religious groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, from the legislation designating the five groups eligible to receive compensation, and they questioned the criteria the government used to select which groups received compensation.
The MOIA Department of Human Rights conducted eight training sessions during the year – five total in Tbilisi and Batumi and three online. At these events, it trained 139 MOIA employees on aspects of religious discrimination and hate crimes. Fifteen employees completed the ministry’s remote learning course on hate crimes investigation.
In October, the Public Defender’s Office-affiliated Council of Religions produced its annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country. The report identified areas needing improvement and made specific recommendations in the following categories: legislative regulation of freedom of religion; crimes motivated by intolerance; state policy on freedom of religion; property issues; border crossing by religious groups; the import of religious literature; police conduct in areas with ethnic and religious minorities; education; reflecting diversity; confronting hate speech and anti-Western propaganda; and the role of the media. During the October conference to discuss the report’s recommendations, many NGO and religious leaders said they were disappointed that the council’s recommendations were similar or identical to those it had made in past years, with no improvement or progress on the issues identified.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to religious organizations and NGOs, due to government-imposed COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public activity, crimes committed against religious groups declined compared with 2019. The MOIA investigated 22 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, compared to 44 cases in 2019. These included three cases of unlawful interference with the performance of religious rites (compared with 10 in 2019), four cases of persecution (compared with 10 in 2019), and five cases of damage or destruction of property (compared with eight in 2019).
The Public Defender’s Office reported it received seven complaints of discrimination or hate crimes based on religion during the year, compared with 19 in 2019. Two of the complaints involved violence; the office did not give further details on these cases. The office stated that cases from previous years remained largely unresolved, partly because of a lack of urgency and resources from the government.
The PGO reported it prosecuted three individuals for crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses motivated by religious intolerance. Two of these individuals were convicted of domestic violence committed due to religious intolerance, and the third case remained pending at year’s end. The PGO reported that in one case, a man slapped his wife during an argument on March 8 because she refused to visit her son’s gravesite due to her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. On April 23, the Samtredia District Court found the man guilty of domestic violence committed in the presence of a minor and due to religious intolerance, and sentenced him to an 18-month conditional prison sentence. On June 19, on appeal, the Kutaisi Appellate Court increased the man’s conditional prison sentence to two years. On March 1, a man threatened to shoot two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were proselytizing in his apartment building if they did not stop their religious activity and leave the building. The PGO charged the man with persecuting an individual for engaging in religious activity with the aggravated circumstance of threat of violence, and the case was pending trial at the Tbilisi City Court at year’s end.
Jehovah’s Witnesses said there were fewer attacks against members compared to prior years because the group, in response to COVID-19 restrictions, shifted to online activities and ceased conducting public outreach, including door-to-door evangelism. At year’s end, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported eight religiously motivated incidents to the government, compared with 20 in 2019. Of the reported incidents, one involved physical violence, four involved vandalism or other damage against Kingdom Halls, and three involved interference with religious services or damage of other property or literature. Jehovah’s Witnesses said police sent one of the cases to the PGO for prosecution. Police were still investigating the seven others at year’s end. According to the Public Defender’s Office, the PGO made improvements compared with prior years in classifying crimes as being motivated by religious intolerance, especially in cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses.
As of year’s end, the Tbilisi City Court had not ruled on a 2019 case in which an individual verbally insulted, then physically attacked, a Jehovah’s Witness who had just left a religious service at a Kingdom Hall in Tbilisi. The victim required medical treatment for injuries to his eye and lip, and officials charged the attacker with “purposeful, less grave damage to health.”
Authorities reported no arrests or other progress in open investigations of incidents from past years against Jehovah’s Witnesses or their property.
Representatives of the Public Defender’s Office’s Tolerance Center and minority religious groups continued to report what they termed a widespread societal belief that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and to the country’s cultural values.
Minority religious communities, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and Protestants, continued to report resistance from local communities to their establishment of places of worship and religious schools.
The Media Development Foundation documented 30 instances during the year of religiously intolerant statements on television, online, and in printed media by media representatives, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared with 55 such incidents in 2019.
In May, Georgian Orthodox clergyman Basil Mkalavishvili told the news website Georgia and the World, “As soon as this terrible epidemic [of COVID-19] has spread to all continents, all countries should have started intensified praying, but unfortunately, the reverse has happened. The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church closed their churches, prohibited praying; although their prayers have no merit anyway, as in the 11th century they swerved from Orthodoxy and embarked on the road of sacrilege.”
There were instances, particularly in Western Georgia, of anti-Islamic rhetoric that took the form of anti-Turkish rhetoric and opposition to perceived “foreign influence.” On February 16, Alliance of Patriots party member Giorgi Kasradze criticized the perceived foreign influence of Turkish Muslims on the country, saying on TV Obiektivi, “They [Turkish Muslims] have tried many times to stage various provocations in this region, including building an Azizie Mosque in the center of Batumi, but 15,000 [Georgian] Muslims, altogether 70,000 people, of whom 15,000 were Muslims, resisted construction of a mosque by Turkish money.”
In April, Sandro Bregadze, leader of the nativist movement Georgian March, told the news outlet Sakinpormi, “In Zugdidi [City] the main source of coronavirus is the sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Have you noticed how they are concealing this information? Can you imagine the fuss if this disease were spread from the Church congregation? That is the problem – 90 percent of Georgian television networks are belligerent enemies of the Georgian nation, Orthodoxy, and the Georgian state! A national boycott to this offspring of Satan.”
On December 20, Georgian Orthodox Metropolitan Gamrekeli delivered a sermon that included a story about the fourth-century saint Ambrose of Milan. In the story, Saint Ambrose argued against punishing those responsible for a pogrom against the Jewish community on the grounds that Jews had not been held fully responsible for killing Christ, desecrating the Holy Land, or blasphemy. In the sermon, Gamrekeli referred to modern-day Jews as individuals who, under the guise of free speech, defamed the Church, and said, “This is not defined by ethnicity – this is a battle of the lineage of infidels against the Church.” On December 28, the Tolerance Institute issued a statement saying, “Despite the fact that the Bishop refers to the story of Ambrose of Mediolanum, in this context he repeats the narratives of the ‘generation/lineage of infidels’ and ‘fighters against the Church’ in reference to the Jewish people. We consider that citing this particular example and calling Jewish people these derogatory terms (even though attributing them to the life of the saint) reinforces anti-Semitic sentiments and stereotypes today.” In response to the Tolerance Institute’s statement, the Georgian ambassador to Israel defended the Metropolitan’s statement, saying his words had been misinterpreted, as the story was simply the retelling of a historical parable, and the Metropolitan said in the sermon the lessons from the parable should not apply to one ethnicity. The GOC subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with officials from the government, including SARI, the Prime Minister’s adviser on human rights and gender equality, and the President’s adviser on national minorities, to encourage dialogue between the government and minority religious groups. They also continued to meet with the Public Defender’s Office and officials in its Tolerance Center to discuss discrimination against religious groups and stress the importance of interfaith dialogue.
Embassy staff continued to meet with NGOs involved with religious freedom issues, including the Center for Development and Democracy, the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center, the Tolerance Institute, and the 21st Century Union, to discuss interfaith relations, the integration of religious minorities into society, and the promotion of religious freedom for all.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials visited the Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli, and Adjara regions on several occasions to meet with local religious leaders, including from the Sunni and Shia Muslim and Armenian Apostolic Orthodox communities. In these meetings, embassy officials advocated interfaith understanding, dialogue, and the peaceful coexistence of all religions. The Ambassador met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II and other senior GOC members on multiple occasions. In her meetings, she stressed the importance of the Church’s role in promoting religious diversity and tolerance.
In November, the Secretary of State met with Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi and discussed promoting and protecting religious freedom.
The embassy conducted a virtual program for a multiethnic group of young professionals under an exchange program focusing on inclusion, diversity, and equality. The program highlighted, among other things, the importance of freedom of religion. The embassy supported a number of religious freedom projects, including a discussion on human dignity and the GOC that brought together clergy and staff of the Georgian Orthodox patriarchate and public figures, nongovernmental human rights organizations, and scholars studying theology and religion with the goal of increasing awareness of human rights within the Church community. Another project aimed to encourage religious leaders of all faiths to promote democracy and foster civic engagement in their communities. The embassy’s English language programs in Marneuli, Akhalkalaki, and Ninotsminda targeted 25 socially disadvantaged students from religious minority groups.
The embassy continued to support the Tolerance Center and the Council of Religions programs that brought together leaders from different faith communities to monitor and advocate for religious freedom and raise public awareness about discrimination faced by religious and ethnic minorities. The embassy supported the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center’s “Improving Human Rights Conditions for Marginalized Groups through Strategic Litigation” project to protect the rights of minority religious groups through strategic litigation, field work, advocacy, and awareness-raising with regard to problems such as discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds in relations with state and private persons, unequal treatment in the recognition of property and construction rights, and hate crimes.
In September, the embassy announced a cultural preservation award to restore the Jvari Monastery, a Georgian Orthodox monastery near Mtskheta (the former capital of the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Iberia) and one of the country’s most iconic cultural sites.
The embassy regularly used social media to highlight meetings with government officials, religious groups, and civil society and events promoting religious tolerance.
The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion. The Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), part of the Ministry of Information and Social Development (MISD), is responsible for religious issues. According to local and international observers, authorities continued to impose restrictions and additional scrutiny on what the government considered “nontraditional” religious groups, including Muslims who practice a version of Islam other than the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and Protestant Christians. Authorities continued to arrest, detain, and imprison individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation; restrict religious expression; prevent unregistered groups from practicing their faith; restrict assembly for peaceful religious activities; restrict public manifestation of religious belief; restrict religious expression and customs, including religious clothing; criminalize speech “inciting religious discord”; restrict proselytism; restrict the publication and distribution of religious literature; censor religious content; and restrict acquisition or use of buildings used for religious ceremonies and purposes. The government again raided religious services, prosecuted individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and refused to register certain religious groups. In January, an Almaty court sentenced two Muslims to five years of restriction of freedom (probation) for incitement of religious discord and participation in the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization via online chats. In October, a Muslim was retried and sentenced to eight years in prison for supporting terrorism through online posts in 2015, despite an earlier Supreme Court ruling annulling his original sentence. Religious minority groups stated that the authorities used COVID-19 pandemic restrictions to discriminate against them. Five pastors and two church workers were detained, tried, jailed, fined, or warned for reportedly violating pandemic restrictions. The CRA reported 552 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2019, the latest data available. Some religious minority groups faced attempts by local governments to seize their property. In October, four ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens who had crossed the border earlier from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region were granted asylum on the grounds of credible fear of persecution if they returned to China.
Media outlets continued to release articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional.” Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a number of defamatory articles and broadcasts. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and academics said members of some religious groups, including Muslims who wear headscarves or other identifying attire as well as some Christian groups, including evangelicals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.
Despite limitations on in-person meetings and visits during the global pandemic, the Secretary of State, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Ambassador, and other U.S. officials engaged in person and via virtual platforms with the government to urge respect for religious freedom, both in general and with regard to specific cases, including a regular and recurring dialogue with the MISD and CRA. This included raising concerns regarding the restrictive effects on religious freedom of the government’s implementation of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes, especially concerning criminal penalties for peaceful religious speech, praying without registration, and censorship of religious literature. The country’s bilateral Religious Freedom Working Group with the United States met in person in February and virtually in October to discuss cooperation to allow all persons to practice their faiths freely in the country. U.S. officials visited various houses of worship and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities and religious freedom advocates. The embassy also engaged in social media outreach to urge respect for religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
Other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the religious population include Jews, Buddhists, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, and Scientologists.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion and belief as well as for the freedom to decline religious affiliation. These rights may be limited only by laws and only to the extent necessary for protection of the constitutional system, public order, human rights and freedoms, and the health and morality of the population. Under the constitution, all persons have the right to follow their religious or other convictions, take part in religious activities, and disseminate their beliefs. These rights, however, are in practice limited to registered or “traditional” religious groups. “Traditional” is not defined by law, but it typically refers to Hanafi Sunni Islam, the Russian Orthodox Church, Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism, and other major or historic religions.
The MISD and its component, the CRA, regulate the practice of religion in the country. By law, the MISD is responsible for the formulation and implementation of state policy on religion as well as facilitating government and civil society engagement. It also considers potential violations of the laws on religious activity and extremism. The MISD drafts legislation and regulations, conducts analysis of religious materials, and makes decisions on censorship. All religious groups are required to submit all religious materials for approval before dissemination. The MISD cooperates with law enforcement bodies to ban religious groups and sanction individuals who violate the religion law, coordinates actions of local government to regulate religious practices, and provides the official interpretation of the religion law.
The counterterrorism law requires religious organizations to secure their buildings of worship against potential terrorist attacks; the government may take action against religious organizations for failure to do so. The law states the government shall not interfere with the choice of religious beliefs or affiliation of citizens or residents unless those beliefs are directed against the country’s constitutional framework, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.
The criminal and administrative codes include penalties for unauthorized religious activity, which includes the arrangement of and participation in activities of unregistered religious groups, participation in religious activities outside permitted areas, unlicensed distribution of religious materials or training of clergy, sale of religious literature without government approval or in places not approved by the government, and discussion of religion for the purpose of proselytization without the required missionary registration.
The criminal code prohibits the “incitement of interreligious discord,” which includes “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority, or inferiority of citizens according to their relation to religion [and other] origin.” It also criminalizes the creation and leadership of social institutions that proclaim religious intolerance or exclusivity, which is punishable by imprisonment from three to seven years.
The extremism law, which applies to religious groups and other organizations, gives the government discretion to identify and designate a group as an “extremist organization,” ban a designated group’s activities, and criminalize membership in a banned organization. The law defines “extremism” as an organization or commission of acts in pursuit of violent change of the constitutional system; violation of the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the country; undermining of national security; violent seizure or retention of power; armed rebellion; incitement of ethnic, religious, or other forms of social discord accompanied by calls to violence; or the use of any religious practice that causes a security or health risk. An extremist organization is a “legal entity, association of individuals and (or) legal entities engaged in extremism, and recognized by the court as extremist.” The law provides streamlined court procedures for identifying a group as “terrorist or extremist,” reducing the time necessary for a court to render judgement and act on a decision to 72 hours. After a legal finding of a violation, the law authorizes officials to immediately revoke the organization’s registration, thus ending its legal existence, and to seize its property. Prosecutors have the right to annually inspect all groups registered with state bodies for compliance with all applicable laws.
Under the law on countering terrorism, the Ministry of Finance may freeze the financial accounts of persons convicted of terrorism or extremism crimes.
The administrative code prohibits “spreading the creed of religious groups (that are) unregistered” in the country, an offense punishable by a fine of 252,500 tenge ($600). A foreigner or stateless person found guilty may also be deported.
A religious organization may be designated “national,” “regional,” or “local.” To register at the local level, an organization must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice that lists the names and addresses of at least 50 founding members. Religious organizations may be active only within the geographic limits of the locality in which they register unless they have sufficient numbers to register at the regional or national level. Regional registration requires at least two local organizations, each located within a different region (province), and each local group must have at least 250 members. National registration requires at least 5,000 total members and at least 300 members in each of the country’s 14 regions and the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent. Only groups registered at the national or regional level have the right to open educational institutions for training clergy.
The law allows the government to deny registration to a religious group based on an insufficient number of adherents or on inconsistencies between the religious group’s charter and any national law, as determined by an analysis conducted by the CRA. According to the administrative code, individuals participating in leading or financing an unregistered, suspended, or banned religious group may be fined between 126,250 tenge ($300) and 505,000 tenge ($1,200).
The administrative code mandates a 505,000 tenge ($1,200) fine and a three-month suspension from conducting any religious activities for registered groups holding religious gatherings in buildings that are not approved for that purpose; importing, producing, or disseminating religious materials not approved by the CRA; systematically pursuing activities that contradict the charter and bylaws of the group as registered; constructing religious facilities without a permit; holding gatherings or conducting charity events in violation of the law; or otherwise defying the constitution or laws. Private persons engaged in these activities are subject to a fine of 126,250 tenge ($300). Police may impose these fines without first going to court. The fines may be appealed to a court.
If an organization, its leaders, or members engage in activities not specified in its charter, it is subject to a warning, a fine of 252,500 tenge ($600), or both. Under the administrative code, if the same violation is repeated within a year, the legal entity is subject to a fine of 378,750 tenge ($900) and a three- to six-month suspension of activities.
According to the administrative code, if a religious group engages in a prohibited activity or does not rectify violations resulting in a suspension, an official or the organization’s leader is subject to a fine of 505,000 tenge ($1,200), the entity is also subject to a fine of 1,262,500 tenge ($3,000), and its activities are banned.
The law authorizes local authorities to “coordinate” the location of premises for religious events outside religious buildings. By law, religious activities may be held in residences, provided that organizers take into account the “rights and interests of neighbors.” Authorities sometimes interpret this as a requirement to receive permission from the neighbors.
The government prohibits individuals who do not pay their fines from traveling outside the country.
The law prohibits coercion to force a person’s conversion to any religion or to force a person’s participation in a religious group’s activities or in religious rites. The law further bans activities of religious organizations that involve violence against citizens or otherwise harm the health or morality of citizens and residents, force them to end marriages or family relations, violate human rights and freedoms, or force citizens to evade performance of duties specified in the constitution and legislation. The law prohibits methods of proselytizing that take advantage of a potential convert’s dependence on charity. The law also prohibits blackmail, violence or the threat of violence, or the use of material threats to coerce participation in religious activities.
The law states that in cases when a prisoner seeks the help of a clergy member to perform a religious rite, he or she may invite a clergy member of a formally registered religious group to a detention facility, as long as this access complies with the prison’s internal regulations. The law bans construction of places of worship within prison territory. Pursuant to the law, religious organizations may participate in monitoring prisons, including creating and implementing programs to improve the correctional system and developing and publicly discussing draft laws and regulations as they relate to the prison system. Religious groups may identify, provide, distribute, and monitor the use of humanitarian, social, legal, and charitable assistance to prisoners. They may provide other forms of assistance to penitentiary system bodies, as long as they do not contradict the law. According to the law, prisoners may possess religious literature, but only if it is approved following an analysis conducted by a CRA religious expert.
The law defines “religious tourism” as a “type of tourism where people travel for performance of religious rites in a country (place) of temporary residence” and requires the MISD to regulate it. Together with the Sunni Hanafi Spiritual Administration of Muslims (SAMK), the MISD oversees the process by which individuals participate in the Hajj or in other travel for the performance of religious rites. The government requires that specially selected guides and imams accompany each group and states that the rules are designed to ensure pilgrims are not recruited by extremist religious groups.
The law prohibits religious ceremonies in government buildings, including those belonging to the military or law enforcement.
The law states production, publication, and dissemination of religious literature and information materials of religious content are allowed only after receiving a positive expert opinion from the CRA. The law allows one copy of published religious materials to be imported for personal use without review by a CRA religious expert.
The law states the government shall not interfere with the rights of parents to raise their children consistent with their religious convictions, unless such an upbringing harms the child’s health or infringes upon the child’s rights.
The law requires organizations to “take steps to prevent involvement or participation of anyone under the age of 18 in the activities of a religious association” if one of the parents or other legal guardians objects. The law bans religious activities, including proselytizing, in children’s vacation, sport, creative, or other leisure organizations, camps, or sanatoria. The extent to which organizations must prevent underage persons’ involvement in religious activity is not specifically outlined and has not been further defined by authorities.
The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools, colleges, or universities. Homeschooling for religious reasons is also prohibited. The law allows afterschool and other supplemental religious instruction as long as it is provided by a registered religious group. A decree mandates that schoolchildren wear school uniforms that comply with the secular nature of education and prohibits inclusion of any elements that could indicate religious affiliation, such as head coverings.
The election law prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation.
The criminal code prohibits creating, leading, or actively participating in a religious or public association whose activities involve committing acts of “violence against citizens or the causing of other harm to their health or the incitement of citizens to refuse to carry out their civil obligations as well as the creation or leadership of parties on a religious basis.” The code punishes such acts with a fine of up to 15.2 million tenge ($36,100) or up to six years’ imprisonment. To perform missionary or other religious activity in the country, a foreigner must obtain a missionary or religious visa. These visas allow a person to stay for a maximum of six months, with the possibility to apply to extend the stay for another six months. To obtain missionary visas, applicants must be invited by a religious group formally registered in the country. The CRA must approve the letter of invitation. Applicants must obtain consent from the CRA each time they apply. The CRA may reject missionary visa applications based on a negative assessment from CRA religious experts, or if it deems the missionaries represent a danger to the country’s constitutional framework, citizens’ rights and freedoms, or any person’s health or morals. The constitution requires foreign religious groups to conduct their activities, including appointing the heads of local congregations, “in coordination with appropriate state institutions,” notably the CRA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Foreigners may not register religious groups.
Local and foreign missionaries are required to register annually with the local executive body of a region or of the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent and provide information on their religious affiliation, intended territory of missionary work, and time period for conducting that work. Missionaries must submit all literature and other materials intended to support their missionary work together with their registration application. Use of materials not vetted during the registration process is illegal. A missionary must produce registration documents and a power of attorney from the sponsoring religious organization to work on its behalf. The local executive body of a region or the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent may refuse to register missionaries whose work is deemed to “constitute a threat to the constitutional order, social order, the rights and freedoms of individuals, or the health and morals of the population.”
The law does not provide for conscientious objection to mandatory military service on religious grounds, but the government has exempted Jehovah’s Witnesses from mandatory service.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, 24 Sunni Muslims were serving sentences connected to their religious activities or beliefs. Three Protestant Christians were given prison terms in absentia. Six individuals were serving “restricted freedom” sentences that consist of probation plus compulsory community service; such sentences could also include court-imposed restrictions on their freedom of movement. Sixteen individuals who had completed their prison terms were banned from religious activities.
Media reported that on January 27, the Almaly district court found Karlygash Adasbekova and Daria Nyshanova guilty of incitement of religious discord and supporting Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization banned by the government as extremist, through online posts to a WhatsApp chat group. During the trial, two witnesses withdrew their earlier testimony against the accused, and the witness who made the initial report that led to the Committee of National Security (KNB) investigation could not remember which WhatsApp posts he had cited in his report. Despite these discrepancies, the judge found the defendants guilty and sentenced each of them to five years of restricted freedom.
On January 21, the Supreme Court reviewed the Prosecutor General’s petition challenging the 2018 verdict in the case of Dadash Mazhenov and sent the case back to the appellate court for a new trial on the grounds that the expert who had analyzed Mazhenov’s online posts lacked the appropriate license and that the defense’s statements were not sufficiently verified. Mazhenov, a Sunni Muslim, was sentenced to seven years and eight months imprisonment in 2015 for supporting terrorism in online posts. On October 13, the appeals panel of the Akmola provincial court upheld the 2018 verdict against Mazhenov. In March, Mazhenov filed a complaint stating he was tortured for praying while held in a labor camp in the city of Shymkent in the summer of 2019. In May, the Coalition against Torture, a local NGO that monitors prisons and detention facilities, appointed a lawyer to advocate on Mazhenov’s behalf. The NGO noted that few prison torture cases ever reached court, with few officials found guilty.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that 23 Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors encountered difficulties in obtaining exemption from military service, although all cases were eventually resolved through dialogue with the authorities. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said that local enlistment officers initially considered the certificates issued by the recruits’ local religious communities to be insufficient evidence to exempt the young men. The communities then provided clarification of the applicants’ eligibility for exemption, as well as letters from the conscientious objectors formally asking to be released from military service.
Religious freedom observers consistently reported that authorities continued to use the religion law to harass and restrict minority religious groups with fines and limitations on their activities. Violations included attending worship meetings not approved by the state; offering, importing, or selling religious literature and pictures, including on the internet; sharing or teaching faith; and violating procedures for praying in mosques. The CRA reported 552 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2019, the latest data available.
During the year, authorities dropped the 2019 charges against the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) for conducting a religious event without prior permission from the local government. ISKCON had been charged after a 2019 police raid on an apartment in Atyrau.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, 63 members of the community were detained on charges of illegal missionary activity between January and October. Of these, 38 were given oral warnings, 14 were given written warnings, and 11 were taken to court for alleged violation of the religion law. Of those 11, nine were acquitted and two were found guilty and fined 277,800 tenge each ($660).
On March 15, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued a decree declaring a state of emergency to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of wide-ranging emergency restrictions, religious ceremonies were prohibited and the operations of mosques, churches, and other religious centers were temporarily suspended. On May 11, the state of emergency ended. Beginning May 18, mosques, churches, and other houses of worship were able to operate at 30 percent capacity and with other region-specific public health-related restrictions. Throughout the year, region-specific restrictions changed frequently in efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. At year end, large religious services (i.e., weddings and funerals) were still prohibited on public health grounds.
Religious minority groups stated that authorities used COVID-19 pandemic restrictions to discriminate against them. In April, courts in Karaganda Province found the pastors of three local evangelical Baptist communities liable for violation of the COVID-19 quarantine rules because they allowed parishioners to gather for Sunday services on March 29. The pastors were jailed for three days, and Pastor Dmitry Iantsen in Termirtau was fined 26,510 tenge ($63). The church leaders said the incidents were a result of the lack of clear rules on the allowed size of gatherings. The chief health inspector’s decrees prohibited mass gatherings, but without specifying how many participants constituted such a gathering. The churches said some lawyers and government officials defined 50 to 200 participants as a mass gathering. The pastors said they had taken precautions to prevent the spread of disease, including restricting the number of worshippers present.
On April 22, an evangelical Christian pastor from Shymkent affiliated with the New Life Church received a 10-day prison sentence for conducting missionary activity during the state of emergency. Church representatives said Pastor Zhetis Rauilov was called to a meeting at the mayor’s office by an employee of the local branch of the CRA on April 21 but went home when the official was not in the office, stopping at a supermarket on the way. Police then stopped him, searched his car, and detained him on suspicion of moving through the city to provide groceries to parishioners without permission. (Local restrictions required permission for delivering groceries, but not for simple grocery shopping close to home.) Rauilov said he believed his arrest was orchestrated by local authorities because it took place immediately following the aborted meeting at the mayor’s office. Rauilov served the sentence and was released.
On May 15, according to Forum 18, police raided a shopping center in Aktobe to enforce COVID-19-related restrictions on public gatherings four days after the national pandemic state of emergency had been lifted. The administrator of the shopping center, Gulnar Kurmangaliyeva, was fined 132,550 tenge ($310) for permitting an Islamic prayer room to operate in the shopping center, and authorities closed the prayer room for three months.
Authorities continued to charge individuals under the administrative code for holding unsanctioned religious meetings, offering religious literature for sale, and for other violations of the religion law.
On February 29, police detained Oleg Stepanenko and Nadezhda Smirnova, members of a Christian Evangelical Baptist church in Pavlodar Province, for unsanctioned distribution of religious literature. Local media described them as adherents of a “harmful” religious group. On March 2, the local court found them guilty of breaking the religion law and imposed administrative fines. Authorities also seized and destroyed approximately 200 religious books in their possession.
In September, media reported that the Kokshetau administrative court found an individual guilty of disseminating religious literature, for writing a social media advertisement for books CRA theologians deemed to contain banned extremist content. Government experts found the advertisement while monitoring social media. Police located and charged the author, who was fined 100,000 tenge ($240).
On March 29, Pavlodar police raided the house of worship of the Pavlodar Council of Evangelical Christians and charged a 66-year-old pastor with leading an unregistered religious group. On April 20, the Pavlodar administrative court found the pastor guilty and fined him 194,460 tenge ($460).
The international Christian NGO Open Doors cited the country on its World Watch List for the government’s control over religious expression in the country, including surveillance, raids on church meetings, and arrests. The NGO said Christians from a Muslim background bore the worst persecution.
The government maintained its policy of banning religious clothing in schools. The Ministry of Education and Science continued to prohibit headscarves in schools throughout the country during in-person instruction, but media reported the ban was not strictly enforced during online instruction necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Media reported on September 29 that according to the Aktobe Region Education Department, 11 students chose to study online at their own expense due to the government’s ban on wearing headscarves in schools.
According to Forum 18, some Muslims faced repeated questioning from law enforcement authorities about their faith.
According to CRA statistics for the first nine months of the year, there were 3,818 registered religious associations or branches thereof in the country, compared with 3,770 in 2019.
The government did not approve the registration of Muslim groups apart from those observing the Sunni Hanafi school, which the SAMK oversaw. All other schools of Islam remained unregistered and were officially unable to practice in the country, although religious leaders reported some Muslim communities continued to worship informally without government interference.
The MISD and the SAMK maintained an official agreement on cooperation, and NGOs continued to state this led to the government effectively exercising control over the nominally independent SAMK. By joining the SAMK, Muslim communities relinquished the right to appoint their own imams, subjected themselves to SAMK approval regarding any property actions (such as sales, transfers, or improvements), and were required to pay 30 percent of the mosque’s income to the SAMK. The SAMK also set the curriculum for religious education across the country and provided guidelines and sample texts for sermons during Friday prayers.
The SAMK continued to oversee the opening of new and restored mosques. According to the CRA, there were 2,684 mosques in the country, 46 more than reported in 2019, but the government and news media offered varying and occasionally inconsistent statistics about the number of mosques nationwide.
The SAMK continued to control the activities of all 2,684 formally registered Muslim groups affiliated with the Sunni Hanafi school and had authority over appointment of imams as well as over the administration of examinations and background checks for aspiring imams. The MISD continued to work closely with the SAMK on the training of imams, upgrading madrassahs to the status of degree-granting colleges, and controlling Hajj pilgrimages. The SAMK permitted imams to enroll in baccalaureate, masters, or doctoral programs offered at Nur Mubarak University’s Islamic Studies and Religious Studies departments based on their prior education levels. There were 11 schools for religious training of Sunni Hanafi imams, one for Roman Catholic clergy, and one for Russian Orthodox clergy.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community remained unregistered during the year; authorities denied the group reregistration for the sixth time in 2016. Government experts had previously concluded the community’s teachings were not Islamic and that it must remove the word “Muslim” from its registration materials. Community members reported that since they were not registered, they did not engage in any religious activity.
The Council of Baptist Churches stated it continued to refuse on principle to register under the law, in keeping with its policy of maintaining a distance from the government. Community representatives reported that authorities continued to closely monitor their meetings and travels and that police followed and surveilled them, as in prior years.
The Church of Scientology continued to function as a registered public association rather than as a religious organization. The government allowed the Church, as a public association, to maintain resource centers/libraries where members could read or borrow books and host discussions or meetings, but it did not allow the Church to engage in activity considered religious by the government.
Some religious minority groups faced attempts by local governments to seize their property. On September 17, the Almaty City Court upheld an earlier court decision to seize buildings of the New Life Church in Almaty. In 2019, the Almaty Specialized Interdistrict Court had convicted the Church’s three pastors, who fled the country, of using hypnotism and psychological manipulation to harm and defraud former parishioners, and it ordered the seizure of the Church’s property, including buildings, money, and computers. Neither the New Life Church leaders nor their attorney were present at the court hearing, which was held without their knowledge after the court agreed initially to postpone it. The Church immediately filed an appeal. Church representatives said they were particularly concerned about the seizure of two buildings used to support vulnerable individuals, and they expressed fears that some who lived in the buildings would have no place to go if the buildings were confiscated. At year’s end, the seizure of the buildings had been delayed, pending an appeal hearing.
On February 14, the Mayor of Nur-Sultan issued a decree confiscating land shared by the Presbyterian Grace Church and Pentecostal Agape Church in order to build a government-run kindergarten. The Churches lodged a lawsuit against the mayor’s office, but a city court ruled against the Churches on September 7, accepting the mayor’s countersuit that the seizure decree should be enforced. The judge also ordered the Churches to pay for a panel of experts – mostly officials from the mayor’s office – to assess the value of the property. The Churches appealed the decision, but their appeal was denied on December 12. At year’s end, the land had not been confiscated and the Churches were fighting the decree.
On January 21, two ethnic Kazakh Muslims, citizens of China, were convicted of illegally crossing the border from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China and sentenced to a year in prison. They served shorter sentences and were released. In October, these and another two previously convicted ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens were granted asylum on the grounds of credible fear of persecution if they returned to China.
In August, the government granted an exception to COVID-19 restrictions on public ceremonies to allow a Jewish group to travel to Almaty to mark the 76th anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Scheerson. The government designated the resting place a National Heritage Site.
The Church of Scientology reported that during the year, its members experienced harassment and intimidation by the authorities, including frivolous lawsuits and smear campaigns on national television, harassment, extrajudicial searches, destructive raids of their premises, and seizure of literature.
According to the Penitentiary Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all prisons continued to have dedicated specialists charged with creating programs to counter religious extremism, in accordance with a 2017 order issued by the Minister of Internal Affairs adding the position of “religious specialist” to prison staff as part of the State Program for Counteraction against Terrorism and Religious Extremism. Lawyers familiar with the program said most of the specialists lacked education or specialized training.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Observers and minority Christian religious communities again expressed concerns regarding negative articles and broadcasts about minority religious groups that the media regarded as “nontraditional.”
NGOs continued to report individuals were wary of “nontraditional” religious groups, particularly those that proselytized or whose dress or grooming, including Islamic headscarves and beards, indicated “nontraditional” beliefs. According to a survey by CRA conducted in 2019 and published in 2020, however, Kazakhstani society was increasingly receptive to those wearing religious clothes, particularly hijabs. In the survey, more than half of respondents (38.4 percent) approved of or were neutral (26.6 percent) to people wearing religious clothes, compared to 31.4 percent of respondents who had negative opinions of those wearing religious clothes.
According to NGO Open Doors, Christians from a Muslim background were persecuted by family, friends and their community.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Secretary of State, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, other senior U.S. government officials, and embassy officers met with senior government officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MISD, and CRA and advocated for the importance of respecting religious freedom. In January, the Secretary of State met with ethnic Kazakh Muslims whose family members had been detained in internment camps or prisons in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. The Secretary called for the release of all those arbitrarily detained and the end of the program of systematic surveillance and repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, bilateral discussions also took place on virtual platforms. As in previous years, U.S. officials raised concerns over the restrictive effects of the government’s implementation of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes on religious freedom. They also raised concerns about the inconsistent application of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes with regard to “nontraditional” versus “traditional” religious groups.
U.S. officials continued to encourage the government to respect individuals’ rights to peaceful expression of religious belief and free practice of religion in bilateral meetings and at meetings of the U.S-Kazakhstan International Religious Freedom Working Group in person in February and virtually in October. U.S. officials expressed concern about vaguely written laws that were broad in scope and lacked specific definition of legal terms that enabled authorities, particularly at the local level, to apply them in an arbitrary manner. They encouraged the government to eliminate burdensome registration requirements for religious communities and to take other steps to amend the religion law to increase the ability of believers to practice their faith. U.S. officials also raised concerns over anti-Semitic content in local media and encouraged fair and equal treatment for faith organizations in land disputes with the government. On social media, the embassy also engaged in outreach to urge respect for religious freedom.
Embassy officials visited houses of worship in several regions of the country and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities, their leaders, and religious freedom advocates in-person and online. They underscored the importance freedom of religion played in countering violent extremism, expressed concern about further restrictions on religious freedom, and encouraged reform of relevant laws and guidelines so all citizens could conduct peaceful religious activities freely, whether or not they were part of a registered religious group.
The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion and bans religious groups from undertaking actions inciting religious hatred. It establishes the separation of religion and state and prohibits pursuit of political goals by religious groups. The law requires all religious groups to register with the government and prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups. Authorities maintained bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups they considered extremist. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents of Tengrism, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continued to face difficulties registering as official religious groups. By year’s end, parliament did not take up amendments proposed to the religion law in 2019 by the State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA), which include a ban on door-to-door proselytizing. The SCRA continued to refuse to register local Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in the south of the country, despite a UN Human Rights Committee finding in 2019 that the law’s requirement that religious groups register with local councils in order to establish new places of worship was in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the constitution and despite an earlier Supreme Court decision finding the practice unconstitutional. The government did not always provide religious materials to prisoners convicted of affiliation with banned religious groups, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
According to Christian activists, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries. The SCRA-proposed solution, which would divide public cemeteries by religion so that all faith groups would have burial space, remained pending as of year’s end. There continued to be reports of threats of violence and other harassment of Christian minorities, including threats against family members in the case of Eldos Sattar uulu, who was attacked by his neighbors because of his Protestant beliefs.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers held mostly virtual meetings with government officials to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups, proposed revisions to the religion law, and violence against religious minorities. Embassy officers regularly met virtually with religious leaders, including representatives of the Grand Muftiate, and with representatives of NGOs to discuss tolerance and respect for religious groups, the law on terrorism and extremism, the ability of independent religious groups to register, and the rights of religious minorities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to government estimates, approximately 90 percent of the population is Muslim, the vast majority of whom are Sunni. The government estimates Shia make up less than 1 percent of the Muslim population. There is also a small Ahmadi Muslim community not reflected in government figures and estimated by an international organization at 1,000 individuals. According to government estimates, approximately 7 percent of the population is Christian, of which an estimated 40 percent is Russian Orthodox. Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, and unaffiliated groups together constitute approximately 3 percent of the population. Adherents of Tengrism, an indigenous religion, estimate there are 50,000 followers in the country.
According to the National Statistics Committee, in 2019 (most recent data available) ethnic Kyrgyz make up approximately 73 percent of the population, ethnic Uzbeks approximately 15 percent, and ethnic Russians approximately 6 percent. Both ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks are primarily Muslim. Ethnic Russians are primarily adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church or one of several Protestant denominations. Members of the Russian Orthodox Church and other non-Muslim religious groups live mainly in major cities.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion; the right to practice or not practice a religion, individually or jointly with other persons; and the right to refuse to express one’s religious views. It prohibits actions inciting religious hatred.
The constitution establishes the separation of religion and state. It prohibits the establishment of religiously based political parties and the pursuit of political goals by religious groups. The constitution prohibits the establishment of any religion as a state or mandatory religion.
The law states all religions and religious groups are equal. It prohibits “insistent attempts to convert followers of one religion to another” and “illegal missionary activity,” defined as missionary activity of groups not registered with the SCRA, a government organization composed of presidential appointees, which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the law’s provisions on religion. The law also prohibits the involvement of minors in organized, proselytizing religious groups unless a parent grants written consent.
The law requires all religious groups and religiously affiliated schools to register with the SCRA. The law prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups. Groups applying for registration must submit an application form, organizational charter, minutes of the organizing meeting, and a list of founding members. Each congregation of a religious group must register separately and must have at least 200 resident founding citizens. Foreign religious organizations are required to renew their registrations with the SCRA annually. The law also requires that religious groups register with local councils to establish new places of worship, despite a 2016 Supreme Court decision that nullified this section of the law.
The SCRA is legally authorized to deny the registration of a religious group if it does not comply with the law or is considered a threat to national security, social stability, interethnic and interdenominational harmony, public order, health, or morality. The SCRA may also deny or postpone the registration of a particular religious group if it deems the proposed activities of the group are not religious in character. Denied applicants may reapply at any time or may appeal to the courts. The law prohibits unregistered religious groups from actions such as renting space and holding religious services. Violations may result in an administrative fine of 500 som ($6).
After the SCRA has approved a group’s registration as a religious entity, the group must register with the Ministry of Justice to obtain status as a legal entity so it may own property, open bank accounts, and otherwise engage in contractual activities. The organization must submit an application to the ministry that includes a group charter with an administrative structure and a list of board and founding members. If a religious group engages in a commercial activity, it is required to pay taxes. By law, religious groups are designated as NGOs exempt from taxes on their religious activities.
The law gives the SCRA authority to ban a religious group in cases where courts concur that a religious organization has undermined the security of the state; undertaken actions aimed at forcibly changing the foundations of the constitutional system; created armed forces or propaganda advocating war or terrorism; engaged in the encroachment on the rights of citizens or obstruction of compulsory education of children; coerced members to remit their property to the religious group; or encouraged citizens to refuse to fulfil their civil obligations and break the law. The group may appeal the decision in the courts.
The constitution prohibits religious groups from “involvement in organizational activities aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred.” A conviction for inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a prison term of three to eight years, while a conviction for creating an organization aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a prison term of five to 10 years. Conviction for murder committed on the grounds of religious hatred is punishable by life imprisonment.
The law mandates separate prison facilities for prisoners convicted of terrorism and “extremism.” The law also allows for stripping the citizenship of any Kyrgyz national found to have trained to acquire skills to commit terrorist or extremist crimes outside the country. The law defines “extremist activity” as including the violent overthrow of the constitutional order; undermining the security of the country; violence or inciting violence on racial, national, or religious grounds; propagating the symbols or paraphernalia of an extremist organization; carrying out mass riots or vandalism based on ideological, political, racial, national, or religious hatred or enmity; and hate speech or hostility toward any social group.
According to the law, only individuals representing registered religious organizations may conduct missionary activity. If a foreign missionary represents an organization approved by the SCRA, the individual must apply for a visa with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Visas are valid for up to one year, and a missionary is allowed to work three consecutive years in the country. All foreign religious entities, including missionaries, must operate within these restrictions and must reregister annually. Representatives of religious groups acting inconsistently with the law may be fined or deported. Violations of the law may result in fines of 1,000 som ($12), and deportation in the case of foreign missionaries.
The law provides for the right of religious groups to produce, import, export, and distribute religious literature and materials in accordance with established procedures, which may include examination by state experts. The law does not require government examination of religious materials (such as literature and other printed or audio or video materials), and it does not define the criteria for state religious experts. The law prohibits the distribution of religious literature and materials in public locations or in visits to individual households, schools, and other institutions. The law specifies fines based on the nature of the violations. The law requires that law enforcement officials to demonstrate an intent to distribute extremist materials to arrest a suspect.
The law allows public schools an option to offer religion courses that discuss the history and character of religions, as long as the subject of such teaching is not religious doctrine and does not promote any particular religion. Private religious schools need to register with SCRA to operate as such.
According to the law, religion is grounds for conscientious objection to and exemption from military service. Conscientious objectors must pay a fee of 18,000 som ($220) to opt out of military service. Draft-eligible males must pay the fee before turning 27 years of age. Failure to pay by the age limit requires the person to perform 108 hours of community service or pay a fine of 25,000 som ($300). If males are unable to serve due to family circumstances and have not paid by the age limit, they must pay 18,000 som ($220). Draft-eligible men who evade military service and do not fall under an exemption are subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to two years. It is obligatory to serve in the military for 12 months, although the law provides for alternative forms of community service. Religious groups are not exempt from this law, and members must pay to opt out of military service.
The country is a party to the ICCPR.
The government maintained its bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups it considered to be extremist, including al-Qaida, the Taliban, Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkistan, Kurdish Peoples’ Congress, Organization for the Release of Eastern Turkistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Union of Islamic Jihad, Islamic Party of Turkistan, Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Takfir Jihadist, Jaysh al-Mahdi, Jund al-Khilafah, Ansarullah, At-Takfir Val Hidjra, Akromiya, ISIS, Djabhat An Nusra, Katibat al-Imam al-Buhari, Jannat Oshiqlari, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Yakyn Incar. Authorities also continued to ban all materials or activities connected to the Chechen Islamist militant leader A.A. Tihomirov (aka Said Buryatsky), whose activities and materials the Bishkek District Court deemed to be extremist in 2014.
During the year, the government continued to arrest members of the pan-Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir on extremism charges. According to local press, the government arrested 13 alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir during the first six months of the year. In most cases, the arrestees were detained in the State Committee for National Security’s (GKNB) pretrial detention center that housed violent extremists.
According to human rights NGOs, religious extremism arrests dropped significantly after the change to extremism laws in 2019 that removed provisions allowing the arrest of individuals for possessing materials deemed extremist. Official government statistics to corroborate this were not available. According to a human rights NGO that tracks these cases, in eight of 12 confirmed arrests on extremism charges during the year, charges were dropped after courts found there was insufficient evidence under the revised law. Extremist incidents were defined as membership in a banned “religiously oriented” organization, distribution of literature associated with a banned organization, and proselytizing on behalf of or financing a banned organization. Despite the change in the extremism laws, NGOs reported that the government arrested social media users who shared or liked digital content that the government considered extremist, especially religious literature connected to banned groups, in a shift away from arrests for possessing physical media. The NGOs noted that arrests were centered on ethnic Uzbek communities in the south.
Leadership of the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that on September 3, the leadership of the SCRA hosted a local television program with members of the Russian Orthodox Church and a local Muslim cleric in which the SCRA participant repeatedly said that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were extremists.
Ethnic Uzbeks said that police continued to target and harass them, usually in connection with the possession of banned religious literature or support of banned organizations, which they said was based on false testimony or planted evidence. Unlike in 2019, there were no reports of government officials visiting Christian churches to demand to see their financial records.
There were reports that police and prosecutors continued to threaten members of Eldos Sattar uulu’s family with violence or arrest. Sattar uulu, a Protestant, returned to the country during the year after fleeing in 2018 due to being threatened because of his faith.
Parliament continued to consider draft amendments to the religion law submitted by the SCRA in 2019 but did not take action before year’s end. The amendments would ban on door-to-door proselytizing, require notification to the government prior to undertaking religious education abroad, and maintain the 200-member minimum for registration as a religious organization, which would restrict registered organizations from creating smaller filial branches across the country.
As of September, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that the SCRA continued to refuse to register local houses of worship, based on a provision of law requiring religious groups to register with local councils to establish new places of worship. The requirement remained in effect despite a finding by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2019 that it was in violation of Article 18 of the ICCPR and the constitution, and a Supreme Court ruling in 2016 that the requirement was unconstitutional.
Jehovah’s Witnesses’ representatives stated that the SCRA and other government organizations continued to use spurious applications of the law to prevent them from establishing new congregations. On January 20, the Jehovah’s Witnesses community reapplied for registration of their local houses of worship. Their 2019 request had been denied by the SCRA. The SCRA rejected the January application, “in order to avoid a threat to social stability, interfaith harmony, and public order.” On May 28, the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a lawsuit with the Bishkek administrative court, citing the SCRA’s insistence on using a provision of the law that had been deemed unconstitutional. On June 24, the court returned the claim without consideration, accepting the SCRA’s argument that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had not exhausted the administrative appeal process. On July 14, the community filed an appeal of the initial decision with the SCRA. The SCRA rejected this appeal, stating that it was not submitted in a timely manner. On July 24, the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a second suit against the SCRA in the Bishek administrative court, after which the SCRA announced that it was suspending consideration of the registration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregations due to the lawsuit. On November 12, the Supreme Court upheld the Bishkek court ruling, accepting the SCRA argument that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had not exhausted the administrative process and thus could not appeal the SCRA decision in court. With the court’s ruling, the SCRA’s rejection of the Jehovah’s Witnesses application became final.
Religious groups continued to report the SCRA registration process was cumbersome, taking anywhere from one month to several years to complete, even when successful. One group reported that the SCRA had not registered it after five years of attempts. Some unregistered groups continued to report they were able to hold regular religious services without government interference, especially foreign religious organizations that had been registered in the past and had an annual application for reregistration pending. The SCRA reported it registered 112 mosques, 11 Christian churches (no information provided on denominations), 38 religious schools, and 28 religious organizations through October. The SCRA also reported that there were 2,662 registered mosques, two registered Islamic universities, 141 registered madrassas, and 77 registered Islamic foundations in the country.
Although the government continued not to list the Ahmadi Muslim Community as a banned organization, a representative of the group again stated it still had not obtained registration. The community initially registered in 2002, but the SCRA declined to approve its reregistration every year since 2012, including again in 2020. The SCRA has also refused to register Tengrism as a religion since 2013, declaring that government theologians said Tengrism is a philosophical movement and not a religion.
While the law does not require examination of all religious literature and materials, religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated the SCRA required that they submit 100 percent of their imported religious material for review. According to Jehovah’s Witness representatives, the SCRA continued its practice of having individuals designated by the SCRA as experts examine imported religious materials submitted for review by religious organizations, although the law did not mandate such a review. There continued to be no specific procedure for hiring or evaluating the experts who examined the religious literature that groups wished to distribute within their places of worship. According to religious studies academics, the SCRA continued to choose its own employees or religious scholars whom the agency contracted to serve as the experts. Attorneys for religious groups continued to say the experts chosen by the SCRA were biased in favor of prosecutors and were not formal experts under the criminal procedure code. The State Forensic Service, with support from SCRA on religious matters, screened the content of websites, printed material, and other forms of media for extremist content.
NGOs working in prison reform and countering violent extremism continued to report that laws mandating separate facilities for prisoners convicted of terrorism and extremism were often poorly implemented. NGOs reported that violent extremists were not separated from inmates who were incarcerated for lesser crimes, including simple possession of extremist materials, which they said could lead to radicalization of other populations in the prisons. The government announced that it would review old convictions for possession of such materials, but there were no reports it had actually done so. NGOs reported that prison authorities required religious literature other than the Quran or hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammed) to be approved by the Muftiate.
According to representatives of religious groups, refusal either to serve or to pay a fee to opt out of military service continued to subject a conscientious objector to hardship, because military service remained a prerequisite for employment in the government and with many private employers.
According to Christian activists, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries. A government policy announced in 2017 to address this problem by dividing public cemeteries by religion so that all faith groups would have burial space had not been implemented as of year’s end. According to the SCRA, the draft policy was approved by relevant government agencies and was undergoing revisions before implementation.
The SCRA held an interfaith dialogue forum in January, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented subsequent forums during the year. The event included Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Baha’i participants as well as civil society representatives, local authorities, and officials from the Ministry of Interior and the GKNB. As in previous years, the forum focused on religious tolerance, cooperation, and mutual understanding among representatives of religious communities as well as between the state and religious organizations, including a specific focus on religious communities outside of the capital.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to civil society activists, incidents of harassment of minority religious groups continued to occur in small towns and villages with majority Kyrgyz populations. In January, Eldos Sattar uulu, who fled to Ukraine in 2018 because of attacks against his Protestant faith, returned to the country, but not to his village of Tamchi, out of fear of reprisal from community members due to his decision to go to the media after the attacks against him. Sattar uulu returned after a reported settlement between his attackers and his family in which he agreed to not prosecute his attackers in exchange for his family’s safety. According to observers from the area, the settlement was likely due to continuing threats against Sattar uulu’s parents.
On March 18, the Muftiate suspended Friday prayers and Islamic proselytization (dawah) due to COVID-19. The Grand Mufti, Maksat Azi Toktomushev, encouraged Muslims to pray at home and maintain social distancing. On August 26, the Muftiate lifted those restrictions as long as mosques followed anti-COVID-19 protocols.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Before pandemic restrictions were imposed, the Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials, including the SCRA deputy chief and high-ranking officials in the Grand Muftiate, to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups, proposed revisions to the religion law, and violence against religious minorities. In November, an embassy officer met with SCRA officials to discuss plans for legislation in 2021, including proposed amendments to the Law on Religion, as well as how the new government planned to approach longstanding issues, including religious intolerance.
Embassy officers continued to engage with representatives of the Muftiate, leaders of minority religions, NGOs, and civil society representatives to discuss the law on terrorism and extremism, the ability of independent religious groups to register, and the rights of religious minorities. Throughout the year, these interactions were significantly reduced due to the pandemic, although embassy staff continued to interact with contacts virtually. The Ambassador also met virtually with members of religious communities, including representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Baptist and Evangelical Unions of Kyrgyzstan, and discussed religious registration, interreligious relations, and religious extremism.
The constitution protects the right of individuals to practice their religion and states religious groups are autonomous. The law cites the “exceptional importance” of Orthodox Christianity. Minority religious groups and civil society said authorities continued to favor the Moldovan Orthodox Church (MOC). On multiple occasions, particularly during the presidential election campaign, President Igor Dodon expressed his support for Orthodox Christianity. The Union of Pentecostal Churches said it remained unable to obtain a zoning permit from local government officials for a building it used for religious services in Copceac village but was able to obtain a permit for a newly built church in Scoreni village. At least 285 of 1,441 Orthodox churches continued to hold services in contravention of a government public health decree in March banning all public gatherings from March to May. In March, the Supreme Court of Justice reversed a government decision to dissolve the Falun Dafa and Falun Gong Associations. The two groups reregistered, but the Ministry of Justice retained the Falun symbol on its register of extremist material, in contravention of a 2019 court decision. Religious minorities reported no progress in obtaining government restitution or compensation for property confiscated prior to the country’s independence in 1992. The Bessarabian Orthodox Church (BOC) said the Public Services Agency (PSA) illegally registered an MOC religious community in a BOC-owned church. In December, the Chisinau Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the BOC and annulled agreements by which the government had transferred more than 800 monasteries and churches to the MOC for indefinite “protection and use.” The Islamic League said law enforcement was conducting an “unprecedented” investigation of its finances.
In the separatist Transnistria Region, Jehovah’s Witnesses said they remained unable to reregister as a religious organization, but, unlike in past years, there were no reports de facto authorities conscripted Jehovah’s Witnesses or forced them to engage in defense-related civilian service contrary to their beliefs. The Muslim community was unable to secure a site for a mosque after receiving a permit for one in 2019.
There were instances of vandalism and online hate speech against minority religious groups. In July, an unidentified person tried to set fire to a Pentecostal church by throwing a Molotov cocktail through a window. The Jewish Community of Moldova (JCM) reported anti-Semitic rhetoric on the internet, the hijacking of a Jewish religious website, and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries in Chisinau, Orhei, and Balti. The BOC reported frequent harassment by the MOC as well as local officials in several communities. Unlike in previous years, other minority religious groups did not cite specific instances of discrimination or harassment, a change they attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and their reduced communal activities.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials urged the government and parliament to advance initiatives to establish a Jewish heritage museum. The Ambassador spoke at a government-hosted commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in January, noting the importance of ensuring such an atrocity is never repeated. The Ambassador welcomed progress on the national action plan for implementing the Wiesel Commission Report’s recommendations and voiced support for further progress on Holocaust education. The Ambassador and other senior embassy staff urged the de facto authorities in Transnistria to respect the rights of religious minorities. The Ambassador held virtual meetings with religious leaders to encourage respect and tolerance for all religious groups, including during the fall presidential election. Embassy officials also discussed respect for religious freedom and enhanced interfaith cooperation with representatives of various religious groups throughout the year.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 3.4 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2014 census, which does not include Transnistria, the predominant religion is Orthodox Christianity, with 90 percent of the population belonging to one of two Orthodox Christian Churches. Of Orthodox adherents, approximately 90 percent belong to the MOC, which is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church, and the remaining 10 percent belong to the BOC, which falls under the Romanian Orthodox Church. Nearly 7 percent of the population did not identify a religious affiliation. The largest non-Orthodox religious groups, accounting for 15,000 to 30,000 adherents each, are Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostals. Estimates of the Jewish population vary widely, ranging from 1,600 to 30,000 persons. According to the JCM, there are approximately 20,000 Jews in the country. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Seventh-day Adventists, evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Muslims, and atheists.
Smaller religious groups include Baha’is, Molokans, Messianic Jews, Presbyterians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), the Salvation Army, the Evangelical Christian Church, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), other Christians, Falun Gong, and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
In the separatist Transnistria region, the de facto authorities estimate 80 percent of the population belongs to the MOC. Other religious groups in the region include Catholics, followers of Old Rite Russian Orthodoxy, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, evangelical and charismatic Christians, Jews, Lutherans, Muslims, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates the state shall recognize and guarantee all citizens the right to preserve, develop, and express their religious identity. It provides for equal treatment for all citizens regardless of religion and guarantees freedom of conscience, manifested in “a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect,” and of religious worship. It stipulates religious groups are independent from the state and free to organize and operate according to their own statutes. The constitution prohibits all religious groups, in their mutual relationships, from using, expressing, or inciting hatred or enmity. The constitution stipulates the state shall support religious worship, including facilitating religious assistance in the army, hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, and orphanages.
The law states every person has the right to belong or not belong to a religion, to have or not have individual beliefs, to change religion or beliefs, and to practice religion or beliefs independently or as a group, in public or in private, through teaching, religious practices, or rituals. According to the law, religious freedom may be restricted only if necessary to ensure public order and security, to protect public health and morality, or to protect a person’s rights and freedoms. The law also prohibits discrimination based on religious affiliation.
The law stipulates that the state recognizes the “exceptional importance and fundamental role” of Orthodox Christianity, and particularly the MOC, in the life, history, and culture of the country.
The law does not require religious groups to register, and members of unregistered groups may worship freely. However, only registered religious groups possess status as legal entities, allowing them to build houses of worship, own land for cemeteries or other property, publish or import religious literature, open bank accounts, or employ staff. Registration also exempts registered religious groups from land taxes and property taxes and allows them to establish associations and foundations. The law permits local, registered religious groups to change their denominational affiliation or dissolve themselves.
The law allows individuals to redirect 2 percent of their income tax to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or religious groups. Religious groups wanting to benefit from the provision must be officially registered and active for a minimum of one year before applying for the income tax benefit; register with the government’s PSA; use the funds received only for social, moral, cultural, and/or charitable activities and certain administrative costs; and present reports on the use of the funds. The law exempts religious organizations from registration fees and from paying tax on the income received as donations under the 2 percent law.
Under the law, a religious group wishing to register must present to the PSA a declaration including its exact name, fundamental principles of belief, organizational structure, scope of activities, financing sources, and rights and obligations of membership. The law also requires a group to show it has at least 100 founding members. A religious group must present proof it has access to premises where it can conduct religious activities, but it does not need to own this property. The PSA is required by law to register a religious group within 15 days if the registration request is made according to law. The applicant may request an extension if the government determines the documentation submitted is insufficient.
Under the law, the Ministry of Justice has the right to request a suspension of the registered status of a religious group if it “carries out activities that harm the constitution or laws” or “affects state security, public order, [or] the life and security of the people.” The law also provides for suspension or revocation of a religious group’s registration in case of violation of international agreements or for political activity.
The law prohibits religious entities from engaging in political activity or “abusive proselytism,” defined as the action of changing religious beliefs through coercion.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious education and stipulates the state educational system should be secular. According to the law, religion classes in state educational institutions are optional. Students may submit a written request to a school’s administration to enroll in a religion class. Religion classes are offered in grades one through nine. The religious curriculum offers two types of courses: one for Orthodox denominations and Roman Catholics, and the second for evangelical Christians and Seventh-day Adventists. The religious curriculum for Orthodox and Catholic groups derives from instructional manuals developed by the Ministry of Education with input from the MOC and includes teaching guidelines developed with the support of the BOC. Regular teachers and MOC and BOC priests teach these optional courses, which focus on Orthodox Christianity. Regular teachers and representatives of the Evangelical Christian Church teach the second course, which is based on religious manuals and literature from Romania, the United States, and Germany.
The law mandates immunization of all children before they may enroll in kindergarten. It does not provide an exception for religious reasons.
The Anti-Discrimination Council, established by law, is an independent institution charged with reviewing complaints of discrimination, including discrimination of a religious character or based on religious affiliation. Parliament chooses council members through a competitive process, appointing them to five-year terms. The council does not have sanctioning powers; however, it may determine if an act of discrimination took place, offer advice on a remedy, and request prosecutors to initiate criminal proceedings. It may also suggest pertinent legislative amendments or participate in working groups authoring legislative initiatives.
According to the law, male citizens between the ages of 18 and 27 have the right to choose alternative civilian service over military service if the latter runs counter to their religious beliefs. Those who choose civilian service may complete it at public institutions or enterprises specializing in areas such as social assistance, health care, industrial engineering, urban planning, road construction, environmental protection, agriculture or agricultural processing, town management, and fire rescue. There are no blanket exemptions for religious groups from alternative civilian service, but higher-ranking clergy, monks, and theology students are exempted from such service. Refusal to enroll in civilian service is punishable by a fine up to 32,500 lei ($1,900) or between 100 and 150 hours of community service, and those punished are still obliged to enroll in civilian service.
The law mandates restoration of rights and compensation for material damages for victims of the totalitarian regimes that controlled Moldovan territory between 1917 and 1992 and for citizens who were subject to reprisals based on political, national, religious, or social grounds. The law specifically refers to private property restoration for victims of the Soviet regime but makes no mention of Holocaust-era property confiscations. The law does not apply to communal property confiscated from religious groups.
The law defines as “extremist” and makes illegal any document or information justifying war crimes or the complete or partial annihilation of a religious or other societal group, as well as any document calling for or supporting activities in pursuit of those goals.
Foreign missionaries may submit work contracts or volunteer agreements to apply for temporary residency permits and may reside and work in paid status or as unpaid volunteers. Only missionaries working with registered religious groups may apply for temporary residency permits. Foreign religious workers with these permits must register with the National Agency for Employment and the Bureau for Migration and Asylum. They must present documents confirming the official status of the registered religious group for which they will work, papers confirming their temporary residence, and proof of valid local health insurance. Other foreign missionaries belonging to registered religious groups may remain for 90 days on a tourist visa.
In separatist Transnistria, Transnistrian “law” affirms the special role of the Orthodox Church in the region’s culture and spirituality. The de facto law “recognizes respect” for Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and other religious groups historically present in the region. All religious groups, whether registered or not, officially have freedom to worship, but the “law” permits restrictions on the right to freedom of conscience and religion “if necessary to protect the constitutional order, morality, health, citizens’ rights and interests, or state defense and security.” Foreign citizens also have the freedom to worship.
Transnistrian “law” prohibits proselytizing in private homes and limits distribution of religious literature to houses of worship and special premises designated by the authorities. It requires the reregistration of religious groups to operate legally in the region and stipulates groups that failed to reregister by the end of 2010 are “subject to liquidation.” The region’s registration body registers religious groups and monitors their adherence to the goals and activities set forth in their statutes. Registration provides several advantages to religious groups, including the ability to own and build places of worship, open religious schools, conduct religious services in penitentiary institutions, and publish literature.
To register, a local religious group must present the following: proof of activity in the region for at least 10 years; a list of at least 10 members aged 18 years or older, who have Transnistrian “citizenship” and permanent residence in one of the seven administrative-territorial units in the region; a list of founders and governing members and their personal details; the charter, statutes, and minutes of its constituent assembly; basic religious doctrine; contact details of its governing body; and a receipt indicating payment of the registration fee. Local religious groups may also register as part of a centralized religious organization, which must consist of at least three local religious groups that have previously registered separately as legal entities. In that case, their application must additionally include a copy of the registration papers of the centralized organization. Central religious organizations must inform the registration authority on a yearly basis about intentions to extend their activities.
De facto authorities must decide to register a religious group within 30 days of the application. If they decide to conduct a “religious assessment” – a law enforcement investigation of the group’s background and activities – registration may be postponed for up to six months or denied if investigating authorities determine the group poses a threat to the security or morality of the region or if foreign religious groups are involved in its activities.
According to the “law,” foreign religious groups may not register or undertake religious activities. Foreigners may only worship individually; they may not be founders or members of religious groups.
Religious groups disband on their own decision or upon a “court’s” decision. The “prosecutor’s office” or the region’s de facto executive, city, or district authorities may request the courts to disband or suspend a religious group on multiple grounds. Such grounds include the following: disturbing public order or violating public security; conducting extremist activities; coercing persons into breaking up their families; infringing on citizens’ identity, rights, and freedoms; violating citizens’ morality and well-being; using psychotropic substances, drugs, hypnosis, or perverse activities during religious activities; encouraging suicide or the refusal of medical treatment for religious reasons; obstructing compulsory education; using coercion for alienation of property to the benefit of the religious community; and encouraging refusal to fulfill civic duties.
The “law” allows the use of private homes and apartments to hold religious services. It does not, however, allow religious groups to use homes and apartments as their officially registered addresses. The “law” also allows such groups to hold religious services and rituals in public places, such as hospitals, clinics, orphanages, geriatric homes, and prisons.
De facto authorities screen and may ban the import or export of religious printed materials, audio and video recordings, and other religious items.
According to the “law,” citizens have the right to choose alternative civilian service over military service if the latter contradicts an individual’s religion and beliefs. The government prioritizes alternative civilian service in armed forces units, so it may assign conscientious objectors to perform their civilian service in military units. Another alternative is service at institutions subordinate to the “executive bodies of the state or local administration.”
De facto authorities do not allow religious groups to participate in elections or other political party activities or to support NGOs involved in elections.
Moldova is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During the year, the PSA registered all 29 religious entities – all that applied – consisting of new religious subgroups belonging to existing religious denominations, including the Baptist Church, MOC, BOC, Evangelical Church, and Union of Pentecostal Churches.
On March 25, the Supreme Court of Justice reversed the government’s decision to dissolve the Falun Gong and Falun Dafa Associations. The two associations shared the same founders and members. The government’s decision was based on first instance (trial) and appellate courts’ findings, the first from 2013, that the associations violated the law against extremism by using the swastika – based on Buddhist and Chinese tradition – as symbols. In September, the Falun Gong and Falun Dafa Associations were able to reregister with the PSA.
On September 17 and December 10, Falun Dafa members protested in front of the Ministry of Justice, requesting the enforcement of the 2019 Supreme Court of Justice ruling to remove the Falun symbol from the register of materials of extremist nature. At year’s end, the government had not removed the symbol from the register. Two cases filed by the Falun Dafa Association before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) remained pending at year’s end. One sought compensation for the government’s prior decision to dissolve the two associations, and the other sought compensation for the authorities’ 2010 cancelation of a performance by Shen Yun Performing Arts, a Falun Gong-affiliated performance group from New York, reportedly because of pressure from the Chinese government. In 2019, the ECHR asked the government and Falun Dafa to try to reach an agreement on compensation in the two cases, but the two parties had not agreed to a settlement by year’s end. In December, Falun Dafa submitted a new case to the ECHR, alleging a violation of the right to peaceful assembly after the Chisinau mayor’s office denied the group members permission to hold a rally during the visit of a Chinese delegation in 2017. Falun Dafa had exhausted all legal remedies pertaining to the case in local courts.
In October, BOC representatives accused the PSA of illegally registering a church belonging to the BOC in Dereneu village, Calarasi Region, under the MOC’s authority. BOC officials stated the church in Dereneu had been a subject of dispute between the MOC and BOC since 2017, when the parish and parishioners decided to switch legally and canonically from the MOC to the BOC. According to BOC Secretary Andrei Buclis, upon a request submitted by Dereneu Mayor Vasile Revenco and several MOC parish councilors in August, the PSA reregistered the church in the absence of a protocol signed by the community members in violation of the law, which made possible the transfer of the Dereneu church to the MOC’s authority. The BOC also stated the PSA made the change upon consulting with the MOC several days after it had agreed to reactivate the Dereneu church under the BOC.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Chisinau said it had sent a number of letters to the government complaining that the registration law provisions pertaining to the organization of religious groups was incompatible with Catholic canon law. The rector of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Chisinau, Father Petru Ciobanu, stated that canon law grants bishops the authority to organize new parishes and appoint priests, while Moldovan law requires that newly registered religious communities be created through the initiative of community members, with leadership chosen by the members. The diocese said the issue remained unresolved at year’s end.
The JCM said the government did not properly maintain most Jewish cemeteries across the country or protect them from acts of vandalism. The community also stated that some of the government work conducted in 2018-19 to rehabilitate the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau, one of the largest in Europe with more than 40,000 graves, significantly damaged the tombstones and the cemetery’s fence. In August, the JCM sent a request to the Office of the Prosecutor General to investigate work that it said “caused large-scale damages, including the destruction and vandalism of tombstones, which are monuments of cultural and religious value” and how more than 13 million lei ($761,000) in public funds for the cemetery renovation were spent. On November 27, the Office of the Prosecutor General decided not to open a criminal case regarding the cemetery renovation spending, citing a lack of elements constituting a crime, a decision the JCM said it planned to challenge.
The project announced by the government in 2018 to open a Jewish museum that would include the Jewish cemetery and a Yad Vashem-style Jewish historical and cultural center in Chisinau remained on hold at year’s end following disagreement between the JCM, the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research, and the Chisinau mayor’s office over the museum location and concept. According to the JCM, work on the cemetery stopped in January 2019 and work on the museum had not yet started at year’s end.
In reaction to vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in Chisinau, Orhei, and Balti, the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research, which oversees the Jewish museum and cultural center project, announced the installation of video surveillance equipment at the cemetery in Chisinau to prevent similar incidents in the future. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration condemned the vandalism at the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau, stating “the destruction of Jewish gravestones and monuments is a barbaric attack not only on the memory of the Jews… but is also challenging the entire Moldovan society.” On December 4, parliament enacted amendments to the criminal code, increasing penalties for “acts of vandalism and desecration of tombs, monuments or places revered by persons belonging to various religious groups” to up to two years’ imprisonment or 180-240 hours of community service and a maximum fine of 47,500 lei ($2,800).
On July 21, JCM President Alexandr Bilinkis, Cahul Regional Council President Marcel Cenusa, Cahul mayor Nicolae Dandis, and State Secretary for Culture Andrei Chistol officiated at the opening of a memorial to Holocaust victims in Cahul. The memorial was erected on the site of a former ghetto where the Nazis detained more than 1,000 Jews and carried out killings in 1941-44. In a message sent on the occasion, Prime Minister Ion Chicu encouraged authorities to include a chapter about the Holocaust in the school curriculum so that “children could learn about the horrors of this unjust war.”
Leaders of the Islamic League stated that, starting in August, the Police National Investigations Inspectorate conducted “unprecedented” investigations of the league’s finances and assets. Law enforcement officers interviewed and requested documents from the Islamic League’s president, Imam Sergiu Sochira, and were reportedly investigating the source of funds the league used for the 2010 purchase of the building that houses the Chisinau Mosque. Law enforcement requested the names and contact information for all the persons who donated money to buy the building. The investigations were underway at year’s end.
Unlike previous years, minority religious groups did not report obstacles obtaining construction permits for houses of worship from local authorities, as most construction was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government again rejected the Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran communities’ attempts to regain title to property confiscated during the Soviet era or to obtain similar properties. In contrast, the MOC continued to have use of and exercise control over most confiscated “historic” religious properties under an agreement with the Ministry of Culture, but the government retained title to the properties. On December 30, after more than 10 years of litigation, the Chisinau Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the BOC’s suit challenging the 2003 agreement, annulling it and the 2008 lease agreement between the Ministry of Culture and MOC that transferred more than 800 monasteries and churches held as national heritage monuments from the state to the MOC for “indefinite use and protection.” The decision was subject to appeal within 30 days. According to the BOC’s lawyer, if the decision stood, the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research would be obliged to sign separate agreements with individual religious communities for the use of each property.
A property dispute case the Roman Catholic Church filed against the government before the ECHR in 2012 remained pending. The property, currently part of the Presidency building complex, was a Catholic school nationalized by the Soviet regime. The ECHR’s requests for information on the government’s position on the case or the possibility of reaching an amicable settlement remained unanswered.
Jehovah’s Witness leaders reported that several cases related to obtaining zoning permits for Kingdom Halls remained underway. On June 26, the Vulcanesti City Court dismissed a fine that the chief architect (urban planner) of Ceadir-Lunga had issued in 2018 against Jehovah’s Witnesses for unauthorized construction (building without a permit). The Supreme Court had already ruled in 2018 that the group had a valid permit, allowing it to complete the construction and use the building as a place of worship.
The Union of Pentecostal Churches successfully obtained a zoning permit from local authorities for its newly built church in Scoreni village, Straseni Region. New local council members elected in October 2019 issued a permit in 2020, reversing a 2019 local council rejection of the Church’s initial request.
The Union of Pentecostal Churches stated that it remained unable to obtain a zoning permit for a building in Copceac village it bought in 2006 and used for religious services. While the Comrat Court ruled in favor of granting a zoning permit for the building in March, local authorities did not comply with the ruling and insisted that the church be moved to a different location in the village. The Pentecostal Church sued the local authorities, but in August the Comrat Court dismissed the case. In September, the Church appealed the dismissal to the Comrat Court of Appeals. At year’s end, the case was pending. The Church continued to use the building for religious services.
Local authorities continued to refuse to carry out a 2010 court ruling that ordered the issuance of a zoning permit for a Pentecostal Church prayer house built in Pirlita village, Falesti Region. In February, in a secret vote that the Church said violated the law, village councilors again rejected the enforcement of the 2010 court ruling. On October 6, the Pentecostal Church filed an appeal requesting the Falesti court to provide the reasons for its failure to enforce the ruling for more than 10 years. On November 13, the court dismissed the case, stating that the 2010 court ruling was clear and it was the bailiff’s duty to ensure its enforcement. In December, the bailiff sent a request to the local authorities in Pirlita to enforce the 2010 decision. Local authorities postponed examination of the request to 2021. The Church continued to use the prayer house for worship despite the lack of a permit.
The MOC continued to maintain a network of social assistance sites, including day-care centers and temporary shelters within churches and monasteries, and provide spiritual guidance and services to police officers, state workers, and prison inmates. Other registered religious groups had access to state facilities upon request.
According to minority religious groups, including the JCM, the Islamic League, the Baptist and Pentecostal Churches, and civil society groups such as the Promo-LEX Association, authorities continued to exhibit preferential treatment toward the MOC compared with other religious groups. The government invited MOC priests to officiate at state-sponsored events and major holidays. For example, on Chisinau City Day in October, MOC Metropolitan Vladimir officiated at the ceremonies along with President Dodon and Mayor Ion Ceban. On a few occasions, the government also invited BOC leaders to official events, such as ceremonies at schools marking the opening of the academic year. The new presidential administration invited the MOC, BOC, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, and other religious leaders to the swearing-in ceremony of President Maia Sandu on December 24.
In December 2019 and January 2020, the Hincesti City Court dismissed two fines of 750 lei ($44) each that authorities had levied on a Jehovah’s Witness couple on charges of obstructing religious freedom by insulting religious feelings. Authorities had issued the fine after a complaint by a local Orthodox priest who, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, repeatedly harassed and, on one occasion in 2018, attacked the Jehovah’s Witness couple; the couple had appealed the fine.
On multiple occasions during the year, particularly during the electoral campaign for the November 1 presidential election, President Dodon voiced support for the Orthodox faith and the MOC. For example, on October 20, Dodon started his electoral campaign agenda in Balti with a visit to the Cathedral of Saints Constantine and Helena stating, “We must preserve our national values, Moldovan traditions and Christian faith – which is the basis of Moldovan statehood.”
According to the PSA, 111 religious groups (versus 97 in 2019), received funds from income tax payments voluntarily directed to religious groups.
A March 17 government-issued state of emergency decree in response to COVID-19 included a ban on all public gatherings, including religious services, until May 15. The Public Health Agency warned that the high proportion of elderly persons in enclosed spaces and certain church customs, including kissing the priest’s hand and sharing the communion spoon, posed a risk for COVID-19 transmission. Clerics, parishioners, and several political leaders, including President Dodon, criticized the ban on religious gatherings, especially during Lent and the Easter holiday. MOC leaders openly lobbied the government to lift what it called “drastic measures.” MOC Metropolitan Vladimir stated that the Church was being “subjected to political intrigues.” On March 24, some national and local authorities began levying fines of 22,500-25,000 lei ($1,300-$1,500) on priests who continued holding religious services. On March 29, Prime Minister Ion Chicu, who described churches as among the locations with the highest risk of infections, expressed concern that traditional services continued in at least 285 of the country’s 1,441 Orthodox churches.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The JCM reported instances of anti-Semitic hate speech and multiple incidents of vandalism. Pentecostals reported an instance of attempted arson and the obstruction of religious services by a local mayor and an Orthodox priest during the year, and the BOC reported harassment by the MOC. Unlike in previous years, most other religious minorities, including the Muslim community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baptist Church, did not report religiously motivated incidents against their members, attributing their absence to COVID-19 restrictions that shifted attention away from religious minorities and made them less visible.
Numerous property disputes from prior years between the MOC and BOC remained unresolved in the courts. According to BOC Secretary Andrei Buclis, MOC priests, local authorities, and MOC followers continued to exert pressure and impede the activity of the church in Dereneu village, which in 2017 switched from the MOC to the BOC. Upon the registration of a new “St. Nicholas” BOC community in Ocnita on January 3, MOC Edinet and Briceni Bishop Nicodim publicly called BOC priest Sergiu Grosu “uncanonical,” banning MOC priests from engaging in any communication with him. The local and regional public administration also criticized the activity of the new BOC church in Ocnita. According to the BOC lawyer, Father Archimandrite Vartolomeu Puitirziu, priest and senior abbot of a new BOC monastery registered in May in Marandeni village, Falesti Region, received two visits from unknown individuals in the summer with warnings “not to serve in Marandeni and find a job elsewhere.” The lawyer also stated the local MOC priest from Marandeni, which is part of MOC’s Balti and Falesti Bishopric, and local elected officials also exhibited hostility towards the BOC priest. The lawyer said that, on several occasions, the local MOC priest called on the parishioners to avoid going “to a monastery that is schismatic and not canonical.” Several cases submitted by the BOC in previous years were still pending before the ECHR.
The Union of Pentecostal Churches reported one attempted arson case during the year. On July 23, an unknown individual tried to set fire to the prayer house in Pirlita village, Falesti Region. A masked individual threw a Molotov cocktail through the church window and ran away. The church watchman quickly extinguished the fire and alerted a church representative, who called the police. Citing a heavy workload, police did not arrive on the scene until almost 11 hours after the incident was reported. The officer refused to take one of the Molotov cocktail bottles found on the scene as evidence, citing a lack of necessary biometric identification equipment at the Falesti Police Inspectorate. At year’s end, police had not identified any suspects. Authorities also never identified arsonists who set fire to the same church in 2018. The Union of Pentecostal Churches sent complaints to the Falesti prosecutor’s office and the Office of the Prosecutor General’s requesting an investigation and prosecution of the arsonists. The prosecutor’s office said it had not found the perpetrators and suspended the cases.
According to the lawyer of the Union of Pentecostal Churches in Moldova, on March 8, International Women’s Day, the Pentecostal church in Petresti village, Ungheni Region, organized a social, cultural, and religious program for local women. During the event, a group of 10 local residents led by the local mayor and an Orthodox priest disrupted the program, entered the church, and began removing the chairs where churchgoers were seated. The mayor said he was “the master” in the locality and promised to “destroy the building.” Meanwhile, the Orthodox priest with a group of Orthodox adherents impeded persons from entering the church premises to attend the festivities. The Pentecostal church filed a complaint with police, but it did not receive a response.
The Jewish community reported several acts of vandalism during the year. In July, unknown individuals wrote the inscription “Read the Bible to see who the Yid is” at an exhibit dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the Chisinau-Tel Aviv Sister Cities Agreement. The JCM filed a complaint with police. The case was pending at year’s end. Between October 30 and November 1, unknown individuals vandalized and drew Nazi symbols on more than 82 tombs at the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau. The Chisinau police department opened a criminal case. The JCM reported similar grave desecration incidents in Orhei and Balti during the year.
On December 8, the JCM issued a public statement expressing its concern regarding an increase in hate speech directed against the community and its members by opinion leaders, politicians, news portals, and journalists and the growth of anti-Jewish statements that contribute to the incitement of interethnic hatred and anti-Semitism in public discourse. Examples the JCM cited included comments responding positively to the desecration of Jewish tombs and negatively to the inauguration of the memorial in Cahul to Jews killed in the Holocaust and chartering of flights to Israel during the COVID-19 pandemic. The JCM called on television channels and other media, online portals, human rights organizations, and law enforcement to uphold standards protecting human rights and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. The Equality Council said it would examine the matter, while the Audiovisual Council found no violations of the Audiovisual Code – a decision the JCM said it would challenge. According to the JCM, no media reacted to its statement.
The JCM reported reconstruction of the Rabbi Tsirelson Synagogue and Yeshiva in Chisinau continued but faced delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapse of one of the walls, which required a redesign of the project. In November, authorities issued a new construction permit based on the updated blueprint.
According to the Islamic League, biased and at times discriminatory societal attitudes toward Muslims remained unchanged. The league did not report any religiously motivated incidents against Muslims, unlike in previous years.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials raised religious freedom issues, including freedom of worship for religious minorities in the Transnistria region, the protection and preservation of Jewish heritage sites, and the need to advance religious and communal property restitution, as well as initiatives to establish a Jewish heritage museum, in meetings with Prime Minister Chicu, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and the de facto authorities in Transnistria.
In August and September, the Ambassador met with Minister of Education, Culture, and Research Igor Sarov to discuss issues of religious freedom and the U.S. Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act report to Congress on actions taken to provide restitution for property confiscated during the Holocaust and the Communist era. The Ambassador encouraged the government to take action to advance the restitution of seized communal and religious property. He offered U.S. expertise and assistance with this process and agreed to continue discussions on the issue. In September, the embassy held an additional meeting with State Secretary for Culture Andrei Chistol to further advance restitution efforts.
In November, the Ambassador raised the subject of Jewish cemetery desecration with Prime Minister Chicu, Minister of Foreign Affairs Aureliu Ciocoi, Minister of Interior Pavel Voicu, and Minister of Education, Culture, and Research Igor Sarov, encouraging them to act swiftly to bring the perpetrators to justice and to ensure that religious monuments are adequately protected.
In September, a senior embassy representative sent a letter to the Transnistrian chief negotiator and de facto foreign minister Vitaly Ignatiev urging Tiraspol authorities to respect fundamental human rights, including those of religious minorities.
In January, the Ambassador spoke at an event marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and noted “the importance of considering the lessons of the past and ensuring that the world never witnesses again such an atrocity.” The Ambassador welcomed the country’s progress on the National Action Plan for the implementation of the Elie Wiesel Commission Report’s recommendations and voiced his hope for further progress on Holocaust education and the creation of a museum of Jewish history. The Ambassador noted the U.S. government’s readiness to provide assistance to teach young people about the Holocaust, combat anti-Semitism, and preserve the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau as a properly maintained and respected place of reflection. As part of the Holocaust remembrance week in January, a senior embassy officer gave remarks at an event honoring the “Righteous Among the Nations” held at the Jewish cultural center KEDEM and welcomed “the chance to pay tribute to the memory of those non-Jewish heroes who saved countless lives – those we call the ‘righteous among the nations.’”
In January, the acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor met with Jewish community representatives in Transnistria to discuss challenges facing the community and opportunities for enhanced cooperation with the United States and institutions in the rest of the country.
Embassy officials met with leaders and representatives of the MOC, BOC, JCM, Roman Catholic Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ, Islamic League, Falun Gong Association, Baptist Church, Lutheran Church, and Pentecostal Church to discuss the state of religious freedom and ways to enhance interfaith cooperation.
In January and February, the embassy hosted showings of a documentary on Holocaust remembrance and displays about Righteous Among the Nations in Chisinau. The embassy also amplified messages related to religious freedom via social media platforms.
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 identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). A constitutional amendment approved in a July referendum cites the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by the country’s ancestors, the first and only reference to God in the constitution. Religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, imprison, torture, and and/or physically abuse persons or seize their property because of their religious faith, including members of groups the government classified as extremist and banned, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jamaat, and followers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi. The human rights NGO Memorial identified 228 persons it said were persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation and whom it considered to be political prisoners, compared with 245 in 2019. Memorial said the actual total was likely three to four times higher. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities again detained hundreds of its members and physically abused some of them, including one whom law enforcement agents beat, strangled, and electrically shocked to force a confession and elicit false statements against his fellow members. Five other Jehovah’s Witnesses detained during raids reported that law enforcement agents beat them while in custody. Religious groups said the government continued to use antiterrorism regulations to restrict religious freedom, including proselytizing and banning religious literature. Authorities designated seven NGOs associated with Falun Gong as “undesirable” foreign organizations and barred them from working in the country. Additionally, a court in Novosibirsk declared an independent regional branch of Falun Gong “extremist” and prohibited it from operating there. The NGO SOVA Center said that proposed amendments to the law regulating religion, pending at year end, might allow for arbitrary government interference among minority religious groups due to vague language prohibiting religious institutions from having connections with individuals the country’s courts declared “undesirable” or “extremist.” A fraud case against representatives of the Church of Scientology remained pending in St. Petersburg. The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to other religious groups, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported workplace harassment of members again increased, and forced resignations continued at some of their workplaces when employers discovered their religious affiliation. The country’s chief rabbi stated anti-Semitism was at a historic low, but the President of the Federation of Jewish Communities said levels of latent anti-Semitism in the country remained high. The Russian Jewish Congress reported that authorities arrested two persons suspected of planning to assassinate the leader of the Jewish community of Krasnodar in September. According to the SOVA Center, media continued to issue defamatory reports about minority religious groups. The same group reported 29 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism. Incidents included setting fire to a synagogue in Arkhangelsk, destroying headstones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg, vandalizing a monument to Holocaust victims in Rostov-on-Don, and breaking a Buddhist stupa near Sukhaya. A priest and former member of the ROC hierarchy made numerous anti-Semitic remarks from the pulpit during the year; he was subsequently expelled from the ROC and a court fined him 18,000 rubles ($240).
The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate representatives advocated for greater religious freedom in the country, highlighting the government’s misuse of the law on extremism to restrict the peaceful activities of religious minorities. The Ambassador spoke on the importance of remembering the Holocaust and combating religious persecution at a multifaith gathering at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow in January. In March, the Ambassador discussed cooperation to promote religious freedom with ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye. The embassy condemned the attack on the Jewish synagogue and cultural center in Arkhangelsk and called for a thorough investigation. In November, the embassy coordinated with the Department of State to release tweets condemning raids against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and 20 other regions. The Ambassador then met with Jehovah’s Witness representatives to discuss the group’s ongoing persecution and reiterated the U.S. commitment to religious freedom. The embassy also made extensive use of its social media platforms to disseminate messages advocating for religious freedom.
On December 2, 2020 in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 142.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). A poll conducted in September by the independent Levada Center found that 63 percent of the population identified as Orthodox Christian and 7 percent as Muslim, while 26 percent reported having no religious faith. Religious groups each constituting approximately one percent or less of the population include Buddhists, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), pagans, Tengrists, members of the Church of Scientology, and Falun Gong practitioners. The 2010 census estimates the number of Jews at 150,000. The Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) estimates the Jewish population is 172,500, while the Federation of Jewish Communities assesses there are approximately 1.5 million persons of Jewish heritage. According to Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, there were 25 million Muslims in 2018, approximately 18 percent of the population. Immigrants and migrant workers from Central Asia, which experts estimate at six to seven million, are mostly Muslim. Most Muslims live in the Volga-Ural Region and the North Caucasus. Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia also have sizable Muslim populations.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates the state is secular and provides for religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship, including the right to “profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion, or to profess no religion.” It provides for the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and it provides for equality of rights and liberties regardless of attitude toward religion. The constitution bans any limitation of human rights on religious grounds and prohibits actions inciting religious hatred and strife. It states all religious associations are equal and separate from the state. The law acknowledges Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, constituting an inseparable part of the country’s historical heritage. The law recognizes the “special role” of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture.”
Among a set of constitutional amendments approved in a July referendum is one citing the ancestral history of the country and the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by those ancestors. The new language is the first and only explicit reference to God in the constitution. In March, prior to the referendum, the Constitutional Court ruled that the proposed amendment’s reference to God did not contravene the secular nature of the government or undermine freedom of religion but only emphasized the significant sociocultural role of religion in the formation and development of the nation.
The law states the government may restrict religious rights only to the degree necessary to protect the constitutional structure and security of the government; the morality, health, rights, and legal interests of persons; or the defense of the country. It is a violation of the law to force another person to disclose his or her opinion of a religion or to participate or not participate in worship, other religious ceremonies, the activities of a religious association, or religious instruction.
The law states those who violate the law on freedom of conscience, religion, and religious associations will be “held liable under criminal, administrative, and other legislation.” The administrative code and the criminal code both punish obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and belief with imprisonment of up to three years and fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) or 1,000,000 rubles ($13,400), depending upon which code governs the offense.
By law, officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law criminalizes a broad spectrum of activities as extremist, including “assistance to extremism,” but the law does not precisely define extremism or require that an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremist.
Anti-extremism legislation stipulates that speech or actions aimed at “inciting hatred or enmity” based on group affiliation (including religion) are punishable by administrative penalties for first-time offenses if the actions do not contain a criminal offense. These penalties include administrative arrests of up to 15 days or administrative fines of up to 20,000 rubles ($270) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) for legal entities. Individuals are held criminally liable if they commit multiple offenses within a one-year period or for the first offense if they threaten to use violence or use their official position to incite hatred. The criminal penalties include fines up to 600,000 rubles ($8,100), compulsory labor for up to five years, or imprisonment for up to six years.
The law criminalizes “offending the feelings of religious believers.” Actions “in public demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the feelings of religious believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,000), compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to one year. If these actions are committed in places of worship, the punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.
Participating in or organizing the activity of a banned religious organization designated as extremist is punishable by a fine of up to 800,000 rubles ($10,700) or imprisonment for a term of six to 10 years, with deprivation of the right to hold “certain positions” or engage in “certain activities” (without specifying what these might be) for up to 10 years and restrictions on freedom for a period of one to two years. These restrictions may include house arrest or constraints on travel within the country. For persons with official status, a term which applies to anyone working for the government or state-owned entities as well as to persons in management roles at commercial entities or NGOs, the prescribed prison term is seven to 12 years or a fine of up to 700,000 rubles ($9,400). First-time offenders who willingly forsake their membership in banned religious organizations are exempt from criminal liability if they committed no other crimes.
Local laws in several administrative regions, including the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism” but do not define the term. Authorities impose administrative and criminal penalties for violating these laws, in accordance with federal legislation.
According to the 2017 Supreme Court ruling declaring the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center an extremist organization, all Jehovah’s Witness activities, including the organization’s websites and all regional branches, are banned. The court’s ruling states the constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief, but this right is limited by other rights, including “existing civil peace and harmony.”
The Supreme Court has banned the activities of several Islamic organizations on the grounds of extremism, including Hizb ut-Tahrir; Nurdzhular (a Russification of the Turkish for “followers of Said Nursi”); Tablighi Jamaat; and the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community. These organizations are on the Federal List of Extremist Organizations.
The law creates three categories of religious associations, with different levels of legal status and privileges: “religious groups,” “local religious organizations” (LROs), and “centralized religious organizations” (CROs). Religious groups or organizations may be subject to legal dissolution or deprivation of legal status by a court decision on grounds including violations of standards set forth in the constitution or public security.
The “religious group” is the most basic unit and does not require registration with the state. When a group first begins its activities, however, it must notify authorities, typically the regional Ministry of Justice (MOJ), of the location of its activity, its rites and ceremonies, and its leader(s) and members. A religious group may conduct worship services and rituals and teach religion to its members with requisite notification to authorities. It does not have legal status to open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces. A religious group may use property bought for the group’s use by its members, residential property owned or rented by its members, or public spaces rented by its members to hold services.
An LRO may register with the MOJ if it has at least 10 citizen members who are 18 or older and are permanent local residents. LROs have legal status and may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces. CROs may register with the MOJ at the regional or federal level by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination.
To register as an LRO or CRO, an association must provide the following: a list of the organization’s founders and governing body with addresses and internal travel document (“internal passport”) data; the organization’s charter; the minutes of the founding meeting; certification from the CRO (in the case of LROs); a description of the organization’s doctrine, practices, history, and attitudes toward family, marriage, and education; the organization’s legal address; a certificate of payment of government dues; and the charter or registration papers of the governing body in the case of organizations whose main offices are located abroad. Authorities may deny registration for reasons including incorrect paperwork, failure to meet different administrative requirements, national security reasons, or placement on the list of extremist or terrorist organizations. Denial of registration may be appealed in court. By law, CROs and LROs receiving funding from abroad must report an account of their activities, a list of leaders, the source of foreign funding, and plans for how the organization intends to use the foreign funds or property obtained through foreign funding. Reports are annual by default, but the MOJ may require additional ad hoc reports. LROs and CROs may invite foreign citizens to carry out professional religious activities. LROs and CROs may produce, acquire, export, import, and distribute religious literature in printed, audio, or video format, and “other religious items.”
The Expert Religious Studies Council, a committee established by the MOJ to advise it on religious groups, has wide powers to investigate religious organizations. Some of the council’s powers include reviewing organizations’ activities and literature and determining whether an organization is “extremist.” The law does not provide precise criteria on how written religious materials may be classified as “extremist.” The council also advises the MOJ on the issue of granting religious organization status to a religious group.
Foreign religious organizations (those created outside of the country under foreign laws) have the right to open offices for representational purposes, either independently or as part of religious organizations previously established in the country, but they may not form or found their own religious organizations in the country and may not operate houses of worship.
The government (the MOJ or the Prosecutor General’s Office) oversees a religious organization’s compliance with the law and may review its financial and registration-related documents when conducting an inspection or investigation. With advance notice, the government may send representatives to attend a religious association’s events, conduct an annual review of compliance with the association’s mission statement on file with the government, and review its religious literature to decide whether the literature is extremist. The law contains ongoing reporting requirements on financial and economic activity, funding sources, and compliance with antiterrorist and anti-extremist legislation. The government may obtain a court order to close those associations that do not comply with reporting or other legal requirements.
The law allows the government to limit the places where prayer and public religious observance may be conducted without prior approval. LROs and CROs may conduct religious services and ceremonies without prior approval in buildings and facilities or on lands owned or rented by these associations, as well as in cemeteries, crematoria, places of pilgrimage, and living quarters. Baptism ceremonies in rivers and lakes, as well as services conducted in parks, open spaces, or courtyards, do not fall under this exemption. In these cases, LROs and CROs must seek government approval at least one week in advance and provide the government with the names of organizers and participants, as well as copies of any written materials to be used at the event.
A prime ministerial decree requires religious organizations to conform to specific counterterrorism measures to qualify for safety permits for their real property. Among other requirements, all facilities must be guarded during services by members of public organizations. Facilities with maximum building occupancy limits between 500 and 1,000 must have “panic buttons” and video surveillance systems. Buildings with occupancy limits of more than 1,000 must be guarded by private security guards or National Guard personnel. Religious groups are responsible for defraying the costs of these measures. The penalty for noncompliance is a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,300).
The Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program requires members of a religious group to comprise at least 10 percent of a military unit before an official chaplain of that group is appointed. Chaplains are not enlisted or commissioned but are classified as assistants to the commander. Chaplains are full-time employees of the Ministry of Defense, paid from the defense budget. The program allows for chaplains representing only the four traditional religions. There are more than 120 chaplains in the program.
Federal law defines “missionary activity” as the sharing of one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbelievers with the aim of involving these individuals in the “structure” of the religious association. According to the law, to share beliefs outside of officially sanctioned sites (which include buildings owned by a religious organization, buildings whose owners have given permission for activities to take place, pilgrimage destinations, cemeteries and crematoria, and indoor spaces of educational organizations historically used for religious ceremonies), an individual must have a document from a religious group or registered organization authorizing him or her to share beliefs. The law explicitly bans any beliefs from being shared in residential buildings without such documentation (unless in the form of a religious service, rite, or ceremony), or on another organization’s property without permission from that organization. Materials disseminated by missionaries must be marked with the name of the religious association providing the authorization.
Violations of the law regulating missionary activity may be punished by a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($67 to $670) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300 to $13,400) for legal entities, which includes LROs and CROs. Foreign citizens or stateless persons who violate restrictions on missionary activities may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($400 to $670) and are subject to administrative deportation.
Within the MOJ, the Scientific Advisory Board reviews religious materials for extremism. Composed of academics and representatives of the four traditional religions, the board reviews materials referred to it by judicial or law enforcement authorities, private citizens, or organizations. If the board identifies material as extremist, it issues a nonbinding advisory opinion, which is then published on the MOJ website and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation. In addition to the Scientific Advisory Board, regional board experts also may review religious materials for extremist content.
Prosecutors may take material to a court and ask the court to declare it extremist, but materials introduced in court during the consideration of administrative, civil, or criminal cases may also be declared extremist of the court’s own accord. By law, publications declared extremist by a federal court are automatically added to the federal list of extremist materials. Courts may order internet service providers to block access to websites containing materials included on the federal list of extremist materials. Courts review and reissue lists on a regular basis. If the courts determine the material is no longer “extremist,” the MOJ is required to remove the material from the lists within 30 days. Very rarely, courts, in response to a legal challenge, may also reverse a decision to blacklist material deemed extremist. The law makes it illegal to declare the key texts (holy books) of the four traditional religions in their original languages – Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Tibetan Buddhist Kangyur (Kanjur) – to be extremist. The law does not specify that foreign language translations of these texts cannot be declared extremist.
According to the administrative code, mass distribution, production, and possession with the aim of mass distribution of extremist materials by private individuals may result in 15 days’ imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($13 to $40), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($27 to $67) for public officials, as well as confiscation of these materials. Courts may suspend for 90 days the operations of legal entities found to be in possession of extremist materials and fine them 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300 to $13,400). Individuals who produce materials later deemed extremist may not be punished retroactively but must cease production and distribution of those materials.
The law allows the transfer of state and municipal property of religious significance to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and movable property. The law grants religious organizations using state historical property for religious purposes the right to use such property indefinitely. The law prohibits the transfer of living quarters for religious use and the use of living quarters for missionary activity, unless the activity is a part of a “religious service, rite, or ceremony.”
The law allows religious organizations to use buildings that were not originally authorized for religious purposes if they are part of a property that serves a religious purpose. The law allows, for example, a group to establish a Sunday school in a warehouse on the property of a church. If such a structure does not meet legal requirements or is not made legal by submitting proper paperwork by 2030, it will be destroyed.
Religious education or civil ethics classes are compulsory in all public and private secondary schools. Students may choose to take a course on one of the four traditional religions, a general world religions course, or a secular ethics course. Regional and municipal departments of education oversee this curriculum at the local level in accordance with their capacity to offer the courses and according to the religious makeup of the given location. There is no requirement for representatives of religious organizations to be licensed to conduct religious education in schools affiliated with a religious organization or in-home schools. Religious instructors in any other state or private school must be licensed to teach religious courses.
The Office of the Director of Religious Issues within the Office of the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman handles complaints about the government’s actions on religious freedom. The ombudsman may intercede on behalf of those who submit complaints; however, the ombudsman may not compel other government bodies to act or directly intervene in complaints not addressed to the government.
The law entitles individuals and organizations to take religious freedom cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France. The state must pay compensation to a person whose rights were violated as determined by the ECHR and ensure his or her rights are restored to the extent possible. The Constitutional Court determines whether judgments by international and regional courts, including the ECHR, are consistent with the constitution.
Military service for men between the ages of 18 and 27 is compulsory, but the constitution provides for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience, including religious belief. The standard military service period is 12 months, while alternative service is 18 months in a Ministry of Defense agency or 21 months in a nondefense agency. Failure to perform alternative service is punishable under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from a fine of 80,000 rubles ($1,100) to six months in prison.
By law, LROs and CROs may not participate in political campaigns or the activities of political parties or movements or provide material or other aid to political groups. This restriction applies to religious organizations but not to their individual members.
The ROC and all members of the Civic Chamber, a state institution composed of representatives of public associations, are granted the opportunity to review draft legislation pending before the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on a case-by-case basis. No formal mechanism exists for permanent representation of religious organizations in the Civic Chamber, as the chamber convenes for three-year terms. Individuals from traditional religions and other religious groups may be selected to serve in the chamber for a term, either in the initial selection of 40 representatives by the President of the Russian Federation or in one of the subsequent rounds of selection, where existing chamber members choose an additional 128 representatives representing national and regional civil society groups. The State Duma passed legislation in 2007 barring any member of an organization that had been accused of extremism from serving in the Civic Chamber.
The law states foreigners or stateless individuals whose presence in the country the government deems “undesirable” are forbidden from becoming founders, members, or active participants in the activities of religious organizations. The same is true for individuals whose activities are deemed extremist by the courts or who are subject to prosecution under the law on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The law restricts any foreign citizen or stateless person from entering the country if he or she “participates in the activities of the organizations included in the list of organizations and individuals in respect of whom there is information about their involvement in extremist activities or terrorism.”
Foreigners engaging in religious work require a contract with a legally registered religious organization and a work visa. Religious work is not permitted on “humanities visas,” which allow foreigners to enter the country to strengthen academic or cultural ties or take part in charitable work. There are no missionary visas.
The law grants religious organizations the exclusive right to manage pilgrimage activities.
Under the criminal code, an individual convicted of committing an act of vandalism motivated by religious hatred or enmity may be sentenced to up to three years of compulsory labor or prison.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Religious groups and human rights NGOs reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, arrest, imprison, torture, and/or physically abuse persons on account of their religious belief or affiliation. Authorities continued to accuse religious minority groups of extremism.
At year’s end, Memorial identified 228 persons persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation whom it considered to be political prisoners, meaning they were either already imprisoned or were in custody or under house arrest awaiting a sentence to enter into force. The figure represented a seven percent decrease from the 245 reported in 2019. Memorial stated that the actual number of cases of persecution was likely three to four times higher, given the number of cases the organization identified as similar to those designated as political prisoners; however, the organization said it lacked the supporting, corroborating evidence to make designations in those instances. Memorial’s list of political prisoners included 61 Jehovah’s Witnesses and 142 persons accused of involvement with the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that Memorial characterized as a “non-violent international Islamic organization.” According to Memorial, none of the political prisoners being persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation called for violence or planned violent acts.
At year’s end, a case filed in 2019 by Jehovah’s Witnesses with the ECHR stating the government violated their members’ freedom of thought, conscience, and religion remained pending.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and NGOs stated Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism, police officers, and riot police continued to carry out raids in the homes and places of worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses and again detained hundreds of suspected members. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated authorities had raided more than 1,100 homes of members between early 2017 and November throughout the country, including in Moscow for the first time. The group reported 477 searches of homes and apartments during the year, compared to 489 in 2019 and 289 in 2018. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses sources, during these raids, authorities entered homes, often in the early morning, conducted unauthorized, illegal searches, and verbally and physically abused members. Authorities often entered residences by forcing open the door. They held individuals, including children and the elderly, at gunpoint and seized personal belongings, including religious materials, personal correspondence, money, mobile phones, and other electronic devices.
In February, Jehovah’s Witnesses and various media sources reported the FSB and other law enforcement personnel searched 50 houses in the city of Chita and other towns of the Transbaikal Region and committed numerous abuses. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported security forces handcuffed and beat a minor in front of his family. They also stated authorities beat and strangled Vadim Kutsenko, as well as subjected him to electric shocks while handcuffed to force a confession and elicit false statements against fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses. Authorities released Kutsenko from detention after five days and placed him under house arrest. After 50 days, authorities released him on his own recognizance. At year’s end, Kutsenko remained a suspect in the ongoing investigation connected to the raids.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18 also reported authorities took five other Jehovah’s Witnesses seized in the raids in the Transbaikal Region to Orenburg Labor Camp No. 1, where they beat them. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, because of the abuse, one Witness suffered a broken rib, a punctured lung, and damage to his kidneys. The European Union (EU), joined by six non-EU states, issued a statement expressing deep concern over the incident and calling upon the government to permit the peaceful expression of religion by all persons, including Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In April, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Viktor Malkov, a 61-year-old Smolensk resident, died three months after his release from eight months in detention, during which he was denied care for chronic health problems.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that two of their members, Roman Makhnev and Dmitriy Kuzin, whom authorities had arrested and detained for six months in Kaluga in 2019, were released in late December of that year. After their release, a court sentenced the two to a further two months of house arrest. By year’s end, both were released from house arrest and were awaiting the results of a preliminary investigation.
On May 27, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the FSB conducted raids of adherents’ homes in Khabarovsk and Vyazembsky. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated one masked FSB agent entered the house of 68-year-old Yen Sen Li, struck him, and injured his hands while placing him in handcuffs. The FSB detained Li for 13 hours before releasing him after he agreed to sign a statement of self-incrimination. He was alleged to have organized a worship group among Jehovah’s Witnesses.
On July 13, according to widespread media reports and an official press release from the government of the Voronezh Region, investigators, local police, and National Guard troops carried out 110 raids on the homes of dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses in that region. Jehovah’s Witnesses said authorities physically abused adherents during the raids and that security forces tortured five Witnesses while in detention, demanding that they incriminate themselves. Jehovah’s Witnesses Yuri Galka and Anatol Yagupov stated the security forces placed bags over their heads and beat them during their interrogations, and in the case of Galka, twisted his arms behind his back, tightened the bag on his head until he began to suffocate, and broke one of his ribs. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, security forces also repeatedly put a plastic bag over Alexander Korol’s head and tied it around his neck to coerce him to divulge information about other Witnesses until the bag broke. Korol said agents hit him in the face several times and threatened “to use needles” before transporting him 40 kilometers (25 miles) to another location for further interrogation and placing him in a holding cell for 48 hours. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported Korol was forced to ask strangers for funds to return home when authorities released him without explanation after confiscating his phone.
On November 24, law enforcement officers carried out raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and more than 20 other regions across the country. The Federal Investigative Committee said the raids and subsequent arrests were part of a new criminal case against Jehovah’s Witnesses, which they stated had illegally been carrying out activities at the organization’s headquarters in Moscow and at its regional branches since June 2019, charges the group denied. The committee did not say how many worshippers had been detained, stating only that they were both organizers and participants in the movement. Jehovah’s Witnesses said there were at least 10 raids and four detentions in Moscow. During one of the raids, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported law enforcement officers hit Vardan Zakaryan in the head with an automatic rifle. Zakaryan was hospitalized before being placed into custody. A court released Zakaryan from detention and placed him under house arrest on November 30.
Forum 18 reported officials tortured individuals detained for exercising freedom of religion or belief with impunity. Following accusations of torture by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Blagoveshchensk, Surgut, and Kaluga, Forum 18 said authorities had taken no steps to hold the officials accountable, as none had been arrested or tried in court.
As a result of what they described as increasing government persecution since a Supreme Court ruling banning the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in 2017, representatives of the group said that their members continued to flee the country but that there were still more than 150,000 adherents remaining.
The SOVA Center reported authorities had initiated criminal cases against 424 Jehovah’s Witnesses in 60 regions throughout the country since 2017; 110 new criminal cases were opened during the year, compared with 213 in 2019. Jehovah’s Witness representatives said that of those accused, 49 adherents were placed into pretrial detention and another 23 spent a few days in temporary detention facilities before being released.
The SOVA Center reported that of previously initiated cases, courts passed at least 25 sentences against 46 Jehovah’s Witnesses. Representatives from Jehovah’s Witnesses stated district courts convicted 39 adherents of extremism; of these, 21 were awaiting appellate hearings. At year’s end, the representatives said 46 adherents remained behind bars, including 36 in pretrial detention facilities and 10 in penal colonies.
Prior to the sentencing of Gennady Shpakovsky to 6.5 years in prison in February, the longest prison term given to a Jehovah’s Witness was the six-year sentence Danish citizen Dennis Christensen received in 2019, in the Kursk Region. In June, Christensen was scheduled for early release after agreeing to pay a fine in lieu of his remaining prison time. According to various media sources and NGOs, however, the prosecutor’s office, which had previously endorsed the early release, filed a last-minute appeal to reverse it, stating Christensen had violated prison rules, including by failing to wear a special prisoner’s jacket and being in the prison canteen at the wrong time – assertions Jehovah’s Witnesses and human rights NGOs said were spurious. Christensen reported that during his ongoing imprisonment, he suffered from numerous health problems, including pneumonia, and was repeatedly refused treatment because his medical card was “lost.” In October, the Lgov District Court denied Christensen’s appeal for early release. Christensen, detained since May 2017, remained in prison at year’s end and was reportedly scheduled to complete his sentence in May 2022, which included time served during pretrial detention.
Forum 18 reported that on September 2, the Beryozovsky City Court sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergey Britvin and Vadim Levchuk to four years’ imprisonment at a labor camp for organizing the activities of a banned extremist organization. The two men had already spent more than 520 days in detention and 250 days under house arrest prior to the judge’s decision. They appealed the court’s decision and at year’s end were awaiting the decision while detained in Investigation Prison No. 4 in Anzhero-Sudzhensk.
On October 7, the Kabardino-Balkaria’s Maisky District Court acquitted Jehovah’s Witness Yuri Zalipaev, who had been charged with possession of extremist materials and inciting others to violence. Prosecutors appealed the decision, and, as of November, the case was pending in the appellate court. On October 9, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, a court in the Kostroma Region, near Moscow, pronounced suspended jail sentences of eight and seven years, respectively, for Sergei and Valeria Rayman, a married Jehovah’s Witnesses couple. Sergei’s sentence was longer than the seven-year conditionally suspended sentence requested by the prosecutor and was the longest conditionally suspended jail sentence yet given to a Jehovah’s Witness. As part of their suspended sentences, the Raymans remained subject to multiple restrictions, including on personal travel and access to telephones and the internet. After a 2018 house raid, authorities had charged the Raymans with participating in religious extremism and holding a Bible discussion in their home.
The trial of Vyacheslav Popov and Nikolay Kuzichkin, two Jehovah’s Witnesses whom authorities arrested in 2019 and charged with “organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization,” remained pending. On April 16, the Krasnodar Regional Court ordered Kuzichkin released from pretrial detention and placed him under house arrest, where he was prohibited from correspondence and contact with other persons. On December 18, a district court in Sochi found Popov and Kuzichkin guilty of organizing extremist activities, sentencing Kuzichkin to 13 months and Popov to 22 months in prison. The court credited the time spent in pretrial detention and under house arrest towards both men’s sentences. Popov was subsequently released into house arrest from the pretrial detention center on December 29, where he had been held for 15 months.
Authorities charged 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses detained as a result of the July 13 raids in Voronezh with organizing an extremist community, preaching, and recruiting new members between 2018 and 2020. In December, a Voronezh city court released six of the Witnesses from pretrial detention and the other four from house arrest. The 10 Witnesses still faced restrictions on their personal travel and communication with others. At year’s end, the investigations remained open and trials had not been scheduled.
For the first time, authorities stripped a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses of his citizenship. Felix Makhammadiev had moved to Saratov from Uzbekistan with his mother as a minor and subsequently became a Russian citizen. Makhammadiev had been convicted in 2019 of organizing extremist activities. While serving his sentence, Makhammadiev reported he was tortured and had to undergo surgery to drain fluid from his lung caused by a beating. The Ministry of Internal Affairs in Saratov nullified Makhammadiev’s citizenship on April 17, citing his conviction for extremist activity. On December 31, authorities released him from prison before immediately placing him in a deportation center. Authorities in Saratov stripped Konstantin Bazhenov, who was convicted in the same case as Makhammadiev, of his citizenship on April 20. Bazhenov, who was born in Russia but moved to Ukraine as a child, had both Russian and Ukrainian citizenship.
According to Jehovah’s Witness representatives, at the end of the year, the group had 59 applications pending with the ECHR, 12 pending complaints under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with the UN Human Rights Committee, and six complaints against the government pending with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, including for detentions of practitioners, censorship of religious literature and the organization’s website, and raids on or other interference with religious meetings. On May 6, the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released a nonbinding decision concerning 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, calling the cases brought against them unlawful and urging the authorities to immediately release those arrested. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said delays in the ECHR process were at least partially due to COVID-19.
According to Memorial, authorities had convicted, investigated, or charged 237 persons for alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir since the Supreme Court first labeled the group a terrorist organization and banned it in 2003; of those, 199 had been tried and convicted. Human Rights Watch characterized Hizb ut-Tahrir as a group that aimed to establish an Islamic caliphate, but which renounced violence. Since 2003, courts have sentenced 65 persons to between 10 and 15 years in prison, and 78 to 15 years or more. The total excluded individuals from Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula whom Russian occupation authorities initially detained in Crimea before transferring them to Russia, where they were tried and sentenced. While banned in Russia, Hizb ut-Tahrir remained legal in Ukraine.
On February 10, Human Rights Watch and Memorial reported the Central Military District Court convicted Eduard Nizamov, whom the government stated was the head of the country’s branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and sentenced him to 23 years in a maximum-security prison. Authorities arrested Nizamov in October 2018 and charged him with financing terrorism and “preparing for a violent seizure of power.” Nizamov denied the charges and said authorities beat him and verbally abused him while in pretrial detention.
Individuals continued to receive harsh sentences for their alleged involvement with Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Human Rights Watch and Memorial reported that on February 5, a military court sentenced 10 members of Hizb ut-Tahrir to prison terms ranging from 11 to 22 years. The prosecution asserted the members were involved in the creation of a local terrorism cell, assisted in terrorism, and distributed propaganda that supported terrorism. The prosecution did not allege the defendants planned or carried out any specific acts, but rather that they held meetings to discuss their faith and political views, printed leaflets, and organized public recruitment events. The accused all denied the charges, stating they condemned terrorism and questioned the validity of the evidence brought against them in the court.
On September 21, the Supreme Court upheld the verdicts and sentences of 18 defendants prosecuted for their membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, according to Memorial. The individuals, all originally convicted in Ufa in 2018, received sentences of between 10 and 24 years in a maximum-security prison colony.
Authorities continued to investigate and detain alleged members of other Islamic organizations. Local media reported on June 6 that FSB agents in Moscow conducted searches and detained several supporters of Tablighi Jamaat, an organization that Memorial characterized as a peaceful, international Islamic missionary movement. FSB investigators opened a criminal case against the individuals on the grounds that they were participating in a banned religious organization. On July 31, local media reported that FSB officers detained six members of Tablighi Jamaat in the Volgograd Region. Authorities said banned extremist literature was found on the individuals and opened a criminal investigation.
In September, according to press reports, the FSB, police, and other security agencies launched a raid in Krasnoyarsk Region in Siberia and arrested Sergei Torop, known to his followers as Vissarion, and two of his aides. Torop is the founder and leader of the Church of the Last Testament. The Novosibirsk Central District Court ordered the detention of Torop, and the prosecutor’s office in Krasnoyarsk Territory filed a suit seeking dissolution of the Church. Authorities alleged the Church was an illegal religious organization and that Torop had extorted money from his followers and subjected them to emotional abuse. As of the end of the year, Torop remained in custody while authorities conducted psychiatric evaluations, and his trial date remained pending.
The Times of Israel reported October 21 that Jewish prisoner Danil Beglets, sentenced to two years in a penal colony in 2019 for pushing a policeman during a Moscow protest, went on a hunger strike to protest being forced to work on the Jewish Sabbath. Beglets stated authorities punished him for declining to work on the Sabbath and did not provide him with kosher food. Beglets further appealed to Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar to intervene on his behalf.
Memorial said the average length of sentences for religious prisoners on their list continued to increase. The group stated that between 2016 and 2018, the average prison sentence for these persons increased from 6.6 to 9.1 years.
Forum 18 stated authorities also sought to prosecute citizens living abroad who exercised their freedom of religion or belief. The NGO said the government had issued three Red Notices (requests to law enforcement worldwide to locate and detain individuals) through Interpol, two during the year and one in 2018, to attempt to detain and extradite at least three citizens living abroad to face criminal charges under the extremism law. Two of the Red Notices were against followers of the Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. At year’s end, none of the individuals had been detained or extradited.
The SOVA Center reported in April that Dagestan authorities arrested Ibrahim Murtazaliev for his alleged involvement in Nurdzhular (also known as Nursi Readers), a group the government listed as extremist, and placed him in pretrial detention for two months before eventually releasing him. According to the government, members of Nurdzhular are students of Nursi’s works, which are banned. The SOVA Center continued to state that it did not believe the group existed in the country.
Yevgeny Kim, whom authorities stripped of citizenship in 2019 because of what they said were actions that promoted the works of Nursi, remained stateless and in a pre-deportation detention center for foreign nationals. After Kim’s release from prison in 2019, authorities had charged him with violating immigration law and ordered his deportation to Uzbekistan. Kim was born in Uzbekistan but did not have Uzbek citizenship.
At year’s end, the Neva District Court in St. Petersburg accepted, but did not begin to hear, a case against Ivan Masitsky, head of the Church of Scientology in St. Petersburg, and three other church officers, Konstantsiya Yesaulkova, Galina Shurinova, and Anastasiya Terentyeva; authorities accused them of financial fraud. The case was initially launched in 2017 after an FSB raid on Church offices in which authorities claimed to have found evidence that the group had illegally received 276 million rubles ($3.71 million) in compensation for Church services.
Authorities also investigated individuals for violating the law prohibiting offending the feelings of religious believers. In January, for example, comedian Aleksandr Dolgopolov left the country after police opened an investigation following media reports that an audience member at one of his shows complained that Dolgopolov had insulted his religious feelings, apparently for making a joke about Jesus and his mother Mary. Dolgopolov returned to the country in March, and the status of the investigation was unknown at year’s end.
According to the MOJ, as of December, there were 31,392 registered religious organizations (LROs and CROs) in the country, most of which were ROC-affiliated, compared with 31,379 in 2019 and 30,896 in 2018. In 2019, Orthodox organizations made up more than half of the new organizations, followed by Muslim and Protestant organizations. Among Protestants, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Adventists had the most newly registered organizations. According to the SOVA Center, laws creating and regulating the activities of religious groups, LROs, and CROs contained imprecise language that left room for interpretation by local and national authorities.
Forum 18 reported that between January 2019 and June 2020, authorities prosecuted 76 registered religious organizations and 22 individuals for carrying out their activities without indicating their official full name on their materials. According to the Administrative Code, a religious organization’s “official name” must include its religious affiliation and its organizational and legal form – the use of abbreviations may incur prosecution. Most of the cases resulted in guilty verdicts and fines, with a conviction rate of 72.5 percent.
The SOVA Center, independent media, and religious groups continued to say Expert Religious Studies Council members lacked appropriate academic and religious credentials to advise the MOJ on which groups should be permitted to register as religious organizations or to review an organization’s literature and activities to determine whether the organization was “extremist.”
The country’s 83 federal subjects (administrative divisions, excluding illegally Russian-occupied Crimea and Sevastopol) had varying policies on wearing the hijab in public schools and/or government institutions. Stavropol and Mordovia continued to prohibit the wearing of hijabs in schools, while Chechnya permitted schoolgirls to wear them. In September, the Education Department of Tatarstan instituted a policy permitting Muslim schoolgirls to wear the hijab in all primary schools of the republic after receiving complaints from Muslim parents regarding the prohibition of the hijab in one school.
Representatives of minority religious associations, human rights NGOs, and some independent scholars continued to state authorities at times employed the Yarovaya-Ozerov amendments (Yarovaya package), enacted in 2016 for the stated purpose of enhancing the country’s antiterrorism capability, to limit religious freedom. Experts pointed to the government’s actions in revoking or suspending the licenses of Christian educational institutions, particularly those of Baptists, Pentecostals, and evangelicals. Experts also noted the government and ROC often viewed these institutions as sources of foreign influence. ROC educational and missionary institutions, by contrast, were not subjected to similar scrutiny by government authorities. NGOs, including the SOVA Center, Amnesty International, and Memorial, issued regular updates on individuals they deemed political prisoners due to what they described as the government’s overly broad application of the Yarovaya package.
The SOVA Center stated in its annual report that the persecution of religious organizations for “illegal” missionary activity on the basis of the Yarovaya package appeared to have increased from 2019, according to data available at the end of the year. Despite a slight decrease in 2019 compared to 2018, the 2020 numbers showed 201 cases reviewed by the courts, compared to 174 in the same period in 2019. Ninety individuals, three officials, and 39 legal entities received penalties, mainly in the form of administrative fines. The SOVA Center calculated the total amount of fines imposed by courts was 1,581,000 rubles ($21,200), compared with 1,452,000 rubles ($19,500) for the same period in 2019.
In July, according to press reports, the MOJ barred seven NGOs associated with Falun Gong from working in the country, citing unspecified national security concerns, and designated them “undesirable” foreign organizations. Six of the NGOs were from the United States, and the seventh was from the United Kingdom. As a result, the government froze the groups’ assets and banned them from distributing informational materials, implementing projects, and creating branches in the country. On November 10, the Novosibirsk Fifth General Court of Appeal declared a regional branch of Falun Gong “extremist” and barred its activities in the region.
According to the Interfax news agency, the Pushkinsky District Court of St. Petersburg declared informational materials promoting deceased U.S. preacher William Branham’s teachings extremist and prohibited their circulation in the country. The materials related to The Evening Light Christian organization. In its decision, the court cited a 2017 review of Branham’s works by St. Petersburg State University in which the works were deemed to contain elements of “neurolinguistic programing” and insulted the feelings of certain religious believers.
Religious minorities, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Falun Gong, said local authorities continued to use the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred religious texts and other books relating to religion, other than the four holy books recognized by law. The MOJ’s list of extremist material grew during the year to 5,130, compared with 5,003 in December 2019 and 4,514 in October 2018.
The SOVA Center reported that Tartarstan’s Almetvevsk City Court banned two books by Islamic theologians as extremist. According to the center, the two books did not contain any direct appeals for violence or terrorism and, as such, were incorrectly labeled as extremist.
The SOVA Center also reported that in January, the St. Petersburg City Court upheld the May 2019 Nevsky District Court decision to ban the Falun Gong book Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party from distribution in the country. The center said the book did not promote violence and that there were no grounds for banning its distribution.
Amendments to the law, initially considered by the State Duma in September, would require clergy who received religious education abroad to undergo mandatory recertification in a Russian educational institution. Proponents said the amendments were intended to prevent the dissemination of “an extremism religious ideology.” However, after significant opposition from the Buddhist community, which does not have any religious educational institutions in Russia, the proposed amendments were modified so that they would apply only to clergy arriving in the country after implementation of the updated law. The proposed amendments would also prohibit religious institutions from having connections with individuals suspected of financing terrorism and those whom Russian courts declared “undesirable” or “extremist.”
According to the SOVA Center, the vagueness of the proposed amendments might permit the government to arbitrarily interfere with the activities of religious minorities and unpopular religious groups. The ROC was the only religious institution to declare support for the amendments. At year’s end, the State Duma was considering the legislation, which was expected to pass sometime in 2021.
In January, the Constitutional Court upheld the right of the Church of Jesus Christ to hold religious services in an administrative building owned by the Church. The case was an affirmation of a 2019 decision by the Constitutional Court acknowledging the right of an individual to use his or her own residential property to provide a religious organization with a place to conduct worship services and other religious rituals.
Forum 18 reported in February that three Pentecostal churches in different parts of the country – Nizhny Novgorod, Kaluga, and Oryol – faced possible closure and demolition for what local authorities said were building code violations. While the court cases were still ongoing at year’s end, each of the churches said they had resolved any reported issues. According to Forum 18, the congregations were forced to spend time and money to challenge the charges and could lose access to their places of worship during court proceedings. The Jesus Embassy Church in Nizhny Novgorod remained closed after authorities shut it down on December 31, 2019, due to what they said were fire safety violations. Alexander Verkhovsky, SOVA Center director, challenged the idea that authorities were interested in fire safety, given what he said were discrepancies in the number of violations cited and the apparent hostility state security officials had demonstrated toward the church’s operations. The churches in Kaluga and Oryol remained open during the court proceedings.
According to press reporting, the city administration in Novorossiysk filed a lawsuit and asked a local court to order the demolition of Baptist community leader Vitaliy Bak’s home in April. The city administration accused Bak of holding illegal religious worship services in the house. Local authorities had closed the house in July 2019. Following a series of failed appeals, in December 2019, the NGO Alliance Defending Freedom International filed an application with the ECHR on behalf of Pastor Bak, saying the authorities’ actions violated freedom of religion. The appeal remained pending at year’s end.
The Russian Bible Society reported that Moscow authorities on September 16 ordered the group to demolish the warehouses where it stored its publications within five days. The society said that the letter from the authorities warned the group that if they did not demolish the warehouses and remove the materials therein, the authorities would do it and charge the group for related expenses.
On January 17, members of the Yekaterinburg Muslim community held Friday prayers outside during inclement weather to bring attention to the destruction of the Nur-Usman Mosque, which the government tore down in 2019 to make room for a new ice arena. Members of the mostly migrant community stated city officials had granted a new plot of land for the construction of a mosque but that the plot was smaller than the members believed was appropriate.
According to NGOs and independent experts, the government continued to cooperate more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations, with officials often interpreting the law that recognized the “special role” Orthodox Christianity plays in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture” as granting special privileges or benefits to the ROC as an institution. For example, in August, religious scholar Roman Lunkin cited the government’s interest in promoting the ROC as a source of symbolic patriotism during an interview with online news site Lenta.ru. According to Lunkin, the ROC continued to benefit from several formal and informal agreements with government ministries that gave it greater access than other religious organizations to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, the police, and the military. The government also continued to provide the ROC Patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded to no other religious organization. In its annual report, the SOVA Center stated the ROC was the most frequent recipient of properties the government granted to religious organizations.
The Moscow Theological Seminary of Evangelical Baptists reopened as the Theological Seminary of Moscow following a 2019 decision by federal education inspectorate Rosobrnadzor to revoke the seminary’s status as a nationally licensed graduate school. Authorities allowed it to reopen as a training institution under the Russian Baptist Church. Rosobrnadzor had reported finding fault with the organization’s bachelor’s degree program and the qualifications of its staff.
In October, following the killing of teacher Samuel Paty in France by a Russian Muslim immigrant from Chechnya, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov accused French President Emmanuel Macron of inspiring terrorists by justifying cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as protected by free speech rights. In an Instagram post, Kadyrov said Macron was forcing people into terrorism and creating conditions for extremism to grow.
Claims by Jehovah’s Witnesses for government seizures of properties valued at 79.2 million euros ($97.18 million) remained pending before the ECHR at year’s end.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Experts from Russia’s Jewish community had varying assessments of the level of anti-Semitism in the country. Chief Rabbi of Russia Lazar stated in January that the level of anti-Semitism was at its lowest point historically. He said the community felt comfortable openly demonstrating its religion and was respected by the state and others. President of the Federation of Jewish Communities Alexander Boroda said in June that he was concerned about the level of latent anti-Semitism in the country, citing public opinion polls showing the number of respondents who openly considered themselves anti-Semitic rose from 15 percent in 2017 to 17 percent in 2019.
The Russian Jewish Congress reported a taxi dispatcher in Tver refused to take an order from a customer in January after learning she had attended a Holocaust exhibition, telling her, “What they did to them [Jews] was all right.” The customer complained to the taxi company, and the dispatcher was fired. The congress reported that in September, authorities uncovered a plot to assassinate the leader of the Jewish community of Krasnodar, Rabbi Yuri Tkach, and arrested suspects affiliated with the group “The USSR Citizens.” The congress also reported that it and the World Jewish Congress had received threatening emails from an internet user.
Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report that employers often dismissed Witnesses who had been detained by authorities, were being investigated, or received suspended sentences, and that those Witnesses were often unable to find another job, given the stigma surrounding them. Jehovah’s Witnesses also continued to report that adherents were harassed at their workplaces and, in some cases, dismissed or forced to resign when their coworkers became aware of their religious belief.
According to the SOVA Center, national and local media continued to publish and/or broadcast defamatory material about minority religious groups, shaping the public perception that certain religious groups were dangerous. The mass-circulation daily Izvestia, widely regarded as progovernment, published a piece against Jehovah’s Witnesses following the November raids on the group that occurred across the country. The article, citing what it described as an expert in “sectology,” stated Jehovah’s Witnesses had taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to recruit vulnerable members into the group to acquire their property. The “sectologist” concluded that Jehovah’s Witnesses did not value human life and were therefore susceptible to becoming terrorists.
The Russian Jewish Congress reported examples of anti-Semitism in media but stated that a trend toward a reduction in such content, observed in previous years, continued. According to the congress, anti-Semitic content was relatively infrequent on social media and was condemned or was the subject of administrative action when it appeared. The group cited an anti-Semitic statement on television station Russia-1 by Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of National Defense magazine, who said that a number of Jewish opposition figures, including musician Andrei Makarevich, in the time of Hitler “could be turned either into ashes in the crematorium or into a lampshade.” According to President of the Russian Jewish Congress Yuri Kanner, none of the other participants in the program objected to Korotchenko’s remarks. The congress also pointed to anti-Semitism in publications by the North-West Political News Agency.
Some religious figures made anti-Semitic remarks publicly. Father Sergey Romanov, a former member of the ROC hierarchy, made multiple anti-Semitic statements from his pulpit during the year, calling the Jewish community an “accursed, ignorant” people and accusing the “Jewish regime” of being responsible for the closing of churches in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 20, the Verkhnepyshminsky City Court fined Romanov 18,000 rubles ($240) (of a maximum 20,000 rubles, $270) for “incitement of hatred or enmity, as well as the humiliation of human dignity” stemming from anti-Semitic remarks made during one of his sermons. In September, an ROC court expelled him from the Church, but he continued to perform services at a convent outside of Yekaterinburg, according to press reports. According to press reports, on December 29, authorities arrested him on suspicion of encouraging minors to commit suicide in a sermon he gave entitled “For Faith in Christ, Let Us Face Death” that was posted on YouTube. At year’s end, he remained in detention, and his lawyer said he was not permitted to communicate with Romanov in private.
The SOVA Center reported 29 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism during the year, compared with at least 20 incidents (revised number) in 2019, 32 in 2018, and more than 100 such incidents at their peak in 2010.
Media reported on April 15 that police detained a woman who broke a Buddhist stupa with a sledgehammer near the village of Sukhaya. The Ministry of Internal Affairs announced it would open a criminal case against her on charges of vandalism and destruction of a religious structure.
Media reported several cases of anti-Semitic vandalism. For example, on April 13, unidentified perpetrators set fire to the Star of the North Synagogue and Jewish cultural center in Arkhangelsk. No one was injured, but a Jewish community leader estimated property damages at 1.5 million rubles ($20,100). Two months after the incident, police detained a suspect. Authorities initiated a criminal case based on intentional damage to property rather than anti-Semitism. In July, according to press reports, vandals smashed dozens of headstones at Aleksandrovskaya Farm Avenue Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg. Police did not identify any suspects. In September, police arrested a man for painting a cross and pouring yellow paint on a monument for Holocaust victims in Aksay, a village outside the city of Rostov-on-Don near the border with Ukraine. Also in September, the Russian Jewish Congress reported that a drunken man shouting anti-Semitic slogans tried unsuccessfully to enter the Shamir Jewish Community Center in Moscow. He then threw down a chanukiah from the front steps, tore off a nameplate, broke a mailbox, and tore off the license plate of the rabbi’s car.
A variety of religious congregations stated they pursued ties with other faith communities. For example, ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye said the ROC held regular meetings with faith leaders in the city, including with leaders from the Muslim and Jewish communities. Kirill also said the ROC regularly communicated with Protestant groups in Yekaterinburg, including the local Methodist, Baptist, and evangelical communities. The leaders of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Republic of Tatarstan said they communicated and cooperated with other faiths, holding interfaith events, such as soccer tournaments, in Kazan.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate representatives advocated for greater religious freedom in the country, highlighting the government’s misuse of the law on extremism to restrict the peaceful activities of religious minorities.
In January, the Ambassador spoke at a multifaith gathering hosted by the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. In his remarks, the Ambassador underscored the unwavering U.S. commitment to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and doing everything possible to prevent similar acts of genocide and religious persecution from happening again. The embassy also highlighted this message on its social media platforms.
In March, the Ambassador and Yekaterinburg Consul General met with ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye. During the visit, the Ambassador toured the Church on the Blood, built on the site of the 1918 killing of the Romanov family, and he relayed a message of cooperation between the people of the two countries, including in the promotion of freedom of religion.
Embassy officials continued to monitor the situation of U.S. citizens working with religious institutions and organizations in the country to ensure authorities did not improperly target them for their faith or religious work.
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, the embassy moved its outreach efforts online and continued to use its social media platforms to highlight religious freedom issues. On February 18, the embassy expressed concerns on Twitter over the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses; the embassy spokesperson posted, “We welcome news that Jehovah’s Witness Vadim Kutsenko was released today, after reports that Chita law enforcement abducted & tortured him on basis of his peaceful religious beliefs. We urge Russian authorities to fully investigate incident, respect #humanrights #religiousfreedom,” and on June 9, “#JehovahsWitness Gennady Shpakovsky was sentenced today to 6.5 years in prison for reading the Bible and collecting donations for his community. Russia must stop selectively prosecuting believers and let them practice their religion in peace.” On April 14, the embassy posted about anti-Semitism on Twitter, writing, “We strongly condemn the April 13 attack on the Star of the North Synagogue and Jewish cultural center in Arkhangelsk, the third such attack since 2015. We urge a thorough investigation into this heinous act. #CombatAntisemitism.”
The embassy also communicated the importance of religious freedom by celebrating major religious holidays of Christians, Jews, and Muslims via its social media platforms. These messages included video greetings from the Ambassador to mark Easter and the end of Ramadan; posts marking the contributions of various religions to American history and culture; and posts highlighting events that underscored tolerance and that commemorated victims of violence motivated by religious hatred.
On September 2, the embassy sponsored a virtual commemoration concert entitled “Music of World War II: Remembering the Shared Sacrifice of the Allied Nations.” Among the repertoire were compositions by Jewish artists of the World War II era: Polish-Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Piano Quintet, a performance by the Moscow Male Jewish Cappella Choir of the prayer “Ki lekach tov,” and Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” composed and first performed in a concentration camp. The virtual concert attracted 6,400 viewers on Facebook and 1,200 on YouTube, as well as drawing media coverage on various online and broadcast outlets. The embassy also highlighted the liberation of concentration camps during its World War II commemorations, posting videos about the Allied Forces’ liberation of Dachau and Ravensbruck.
On November 25, the embassy coordinated with the Department of State to release tweets condemning the November 24 raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and 20 other regions. On November 30, the Ambassador met with Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives to discuss the most recent raids and the group’s ongoing persecution. The Ambassador said the United States would continue to highlight the government’s violations of the rights of members of their group and reiterated the U.S. commitment to religious freedom.
On December 2, 2020 in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
The constitution provides for the right, individually or jointly with others, to adhere to any religion or to no religion, and to participate in religious customs and ceremonies. The constitution states “religious associations shall be separate from the state” and “shall not interfere in state affairs.” The law restricts Islamic prayer to specific locations, regulates the registration and location of mosques, and prohibits persons younger than the age of 18 from participating in public religious activities. The government Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies (CRA) maintains a broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature. The government continued to detain and prosecute Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusal to serve in the military. In some cases, there were allegations of physical abuse. Jehovah’s Witnesses have unsuccessfully sought registration since 2007, and some adherents have claimed harassment by authorities. In April, a Shohmansur district court in Dushanbe convicted independent journalist Daler Sharifov of “inciting religious hatred,” sentencing him to one year in prison. Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at Hanafi Sunni mosques. Government officials continued to take measures to prevent individuals from joining or participating in religious organizations identified by authorities as extremist and banned, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The government continued to imprison approximately 20 imams in Sughd Region for membership in banned “extremist organizations.” In March, Prosecutor General Yusuf Rahmon said that law enforcement officials had arrested 154 individuals suspected of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. In August, a Sughd Region court sentenced 20 alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood to between five and seven years of prison for their membership in a banned organization. Law enforcement agencies continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or support of groups banned by the government, including groups that advocated for Islamic political goals and presented themselves as political opponents to the government, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Authorities continued a pattern of harassing men with beards, and government officials again issued statements discouraging women from wearing “nontraditional or alien” clothing, including hijabs. According to international NGOs, the CRA levied heavy fines on four Protestant churches between August 2019 and January 2020 for arranging translation of the Bible into Tajik without prior CRA approval, as required by law. The CRA denied the NGO report, stating that translation of religious literature does not fall under its purview. The government noted its intent to reschedule a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to assess the religious situation in the country and make suggestions to address concerns. The visit planned for 2020 did not take place due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Individuals outside government continued to state they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, due to fear of government harassment. Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations among members of different religious groups, remained a subject they avoided.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials encouraged the government on a frequent basis during in-person meetings, virtual gatherings, and calls to adhere to its commitments to respect religious freedom. Embassy officers raised concerns regarding the participation of women and minors in religious services, restrictions on the religious education of youth, the situation facing Jehovah Witnesses in the country, and harassment of those wearing religious attire.
In 2016, the country was 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 December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the required sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to local academics, the country is more than 90 percent Muslim, of whom the majority adheres to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. Approximately 4 percent of Muslims are Ismaili Shia, the majority of whom reside in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, located in the eastern part of the country.
The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox. There are small communities of evangelical Christians, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, and nondenominational Protestants. There also are smaller communities of Jews, Baha’is, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares the country a secular state and “religious associations shall be separate from the state and shall not interfere in state affairs.” According to the constitution, everyone has the right individually or jointly with others to profess any religion or no religion and to take part in religious customs and ceremonies. Since October 2007, the government has banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses for carrying out religious activities contrary to the country’s laws, such as refusing obligatory military service.
The establishment and activities of religious associations promoting racism, nationalism, enmity, social and religious hatred, or calling for the violent overthrow of constitutional order or organizing of armed groups is prohibited. The constitution prohibits “propaganda and agitation” that encourages religious enmity. In accordance with provisions of the constitution, no ideology of a political party, public or religious association, movement, or group may be recognized as a state ideology.
The law prohibits provoking religiously based hatred, enmity, or conflict as well as humiliating and harming the religious sentiments of other citizens.
The law defines extremism as the activities of individuals and organizations aimed at destabilization, subverting the constitutional order, or seizing power. This definition includes inciting religious hatred.
The law prohibits individuals from joining or participating in what it considers to be extremist organizations. The government maintains a list of “extremist organizations” that it alleges employ terrorist tactics in an effort to advance Islamic political goals, including the National Alliance of Tajikistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, al-Qaida, Muslim Brotherhood, Taliban, Jamaat Tabligh, Islamic Group (Islamic Community of Pakistan), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Party of Turkestan (former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), Lashkar-e-Tayba, Tojikistoni Ozod, Sozmoni Tablighot, Salafi groups, Jamaat Ansarullah, and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).
The CRA is the government body primarily responsible for overseeing and implementing all provisions of the law pertaining to religion. The Center for Islamic Studies, under the Executive Office of the President, helps formulate the government’s policy toward religion.
The law defines a religious association as any group composed of persons who join for religious purposes. A religious association is a voluntary association of followers of one faith, with the purpose of holding joint worship and celebration of religious ceremonies, religious education, as well as spreading religious beliefs. To register a religious association, a group of at least 10 persons older than the age of 18 must obtain a certificate from local authorities confirming the adherents of their religious faith have lived in a local area for five years. The group must then submit to the CRA proof of the citizenship of its founders, along with their home addresses and dates of birth. The group must provide an account of its beliefs and religious practices and describe its attitudes related to education, family, and marriage. A religious association must provide information on its houses of worship, which includes religious centers, central prayer houses, and religious educational institutions. The group must specify in its charter the activities it plans to undertake, and once registered as a religious association, must report annually on its activities or face deregistration.
The government subdivides associations formed for “conducting joint religious worship” into religious organizations and religious communities, which also are defined by law. To operate legally, both are required to register with the government, a process overseen by the CRA.
A religious organization provides for religious education and the spreading of religious faith. Types of religious organizations include the Republican Religious Center, central Friday mosques, central prayer houses, religious education entities, churches, and synagogues. Religious organizations are legal entities and function on the basis of charters. They may be district, municipal, or national organizations.
A religious community, unlike a religious organization, is not a legal entity. Its members gather to conduct other religious activities, which are not defined by law. For example, individuals gather for joint prayer, attend funeral prayers, and celebrate religious holidays. Types of religious communities include Friday mosques, five-time prayer mosques, prayer houses, and other places of worship. A religious community functions on the basis of a charter after registering with the CRA, and the nature and scope of its activities are determined by the charter. A religious community must adhere to the “essence and limits of activity” set out in its charter.
The law provides penalties for religious associations that engage in activities contrary to the purposes and objectives set out in their charters, and it assigns the CRA responsibility for issuing fines for such activities. The law imposes fines for carrying out religious activities without state registration or reregistration; violating provisions on organizing and conducting religious activities; providing religious education without permission; performing prayers, religious rites, and ceremonies in undesignated places; and performing activities beyond the purposes and objectives defined by the charter of the religious association. For first-time offenses, the government fines individuals 406 to 580 somoni ($36-$51), heads of religious associations 1,160 to 1,740 somoni ($100-$150), and registered religious associations, as legal entities, 5,800 to 11,600 somoni ($510-$1,000). For repeat offenses within one year of applying first fines, penalties are increased to 696 to 1,160 somoni ($61-$100) for individuals, 2,320 to 2,900 somoni ($200-$260) for heads of religious associations, and 17,400 to 23,200 somoni ($1,500-$2,000) for registered religious associations. If a religious association conducts activities without registering, local authorities may impose additional fines or close a place of worship.
The law allows restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion deemed necessary by the government to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of the foundations of constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country. In addition, religious organizations annually must report general information about worship, organizational, educational, and outreach activities to the state, and the state must approve the appointments of all imams.
The Law on Freedom of Conscience (the Law) stipulates that no party, public or religious association, movement, or group may be recognized as representing state ideology. The Law also asserts that the state maintains control over religious education to prevent illegal training, propaganda, and the dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and hostility.
The Law broadly empowers the CRA to create regulations to implement state policies on religion, such as establishing specific guidelines for the performance of religious ceremonies. In addition to approving the registration of religious associations, organizations, and communities, the CRA maintains a broad mandate that includes approving the construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature.
The CRA oversees activities of religious associations, such as the performance of religious rites, and the development and adoption of legal acts aimed at the implementation of a state policy on the freedom of conscience and religious associations. Religious associations must submit information on sources of income, property lists, expenditures, numbers of employees, wages and taxes paid, and other information upon request by the CRA.
The Freedom of Conscience Law recognizes the special status of Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence with respect to the country’s culture and spiritual life. This status is aspirational, however, and does not have any specific legal bearing.
The Freedom of Conscience Law restricts Islamic prayer to four locations: mosques, cemeteries, homes, and shrines. It regulates the registration, size, and location of mosques, limiting the number of mosques that may be registered within a given population area. The government allows “Friday mosques,” which conduct larger Friday prayers as well as prayers five times per day, to be located in districts with populations of 10,000 to 20,000 persons; it allows “five-time mosques,” which conduct only daily prayers five times per day, in areas with populations of 100 to 1,000. In Dushanbe, authorities allow Friday mosques in areas with 30,000 to 50,000 persons, and five-time mosques in areas with populations of 1,000 to 5,000. The Law allows one “central Friday mosque” per district or city and makes other mosques subordinate to it.
Mosques function according to their charters in buildings constructed by government-approved religious organizations or by individual citizens, or with the assistance of the general population. The Law states the selection of chief-khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders at a central Friday mosque), imam-khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders in a Friday mosque, who deliver a sermon at Friday noon prayers), and imams (government-sanctioned prayer leaders in five-time mosques) shall take place in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.” The CRA must approve imam-khatibs and imams elected by the founders of each mosque. Local authorities decide on land allocation for the construction of mosques in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.” The CRA disseminates recommended talking points for Friday sermons drafted by the Islamic Center. Individual imam-khatibs can modify or supplement the talking points, and, according to the CRA, there is no penalty for noncompliance.
The Law on Regulation of Traditions and Celebrations regulates private celebrations, including weddings, funeral services, and observations of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, including limiting the number of guests, and it controls ceremonial gift presentations and other rituals. The statute also states that mass worship, religious traditions, and ceremonies must be carried out according to the procedures for holding meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and peaceful processions. This statute also bans the traditional sacrifice of animals at ceremonies marking the seventh and 40th day after a death. Traditional sacrifices are permissible during Ramadan and Eid al-Adha.
According to the Law on Regulation of Traditions and Celebrations, “Individuals and legal entities are obliged to protect the values of the national culture, including the state language and national dress.” According to customary (not official) interpretation, “national dress” does not include the hijab, although it does include a traditional Tajik form of covering a woman’s head, known as ruymol. The Code of Administrative violations (the Code) does not list the wearing of a beard, hijab, or other religious clothing as violations.
The Law allows registered religious organizations to produce, export, import, and distribute religious literature and materials containing religious content after receiving CRA approval. Only registered religious associations and organizations are entitled to establish enterprises that produce literature and material with religious content. Such literature and material must indicate the full name of the religious organization producing it. The Code allows government authorities to levy fines for the production, export, import, sale, or distribution of religious literature without CRA permission. According to the Code, violators are subject to confiscation of the given literature, as well as fines of 1,740 to 4,060 somoni ($150-$360) for individuals; 2,900 to 8,700 somoni ($260-$770) for government officials; and 5,800 to 17,400 somoni ($510-$1,500) for legal entities, a category that includes all organizations. According to the Code, producing literature or material containing religious content without identifying the name of the religious organization producing it entails fines of 2,900 to 5,800 somoni ($260-$510) and confiscation of the material.
The Law on Parental Responsibility for Education and Upbringing of Children prohibits individuals younger than the age of 18 from participating in “public religious activities,” including attending worship services at public places of worship. Individuals younger than 18 may attend religious funerals and practice religion at home, under parental guidance. The statute allows individuals younger than 18 to participate in religious activities that are part of specific educational programs in authorized religious institutions.
The Law requires all institutions or groups wishing to provide religious instruction to meet the Ministry of Education and Science’s statutory requirements. In practice, however, such permission is usually not granted because madrassahs are not able to meet the ministry’s requirements relative to classrooms, qualified teachers, and curriculum. Central district mosques may operate madrassahs, which are open only to high school graduates. Other mosques, if registered with the government, may provide part-time religious instruction for younger students in accordance with their charter and if licensed by the government.
With written parental consent, the Law allows minors between the ages of seven and 18 to obtain religious instruction provided by a registered religious organization outside mandatory school hours. According to the Law, this may not duplicate religious instruction that is already part of a school curriculum. As part of the high school curriculum, students must take general classes on the “history of religions.” The CRA is responsible for monitoring mosques throughout the country to ensure implementation of these provisions.
According to the CRA, parents may teach religion to their children at home provided they express a desire to learn. The Law forbids religious instruction at home to individuals outside the immediate family. The Law also restricts sending citizens abroad for religious education and establishing ties with religious organizations abroad without CRA consent. To be eligible to study religion abroad, students must complete a degree in religious studies domestically and receive written consent from the CRA. The Code stipulates fines of 2,900 to 5,800 somoni ($260-$510) for violating these restrictions.
The Law on General Military Duty and Service requires men to serve one year in the armed forces if they have a university degree and two years if they have not graduated from a university. This same statute allows for alternative service, although the government has yet to adopt implementing regulations that specify acceptable forms of alternative service.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
In January, authorities charged independent journalist Daler Sharifov with “inciting racial and religious hatred.” According to international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, police raided his apartment in January and confiscated religious books and materials and his computer. In February, the Prosecutor General’s Office said that Sharifov had published more than 200 articles and notes containing extremist content aimed at inciting religious intolerance. According to government religious experts, Sharifov published a treatise extolling the Muslim Brotherhood movement and jihadist ideology. In April, a Shohmansur district court sentenced Sharifov to a one-year prison term.
In November, Forum 18 reported that authorities arrested Rustamjon Norov, a 22-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, in the northern city of Khujand for refusing military service on grounds of conscience. Prosecutors accused him of falsifying his medical history to evade military service, which he denied. Norov had offered to perform alternative civilian service. He filed an appeal, which was dismissed on October 28, according to Forum 18. At year’s end, he was in pretrial detention in Khujand.
On April 2, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that a military court in Dushanbe sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Jovidon Bobojonov to two years in a labor camp, beginning in January, for refusing compulsory military service, rejecting his offer of alternative service, according to Forum 18. On November 1, Bobojonov was freed by the 2020 nationwide amnesty decree signed by President Emomali Rahmon. In October 2019, enlistment officers had forcibly put Bobojonov on a train to an assigned military unit. According to Forum 18, Bobojonov was tortured while in the unit, transferred to prison in Dushanbe in January, and lost his appeal of his sentence in April. In 2019, government and military authorities denied that Bobojonov had the right to claim conscientious objection, stating that although the Law on General Military Duty and Service referred to the possibility of alternative service, there was no alternative in practice because the government had not defined acceptable forms of alternative service. The authorities said Bobojonov’s refusal to serve therefore was a crime and that the actions of enlistment officers were lawful. The Dushanbe’s military prosecutor’s office stated that Bobojonov was given the option to serve in construction battalion that did not carry arms but refused.
Another Jehovah’s Witness, Shamil Khakimov, remained in prison at year’s end, serving five-and-a-half years for “inciting religious hatred,” with his release scheduled for May 2024, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives. The Sughd Regional Court dismissed his appeal on October 26. Khakimov also received a three-year ban on proselytizing once he is released from prison.
In July, Forum 18 reported a climate of impunity for security officials accused of torture in the country, citing lack of official action on allegations of torture from Nilufar Rajabova, Bobojonov, and other prisoners detained or arrested in connection to their religious beliefs.
Authorities continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or supporting banned extremist organizations. International NGOs continued to state that some of these organizations were considered to be potential political opponents of the government but in fact had never advocated for or participated in acts of violence. Local and international human rights organizations continued to say that the government “intimidates and arrests” opposition figures on the pretext of combating terrorism and extremism.
In January, Forum 18 reported that Khayriddin Dostakov had been arrested at Dushanbe Airport upon his return from visiting relatives in Russia. According to Forum 18, police questioned him about whether he had become a Shia Muslim or spread Shia beliefs and beat him and used electric shocks on him in prison. On August 25, authorities dropped all criminal charges and released Dostakov from custody after an eight-month detention.
On January 20, Radio Ozodi, the Tajik-language outlet of RFE/RL, reported that law enforcement officials had arrested approximately 70 alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization banned in the country since 2006. On March 20, according to RFE/RL, Prosecutor General Yusuf Rahmon said that law enforcement officials had identified 314 individuals and arrested 154 of them, including the 70 mentioned in January, for their suspected ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to a June 8 RFE/RL report, Imam-Khatib Muhammadsayid Akramov and three of his brothers were convicted by the Khatlon regional court of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. They reportedly were in custody for approximately four months prior to the trial, at which point their sentences were suspended and they were released.
On July 7, the Supreme Court began considering criminal cases against 116 alleged Muslim Brotherhood members, including 114 Tajik citizens and two Egyptian citizens. The defendants were charged with financing terrorist activities, making extremist statements, and organizing extremist activities. At year’s end, the Supreme Court continued prosecuting these cases.
The government continued to imprison approximately 20 imams in Sughd Region, most of whom had received religious education abroad, for membership in banned extremist organizations.
In January, RFE/RL reported that a district court in Dushanbe sentenced Sadriddin Mulloyev, a member of Jamaat Tabligh, a Salafist movement banned by the government, to 12 years in prison for terrorism and extremism activities. Authorities had arrested Mulloyev in September 2019 after he returned to the country in response to a government amnesty program, according to Forum 18. Forum 18 said in January that Mulloyev had served an earlier prison term, from 2008 to 2013, for being a member of the same movement.
On November 12, according to his relatives, State Committee for National Security (GKNB) officers detained Sirojiddin Abdurahmonov, widely considered to be the leader of the Salafi movement in the country. Although law enforcement agencies did not comment on Abdurahmonov’s arrest, RFE/RL cited an anonymous judiciary source in reporting that a Dushanbe court authorized his detention. Abdurahmonov’s relatives told RFE/RL that authorities confiscated the cleric’s computer and religious texts at the time of his arrest. He was previously arrested in 2009 on charges of inciting religious hatred but released from prison in 2013 following an amnesty. He remained in detention at year’s end.
Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council that prohibited women from praying at mosques. Ismaili Shia women were permitted to attend Shia services in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region and Dushanbe.
The CRA stated that it did not receive any new applications for registration from non-Islamic religious associations during the year. The CRA reported that there remained 66 registered non-Islamic religious organizations, including the Russian Orthodox Church and the Baha’i Faith.
In its October census, the government included a question on religious identity for the first time since 1937. According to Forum 18, some religious groups expressed fear that census answers could be used to target individuals and organizations because of their faith. Government officials were unclear on why the question was included, according to Forum 18. The Statistics Agency, responsible for conducting the census, stated the data was solely to collect demographic information and that it would publish the results in 2022.
NGOs reported continued government restrictions on imam-khatibs and imams, such as centrally selecting and approving sermon topics, as well as prohibiting some imam-khatibs from performing certain ceremonies.
In a 2019 submission to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), which international observers stated remained factual, HRW stated the government “severely curtails freedom of religion or belief, proscribing certain forms of dress, including the hijab for women and long beards for men.” While there remained no legal prohibition against wearing a hijab or a beard, NGOs reported authorities continued to discourage “nontraditional or alien” clothing. In a 2019 submission to the UN, the NGOs Human Rights Vision Foundation, Eurasian Dialogue Institution, and the Tajik Freethinkers Forum said official media stigmatized and persecuted religious women and that local police and ruling party activists organized surprise public inspections of women wearing hijabs, requiring them to remove the headwear. The NGOs also said female patients wearing hijabs were refused treatment in public health clinics and faced restricted access or were denied entrance to educational establishments and administrative buildings. Local women were permitted to cover their hair in a ruymol, in which the scarf covers a woman’s hair and is tied in the back.
On January 22, RFE/RL reported that a court in Dushanbe denied Nilufar Rajabova’s appeal after she was fined 550 somoni ($49) for insulting a law enforcement official. According to December 2019 press reports, she accused Dushanbe police of insulting her and threatening her after she was detained, along with two dozen others, in a raid targeting women wearing hijabs. She told Forum 18 that she had also been hit by an officer, falling and injuring her spine as a result.
On February 13, Hilolbi Qurbonzoda, the chairwoman of the Committee on Women and Family Affairs, said during a press conference that the issue of women wearing hijabs would not be sensitive if it were not for terrorist attacks involving women wearing hijabs in other countries. Qurbonzoda added that the international community was taking steps to protect state interests and some countries had already adopted rules on women wearing hijabs. Qurbonzoda said it is important for Tajik women to keep their identity and not be confused with Arab women.
In August, RFE/RL reported that Vanj District officials said a group of individuals protested against being forced to shave, since officials in that area regarded beards as a foreign intrusion on local culture or a sign of religious extremism. Vanj District chairman Jabbor Qosim told RFE/RL that he would hold discussions with these individuals to look into their complaints.
The government mandated that anyone wishing to study religion abroad should receive government approval and should study at a government-approved religious institution.
In July, CRA chairman Davlatzoda said 3,901 citizens who had been illegally studying abroad at religious educational institutions had returned home over the previous 11 years. Some of these individuals reportedly returned involuntarily. The government sometimes sent these students to government boarding schools for secular reeducation. For example, on September 16, a member of the banned IRPT told RFE/RL that his 15-year-old son was “being held hostage” at a boarding school for children who misbehave. Mahmadzarif Saidov, who lives in exile in Europe, said that his son had been studying at a Bangladeshi madrassah when he was detained in Dubai and returned to the country in 2019. He said authorities had placed him in a special boarding school and prohibited contact with relatives. A district government source told RFE/RL on September 16 that Saidov’s son had been “brainwashed” at the madrassah for nearly four years and needed time to receive a secular education.
In its 2019 review (the most recent) of the government’s adherence to its commitments under the ICCPR, which international observers stated remained accurate, the UNHRC stated that it remained concerned “that interference by the State in religious affairs, worship, and freedom of religion and the ensuing restrictions… are incompatible with the Covenant.” The UNHRC identified these restrictions as including: (a) interference with the appointment of imams and the content of their sermons; (b) control over books and other religious materials; (c) the requirement of state permission for receiving religious education abroad; (d) the prohibition against entering a mosque for those younger than 18 years of age; (e) the regulations regarding the registration of religious organizations; (f) the regulations on wearing clothes during traditional or religious celebrations and the prohibition of certain attire in practice, such as the hijab; and (g) restrictions imposed on Christian religious minorities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A planned visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to assess the government’s actions as they pertain to religious practice did not occur due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At year’s end, the government was coordinating with the special rapporteur to reschedule the visit once conditions permitted.
According to Forum 18 in March and Voice of the Martyrs in May, between August 2019 and January 2020, the CRA fined four Protestant churches 7,000 to 11,000 somoni ($620-$970) each for arranging translation of the Bible into Tajik. One congregant told Forum 18 that these fines were “huge,” given that the average monthly collection in some churches was only 500 somoni ($44). The CRA denied the NGO report, stating that translation of religious literature does not fall under its purview.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Individuals outside government continued to state they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, due to fear of government harassment. Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations among members of various religious groups, remained a subject they avoided. Individuals said they were more comfortable discussing abuses of civil rights than discussing sectarian disagreements or restrictions on religious freedom.
The NGO Open Doors 2021 World Watch List report, which covers events in 2020, stated that because the country’s ethnic identity is directly tied to Islam, Christians who have converted from Islam face criticism by family, friends, and community.
Leaders of some minority religious groups continued to state their communities enjoyed positive relationships with the majority Hanafi Sunni population, who, they said, did not hinder their worship services or cause concern for their congregations. Other minority religious group leaders stated that converts from Islam experienced social disapproval from friends and neighbors.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In separate meetings throughout the year with the Foreign Minister, Deputy Foreign Minister, CRA senior representatives, and other government officials, the Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to raise concerns regarding restrictions on minors and women participating in religious services, the situation of Jehovah Witnesses in the country, and restrictions on the religious education of youth. Embassy officers also raised the issue of harassment of women and men for religious dress and grooming.
Because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the embassy did not host any in-person public events dealing with freedom of religion issues. Embassy officials had limited engagements in virtual formats with civil society, NGOs, and religious leaders from Christian organizations on the issue of religious freedom.
U.S. officials emphasized with government representatives the importance of steps to ameliorate restrictions on freedom of religion through national legislation and with regards to alternative service. U.S. embassy officers sought amnesty for conscientious objectors and prisoners of conscience. Embassy officials also discussed with religious leaders how they conducted services during the pandemic amid closures of religious associations, such as mosques and churches throughout the country, in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Since 2016, Tajikistan has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions as required in the important national interest of the United States.
The constitution provides for the freedom of religion and for the right of individuals to choose their religion, express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and participate in religious observances and ceremonies. The constitution guarantees the separation of government and religion and stipulates that religious organizations are prohibited from “interference” in state affairs. The law on religion requires all religious organizations, including those previously registered under an earlier version of the law, to reregister regularly with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) in order to operate legally. According to religious organizations, government security forces continued to severely restrict the importation of religious literature, and it remained difficult to obtain places of worship. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, as of the end of the year, 11 Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors were imprisoned for refusing military service; several were sentenced to prison terms of one year to two years. The government continued not to offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors. The government registered one new religious organization, and six religious organizations amended their charter during the year. According to local religious communities and international advocacy groups, members of some registered and unregistered Christian organizations continued to face official and unofficial harassment, raids, and house searches, usually as a result of attempting to gather for purposes of communal worship. The government continued to appoint all senior Muslim clerics and scrutinize or obstruct religious groups attempting to purchase or lease buildings or land for religious purposes.
Religious leaders and others again stated they were reluctant to speak out publicly about religious freedom issues out of fear of harassment, ostracism, or public shaming by their family members, friends, and neighbors. Numerous citizens stated that the government’s suspicion of religion continued to be mirrored in the private sector, and that membership in a minority religious organization or even “excessive” expressions of religion could result in the loss of employment or employment opportunities. Some members of minority religious groups reported societal prejudices against religious groups that were not Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox.
In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador, embassy representatives, and other U.S. government officials expressed concern about religious freedom issues, including the legal status of conscientious objectors, the factors that determined Turkmenistan’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern, the ability of religious groups to register or reregister, and restrictions on the import of religious literature. Multiple times during the year, the embassy requested that President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov pardon all Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned as conscientious objectors. In January, the Ambassador and other embassy officials, along with ambassadors and senior officials from European embassies, met with 10 minority religious groups to discuss their challenges in the face of a restrictive environment for religious freedom, including challenges of reregistration, the inability to import religious literature, and the lack of places of worship.
Since 2014, Turkmenistan has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to U.S. government estimates, the country is 89 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), 9 percent Eastern Orthodox, and 2 percent other. There are small communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Shia Muslims, Baha’is, Roman Catholics, members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and evangelical Christians, including Baptists and Pentecostals.
Most ethnic Russians and Armenians identify as Orthodox Christian and generally are members of the Russian Orthodox Church or Armenian Apostolic Church. Some ethnic Russians and Armenians are also members of smaller Protestant groups.
There are small pockets of Shia Muslims, consisting largely of ethnic Iranians, Azeris, and Kurds, some located in Ashgabat, with others along the border with Iran, and in the western city of Turkmenbashi.
According to the Israeli embassy, approximately 200 Jews live in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and for the right of individuals to choose their religion, express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and participate in religious observances and ceremonies. The constitution separates the roles of government and religion, stipulating religious organizations are prohibited from “interference” in state affairs or carrying out state functions. The constitution states public education shall be secular in nature. It provides for the equality of citizens before the law regardless of their religious preference.
The law requires all religious organizations, including those that had registered previously, to reregister with the MOJ in order to operate legally in the country whenever the organization changes its address or amends its legal charter. In practice, however, religious groups have a de facto requirement to reregister approximately every three years. The law permits only the registration of those religious organizations that have at least 50 resident members older than the age of 18. The law defines a religious organization as a voluntary association of citizens affiliated with a religion, organized to conduct religious services and other rites and ceremonies as well as to provide religious education and registered in accordance with the country’s legislation. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are 132 religious organizations in the country, drawn from Muslim, Christian, and other faith groups; most (109) are Muslim.
According to the law, the State Commission on Religious Organizations and Expert Evaluation of Religious Information Resources (SCROEERIR) is responsible for helping registered religious organizations work with government agencies, explaining the law to representatives of religious organizations, monitoring the activities of religious organizations to ensure they comply with the law, assisting with the translation and publication of religious literature, and promoting understanding and tolerance among different religious organizations. The law states SCROEERIR must approve all individuals appointed as leaders of religious organizations, although the law does not specify the procedures for obtaining the required approval. SCROERRIR operates under the leadership of the Grand Mufti, who is appointed by the government, as are all other senior Muslim clerics. The Deputy Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers for education, health, religion, sports, tourism, science, new technologies, and innovation oversees SCROEERIR’s work. The chairman of SCROEERIR is also the chairman of the Department for Work with Religious Organizations of the Cabinet of Ministers. One member of SCROEERIR is from the Russian Orthodox Church.
To register, organizations must submit to SCROEERIR their contact information; proof of address; a statement requesting registration signed by the founders and board members of the organization; two copies of the organization’s charter; the names, addresses, and dates of birth of the organization’s founders, and pay a registration fee of ranging from 100 to 800 manat ($29 to $230), based on location of registration and other factors. Once SCROEERIR endorses an application for registration, it is submitted to the MOJ, which coordinates an interministerial approval process involving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of National Security, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and other government offices. According to government procedures, the MOJ may additionally request the biographic information of all members of an organization applying for registration. The law states that leaders of registered religious organizations must be citizens who have received an “appropriate religious education,” but it does not define that term. Each subsidiary congregation of a registered religious organization must also register, and the registration process is the same as that which applies to the parent organization.
The tax code stipulates registered religious organizations are exempt from taxes.
The law states the MOJ will not register a religious organization if its goals or activities contradict the constitution or if SCROEERIR does not endorse its application. The law does not specify the standards SCROEERIR uses to make that determination. The law assigns the Office of the Prosecutor General to monitor the compliance of a religious organization with the constitution. The law specifies a court may suspend the activities of a religious organization if it determines the organization to be in violation of the constitution; that suspension may only be overcome if the organization submits documentation satisfying the court that the activities that led to suspension have been stopped. The law also states that grounds for dissolution of a religious organization include activities “that violate the rights, freedoms, and lawful interests of citizens” or “harm their health and morale.”
The administrative code covering religious organizations delineates a schedule of fines for conducting activities not described in a religious organization’s charter.
Unregistered religious organizations and unregistered subsidiary congregations of registered religious organizations may not legally conduct religious activities; establish places of worship; gather for religious services, including in private residences; produce or disseminate religious materials; or proselytize. Any such activity is punishable as an administrative offense by fines ranging from 100 to 2,000 manat ($29 to $570), with higher fines for religious leaders and lower fines for lay members.
The law states MOJ officials have the right to attend any religious event held by a registered religious organization and to question religious leaders about any aspect of their activities.
The administrative code stipulates penalties of from 200 to 500 manat ($57 to $140) for officials who violate an individual’s right of freedom to worship or right to abstain from worship, but this has not been enforced in practice.
The criminal and administrative codes provide punishment for the harassment of members of registered religious organizations by private individuals. According to the administrative code, obstructing the exercise of religious freedom is punishable by a fine of from 1,000 to 8,700 manat ($290 to $2,500) or detention of from 15 days to one year of “corrective labor,” which involves serving in a government-assigned position in a prison near one’s home or at a location away from one’s home. If an obstruction involves a physical attack, the punishment may entail up to two years in prison. According to the criminal code, the fine is calculated as five to 10 times an individual’s average monthly wages (4,350 to 8,700 manat or $1,200 to $2,500).
The law allows registered religious organizations to create educational establishments to train clergy and other religious personnel after obtaining a license to do so. The Cabinet of Ministers establishes the procedures for obtaining a license. The law also states individuals teaching religious disciplines at religious educational establishments must have a theological education and must carry out their activities with the permission of the central governing body of the religious organization and the approval of SCROEERIR.
Local governments have the right to monitor and “analyze” the “religious situation” within their jurisdiction, send proposals to SCROEERIR to change or update legislation on religious freedom, and coordinate religious ceremonies conducted outside of religious buildings.
The law allows local governments, with the approval of SCROEERIR, to make decisions regarding the construction of religious buildings and structures within their jurisdiction.
Under the criminal code, polygamy carries penalties of up to two years of labor or fines of 17,400 to 26,100 manat ($5,000 to $7,500).
The law prohibits the publication of religious literature inciting “religious, national, ethnic, and/or racial hatred,” although it does not specify which agency makes this determination. SCROEERIR must approve imported religious literature, and only registered religious organizations may import literature. Registered religious organizations may be fined for publishing or disseminating religious material without government approval. The administrative code sets out a detailed schedule of fines, ranging from 200 to 2,000 manat ($57 to $570), for producing, importing, and disseminating unauthorized religious literature and other religious materials.
Religious instruction is not part of the public school curriculum. The law allows registered religious organizations to provide religious education after school to children for up to four hours per week with parental and SCROEERIR approval, although the law does not specify the requirements for obtaining SCROEERIR’s approval. Persons who graduate from institutions of higher religious education, and who obtain approval from SCROEERIR, may provide religious education. According to the law, citizens have a right to obtain religious education, although obtaining religious education in private settings such as residences is prohibited, and those offering religious education in private settings are subject to legal action. The law prohibits unregistered religious groups or unregistered subsidiary congregations of registered religious organizations from providing religious education. The administrative code sets out a detailed schedule of fines, ranging from 100 to 500 manat ($29 to $140), for providing unauthorized religious education to children.
The constitution states two years of military service are compulsory for men older than the age of 18. Although service in noncombat roles is allowed, the government does not offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors. Refusal to perform the compulsory two-year service in the armed forces is punishable by a maximum of two years in prison or two years of “corrective labor.” In addition, the state withholds part of the salaries of prisoners sentenced to corrective labor in an amount designated by the court. Salary deductions range between 5 to 20 percent. The law states no one has the right for religious reasons to refuse duties established by the constitution and the law. Until the age of 27, individuals may be convicted each time they refuse compulsory military service, potentially resulting in multiple convictions in their lifetimes.
The constitution and law prohibit the establishment of political parties on the basis of religion, and the law prohibits the involvement of religious groups in politics.
The law does not address the activities of foreign missionaries and foreign religious organizations. The administrative code, however, bans registered religious organizations from receiving assistance from foreign entities for prohibited activities.
The law requires religious groups to register all foreign assistance with the MOJ and to provide interim and final reports on the use of funds. The administrative code provides a detailed schedule of fines of up to 10,000 manat ($2,900) on both unregistered and registered religious groups for accepting unapproved funds from foreign sources.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Military-age Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to be arrested and imprisoned for refusing military service; five were arrested and imprisoned during the year. As of the end of the year, 11 Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors were imprisoned for refusing military service, compared with 10 at the end of 2019.
According to the human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18, early in the year, the Dashoguz Provincial Court sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Kamiljan Ergashov and Vepa Matyakubov to two years in prison for refusing compulsory military service. This was reportedly the second conviction for Matyakubov, who was first convicted in 2017, placed under house arrest, and forced to forfeit 20 percent of his salary. His older brother, Dovran, was imprisoned twice for conscientious objection, first in December 2010 and again in December 2012. Matyakubov’s sentence included a statement from SCROEERIR that “the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses is not officially registered in Turkmenistan.”
According to Forum 18 and the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official website, brothers Eldor and Sanjarbek Saburov were sentenced to two years and imprisoned in August for their conscientious objection to military service. Forum 18 reported that both lost their appeal to the Dashoguz Provincial Court on September 1 and faced a sentence of corrective labor because both had been charged with the same offense previously (Sanjarbek in 2016 and Eldor in 2017).
According to Forum 18, in September, Myrat Orazgeldiyev, a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, was sentenced to one year in prison for conscientious objection by a district court in Mary Province.
Forum 18 also reported that in May, Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of 19 current or former imprisoned conscientious objectors.
According to Forum 18, in March, the Lebap Provincial Court fined a homeowner 200 manat ($57) and confiscated his computer for hosting a gathering to celebrate Christmas in 2019. In February, secret police from the Ministry of National Security reportedly raided a home in Dashoguz Province where local Christians were meeting. All the participants were taken to the police station and the home owner was later fined 200 manat ($57). That same month, local police reportedly raided another house in Dashoguz Province where a group of Protestants was attending a housewarming celebration. All those present were taken to the police station and forced to write statements indicating they had attended an illegal religious meeting. In January, police summoned a group of women to make statements and give fingerprints following a raid on their Christmas 2019 gathering in a village in Lebap Province. There were no further developments in this case by year’s end.
Forum 18 also reported that in Lebap Province in February, officials banned state employees – including those working in education, culture, health, the military, and the police – from attending Friday prayers in mosques. The employees were warned that if they were seen in mosques they would be fired from their jobs. Officials also banned them from praying at their place of work.
In its report covering 2020, NGO Open Doors ranked the country on its World Watch List of countries where Christians are persecuted. The NGO said the government imposed many restrictions on church life and Christians are highly susceptible to police raids, threats, arrests, and fines unless they are part of a registered church. According to local religious community members and international advocacy groups, members of some Christian organizations faced harassment, raids, and house searches, usually as a result of attempting to gather for purposes of communal worship. They reported that security services interviewed members of religious organizations and demanded they provide information on their communities’ activities. Some members also reported that security officials interrogated their friends and family members, asking about the members’ religious activities. Christian groups reported that Turkmen who converted from Islam experienced government scrutiny and were subject to discrimination. For example, the groups reported converts were denied government jobs or fired from jobs based on their religion.
Unregistered groups stated their members were subject to arrest for “unlawful assembly,” in addition to fines stipulated by law. Members of these groups said they continued to practice discreetly, mostly in private homes, and could do so as long as neighbors did not file complaints with local authorities.
Representatives of registered Christian groups said some government officials continued to require them to obtain approval to carry out routine religious activities, such as weekly services, as well as social and charitable activities, including summer camps for children. Some groups sought official approval of such activities, even if they did not believe that approval was required, in order to assure the events would not be disrupted.
Religious groups continued to report the government prevented or severely limited the importation of and access to religious literature; even the few groups who were successful in importing literature complained about the restrictive procedures. Although by law registered religious groups were allowed to import religious literature, they said the government’s opaque procedures made it extremely difficult. The Quran remained unavailable in state bookstores in Ashgabat, although many individuals kept a Soviet-era copy in Arabic or Russian in their homes. Few translations were available in the Turkmen language. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said SCROEERIR allowed the import of 240 religious books during the year.
Members of various religious groups reported that the government and state-affiliated enterprises continued to interfere in the purchase or long-term rental of land and buildings for worship or meeting purposes. Some of the groups reported that landlords feared government reprisal if they leased properties to be used as places of worship. Some groups reported that they had secured properties only to have the landlords renege on the contacts after being instructed by the government. Other groups stated that attempts to purchase land or property to use as places of worship were stymied by intentional government obfuscation or flat-out denial. Registered and unregistered religious groups reported continued difficulty in renting space for holiday celebrations from private landlords, which they attributed to landlords’ concerns about potential government disapproval.
The theology faculty in the Turkmen State University history department in Ashgabat continued to be the only university-level members allowed to provide Islamic higher education. The Ministry of National Security reportedly continued to vet student candidates for admission to this program. The state-approved Islamic theology program remained the only course of study available. Women remained banned from the program.
On February 21, President Berdimuhamedov attended the opening of a 3,000-person-capacity mosque in Turkmenabat, Lebap Province. After the tour, he hosted a communal meal with government officials, Muslim leaders, and local business leaders.
According to members of the Protestant community, clergy in Protestant organizations continued to receive their religious education abroad or via distance learning.
The government continued its practice of approving the appointment of all senior Muslim clerics. The Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups continued to be financed independently; the government was not involved in appointing their leadership, but the senior Russian Orthodox priest was required to be a Turkmen citizen.
The government continued its practice of denying visas to foreigners suspected of conducting or intending to conduct missionary activity. Religious groups able to obtain religious visitor visas for foreign religious speakers said the government continued to grant such visas for very short durations and required the groups to complete burdensome paperwork. As in previous years, the government did not report the number of religious visitors it allowed into the country, nor did it report the number of visa applications of foreign religious visitors it had denied. Pro-government media reported positively on the visit of a Russian Orthodox Archbishop in February, before borders were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Minority religious groups said persons who were not Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox continued to report harassment, such as public shaming, by their family members, friends, and neighbors. Members of registered Christian groups continued to report hostility from acquaintances due to their religious affiliation. Religious leaders and others stated they continued to be reluctant to speak out publicly about religious freedom issues out of fear of harassment, ostracism, or public shaming by their family members, friends, and neighbors. Numerous citizens continued to state that the government’s suspicion of religion was often mirrored in the private sector, and that membership in a minority religious organization or even outward expressions of religion, such as how one wears a headscarf or religious symbol, could result in the loss of employment or employment opportunities. Some members of minority religious groups reported continued societal prejudices against religious groups that were not part of the Sunni Muslim majority.
Persons who joined non-Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox religious groups reported continuing societal criticism. Ethnic Turkmen who converted from Islam received more societal scrutiny than non-Turkmen converts and continued to be ostracized at community events, especially in rural areas, according to representatives of religious minority groups.
According to Christian community leaders, Muslims who converted to Christianity faced pressure from families, friends, and local communities to return to their former faith. In its report covering 2020, Open Doors said Christians who come from Muslim backgrounds experienced intense pressure to deny their faith.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador, embassy representatives, and U.S. government officials continued to express concerns about issues of religious freedom in the country. These included the legal status of conscientious objectors, Turkmenistan’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern, the ability of religious groups to register or reregister, and easing restrictions on the importation of religious literature. The Ambassador, personally in meetings, and the embassy, via diplomatic notes, requested that President Berdimuhamedov pardon all Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned as conscientious objectors.
In January, the Ambassador and other embassy officials met with representatives of 10 minority religious groups to discuss their challenges in the face of a restrictive environment for religious freedom. Several other ambassadors and senior embassy officials from European countries also took part. Representatives from religious organizations spoke about challenges of reregistration, the inability to import religious literature, and the lack of places of worship.
Since 2014, Turkmenistan has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”
Read A Section: Ukraine
In February 2014, Russian military forces invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262 adopted on March 27, 2014 and entitled Territorial Integrity of Ukraine, states the Autonomous Republic of Crimea remains internationally recognized as within Ukraine’s international borders. The U.S. government does not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and considers Crimea a part of Ukraine.
The constitution protects freedom of religion and provides for “the separation of church and religious organizations from the state.” By law, the objective of domestic religious policy is to foster the creation of a tolerant society and provide for freedom of conscience and worship. In November and December, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued judgments concerning the ineffective investigation of hate crimes committed against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine between 2009 and 2013. Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report attacks on their followers that went unpunished and detentions of members reportedly for draft evasion. In April, the Ombudsperson’s Office reportedly informed oblast state administrations that the right to alternative service was “of absolute nature” and could not be rejected solely because a conscientious objector had missed the application deadline. According to the International Center for Law and Religious Studies, the government at times continued to try to balance tensions between the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) – granted autocephaly by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in 2019 – and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), which competed for members and congregations. According to the Orthodox Times and other media, Russia continued to use a disinformation campaign to fuel further conflict between the two churches. Whereas in the past the government of then-President Petro Poroshenko promoted the OCU by encouraging local governments to facilitate parish reregistration from the UOC-MP to the OCU, Serhiy Trofimov, first deputy head of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office, reportedly discouraged local governments from such reregistration. According to the UOC-MP, on August 6, several dozen people damaged a fence surrounding the house of a local Zolochiv UOC-MP priest; many observers characterized them as representatives of National Corps, a far-right and sometimes violent political organization. The attackers sprayed the fence with graffiti criticizing the parish’s affiliation with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) that read, “ROC out!” and “Blood is on your hands.” In August, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy ordered a local developer to halt construction of a private clinic in a protected heritage area on the grounds of an historical Jewish cemetery in Lviv, but local authorities did not halt construction, stating it was not taking place on the Jewish cemetery. According to observers, government investigations and prosecution of vandalism against religious sites were generally inconclusive, although the government condemned attacks, including physical attacks, on Jewish pilgrims in Uman and arson and other attacks on synagogues, and police arrested perpetrators.
Media sources, religious freedom activists, the OCU, Muslims, Protestant churches, and Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that Russia-backed authorities in the Russia-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (regions) continued to exert pressure on minority religious groups. In the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (“LPR”), “authorities” continued their ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist” organization, while the “Supreme Court” in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”) upheld a similar ban. Russia-backed “authorities” in the “DPR” and “LPR” continued to implement “laws” requiring all religious organizations except the UOC-MP to undergo “state religious expert evaluations” and reregister with them. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), a majority of religious groups recognized under Ukrainian law continued to be unable to reregister because of stringent legal requirements under Russian law preventing or discouraging reregistration of many religious communities. Many religious groups continued to refuse to reregister because they did not recognize the Russia-installed authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk. All but one mosque remained closed in Russia-controlled Donetsk. Russia-led forces continued to use religious buildings of minority religious groups as military facilities. The situation in Russia-occupied Crimea is reported in an appendix following the report on the rest of Ukraine.
The ROC and the UOC-MP continued to label the OCU a “schismatic” group and continued to urge other Orthodox churches not to recognize the OCU. UOC-MP and OCU representatives continued to contest some parish registrations as not reflecting the true will of their congregations. UOC-MP leaders accused the newly formed OCU of seizing churches belonging to the UOC-MP; the OCU responded that parishioners, rather than the OCU, had initiated the transfers of affiliation. The independent National Minorities Rights Monitoring Group (NMRMG) reported four documented violent acts of anti-Semitism during the year, compared with none since 2016. There were again reports of vandalism of Christian monuments; Holocaust memorials, synagogues, and Jewish cemeteries; and Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Halls. The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO) and the All-Ukrainian Council of Religious Associations (AUCRA) continued to promote interfaith dialogue and respect for religious diversity.
U.S. embassy officials, including the Charge d’Affaires, engaged with officials of the Office of the President, ministry officials, and members of parliament to discuss the importance of fair and transparent treatment of religious groups following the establishment of the OCU, preservation of religious heritage sites, support for religious minorities, and combating increasing manifestations of anti-Semitism. Embassy officials continued to urge government and religious leaders to practice tolerance, restraint, and mutual understanding to ensure respect for all individuals’ religious freedom and preferences. Embassy officials also continued to urge religious groups to resolve property disputes peacefully and through dialogue with government officials, in particular the dispute regarding ongoing construction of parts of the Krakivskyy Market on the site of the Lviv Old Jewish Cemetery. Embassy officials continued to meet with internally displaced Muslims and other religious minorities from Crimea to discuss their continuing inability to practice their religion freely in Russia-occupied Crimea. In August, embassy officials met with Metropolitan Klyment and discussed the pressures on his Church in Crimea.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 44 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the annual October national survey conducted by the Razumkov Center, an independent public policy think tank, 62.3 percent of respondents identify as Christian Orthodox, compared with 64.9 percent in 2019; 9.6 percent Greek Catholic (Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, UGCC), compared with 9.5 percent in 2019; 1.5 percent Protestant, compared with 1.8 in 2019; 1.2 percent Roman Catholic, compared with 1.6 percent in 2019; 0.1 Jewish, compared with 0.1 percent in 2019; and 0.5 percent Muslim, compared with under 0.1 percent in 2019. The survey found another 8.9 percent identify as “simply a Christian,” while 15.2 percent state they do not belong to any religious group, compared with 8 percent and 12.8 percent, respectively, in 2019. Small numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, followers of other religions, and individuals choosing not to disclose their beliefs constitute the remainder of the respondents. According to the same survey, groups included in the 62.3 percent who identify as Christian Orthodox are as follows: 18.6 percent as members of the new OCU, compared with 13.2 percent in 2019; 13.6 percent the UOC-MP, compared with 10.6 percent in 2019; 2.3 percent Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), compared with 7.7 percent in 2019; 27 percent “just an Orthodox believer,” compared with 30.3 percent in 2019; and 0.7 percent undecided, compared with 3.1 percent in 2019. According to the same poll, most of the self-identified OCU followers are in the western, central, and southern parts of the country. Most UOC-MP followers are in the eastern, central, and western parts of the country. Followers of the UGCC reside primarily in the western oblasts. Most Roman Catholic Church (RCC) followers are in the western and central oblasts.
According to government statistics, followers of the UGCC reside primarily in the western oblasts of Lviv, Ternopil, and Ivano-Frankivsk. Most RCC congregations are in Lviv, Khmelnytskyy, Zhytomyr, Vinnytsya, and Zakarpattya Oblasts, in the western part of the country. According to the government’s estimate released in March 2019, most OCU congregations (formed by the merger of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate, Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and part of the UOC-MP) are in the central and western parts of the country, except for Zakarpattya Oblast. Most UOC-MP congregations are also in the central and western parts of the country, excluding Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, and Ternopil Oblasts.
The Evangelical Baptist Union of Ukraine is the largest Protestant community. Other Christian groups include Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).
Government agencies and independent think tanks estimate the Muslim population at 500,000, while some Muslim leaders estimate two million. According to government figures, 300,000 of these are Crimean Tatars.
The Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities (VAAD) states there are approximately 300,000 persons of Jewish ancestry in the country. According to VAAD, prior to the Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, approximately 30,000 Jews lived in the Donbas region (Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts). Jewish groups estimate between 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish residents lived in Crimea before Russia’s purported annexation. According to the London-based Institute for Jewish Studies, the country’s Jewish population declined by 94.6 percent from 1970 to 2020.
There are also small numbers of Buddhists, practitioners of Falun Gong, Baha’is, and adherents of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including worship. By law, the government may restrict this right only in the “interests of protecting public order, the health and morality of the population, or protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons.” The constitution provides for the “separation of church and religious organizations from the state” and stipulates, “No religion shall be recognized by the state as mandatory.”
By law, the objective of religious policy is to “restore full-fledged dialogue between representatives of various social, ethnic, cultural, and religious groups to foster the creation of a tolerant society and provide for freedom of conscience and worship.” By law, the production and dissemination of Nazi symbols and propaganda of totalitarian regimes are banned and considered a crime.
Religious organizations include congregations, theological schools, monasteries, religious brotherhoods, missions, and administrations of religious associations consisting of religious organizations. To register and obtain legal-entity status, an organization must register either with the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy, which replaced the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport during the year, the government agency responsible for religious affairs, or with regional government authorities, depending upon the nature of the organization. Religious centers, administrations, monasteries, religious brotherhoods, missions, and religious schools register with the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy. Religious congregations register with the regional authorities where they are present. While these religious congregations may form the constituent units of a nationwide religious organization, the nationwide organization does not register on a national basis and may not obtain recognition as a legal entity; rather, the constituent units register individually and obtain legal-entity status. 2019 amendments to the laws on the freedom of conscience and religious organizations and on state registration of legal entities, natural persons, and civic organizations direct regional governments’ religious affairs departments to enter religious organizations into the State Register of Legal Entities database, in addition to registering their statutes. They require all religious organizations to update and reregister their statutes by January 31, 2020. The amendments also specify reregistration requirements for organizations that wish to change their affiliation, particularly UOC-MP parishes seeking to join the OCU. The amended law requires a quorum, as defined by each congregation and usually comprising two-thirds or three-fourths of a religious organization’s members, to decide on a change of affiliation. The law also requires a vote by two-thirds of those present to authorize such a decision. The law bans any transfer of an organization’s property until the affiliation change is finalized.
2019 amendments to the laws on the freedom of conscience and religious organizations and on state registration of legal entities, natural persons, and civic organizations direct regional governments’ religious affairs departments to enter religious organizations into the State Register of Legal Entities database, in addition to registering their statutes. They require all religious organizations to update and reregister their statutes by January 31, 2020. The amendments also specify reregistration requirements for organizations that wish to change their affiliation, particularly UOC-MP parishes seeking to join the OCU. The amended law requires a quorum, as defined by each congregation and usually comprising two-thirds or three-fourths of a religious organization’s members, to decide on a change of affiliation. The law also requires a vote by two-thirds of those present to authorize such a decision. The law bans any transfer of an organization’s property until the affiliation change is finalized.
To be eligible for registration, a religious congregation must comprise at least 10 adult members and submit to the registration authorities its statute (charter), certified copies of the resolution that created it and was adopted by founding members, and a document confirming its right to own or use premises.
Registered religious groups wishing to acquire nonprofit status, which many do for banking purposes, must register with tax authorities.
Without legal-entity status, a religious group may not own property, conduct banking activities, be eligible for utility bill discounts, join civic or advisory boards of government agencies, or establish periodicals, nongovernmental pension funds, officially accredited schools, publishing, agricultural and other companies, or companies manufacturing religious items. Religious groups without legal-entity status may meet and worship and may also publish and distribute religious materials. In accordance with the stipulation against national registration, only a registered constituent unit of a nationwide religious organization may own property or conduct business activities, either for itself or on behalf of the nationwide organization. The law grants property tax exemptions to religious organizations and considers them nonprofit organizations.
The law requires commanders of military units to allow their subordinates to participate in religious services but bans the creation of religious organizations in military institutions and military units. The Ministry of Defense defines selection criteria for clergy to become chaplains, the status of chaplains in the chain of command, and their rights and duties in the armed forces, National Guard, and State Border Guard Service. By law, UOC-MP priests are prohibited from serving as chaplains on bases or in conflict zones, ostensibly due to concerns about their affiliation with Russia through the Moscow Patriarchate.
The law gives prison chaplains access to both pretrial detainees and sentenced inmates. It also protects the confidentiality of confessions heard by prison chaplains, prohibits the use of information received during confession as evidence in legal proceedings, and does not allow the interrogation of clerics, interpreters, or other persons about matters associated with the confidentiality of confession.
According to the constitution, organizers must notify local authorities in advance of any type of planned public gathering, and authorities may challenge the legality of the planned event. According to a 2016 Constitutional Court decision, religious organizations need only inform local authorities of their intention to hold a public gathering and need not apply for permission or notify authorities within a specific period in advance of the event.
Government regulations on identity documents allow religious head coverings in passport and other identification photographs.
The law allows religious groups to establish theological schools to train clergy and other religious workers as well as to seek state accreditation through the National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance for their curriculum. The law states theological schools shall function based on their own statutes.
Government agencies authorized to monitor religious organizations include the Prosecutor General, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and all other “central bodies of the executive government.”
Only registered religious groups may seek restitution of communal property confiscated by the former Communist regime. Religious groups must apply to regional authorities for property restitution. The law states authorities should complete their consideration of a restitution claim within a month.
The law prohibits religious instruction as part of the mandatory public school curriculum and states public school training “shall be free from interference by political parties, civic, and religious organizations.” Public schools include ethics of faith or similar faith-related courses as optional parts of the curricula. Christian, Islamic, and Jewish-focused curriculums are offered as part of the ethics of faith curriculum in public schools.
The law provides for antidiscrimination screening of draft legislation and government regulations, including for discrimination based on religion. The law requires the legal department of each respective agency responsible for verifying the draft legislation to conduct screening in accordance with instructions developed by the Cabinet of Ministers to ensure the draft legislation does not contain discriminatory language and to require changes if it does. Religious groups may participate in screening draft legislation at the invitation of the respective agency.
The law allows alternative nonmilitary service for conscientious objectors. The law also allows government officials to deny a conscript’s application for alternative service due to missing the application deadline. The law does not exempt the clergy from military mobilization.
The Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Human Rights (“Ombudsperson”) is constitutionally required to release an annual report to parliament containing a section on religious freedom.
The law restricts the activities of foreign-based religious groups and defines the permissible activities of noncitizen clergy, preachers, teachers, and other representatives of foreign-based religious organizations. By law, foreign religious workers may “preach, administer religious ordinances, or practice other canonical activities,” but they may do so only for the religious organization that invited them and with the approval of the government body that registered the statute of the organization. Missionary activity is included under permissible activities.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Since 2015, the government has exercised the right of derogation from its obligations under the ICCPR with regard to the portions of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts under the control of Russia-led forces, including the ICCPR provisions pertaining to religious freedom.
On November 12 and December 17, the ECHR issued judgments concerning the ineffective investigation of hate crimes committed against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine between 2009-2013 in the cases Zagubnya and Tabachkova v. Ukraine, Migoryanu and Others v. Ukraine, Kornilova v. Ukraine, and Tretiak v. Ukraine. The court held that there were violations of Article 3 (prohibition of torture), Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) taken in conjunction with Article 3 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and it ordered the government to pay the victims 21,200 euros ($26,000) in total compensation.
Jehovah’s Witnesses called on the government to fully implement the four ECHR rulings to ensure effective investigation of the hate crimes committed against their group and their places of worship, and to prosecute the perpetrators of those religiously motivated attacks. They estimated that during 2016-19 there were 54 such attacks, but none of the attackers had been convicted of a religiously motivated offense. Jehovah’s Witnesses also urged the government to address the “endemic” problem of ECHR judgments “falling beyond the scope of the individual cases.”
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on August 2, Oleh Rybak repeatedly struck 71-year-old Witness Monica Shushko on the neck and back, calling her a derogatory term for Jehovah’ Witnesses, in Borodianka, Kyiv Oblast. Local police reportedly did not investigate the case, and Rybak remained unpunished.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on February 15, an individual in Kyiv threatened Nina Potapova with a gun, demanding that she stop her religious activity. Potapova filed a crime report but received no response from the police.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on February 7, Ruslan Panasenko pushed Olena Mazur and Danyila Ponomariova out of his house in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, after learning they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. He also kicked each of the women in the thigh. Although Panasenko reportedly admitted in court that his actions were provoked by his lack of interest in the victims’ preaching and that he wanted to “shoot” all Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Kramatorsk City Court described his actions as motivated by “sudden personal hostility” to the victims. The court sentenced Panasenko to 200 hours of community service under charges of “minor bodily injury” and did not qualify the assault as a religiously motivated offense.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on January 26, a Poltava resident punched Olena and Valentyna Melandovych in the face when they tried to share their religious beliefs. The victims reportedly filed a crime report, but law-enforcement authorities did not detain or prosecute the attacker.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, conscientious objection was not uniformly recognized. While courts and the Parliamentary Human Rights Ombudsperson protected the right of Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors to perform alternative civilian service, some military enlistment officials “arbitrarily” detained young Witnesses to call them up for military duty or denied them the right to alternative service. At times, district and oblast state administration officials denied Witnesses access to alternative civilian service. Some Jehovah’s Witnesses were reportedly detained for days facing criminal prosecution for “draft evasion,” in some cases because they had missed the application deadline to apply for alternative service as conscientious objectors. On April 23, the Ombudsperson’s Office reportedly informed the oblast state administrations that the right to alternative service was “of absolute nature,” and thus could not be limited by any deadlines. It criticized the practice of not providing alternative civilian service to a conscientious objector solely due to a missed application deadline.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, during the year some local state administrations rejected applications for alternative civilian service, stating the applicants had missed the deadline for submission of their applications. The following conscientious objectors reportedly received such refusals: Tymofii Zdorovenko (Oleksandria; March), Pavlo Kuts (Avdiivka; June), Nazar Duda (Lviv; October), Ihor Romanov (Bratske; October), Oleksii Haran (Cherkasy; October), Mykyta Kamin (Kyiv; November), Dmytro Tyshkovets (Volodymyrets; November) and Davyd Terendii (Lviv; November).
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on December 10, the Ternopil District Administrative Court ruled that Jehovah’s Witness Ihor Zherebetskyi’s conscription into military service was unjustified because he had applied for alternative service.
On November 17, military enlistment officers reportedly detained Jehovah’s Witness Oles Tytokhod at his home, threatened him with prosecution for draft evasion, and escorted him to two local military registration enlistment offices. He was released after a 10-day detention.
On October 28, military enlistment officers reportedly escorted Jehovah’s Witness Matvii Pikalov to the Lviv Regional Military Registration and Enlistment Office and detained him for three days without cause.
On October 21, military enlistment officers reportedly escorted Jehovah’s Witness Ivan Nikitin to the Khmelnytsky Regional Military Registration and Enlistment Office, although he had been granted permission for alternative service. He was released after a nine-hour detention following his lawyer’s intervention.
On October 6, military enlistment officers reportedly escorted Jehovah’s Witness Nazar Duda to the Lviv Regional Military Registration and Enlistment Office, forging a statement on his behalf that he agreed to serve in the military. Duda was detained for three days, despite his statement that he was a conscientious objector. Duda was released after his relatives reported his detention to a prosecutor and his lawyer filed a complaint.
On October 16, military enlistment officers reportedly tried to deliver a conscription notice to Jehovah’s Witness Dmytro Tyshkovets, who had previously applied for alternative service. When Tyshkovets refused to receive the notice, stating that he was a conscientious objector, the officers accused him of draft evasion and referred the case to the police. Police opened an investigation, which continued through year’s end.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on September 10, the Brody District State Administration rejected Vladyslav Prystupa’s application for alternative civilian service, saying he was not baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness. On February 13, the Yuzhnoukrainsk City Council refused Bohdan Boyko’s application for alternative civilian service, stating he was not a baptized Jehovah’s Witness. Authorities reportedly charged him with draft evasion and, on August 25, rejected Boyko’s second application.
Following the election of President Zelenskyy in 2019, the government restructured the bodies governing religious affairs. On February 26, the administration appointed Olena Bogdan, a sociology professor, as head of the newly formed State Service for Ethnopolicy and Freedom of Conscience, an entity subordinate to the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy. Then-Culture Minister Volodymyr Borodyansky selected Bogdan, stating he “was looking for the most independent person,” adding, “I was looking for an agnostic because the person must implement a well-balanced policy of the government in that area.” Observers characterized this nomination as the administration’s signaling it would adopt a more neutral stance on religious issues than had former President Poroshenko, who promoted the OCU. Bogdan’s predecessor, Andriy Yurash, had led the Department for Nationalities and Religions. The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy said the State Service would pursue the implementation of policy developed by the ministry. In a February 19 interview with the Religious Information Service of Ukraine, Bogdan said the Service for Ethnopolicy and Freedom of Conscience would focus on the following priorities: monitoring, raising public awareness, promoting unity in diversity through dialogue, and streamlining and increasing transparency of registration of religious organizations.
In September, the Cabinet of Ministers created a new Department for Religions and Ethnic Minorities in its Secretariat, led by Yurash. This department served as a liaison between the Cabinet of Ministers and religious groups.
According to the International Center for Law and Religious Studies, the government at times continued to struggle to manage tensions between the OCU and the UOC-MP, which competed for members and parishes. The Orthodox Times, self-characterized as an independent news and information portal, stated that Russia continued to use a disinformation campaign to fuel further conflict between the two churches. According to sources, the UOC-MP continued to question the legitimacy of the OCU and said the OCU was “stealing” its property. The OCU said the UOC-MP was legally challenging the reregistration of parishes from the UOC-MP to the OCU. The Moscow Patriarchate also created its own webpage, In Defense of the Unity of the Russian Church, dedicated to amplifying ROC criticism of the OCU and to favoring the UOC-MP. OCU officials criticized first deputy head of the Office of the President Serhiy Trofimov, who oversaw regional policy, as favoring the UOC-MP by “hampering” the reregistration of former UOC-MP parishes seeking to join the OCU. On November 4, President Zelenskyy reassigned Trofimov to the role of presidential advisor. In an April 10 interview with the online news site Glavcom, Trofimov stated the government had not ordered and would never seek to halt the reregistration of UOC-MP congregations joining the OCU. He said that in response to “many” UOC-MP-reported instances of “unlawful” reregistration and “pressure,” the Office of the President directed the oblast state administrations to ensure compliance with the law. Trofimov also condemned attempts by UOC-MP opponents to label the UOC-MP as the “Moscow Church.”
On April 19, the Constitutional Court began to review a petition by a group of members of parliament questioning the constitutionality of the 2018 amendments to the law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations. The amendments required the UOC-MP, formally registered as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), to rename itself to reflect its affiliation with the Moscow Patriarchate (Russian Orthodox Church). The lawsuit and a 2019 Supreme Court ruling in a separate suit by the UOC-MP Metropolitan Administration against the amendments that suspended the government’s implementation of the amendments prevented the government from enforcing the name change requirement for 267 UOC-MP religious organizations. The organizations were a third party in the lawsuit filed by the UOC-MP Metropolitan Administration.
In an April 10 interview with Glavcom, Serhiy Trofimov described the renaming requirement as “pressure” on the UOC-MP. On November 24, head of the State Service for Ethnopolicy and Freedom of Conscience Bogdan told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency the State Service would comply with any Constitutional Court ruling on the renaming requirement.
Some Jewish community representatives and the Israeli Ambassador criticized decisions by some parliamentarians and government authorities to commemorate and honor 20th century Ukrainian figures and organizations who were also associated with anti-Semitism and the killing of thousands of Jews and Poles during World War II.
On September 4, the Lviv City Council transferred for permanent use by the UGCC a plot of land that included the St. George’s Cathedral and the cathedral gardens. The UGCC thanked the Lviv authorities for their “courageous restoration of historical justice” in returning the main shrine of the Ukrainian Greek Catholics. On April 29, the Odesa City Council transferred to the RCC ownership of a plot of land in the city surrounding the Church’s Assumption Cathedral.
On January 31, media reported the State Migration Service (SMS) and armed police officers profiled individuals in the vicinity of the mosque of the Islamic Cultural Center, one of Kyiv’s largest mosques, during Friday prayers and checked the registration documents of those they identified as worshippers. The mosque belongs to the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine (Umma). According to Said Ismagilov, Mufti of Umma, authorities detained 25 persons who did not have their passports with them. The SMS stated that during its inspection, it identified 15 foreigners who were violating the immigration law. It also said it “treats religious and ethnic minorities with respect.” According to SMS officials, the identification inspection was part of its efforts to detect illegal migrants, and police were involved to protect SMS officers. Umma reported the SMS inspected documents of individuals arriving and departing the mosque courtyard. The SMS and police officers did not enter the mosque to conduct their inspection. On February 1, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport posted a statement saying the timing and venue of the inspection raised both ethical and legal questions. The ministry assured the Muslim community of the government’s support. It also called on the SMS to cooperate and said it was willing to facilitate SMS dialogue with religious organizations. On February 7, Muslim community representatives held a protest near the SMS offices. They said the “shameful” and “humiliating” inspection in front of a mosque on a Friday, a sacred day of worship, was an expression of a “biased and xenophobic attitude” toward Muslims.
According to the Kolomyya Jewish community, on February 11, Mykhailo Bank, chief of the Strategic Investigations Department of the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast police, requested that the Orthodox Jewish community provide police with its members’ names, addresses, and phone numbers, citing a need to counter “ethnic” and “transnational crime groups.” The head of the city’s Jewish community declined the request. According to United Jewish Community of Ukraine (UJCU), German and Azerbaijani ethnic groups received the same registration requests. The National Police chief launched an investigation and apologized to the Jewish community. Forty members of parliament sent a letter to the Prime Minister and Minister of Interior demanding Bank’s resignation. On May 15, following an investigation of the matter, the Ministry of Internal Affairs dismissed Bank.
According to media, on July 10, the Zolochiv Municipal Council, Lviv Oblast, announced local UOC-MP supporters would not be allowed to build a church in the town because “many” UOC-MP representatives had supported Russia’s war against Ukraine. The council requested that parliament ban the UOC-MP nationwide and asked law enforcement agencies to halt what it described as “illegal” construction. On July 14, a gathering of local residents initiated by the municipal government adopted a resolution supporting the council’s decision. In a Facebook post on July 13, Lviv Oblast State Administration chairman Maksym Kozytsky admitted that while the UOC-MP congregation had the right to unregistered worship in the home of a local UOC-MP priest, it was “immoral” to build a Moscow-affiliated church in Lviv Oblast. Members of this congregation reportedly had held religious services on private property because, they said, local government was hostile towards the UOC-MP congregation in Zolochiv. On July 13, Radio Svoboda quoted the chief of the Religions and Nationalities Department of the Oblast State Administration as saying that the owner of the property had the right to build a church on her land.
According to the UOC-MP, tensions in Zolochiv escalated on August 6 when several dozen representatives of the group National Corps damaged a fence surrounding the house of the local UOC-MP priest. The attackers sprayed the fence with graffiti criticizing the parish’s affiliation with the ROC that read, “ROC out!” and “Blood is on your hands.” On September 28, two unidentified persons threw paint on the walls of a trailer installed at the site and reportedly threatened the priest, stating he would “burn” if he did not leave the town. The Lviv branch of the National Corps posted video footage of the August 6 vandalism on its website, blaming the “church of occupiers” (UOC-MP) for conducting “unlawful and undeclared” religious services. The statement described the UOC-MP as a “hostile entity” that “has no place on Ukrainian soil.” On August 15 and September 28, unidentified individuals spray-painted a store rented by a local UOC-MP member with the words, “Sponsor of the ROC.” According to the media, in September, police opened a criminal investigation of a UOC-MP complaint that the Zolochiv mayor and several other local officials were inciting religious hatred.
In Zhydychyn village, Volyn Oblast, UOC-MP members built a makeshift church after part of the congregation voted to transfer the affiliation of a permanent parish church from UOC-MP to OCU. In 2019, UOC-MP parish priest Volodymyr Geleta reportedly fired shots during a dispute over the affiliation of the permanent building.
Law enforcement authorities again reported no progress in the investigation of allegations that the Kyiv Islamic Cultural Center of the Umma possessed materials promoting “violence, racial, interethnic, or religious hatred.” The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the Kyiv City procuracy searched the center in May 2018. A lawyer for Umma described the search as an attempt to undermine Umma’s reputation and called the charges baseless.
On January 22, the Kyiv Sixth Appellate Court upheld a request by UOC-MP Bishop Gedeon (given name, Yuriy Kharon) to renew his Ukrainian citizenship. In March, the bishop returned to Ukraine. In 2019, the government barred the dual Ukraine-U.S. citizen’s return to Ukraine from the United States by stripping him of Ukrainian citizenship. The SMS said the decision was based on the SBU recommendations and the fact that Gedeon had falsified information on his citizenship application, stating Gedeon said he had lost his passport when he had it in his possession. Gedeon described the ban as retaliation for criticizing the government’s “pressure” on the UOC-MP during his meetings with members of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, pursuant to a 2019 judgment by the ECHR, on July 29, the Kryvyi Rih City Council granted Jehovah’s Witnesses a plot of land for construction of a Kingdom Hall. On November 11, the city council refused to allow Jehovah’s Witnesses to design the Kingdom Hall, stating that such permission would violate a zoning plan. Jehovah’s Witnesses requested that the council adjust the plan. The request was under consideration at year’s end.
During the year, the Church of Jesus Christ worked on plans to construct a temple in Kyiv. In 2019, the Supreme Court upheld an appeal by representatives of the Church filed against the Kyiv City Council for the council’s refusal to reinstate a lease on land to build a house of worship. The city government subsequently respected the Supreme Court’s decision, reinstating full rights to the land.
Small religious groups stated local authorities continued to discriminate with regard to allocating land for religious buildings in Sumy, Mykolayiv, and Ternopil Oblasts, and the city of Kyiv. Roman Catholics, OCU members, UGCC members, Jews, and Muslims continued to report cases of discrimination. UGCC representatives said local authorities in Bila Tserkva were still unwilling to allocate land for a UGCC church at year’s end.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), on August 28, in a move to contain the spread of COVID-19, the government closed the country’s borders for the month of September and extended domestic quarantine regulations by two months. Some observers noted the border closure prevented thousands of Hasidic Jews from traveling to Uman, Cherkasy Oblast, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah on September 18-20 at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Uman mayor Oleksander Tsebriy made several disparaging remarks about the annual Hasidic pilgrimage. Observers said the escalation of negative rhetoric was likely a strategic decision of his reelection campaign, which he subsequently lost. In addition to his social media activities encouraging the cancellation of the pilgrimage because, he said, of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tsebriy camped outside President Zelenskyy’s Kyiv office in August to demand he cancel the event. Tsebriy stated his own polling found that “94 percent of Uman’s residents were against the traditional pilgrimage of Rosh Hashanah, although they have nothing against the pilgrims themselves.” Some members of the Jewish community suggested that the mayor opposed the annual Hasidic pilgrimage in general and that his efforts to restrict the pilgrimage were not based on concerns of COVID-19 but rather hostility towards Jewish pilgrims.
Kyiv’s Muslim community said the local government, which allocates land for cemeteries, had still not acted on the community’s request in 2017 for additional free land in Kyiv for Islamic burials, which was their legal right. Muslim community leaders said they were running out of land for burials. Consequently, some Muslim families living in Kyiv reportedly had to bury their relatives in other cities.
All major religious organizations continued to appeal to the government to establish a transparent legal process to address property restitution claims. According to observers, the government made little progress on unresolved restitution issues during the year. Representatives of some organizations said they experienced continued problems and delays reclaiming property seized by the former Communist regime. They said a review of claims often took far longer than the month prescribed by law. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups stated a number of factors continued to complicate the restitution process, including intercommunity competition for particular properties, current use of some properties by state institutions, the designation of some properties as historic landmarks, local governments disputing jurisdictional boundaries, and previous transfers of some properties to private ownership. Religious groups continued to report local officials taking sides in property restitution disputes, such as the case of the Lviv City government’s continued denial of RCC requests for restitution of several properties turned over to the UGCC.
Muslim community leaders again expressed concern over the continued lack of resolution of restitution claims involving historic mosques in Mykolaiv, in the southern part of the country. The Soviet-era government had seized the property and it remained publicly owned at year’s end.
The government continued to take no action in response to previous requests from religious communities to impose a moratorium on the privatization of religious buildings confiscated by the then-Soviet government, according to civil society activists and religious organizations.
Jewish community leaders continued to report illegal construction on the site of the old Jewish cemetery in Uman, where businesspersons had purchased old houses bordering the cemetery to demolish them and build hotels for Jewish pilgrims. According to news reports, developers had reportedly made deals with local government officials to obtain building permits. Local officials stated it was impossible to ban digging on privately-owned land and that Uman had been a densely populated residential area since Soviet times.
The Jewish community continued to express concern about the ongoing operation of the Krakivskyy Market on the grounds of an historical Jewish cemetery in Lviv. On August 26, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy ordered a local developer to halt construction of a private clinic at the protected site. Despite the ministry’s order, Lviv authorities did not halt the construction. According to some Lviv authorities, the construction was not on the Jewish cemetery part of the land. According to Jewish community representatives, they feared the Lviv government would sell more of the public land to private groups, which could lead to further concerns about protecting the cemetery. The Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ) urged the government to halt permanently the construction of a multistory commercial building on the cemetery grounds, separate from the clinic, that had been ordered suspended in 2017.
The UCSJ and civic activists continued to express concern over the possible continuation of construction of a high-rise building at the site of the World War II Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Lviv. In 2016, a court suspended the project after human remains were reportedly found and removed from the site. In the past, the UCSJ had requested the remains be reburied on the site, but as of year’s end, the remains had not been returned to the site. Lviv authorities denied the construction had unearthed any remains.
On November 16, the Lviv Appellate Court revoked the Lviv City Council’s decision to provide land to a developer for the construction of an office building at the site of a synagogue destroyed at Syanska Street in Lviv during the Nazi occupation. In 2019, the developer had halted construction at the Lviv city government’s order, following protests by heritage-protection activists. Jewish community representatives said they were cautiously optimistic the construction over the destroyed synagogue would not occur.
Jewish community leaders said they continued to experience difficulties with the Ternopil Municipal and District governments with regard to property restitution. The Ternopil District Council continued to reject requests from the local Jewish community to return a prayer house confiscated during the Soviet era.
Some Jewish leaders and human rights activists continued to state their concerns about what they considered impunity for hate crimes, including acts of anti-Semitism, and about the government’s long delays in completing investigations of these crimes. According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, the lack of proper punishment for hate crimes “has long been a major problem, exacerbated by Article 161 of the Criminal Code (on incitement to enmity, religious, racial and other discrimination, etc.), which is notoriously difficult to prove and therefore most often avoided by the police and prosecutors.” Some Jewish leaders said law enforcement authorities often charged anti-Semitic actors, if apprehended, with hooliganism or vandalism instead of a hate crime in what they assessed as the country’s attempt to downplay the level of anti-Semitism.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on August 30, September 12, 21, and 27, October 17, and December 12 and 27, unidentified individuals wrote the word “sect” on the fence surrounding a Kingdom Hall in Volodymyr-Volynskyi, Volyn Oblast. Police instituted criminal proceedings regarding only one of the seven incidents. The case remained pending at year’s end.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on November 16, unidentified individuals set fire to a sign saying “Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses” on the wall of the house of worship on Romen Rollan Street, in Kyiv. Police initially refused to open an investigation, but the investigative judge ordered them to do so. The case remained pending at year’s end.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 20 and 25, unidentified individuals painted neo-Nazi symbols and the word “sect” on the walls of a Kingdom Hall in Skadovsk, Zaporizhya Oblast. Police refused to institute criminal proceedings, but the investigative judge ordered them to start an investigation. The case remained pending at year’s end.
On July 29, President Zelenskyy met via video conference with the privately funded Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC) Supervisory Board to discuss the construction of the future museum and memorial honoring Holocaust victims. During the meeting, Zelenskyy stressed the importance of commemorating the country’s Holocaust victims and supported the BYHMC, stating, “It would be very good if this project were brought to life and we built history together with you.” President Zelenskyy appointed Presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak to lead a planning committee to implement the project, which called for a smaller government museum to open by the 80th anniversary of the Holocaust in 2021; the larger BYHMC memorial and museum were slated to open in 2025 or 2026. On September 29, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy and the BYHMC signed a memorandum of cooperation. According to media, the BYHMC project drew controversy, including reports that BYHMC artistic director Ilya Khrzhanovsky may have been involved in child abuse in filming his multidisciplinary project, DAU. There were also media reports that the BYHMC’s planned construction could disturb historical Jewish and Orthodox burial grounds at the site of the massacre.
On December 13-20, the Lviv Sholom Aleichem Jewish Culture Society, supported by the government’s Ukrainian Cultural Foundation and the Lviv City Council, hosted the “Yiddish and Intercultural Dialogue Days” festival. A conference on historical heritage preservation was one of its main events.
In his address to the nation on January 22, the Day of Unity, President Zelenskyy called on all Ukrainians to respect persons of all ethnic minorities and religions, saying as a Ukrainian, he respected “the rights of representatives of all national minorities and all religions.”
In a September 9 Jerusalem Post interview, President Zelenskyy said, “We strongly condemn anti-Semitic attacks of any kind. Anti-Semitism is a poison that has no place in Ukraine.”
On October 22, the Lviv District Administrative Court overturned an SMS decision to deny refugee status to Elena Polushkina, who had sought refuge from religious persecution in Russia. The court ordered the SMS to grant Polushkina refugee status. The SMS appealed the ruling. On July 20, the Eighth Appellate Administrative Court in Lviv ordered the SMS to grant refugee status to Sevara Makhambayeva, who had sought refuge because of religious persecution in Uzbekistan.
Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
During the year, the conflict in eastern Ukraine continued, with parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts under the control of Russia-installed authorities in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”) and “Luhansk People’s Republic” (“LPR”). According to press reports, religious groups not approved by Russia continued to face restrictions, especially religious groups that were legal in Ukraine but illegal in Russia, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and the independent Muslim congregation Hizb ut-Tahir, whose members continued to face arrest, detention, and harassment. Similarly, the OCU, which competed for worshippers with the UOC-MP, continued to cite unfair treatment and persecution.
Sources reported that Russia-supported authorities in the “DPR” and “LPR” continued to detain and imprison Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as leaders of other religious groups. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the “LPR” continued to ban the group as an “extremist” organization, while the “Supreme Court” in the “DPR” upheld a similar ban. According to Protestant and Jehovah’s Witnesses groups, many of their members fled these areas to escape oppressive conditions and to seek greater religious freedom in government-controlled territory.
According to the OHCHR, a majority of religious groups recognized under Ukrainian law continued to be unable to reregister because of stringent legal requirements under Russian legislation preventing or discouraging reregistration. Many religious groups continued to refuse to reregister because they did not recognize the Russia-installed authorities in the “DPR” and “LPR.”
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the group had limited access to information on the situation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the “DPR” and “LPR” during the year. They said that since 2014, “LPR” and “DPR” proxy authorities had seized 14 Kingdom Halls in Russia-controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. Jehovah’s Witnesses did not know if any of these 14 Kingdom Halls or any additional halls were confiscated during the year.
“LPR” authorities continued to deny the reregistration applications of Baptist, Pentecostal, and Seventh-day Adventists groups, in accordance with a 2018 law by “LPR” authorities that required religious communities, with the exception of the UOC-MP, who were recognized “within the framework of the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate,” to reregister with the “authorities,” and citing a 2015 decree that banned mass events while the area was under martial law. According to Forum 18, an international religious freedom NGO, in December 2019, “LPR Minister” Dmitry Sidorov said there were195 religious organizations registered by “LPR” authorities. Of these 195 organizations, 188 belonged to the UOC-MP, four were Muslim, and there was one each of Old Believers, Jews, and Roman Catholics. According to Forum 18, Inna Sheryayeva, the head of the Religious Organizations and Spirituality Department of the Culture, Sport and Youth “Ministry” in Luhansk, declined to disclose whether more religious communities had their registration approved since December 2019. Similarly, officials of the registration department of the Justice “Ministry,” the entity tasked with registering religious communities, declined to disclose which communities had been allowed to register and which had been refused.
“LPR” authorities continued to deny the reregistration applications of Baptist, Pentecostal, and Seventh-day Adventists groups, in accordance with a 2018 law by “LPR” authorities that required religious communities, with the exception of the UOC-MP, who were recognized “within the framework of the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate,” to reregister with the “authorities,” and citing a 2015 decree that banned mass events while the area was under martial law. According to Forum 18, an international religious freedom NGO, in December 2019, “LPR Minister” Dmitry Sidorov said there were195 religious organizations registered by “LPR” authorities. Of these 195 organizations, 188 belonged to the UOC-MP, four were Muslim, and there was one each of Old Believers, Jews, and Roman Catholics. According to Forum 18, Inna Sheryayeva, the head of the Religious Organizations and Spirituality Department of the Culture, Sport and Youth “Ministry” in Luhansk, declined to disclose whether more religious communities had their registration approved since December 2019. Similarly, officials of the registration department of the Justice “Ministry,” the entity tasked with registering religious communities, declined to disclose which communities had been allowed to register and which had been refused.
Religious leaders continued to say their registration denials represented a complete ban on their religious activities, since without reregistration, religious groups were not able to hold services, even in believers’ homes. According to “LPR” authorities, to be eligible for registration, a “local religious organization” must have at least 30 adult members, while a “centralized religious organization” must be composed of at least five such local organizations. These requirements effectively disqualified some smaller religious associations. The law also required Christian Orthodox congregations to register as part of a “diocese recognized by the Orthodox Churches around the world within the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate,” thereby forcing several remaining OCU parishes to conduct any activities underground.
According to Forum 18, at the end of 2019 and continuing during the year, local “LPR” authorities cut off water, electricity, and gas supplies to unregistered places of worship, citing their inability as unofficial organizations to have utility contracts.
According to Forum 18, “LPR” authorities continued to threaten Baptist Union pastors to stop meeting for worship or risk punishment. “State Security” officers of the “LPR” continued to threaten Baptist pastor Volodymyr Rytikov with charges of extremism for continuing to lead worship services without “official” permission. On January 28, Forum 18 reported that “LPR” State Security Ministry representatives took Rytikov from his home and instructed his wife “not to tell anyone.” They brought him to the ministry branch office and questioned him about his intention to continue conducting unregistered services and distribute “extremist” literature, including the Gospel of John. “Prosecutors” also continued their investigation of OCU priest Anatoliy Nazarenko on similar extremism charges through year’s end. “LPR” authorities continued to ban many religious leaders from outside their territory from reaching their congregations, according to Forum 18.
“LPR” authorities continued to ban many religious leaders from outside their territory from reaching their congregations, according to Forum 18.
The “DPR’s” worship and religious associations’ law continued to ban all religious organizations that did not meet a March 1, 2019 registration deadline and to require previously registered religious groups to reregister. The law gives the “Ministry of Culture” powers to monitor the registration of religious associations in the region and to abolish such groups on various grounds. Any newly created religious association not seeking legal entity status must submit written notification to “DPR” authorities detailing its function, location, administration, and the names and home addresses of its members. The “authorities” have 10 days either to put the group on the register of religious groups or to cancel its legal status. The “authorities” have a month to examine the application documents of a religious association seeking legal status. In either case, they may conduct a “state religious expert evaluation” of the documents, which could take up to six months, or deny a registration request on several grounds, including that application materials lack required information or that the group was previously banned. All religious organizations and religious groups must notify “authorities” annually of their continued viability. The “law” allows the UOC-MP to undergo a simplified “legalization” procedure without reregistration and “state religious expert evaluation.”
According to Forum 18, “DPR” authorities denied registration to almost all religious communities, apart from the UOC-MP.
According to religious organizations and civil society activists, “DPR” authorities continued to harass Protestant congregations attempting to host public religious events, even if such groups possessed a “DPR” registration. “DPR” authorities charged that the United States might be funding such events, and they publicly labeled congregations “American agents.” Protestant leaders and religious experts attributed such activities by the Russia-led “DPR” (and “LPR” ) to attempts to undermine a strong prewar presence of Protestants in the region.
According to Forum 18, on January 19, “security forces” raided an unidentified Protestant community during worship, took church leaders to the police station for interrogation, and released them after two hours. “DPR” “Human Rights Ombudsperson” Darya Morozova told Forum 18 on February 10 that she was unaware of any raids on religious organizations and that there had been no written appeals to her office.
“DPR” “Human Rights Ombudsperson” Darya Morozova told Forum 18 on February 10 that she was unaware of any raids on religious organizations and that there had been no written appeals to her office. “DPR” authorities continued to use seized places of worship for their own purposes. According to Forum 18, the “authorities” used a former Donetsk Church of Jesus Christ building as a registry office and the former Makeyevka New Life Baptist Church as a Red Guard district registry office.
“DPR” authorities continued to use seized places of worship for their own purposes. According to Forum 18, the “authorities” used a former Donetsk Church of Jesus Christ building as a registry office and the former Makeyevka New Life Baptist Church as a Red Guard district registry office.
According to media reports, all but one mosque remained closed in the “DPR.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The NMRMG reported an increase in anti-Semitic violence, with four such suspected cases reported during the year. Prior to these incidents, the last recorded anti-Semitic violence against individuals occurred in 2016. During the year, the NMRMG recorded eight cases of anti-Semitic vandalism, including the attempted arson of a synagogue in Kherson and the toppling of a menorah in Kyiv, compared with 14 incidents in 2019. According to the NMRMG, COVID-19 related measures encouraging citizens to stay home likely contributed to both the decrease in anti-Semitic vandalism and the increase in violent attacks. Two of the four violent attacks occurred in Uman, where tensions erupted between Uman residents and Hasidic Jews who were making a pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown.
The UJCU reported 49 cases of anti-Semitism during the year, compared with 56 cases in 2019. The difference in the count of anti-Semitic acts between the NMRMG and the UJCU was due to variations in methodologies: NMRMG said it counted vandalism only on Jewish property, such as synagogues, cemeteries, or memorials, while the UJCU included a wider range of incidents, such as a Jewish student’s dormitory being vandalized with swastikas as well as verbal disputes involving anti-Jewish epithets.
According to media reports, on February 25, an inebriated individual broke into a synagogue in Vinnytsia and assaulted a congregant after shouting about “beating up the [epithet].” According to a Facebook post by Eduard Dolinsky, the director of Ukraine’s Jewish Committee, police said the man, a resident of the nearby town of Yampil, “attacked Igor Braverman, a well-known journalist and a member of the community, tried to strangle him, twisting his hands. . .spat upon the portrait of the Hafetz Haim, and crushed it.” (The Hafetz Haim was an influential rabbi who died in 1933.) According to Dolinsky, police detained the alleged attacker but did not take him into custody. An ambulance took Braverman to a hospital; he did not suffer serious injuries, according to Dolinsky. The watchdog group Monitoring Antisemitism Worldwide said the Ministry of Internal Affairs was handling the case as a hate crime. According to the local rabbi, upon his release, the man apologized to Jewish community leaders.
In January, media reported conflicting accounts of a physical altercation between Hasidic Jews and residents of Uman, in Cherkasy Oblast. According to some media reports, four Hasidim were hospitalized after a mob beat them in a “pogrom-style attack.” However, the Rabbi Nachman International Charitable Foundation, which owns the Tomb of Rabbi Nachman in Uman, stated that the conflict was exclusively domestic in nature and did not relate to interethnic hatred issues, anti-Semitism, or biased attitudes of Uman residents towards Hasidic pilgrims. According to the national police, no one sought medical help or submitted official statements to them. On January 11, city officials hosted a meeting between “local activists” and representatives of Hasidic pilgrims. On January 12, the mayor of Uman, police, and SBU officials also had a meeting with Jewish representatives and agreed that police guards would help protect the pilgrimage site, that the local government and Jewish community would work together to install more security cameras around the entire pilgrimage area, and that all sides would maintain regular contact to prevent future such incidents. The city government said that the incident had “no ethnic or religious basis whatsoever.” Then-Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Dmytro Kuleba instructed his social media followers to “always treat the ‘shocking’ emotional headlines with triple caution.”
There were two violent anti-Semitic attacks in Uman, in Cherkasy Oblast, during the Hasidic pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman. The annual pilgrimage to Uman attracted approximately 3,000 Hasidic Jews, compared with more than 30,000 in 2019. According to Michael Tkatch, the head of the UJCU, on August 31, an individual approached an Orthodox Jewish man in a supermarket in Uman, hit him in the face and caused him to bleed, and then fled the scene with a friend. Police identified the offenders and opened a criminal case. According to media, on October 18, two teenage Hasidic Israeli citizens were attacked behind the grave of Rabbi Nachman. One, a 15-year-old, was stabbed, and the other victim managed to run away. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemned the attack on the teenagers. The attacker, a man in his early twenties, was identified and charged with hooliganism, punishable by three to seven years’ imprisonment. On November 12, the Cherkasy Oblast Prosecutor’s Office announced that the Uman City and District Court had convicted the attacker of hooliganism and ordered him to pay a fine of 17,000 hryvnas ($600), but he was not sentenced to prison
According to media, on July 28, a man armed with an axe tried to enter a synagogue in Mariupol. A security guard sustained a broken arm while successfully fending off the attacker. Law enforcement authorities identified the attacker and a Mariupol court sanctioned his arrest, but he fled to Russia. In August, Russian authorities detained him and put him in a pretrial detention center in Rostov-on-Don. On the Mariupol Jewish Community Facebook page, Mariupol Chief Rabbi Menachem Mendel Cohen expressed his gratitude to law enforcement agencies for their “hard work” in apprehending the perpetrator.
On May 10, the SBU and police reported the detention of two suspects who, on April 20, threw a Molotov cocktail at a synagogue in Kherson, causing minor damage to the building. According to the SBU, the perpetrators, who supported Nazi ideology, carried out the attack to mark Hitler’s birthday. During a visit to the synagogue on June 27, President Zelenskyy and the Chief Rabbi of Kherson, Yossef Itshak Wolff, personally thanked chiefs of regional police and SBU departments for detaining the two suspects. The President said the government would protect all citizens regardless of their nationality or religion. Police took the suspects into custody and charged them with arson. Their expected court date was February 2021.
According to the UJCU, on October 14, two unidentified individuals raised a large banner in front of President Zelenskyy’s office reading “Jewish President Zelenskyy” and condemning the country’s “occupation and robbery” by “the Dnipro Jewish clan of Vova Zelenskyy.” Michael Tkach, UJCU executive director, said the banner was an act of incitement and called on authorities to punish those responsible for it. Police opened an investigation, which continued through year’s end.
According to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, on December 10, a man filmed himself toppling a Hanukkah menorah in Kyiv while shouting “To Ukrainians the power, Jews to the graves.” Local media identified him as Andrey Rachkov, who posted a video of his actions on Facebook with the caption, “How to treat foreigners who are engaged in usurpation of power, occupation of territories, genocide.” A police investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
According to media, in January, a monument to the victims of the Holocaust was found defaced in Kryvyi Rih, located in the central part of the country. The suspect pled guilty to dishonoring the memorial and was sentenced to three years in prison and one year of probation.
Media reported in January the posting by a department head and economics professor at Lviv Polytechnic University of photographs of President Zelenskyy and former Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groysman, who are both Jewish, in Israel. The professor stated they were serving Israel rather than Ukraine, saying, “Their dominance in Ukraine is a problem created mainly by Ukrainians themselves.” Dolinsky, of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, posted on Facebook that the text was “like a page out of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’” referencing an anti-Semitic diatribe purportedly produced by the Russian secret police in the early 20th century.
In March, law enforcement agencies brought a case to court alleging an individual had painted swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs on a Holocaust memorial in Holovanivsk, Kirovohrad Oblast, in September 2019. The suspect was charged with incitement of ethnic and religious hatred and desecration of a burial site.
In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 59 percent of Ukrainian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the highest of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.
The ROC, including the UOC-MP, continued to describe the OCU as a “schismatic” group, despite its recognition by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Church of Greece, the Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa, and the Church of Cyprus. The ROC continued to urge other Orthodox churches not to recognize the OCU. UOC-MP and OCU representatives continued to contest some parish registrations as not reflecting the true will of its congregation.
On September 4, OCU Primate Metropolitan Epiphaniy stated that after the change of government, the UOC-MP, “often with support of certain officials,” began to actively oppose the process of congregations transitioning from the UOC-MP to the OCU. He stated that the UOC-MP had filed lawsuits to challenge “almost every” such transition. He said in most cases courts “acted fairly,” but former members of UOC-MP congregations seeking to join the OCU had “fears,” which some observers believed referred to the expected lawsuits. The Metropolitan called on the government to help protect congregations wishing to join the OCU. The UOC-MP rejected the charge of government support.
On December 15, the website Suspilne.media quoted OCU Metropolitan Epiphaniy as saying five UOC-MP congregations joined the OCU during the year. The Religious Information Service of Ukraine estimated that as of February, 541 (4.5 percent) of 12,122 UOC-MP congregations had joined the OCU since its creation in 2018. Most of those parishes were in the western and central oblasts. UOC-MP representatives, however, often contested parish reregistrations, stating some local government officials allowed individuals unaffiliated with the UOC-MP to vote in meetings to change the affiliation of local parishes to the OCU. UOC-MP representatives again said such officials also helped OCU supporters take possession of disputed UOC-MP church buildings before the change of affiliation was officially registered. OCU representatives accused the UOC-MP of contesting legitimate changes of parish affiliation, including through numerous lawsuits. They said these suits were part of the UOC-MP’s strategy to discourage OCU followers from joining the new Church. According to the government and the OCU, the UOC-MP often falsely described eligible voters at such congregation meetings as “unaffiliated” with the parish, saying they rarely or never participated in religious services. These lawsuits remained unresolved through year’s end.
According to the UOC-MP, some local authorities continued to transfer parish affiliations from the UOC-MP to the OCU against the will of parishioners. Media reports indicated that some UOC-MP priests refused to follow the will of parishioners to change affiliation. Social media posts by Right Sector, commonly characterized as a violent radical group, stated that at the request of the OCU, it continued to visit Orthodox churches disputed between the UOC-MP and OCU to “facilitate” changes in affiliation. In an interview on church reregistration, OCU Metropolitan Epiphaniy stated, “We want them to continue to be peaceful, calm, and voluntary. . .We do not need confrontation.”
According to the Chernivtsi regional police, on May 4, officers intervened to stop a violent church-ownership dispute between UOC-MP and OCU members in Zadubrivka Village. On the day the priest leading a local UOC-MP congregation died of COVID-19, OCU supporters armed with sticks and pepper spray tried to break the door lock and seize the church guarded by several UOC-MP parishioners, according to UOC-MP sources. The sources also stated that attackers beat several UOC-MP members and sprayed noxious gas at them. Two UOC-MP parishioners sustained injuries and received medical assistance at a local hospital. Before approaching the church, the OCU supporters, led by an OCU priest, cut off electricity to the neighborhood and felled a tree across a village street to hamper the arrival of police vehicles and UOC-MP supporters at the scene. Police opened an investigation but made no arrests or charges by year’s end. OCU parishioners stated that UOC-MP members had been using force to prevent them from entering the church, despite a 2019 local government decision to transfer ownership of the church to a local OCU parish. The majority of village residents had voted for the transfer, according to the OCU. On May 5, chairman of the Chernivtsi Oblast State Administration Serhiy Osachuk issued a statement calling on the two sides to resolve their differences peacefully and to comply with a future court verdict on their dispute. There was no verdict by year’s end.
The All Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO), as well as the All-Ukrainian Council of Religious Associations (AUCRA), continued to meet regularly to discuss issues affecting the country, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the religious situation in the temporarily occupied territories, and peacemaking. AUCCRO is an interfaith organization representing more than 90 percent of all religious groups in Ukraine, including the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Roman Catholic Church, All-Ukraine Baptist Union, Ukrainian Church of Evangelical Pentecostal Christians, Ukrainian Union Conference, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ukrainian Christian Evangelical Church, Ukrainian Lutheran Church, Ukrainian Evangelical Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Ukrainian Diocese, Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine, Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine, German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine, Ukrainian Bible Society, and Trans-Carpathian Reformed Church. The council rotates its chairmanship.
On September 8-9, the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine sponsored the second annual Kyiv Jewish Forum to highlight the global fight against anti-Semitism. The conference featured speeches from prominent Jewish leaders from around the world, including President Zelenskyy; Benny Gantz, Alternate Prime Minister of Israel; the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism; Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom; and Natan Sharansky, human rights activist. Panel discussions included the state of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, the legacy of Babyn Yar, and Jewish leadership in the fight against COVID-19.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials, including the Charge d’Affaires, and other U.S. government officials continued to meet with officials of the Office of the President, Ministries of Culture, Interior, Justice, and Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, political parties, and local officials to engage on issues of religious freedom. They continued to discuss the importance of fair and transparent treatment of religious groups following the establishment of the OCU, the preservation of religious heritage sites, support for religious minorities, and combating increasing manifestations of anti-Semitism. In meetings with government officials at both the national and local levels, the Charge d’Affaires called for unequivocal condemnation and swift prosecution of anti-Semitic acts. The Charge d’Affaires also urged government officials to increase their efforts to ensure the preservation of historic religious sites and called for the government to protect the right of all religious groups to freely practice their religions according to their beliefs.
In January, the Secretary of State visited Kyiv and met with OCU Metropolitan Epiphaniy. After the meeting, the Secretary tweeted that he was “impressed by [Metropolitan Epiphaniy’s] efforts to ensure the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine is open to all believers. The U.S. will always champion the right of all people to worship freely.”
The embassy continued to engage with leaders of the AUCCRO, which represents most religious groups in the country, to discuss the status of religious freedom in the country and religious persecution in the Russia-occupied territories. The meetings were an occasion for Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox leaders to express their concerns about the state of religious freedom in the country and the status of religion in the temporarily occupied territories of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, and to hear views on how the United States could further help to promote religious freedom.
The embassy continued to engage with Jewish religious leaders and organizations to discuss issues of anti-Semitism and to promote Holocaust memorial efforts. In January, the Charge d’Affaires spoke to an audience of Holocaust survivors, family members, and other members of the diplomatic community at the official Ukrainian Holocaust memorial event “Six Million Hearts.” In her speech, she reiterated U.S. government support for Jewish Ukrainians in their fight for equality, tolerance, and acceptance within society, and she committed to always protect the most vulnerable members of religious communities from violence and hatred. Embassy officials also participated in the annual commemorations of the 1941 Babyn Yar massacre to honor the victims and to emphasize the importance of preserving the memory of that tragedy.
The embassy continued to meet with representatives from the Jewish community and assist in its efforts to preserve the country’s Jewish heritage. One of the most prominent cases was the continued construction of a private clinic on the grounds of an ancient Jewish cemetery in Lviv. The Charge d’Affaires wrote letters to both the Lviv mayor and the Ministry of Culture expressing her concern about the construction.
Although embassy officials had no access to Russia-controlled or occupied territories in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, the embassy continued its outreach to religious representatives from these areas and on several occasions publicly condemned Russia’s continued measures to impede the exercise of religious freedom there. Embassy officials met with Crimean Tatars, both internally displaced persons and those who had come to mainland Ukraine, including lawyers, family members of political prisoners, and representatives of the Crimean Tatar community residing in Kherson and Kyiv Oblasts. Embassy officials continued to denounce the persecution of Crimean Tatars and Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as the continued harassment of officials of the OCU seeking to operate in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials participated in Hanukkah and other Jewish holiday events and Holocaust commemorations, during which they emphasized the importance of religious dialogue and equality and encouraged efforts to combat anti-Semitism and preserve cultural heritage.
The embassy continued to use social media to reiterate U.S. government support for religious freedom, including the rights of religious minorities. The embassy regularly supported religious freedom through social media responses to anti-Semitic incidents across the country and to the systematic mistreatment of religious minorities in Crimea and the Russia-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine with a regular reminder of “#CrimeaisUkraine.”
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The constitution provides for freedom of religion or belief and separation of government and religion. Throughout the year, the government consulted with international legal scholars regarding draft updates to the law on religion, and on August 6, it officially requested a joint opinion from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. On October 12, the OSCE end Venice Commission issued their joint opinion, stating that while the draft provided some improved protections, it also allowed the government to maintain strict and excessive control over religion and religious freedom. It also stated, “The Draft Law should be substantially revised in order to ensure its full compliance with international human rights standards and OSCE human dimension commitments.” At year’s end, the draft remained under discussion in parliament. The government announced that during the year, it released or reduced the sentences of 243 prisoners detained on religious charges. Some activists and nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives said the government continued ill treatment of prisoners, including physical abuse, and in some cases sought to extend the prison terms of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of religious extremism or participating in Islamic activity not sanctioned by the government. The government did not provide the number of individuals in custody at year’s end, but it reported that criminal cases were filed against 38 persons for membership in groups or participation in “banned religious extremist activities.” It also reported it initiated 22 criminal cases regarding the “smuggling of banned religious material.” Of the two bloggers detained by police in 2019, one was given a three-year prison sentence. The other received five years’ probation, but in his work as a religious activist broke the terms of his probation and in late November, received a five-year prison sentence. Media reported the government continued to block access to some websites containing religious content, including a Jehovah’s Witnesses site and the site of the international religious freedom organization Forum 18. The government maintained a list of illegal websites it stated were linked to Islamic extremist activity. In August, the government further streamlined procedures for registering religious organizations, but religious groups said the current law on religion continued to make it difficult for groups to register. The government registered eight churches; according to religious groups, there were 17 known churches that still wished to register. Several religious freedom advocates said the majority of the Christian churches registered during the year had predominantly ethnic Russian or Korean membership rather than ethnic Uzbek membership. Members of religious groups whose registration applications the government denied remained unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecution. According to religious freedom advocates and media, controversy over government policies on beards and the wearing of hijabs continued. In August, a court sentenced five men to up to 11.5 years in prison and three men to restricted movement after the group discussed their religious beliefs. The Ministry of Interior released a public statement saying minors could freely pray at mosques when accompanied by their parents, siblings, and other close relatives
Activists and private individuals continued to report social pressure on individuals, particularly those from a Muslim background, against religious conversion. Some members of non-Islamic religious minorities said social stigma against conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials, forcing relatives to bury individuals in distant cemeteries or to conduct funerals with Islamic religious rites. Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, said they continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.
Throughout the year, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials met with senior government officials to raise concerns about imprisonment and mistreatment of individuals for their religious beliefs, bureaucratic impediments to the registration of religious minority groups, and allowing children to participate in religious activities. Embassy officials urged the government to ensure that changes to the draft law on religion follow the recommendations of international experts as well as take into account public views. In February, the Secretary of State visited the country and met with Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religious leaders to solicit their views on the state of religious freedom. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom held a series of virtual engagements with senior government officials throughout the year during which he raised the status of the country’s draft religion law and the registration of religious organizations and places of worship as well as the need for the government to allow children to participate in religious activities and to release individuals charged and detained for exercising their faith peacefully. Throughout the year, embassy officials maintained contact with religious groups, human rights activists, and other civil society representatives to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Topics included the registration of minority religious groups, religious education for children, and concerns about the wearing of hijabs and beards for Muslims.
On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State removed Uzbekistan from the Special Watch List, determining that it no longer engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.” Uzbekistan had previously been designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 2006 to 2017 and was moved to a Special Watch List in 2018 and 2019.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 30.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According the Uzbekistan government, the population as of October 2020 was close to 34 million. According to U.S. government estimates, 88 percent of the population is Muslim, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates 96 percent of the population is Muslim. Most Muslims are Sunni of the Hanafi school. The government states that approximately 1 percent of the population is Shia of the Jaafari school, concentrated in the provinces of Bukhara and Samarkand. Approximately 2.2 percent of the population is Russian Orthodox, compared with 3.5 percent in 2019; according to reports and statistics; this number continues to decline with the emigration of ethnic Russian and other Orthodox persons. The government states that the remaining 1.8 percent of the population includes small communities of Catholics, ethnic Korean Christians, Baptists, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and atheists. According to members of the Jewish community, the Jewish population – a mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardic (Bukharian) – Jews, numbers fewer than 10,000. Of those, approximately 6,000 Ashkenazi and fewer than 2,000 Bukharian Jews live in Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, and the Fergana Valley. The Jewish population continues to decline because of emigration.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states that everyone shall have the right to profess or not to profess any religion. According to the constitution, these rights may not encroach on lawful interests, rights, and freedoms of other citizens, the state, or society. The law allows for restricting religious activities when necessary to maintain national security, the social order, or morality. The constitution establishes a secular framework providing for noninterference by the state in the affairs of religious communities, separates the state and religion from each other, and prohibits political parties based on religious principles.
The law on religion details the scope of and limitations on the exercise of the freedom of religion or belief. The law criminalizes unregistered religious activity; requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution and storage of religious publications; and prohibits proselytism and other missionary activities.
Various provisions of the law on countering violent extremism deal with individuals’ security, protection of society and the state, preservation of constitutional order and the territorial integrity of the country, keeping the peace, and multiethnic and multireligious harmony. The law provides a framework of basic concepts, principles, and directions for countering extremism and extremist activities. By law, extremism is defined as the “expression of extreme forms of actions, focused on destabilizing social and political situations, a violent change in the constitutional order in Uzbekistan, a violent seizure of power and usurping its authority, [and] inciting national, ethnic or religious hatred.”
According to regulations, a website or blog may be blocked for calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order and territorial integrity of the country; spreading ideas of war, violence, and terrorism, as well as religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism; disclosing information that is a state secret or protected by law; or disseminating information that could lead to national, ethnic, or religious enmity or involves pornography or promoting narcotic usage. According to the Ministry of Justice, the government may block websites or blogs without a court order.
Any religious service conducted by an unregistered religious organization is illegal. The criminal code distinguishes between “illegal” groups, which are unregistered groups, and “prohibited” groups viewed as “extremist.” It criminalizes membership in organizations banned as terrorist groups. It is a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of four to eight million som ($380-$760) to organize or participate in an illegal religious group. The law also specifically prohibits persuading others to join illegal religious groups, with penalties of up to three years in prison. The criminal code provides penalties of up to 20 years in prison for organizing or participating in the activities of religious extremist, fundamentalist, separatist, or other prohibited groups. Charges against alleged members of religious extremist groups may include the stated offenses of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and terrorism.
By law, all religious groups must register with the Ministry of Justice. The law states a religious group may carry out its activities only after the ministry registers it. The law lists a series of requirements, including having a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units for central registration; presenting a membership list of at least 100 citizens who are 18 or older; and providing a charter with a legal, physical address to the local Ministry of Justice branch.
Religious groups applying to register in a specific locality require the concurrence of the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), the local government (khokimiyat), and the neighborhood (mahalla) committee. Groups must submit “letters of guarantee” from the regional branches of the Ministry of Construction, the State Sanitary and Epidemiological Service, and the Department of the State Fire Safety Service under the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The law requires notarized documents stating the leading founding members have the religious education necessary to preach their faith, the group’s sources of income, and CRA concurrence to register. The law also requires that khokimiyats concur with the registration of groups in their areas and that the group present notification from khokimiyat authorities stating the legal and postal addresses of the organization conform to all legal requirements, including obtaining authorization certificates from the main architectural division, sanitary-epidemiological services, fire services, and the local mahalla committee. After checking the submitted certificates, khokimiyats grant registration permission and send the documents to the CRA for review. By law, the Ministry of Justice may take one to three months to review a registration application and may approve or deny the registration or cease review without issuing a decision.
The law states registered religious groups may expand throughout the country by registering new locations, maintaining buildings compliant with fire and health codes, organizing religious teaching, and possessing religious literature.
The law limits the operations of a registered group to those areas where it is registered. The law grants only registered religious groups the right to establish schools and train clergy. Individual Muslim clergy members receive accreditation from the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan.
The CRA oversees registered religious activity. The Council for Confessions under the CRA includes ex officio representatives from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish groups. It discusses ways of ensuring compliance with the law, the rights and responsibilities of religious organizations and believers, and other issues related to religion.
The government must approve religious activities outside of formal worship as well as religious activities intended for children younger than 16 without parental permission.
The law requires registered religious organizations to inform authorities 30 days in advance of holding religious meetings and other religious ceremonies at the group’s registered address(es). The administrative code requires all registered religious organizations to seek permission from local authorities and then inform the CRA and Ministry of Justice representative 30 days before holding religious meetings, street processions, or other religious ceremonies occurring outside of a group’s registered building(s), including activities involving foreign individuals or worshippers from another region. Unregistered groups are prohibited from organizing any religious activity.
The law punishes private entities for leasing premises or other property to, or facilitating gatherings, meetings, and street demonstrations of, religious groups without state permission. The law also criminalizes the unauthorized facilitation of children’s and youth meetings as well as literary and other study groups related to worship. The administrative penalty for violating these provisions ranges from fines of 9,215,000 to 18,430,000 som ($880 to $1,800) or up to 15 days’ imprisonment.
Under the law, state bodies, including mahalla committees, as well as nonstate and noncommercial public organizations have wide-ranging powers to combat suspected “antisocial activity” in cooperation with police. These powers include preventing the activity of unregistered religious organizations, ensuring compliance of rights of citizens with religious freedom, prohibiting propagation of religious views, and considering other questions related to observance of the law.
The law prohibits all individuals, except clergy and individuals serving in leadership positions of officially recognized religious organizations, from wearing religious attire in public places. The government does not generally enforce this section of law; individuals may appear in public places in religious attire, with the exception of schools at all levels, both public and private.
The law prohibits proselytizing and other missionary activities. The criminal code punishes proselytizing with up to three years in prison and proscribes efforts to draw minors into religious organizations without parental permission.
The law requires religious groups to obtain a license to publish or distribute religious materials. The law requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution and storage of religious publications. Such materials include books, magazines, newspapers, brochures, leaflets, audiovisual items including CDs and DVDs, and materials posted to the internet describing the origins, history, ideology, teachings, commentaries, and rituals of various religions of the world.
The administrative code punishes the “illegal production, storage, import, or distribution of materials of religious content” with a fine of 20 to 100 times the minimum monthly wage (4,460,000 to 22,300,000 som, $430 to $2,100) for individuals. The fine for government officials committing the same offense is 50 to 150 times the minimum monthly wage (11,150,000 to 33,450,000 som, $1,100 to $3,200). The administrative code permits the confiscation of the materials and the “corresponding means of producing and distributing them.” Courts issue fines under the administrative code. In instances where an individual is unable to pay the fine, courts will issue an order garnishing wages. The criminal code imposes a fine of 100 to 200 times the minimum monthly wage (22,300,000 to 44,600,000 som, $2,100 to $4,300) or “corrective labor” of up to three years for individuals who commit these acts subsequent to a judgment rendered under the administrative code. In practice, punishments under the criminal code for violations involving religious literature are rarely applied.
The state forbids banned “extremist religious groups” from distributing any type of publication. Individuals who distribute leaflets or literature deemed extremist via social networks are subject to criminal prosecution and face prison terms ranging from five to 20 years. According to the law, individuals in possession of literature by authors the government deems to be extremist or of any literature illegally imported or produced, are subject to arrest and prosecution.
The law provides for a commission, entitled The Special Commission for Preparation of Materials on Clemency, to review the prison profiles of convicts sentenced on charges of religious extremism. Another commission, The Commission on Clemency, reviews the petitions of persons who “mistakenly became members of banned organizations.” This commission may exonerate citizens from all criminal liability. Citizens are exempted from criminal liability if they have not undergone military training, participated in terrorism financing, or distributed information promoting terrorism.
The law prohibits private teaching of religion. It limits religious instruction to officially sanctioned religious schools and state-approved instructors. Children may not receive religious education in public schools except for some classes providing basic information on world religions or “lessons of enlightenment” (the study of national culture) in the curriculum.
Religious education establishments acquire the right to operate after registering with the Ministry of Justice and receiving the appropriate license. Individuals teaching religious subjects at religious educational establishments must have a religious education recognized by the state and authorization to teach. These provisions make it illegal for laypersons to teach others any form of religion or for government-approved religious instructors to teach others outside the confines of an approved educational institution.
The law permits only religious groups with a registered central administrative body to train religious personnel and conduct religious instruction. Ten madrassahs, including one for women, and a Russian Orthodox and a Protestant seminary have official approval to train religious personnel and provide secondary education. The Cabinet of Ministers considers madrassah-granted diplomas equivalent to other diplomas, enabling madrassah graduates to continue to university-level education.
The law requires imams to have graduated from a recognized religious education facility and registered for a license with the government. The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan assigns a graduate to a particular mosque as a deputy imam before he may subsequently become an imam. According to government officials, clerics from various religious groups who obtained their qualifications abroad may officiate within licensed premises.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Throughout the year, the government consulted with international legal scholars regarding draft updates to the law on religion, and on August 6, it officially requested a joint opinion from the OSCE and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. On October 12, the OSCE and the Venice Commission issued their opinion, stating that while the draft provided some improved protections, it also allowed the government to maintain strict and excessive control over religion and religious freedom. It also stated, “The Draft Law should be substantially revised in order to ensure its full compliance with international human rights standards and OSCE human dimension commitments.” In particular, it cited the mandatory registration of religious activity and religious organizations; unnecessary requirements for registration; the continuation of censorship on religious materials and bans on religious expression; excessive discretion by government officials that would allow for discrimination; and interference with a religious organization’s right to autonomy. At year’s end, the draft remained under discussion in parliament.
According to a prominent human rights defender, the draft law was not much different from the previous law because it “continues to ban all exercise of freedom of religion without state permission, bans teaching about religion without state permission, continues censorship by the government of all materials about religion, and bans the sharing of religion.”
NGO representatives said the government continued the severe physical abuse of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of religious extremism or of participating in Islamic activity that was not sanctioned by the government. In February, media reported that NGO workers had submitted a complaint to the human rights ombudsman – who may investigate complaints from detainees and the public – regarding the abuse of religious prisoner Amirbek Khodzhaev, imprisoned in a penal colony in Navoi Region. According to Khodzhaev’s mother, authorities stripped him naked, placed him in a “butterfly” position with his hands behind his head at the neck and shoulder blades, then handcuffed and beat him. The NGO also reported officials abused prisoners during Ramadan, preventing them from fasting by forcibly pushing food in their mouths. According to the media report, the ombudsman’s office did not take the complaints seriously.
On January 8, Ibrokhim Kholmatov, who served a prison term from 2000 to 2002 for “association with Hizb ut-Tahrir,” was arrested at his home and later charged with aiding and abetting extremism. According to religious freedom activists, Kholmatov was subjected to “strong psychological pressure” by authorities and was not permitted to see his family. The family told activists that authorities provided little information about the charges against him and said they were not permitted to see him.
Civil society groups continued to express concern that the law’s definition of extremism remained too broad and failed to distinguish between nonviolent religious beliefs and ideologies supporting violence.
On May 28, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced it had arrested several members of the banned group Hizb ut-Tahrir in the cities of Andijon and Namangan as well as in the Tashkent and Surkhandarya Regions. The ministry did not say how many persons were arrested but stated the individuals had previously served prison sentences for participating in the group’s activities and were continuing to spread extremist ideas after being released. The ministry said it seized literature containing extremist language and initiated a criminal investigation. The government did not provide information regarding the total number of persons convicted of engaging in terrorist and extremist activities or on persons belonging to what the government called religious fundamentalist organizations who were serving prison sentences. In 2018, the most recent year for which the government provided information, 1,503 prisoners remained in detention for these crimes. NGO representatives said they could not independently verify these numbers.
The government reported it did not arrest any citizens on religious grounds during the year. It said, however, that 18 criminal cases were filed against 38 persons on the basis of membership or participation in banned religious extremist activities. It also reported it had initiated 22 criminal cases regarding “smuggling of banned religious material.” Some religious freedom activists said that security services had fabricated the charges against the detainees to make a “show” of being tough on religious extremism. One prominent human rights lawyer stated that authorities based the charges on incoming messages to the detainees’ phones that were related to the banned group Hizb ut-Tahrir even though authorities knew the detainees themselves did not write or respond to the messages.
Religious activists reported many religious prisoners continued to face “extensions” of their sentences when prison officials brought new charges, accusing inmates of involvement in extremist groups or other crimes. The new charges resulted in new sentences, and many individuals whose original sentences had ended years before were consequently still imprisoned.
In five separate instances during the year, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev released or reduced the sentences of a total of 616 prisoners, 243 of whom had been detained on violations of the law on religion. In an August 1 government video announcing one of the planned releases, the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that 4,500 prisoners had been released or pardoned since the death of former President Islam Karimov in 2016, including 1,584 religious prisoners; of these, 1,215 were released and 369 received reduced sentences. Since the August 1 announcement, new releases on August 27 and December 7 brought the total number of religious prisoners released or receiving reduced sentences since 2016 to 1,710.
On November 27, blogger Tulkin Astanov, who in 2019 was sentenced to five years’ probation after posting online discussions about a wide range of religious themes, including calls to allow women to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to pray in mosques, was rearrested, tried, and sentenced on the same day for breaking parole terms that restricted him from leaving Tashkent. His lawyer stated that an inspector with the Uchtepa police probation group summoned Astanov the morning of November 27, and his three-hour trial took place that evening. He was immediately sentenced to five years in prison by the Uchtepa District Criminal Court and transferred to a penal colony in Bukhara on December 1 or 2. His lawyer said Astanov had traveled to the Buvayda district of Fergana and Chinaz City (Sirdarya Region) during his probation period, breaking the terms of his previous parole, but Astanov’s family told the BBC Uzbek service they believed he was sentenced again for his activity promoting religious freedom. Following the sentencing, the Tashkent Department of Internal Affairs issued a statement saying, “He introduced himself as an advocate for victims of government agencies, persuaded them to provide defamatory and biased information about law enforcement, and posted the material on the internet.” The Tashkent City Criminal Court heard his appeal on December 22 but upheld the verdict.
According to a religious freedom activist, Rustambek Karimov, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2019 alongside Astanov for posting religious-themed content online, continued to serve his sentence in a penal colony.
Local authorities closed popular blogger Adham Atajanov’s restaurant following his February meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State. Atajanov, whose pen name is “Abu Muslim,” reportedly used the earnings from his restaurant to produce online religious freedom content on his website Islamonline.uz and his Facebook page, which had almost 264,000 followers. Atajanov said that in the past, he had frequently criticized government policies on religious issues and had faced no repercussions or backlash. He said that immediately following his meeting with the Secretary, however, authorities shut off the gas to his restaurant, resulting in its closure. Authorities cited unpaid bills and other violations, despite evidence his bills were paid and he was in compliance with regulations. Gas service was eventually restored and the restaurant reopened, but Atajanov suffered significant financial loss as a result of the shutdown.
Other Islamic media platforms very similar to Atajanov’s remained active without government interference, including a private, well-known Muslim channel on YouTube (Azon.tv) with 268,000 subscribers, a private Facebook page with almost 110,000 followers (Azon), and the privately owned radio station, Azon.fm.
Media reported that on March 31, Alimardon Sultonov, a trauma surgeon at Ellikkala Central State Hospital in the northwestern Republic of Karakalpakstan, called the local medical emergency service to ask whether there were any COVID-19 cases in Karakalpakstan. Five local government officials then appeared at the hospital to question Sultonov, who was known for posting his views on Muslims’ freedom of religion and belief on social media. The officials asked Sultonov if he was in possession of religious texts, and he confirmed he had Islamic texts on his computer. Officials confiscated the computer and opened a criminal case against him, placing him under house arrest and charging him with spreading false information on COVID-19 lockdown measures. He was also charged with the “illegal production, storage, import, or distribution of religious literature.” On November 23, the Ellikalansky District Court in the Karakalpakstan Republic sentenced him to 14 months of house arrest, including time served. Sultanov filed an appeal, and a hearing was scheduled for January 7, 2021.
On August 14, media reported that the Tashkent City Criminal Court sentenced five Muslim men to up to 11.5 years in prison and restricted the movement (including limits on driving and participating in public gatherings as well as placing them under house arrest and requiring them to comply with curfews) of three other Muslim men who discussed their faith on social media. Prosecutors accused the eight men of downloading extremist sermons and other terrorism-related offenses.
On March 12 and April 29, the Supreme Court ruled in two instances that two websites (najot.info and hizb-uzbekiston.info) as well as 43 online profiles, channels, and pages on Facebook, YouTube, and the messaging app Telegram were promoting extremism. The court ruled that the materials and content of these sources were prohibited from entering or being manufactured, distributed, or possessed in the country.
The government continued to ban Islamic groups it defined as “extremist” and criminalized membership in such groups, which included 22 religious organizations. The government reported that at year’s end, the following organizations were defined as banned: Akramites, Islamic Movement of Turkestan, Islamic Jihad Group, Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami, al-Jihad, al-Qa’ida, World Jihad Foundation, Muslim Brothers, Zamiyati Islomi Tablig, Jamaat-e-Islami-i-Pakistan, Eastern Turkestan Liberation Organization, East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Boz Kurd, Abu Saif Group, Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, Islamic State, Tavhid va Jihad, Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhariy, Jamoat-e-Ansarulloh, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jihadists, and Nurchists. The government stated its actions against persons or groups suspected of religious extremism were not an infringement on religious freedom, but rather were a matter of preventing the overthrow of secular authorities and the incitement of interreligious instability and hatred.
According to media and the government, the ban on private religious instruction continued to result in the government’s detaining and fining members of religious communities. The ban included meetings of persons gathered to discuss their faith or to exchange religious ideas. Some Muslims said religious discussions continued to be considered taboo because no one wanted to risk punishment for “proselytism” or for teaching religious principles in private. The government reported that as of October 1, it had shut down 20 hujras (illegal private schools that provide Islamic education) and had found more than 50 persons “administratively liable” (fined them) for illegal religious education.
In July, the Samarkand Regional Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs issued a press release reporting on the raid of an illegal hujra. According to the report, a man was illegally teaching recitations from the Quran to a group of seven students, ranging in age from nine to 17. Officers confiscated seven religious books and seven notebooks, all written in Arabic. The government did not report if any charges were filed.
Media reported that on March 4, police in Margilan, Fergana Region, raided the home of a retired public school teacher. Police confiscated from her and her female students Arabic-language Qurans and Islamic textbooks published in the country. Media did not report whether authorities filed any charges against them.
The government sometimes restricted access to websites, including those of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Forum 18. The government maintained a list of illegal websites it said were linked to Islamic extremist activity.
While the draft law on religion remained under parliamentary consideration, the government reported it had attempted to streamline the registration process for religious groups pending approval of the new law. Activists said, however, the government did not evenly apply the streamlined registration guidelines throughout the country, and that the CRA helped some religious groups obtain mahalla approval, but not others. The draft law on religion contained language removing the requirement for mahalla approval in the registration process, but the current law continued to require it.
According to the CRA, at year’s end, the country had 2,293 registered religious organizations representing 16 different faiths, compared with 2,280 registered religious organizations and 16 faiths in 2019. Muslim religious groups operated 2,071 Sunni mosques (compared with 2,065 in 2019), four Shia mosques, 15 Muftiates, and 13 education institutes. The 190 registered non-Muslim groups included 38 Orthodox churches (the same as in 2019), five Catholic churches, 60 Pentecostal churches (up from 56 in 2019), 24 Baptist churches, 10 Seventh-day Adventist churches (one more than in 2019), four New Apostol churches (one more than in 2019), two Lutheran churches, one Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, one Voice of God church, 27 Korean Protestant churches, two Armenian Apostolic churches, eight Jewish communities, six Baha’i centers, one Hari Krishna temple, and one Buddhist temple. The Bible Society of Uzbekistan was also registered.
During the year, the government registered eight churches, the same number as in 2019: the “Agape” Full Gospel Church in Tashkent on July 6; the New Apostolic Church in Fergana region on July 20; a Seventh-day Adventist Church in Samarkand on August 7; the “Hope” Full Gospel Church in Nukus on August 12; the “Salt of the Earth” Full Gospel Church in Almalyk on August 12; the Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church in Sirdarya on August 13; the “Light of Truth” Full Gospel Church in Gulistan on August 29; and Farovon Hayot (formerly Ahli Kitob) in Tashkent on November 16. In October, Shia Muslims in Bukhara submitted paperwork to register a Shia mosque in the city. According to religious groups, there were 17 known churches that still wished to register.
Many religious group representatives continued to report they were unable to meet the government’s registration requirements, especially the requirement for a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units to acquire central registration and the requirement that 100 members must apply for registration in a specific locality. They said their inability to register made them subject to harassment by local authorities and criminal sanction for engaging in “illegal” religious activities.
As in previous years, the Ministry of Justice explained denials of registration by citing failures of religious groups to report a valid legal address or to obtain guarantee letters and necessary permits from all local authorities (including the mahalla). Some groups stated they did not have addresses because they continued to be reluctant to purchase property without assurances the government would approve their registration application. Other groups stated local officials arbitrarily withheld approval of the addresses because they opposed the existence of Christian churches with ethnic Uzbek members. In response, some groups reported providing congregation membership lists with only Russian-sounding surnames.
According to some Christian groups, many churches again attempted to register but remained unregistered at year’s end. In Tashkent, these included Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostal Life Water Church, Pentecostal Source of Life Church, and Pentecostal New Wave Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Halls also remained unregistered in Urgench, Fergana, Bukhara, Samarkand, Nukus, and Karshi. The Pentecostal Full Gospel churches in the cities of Khanabad, Kungrad, Chimbay, Gulistan, and Jizzakh remained unregistered, along with two in the city of Nukus. Several religious freedom advocates said the majority of the Christian churches registered in the year were not ethnic Uzbek, but ones whose members were mostly of Russian or Korean ethnicity.
Jehovah’s Witnesses again stated that, because the government considered illegal any religious activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses outside of the one registered religious building in Chirchik, the group remained a potential target for harassment and mistreatment, although they stated no raids occurred during the year. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said the group’s one registered site in Chirchik did not adequately meet their needs because their numbers were growing. They also said the group had repeatedly attempted to register in seven districts of the country, but the government had rejected their application at the mahalla level, the first step in the registration process. Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a cessation appeal with the Supreme Court in 2019, which was denied on February 20 but not transmitted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses until October 5. On January 27, Jehovah’s Witnesses filed an appeal to the United Nations Human Rights Committee regarding six of the seven cases of unsuccessful registrations. At year’s end, the UN Human Rights Committee had not responded.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the Ministry of Justice, together with the State Tax Committee and the Ministry of Finance, conducted a special audit of the only registered Kingdom Hall, located in the city of Chirchik, from November 23 until December 11. Church representatives said one possible reason for the audit could have been the group’s charitable activities. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Chirchik said they had received $24,000 from Jehovah’s Witnesses offices in New Zealand to help church members and their families with food and protective supplies. The church reported that it successfully helped approximately 600 persons in seven regions with the funds. Church representatives said the government audit concerned them and they believed officials were seeking a way to require reregistration of the church’s charter, which they said could lead to registration problems for their only legally registered location.
The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code regulating the length of hair and dress, the color of uniforms, and the type of shoes for all pupils in both public and private schools. The government continued to forbid any religious symbols, including skullcaps, crosses, and hijabs. Reportedly, however, one private school for girls allowed students to wear hijabs.
Religious freedom advocates stated that in the beginning of the year, there were reports that some schools and universities prevented the attendance of females wearing hijabs. In August, lawyer Abduvhid Yakubov filed a case with the Constitutional Court to annul a 2018 Cabinet of Ministers resolution that stated students should wear “modern uniforms,” stating the ruling was unconstitutional. School and university administrations used the 2018 resolution as the basis for banning hijabs. On September 16, the Constitutional Court dismissed Yakubov’s complaint, stating it was unfounded. Yakubov did not appeal the court’s decision.
Religious activist Fayzullaev Isakhon reported authorities arrested and charged him with the illegal distribution of religious information and held him for 10 days following a May 19 Facebook post critical of the local government in Fergana. The Regional Administrative Court of Fergana District stated the writings were those of Shuhrat Kayumov, a well-known, recently deceased journalist and “Honored Artist of Uzbekistan.” The writings were composed of religious material about the Prophet Mohammad that Kayumov had sent to his friend Isakhon via Telegram on March 29. During his detention, authorities forcibly shaved Isakhon, removing a beard he had worn for 20 years.
On September 24, media outlet Podrobno.uz reported a case in which a passerby filmed police harassing women wearing hijabs on Ghuncha Street in the Shaykhantakhur district of Tashkent. Police were recorded pushing women into a police bus. According to authorities, they were attempting to reduce the number of pedestrians who were not wearing masks. Observers told media, however, that police often monitored this neighborhood and frequently targeted men with long beards and women wearing hijabs.
According to the CRA and Muslim religious leaders, the government continued to review the content of imams’ sermons as well as the volume and substance of Islamic materials published by the Muftiate. Religious leaders said the government ensured its control over the Muftiate through the CRA by selecting the Muftiate’s staff and circulating approved sermons for prayer services. The government did not legally limit the volume of public calls to prayer, although many mosques voluntarily did so, according to media sources.
In February, President Mirziyoyev issued a decree establishing the Ministry for the Support of the Mahalla and the Family. The new ministry was tasked with ensuring close cooperation between state-level governments and local mahallas on issues of women, family, and social structures, thereby more formally linking the government and mahalla actions, including those involving religious matters.
Unlike in previous years, there were no reports from minority religious groups that children were prevented from attending community-sponsored activities, including Sunday school, and services with the permission of their parents. On August 2, the Ministry of Interior publicly clarified that minors could attend mosque to pray when accompanied by their parents, siblings, and other close relatives after restrictions on general worship imposed as a result of the coronavirus outbreak were lifted. Previously, there had been a de facto ban, first enforced under the country’s late first President, Islam Karimov, according to al-Jazeera Television.
According to anecdotal reports, a small number of unregistered “neighborhood mosques” continued to function for use primarily by elderly or disabled persons who did not live close to larger, registered mosques. The neighborhood mosques remained limited in their functions and were not assigned registered imams.
Non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious groups said they continued to experience particular difficulties conducting religious activities in the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan because most non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious communities continued to lack legal status in the region. With the addition of a newly registered Pentecostal church, there were two Christian churches in a region of two million persons, the other belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church.
In August, media reported the historic Ashkenazi Jewish Synagogue Beth Menachem in Tashkent was in danger of being demolished. A real estate developer had sued the synagogue, wanting to build a multistory building on its site. After the Jewish community publicized the case, the government stepped in to assist; on August 5, the Tashkent Interdistrict Economic Court ruled in favor of the synagogue, and the developer dropped its suit during the hearing. The CRA published a statement from Jewish community leader in Tashkent Arkadiy Isakharov in which he thanked the Tashkent khokimiyat and the CRA for their assistance in resolving the matter.
According to Christian religious leaders, many Christians, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, remained separated from an authorized gathering place by more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and gathered in private “house churches,” leaving them potentially vulnerable to police harassment and abuse because such gatherings remained illegal.
Unlike in previous years, there were no reports from religious leaders or activists of authorities filming participants of religious services.
Unlike in previous years, Catholic Church leaders did not report surveillance of Catholic masses.
The government stated that prisoners had the right to practice any religion or no religion. According to human rights activists, including a prominent former religious prisoner and current human rights defender, some prisoners continued to tell family members they were not able to observe religious rituals conflicting with the prison’s schedule of activities. Such observances included traditional Islamic morning prayers. While some activists reported this situation had improved, others said it had not. According to human rights activists, authorities forbade all prisoners from observing religious holidays, such as Ramadan, including by fasting. Although some prison libraries provided copies of the Quran and the Bible, family members continued to state that authorities did not allow some religiously observant prisoners access to religious materials.
The government continued to limit access to Islamic publications deemed extremist and arrested individuals attempting to import or publish religious literature without official permission. There were no reports the government entered the homes of members of any religious group in search of illegal religious material.
The government continued to control access to Islamic publications and to require a statement in every domestic publication indicating the source of its publication authority. According to marketplace shoppers, it remained possible, although uncommon, to obtain a few imported works in Arabic from book dealers in secondhand stores or flea markets, but any literature not specifically approved by the CRA was rare.
According to the CRA, it continued to block the importation of some Christian and Islamic literature.
Throughout the year, religious activist Adham Atajanov (pen name Abu Muslim) reported the CRA had not responded to his repeated requests for official review and permission to publish his interpretations of five books on Islam. In October, Atajanov said he had received permission to publish two of the books, with three remaining under consideration.
The government continued to allow only the following groups to publish, import, and distribute religious literature upon review and approval by the CRA: the Bible Society of Uzbekistan, the Muftiate, the Tashkent Islamic Institute, and the offices of the Russian Orthodox, Full Gospel, Baptist, and Catholic Churches.
The Bible Society of Uzbekistan reported that during the year, Christians could easily request a Bible from them in three languages, English, Russian, and Uzbek, and that Christians were no longer required to fill out paperwork to obtain a Bible.
During the year, the government-controlled Muftiate continued to operate a call center created in 2019 and staffed by religious experts, which allowed citizens to call in and ask general questions pertaining to Islam.
The government continued to fund an Islamic university and the preservation of Islamic historic sites. The government prohibited Islamic religious institutions from receiving private funding other than for construction and repairs. While the government allowed some private funding, it did not permit funding from foreign governments. The International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan, established in 2018, continued to provide the country’s religious education institutions (universities and madrassahs) with academic experts, teachers, and mentors. It also worked to improve the research and professional skills of scholars; educate graduate students in the fields of Quranic studies, Islamic law, the science of hadith, and kalam (Islamic doctrine); and engage in research, teaching, and public outreach. The government reported that 1,692 persons were studying at the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan. Of these, 1,462 students were pursuing a bachelor’s degree, 187 a master’s degree, and 43 a doctoral degree.
The government continued to prohibit separate training of Shia imams inside the country and did not recognize training received outside the country.
At year’s end, there were three public Islamic training academies to prepare clerics in the country: the Tashkent Islamic Institute, Samarkand Higher School of Hadith Studies, and Mir-i-Arab Madrassah in Bukhara. The number of madrassahs for secondary education increased from nine to 10 after a new one opened in the Surkhandarya Region. Additionally, two Christian seminaries continued to function. According to official figures, 2,299 persons were studying at the Islamic universities and madrassahs (compared with 1,984 in 2019), 50 at the Orthodox seminary (compared with 41 in 2019), and 12 at the Protestant seminary (compared with 20 in 2019). Sources reported that COVID-19 restrictions reduced enrollment, particularly of international students from the region.
Umrah regulations also required pilgrims to apply to local mahalla committees, which submit a list to the khokimiyats. The CRA used the khokimiyats’ lists to coordinate national air carrier flights to Jeddah. Between January and February, before COVID lockdowns went into effect, 28,000 pilgrims traveled for the Umrah, compared with 21,419 in 2019.
Large, government-operated hotels continued to furnish a limited number of rooms with Qurans and Bibles. The government did not report how many Qurans were made available for hotels. Upon advance request, hotels also provided other holy books, prayer mats, and qiblas, used by Muslims to indicate the direction of Mecca. Many airports and train stations maintained small prayer rooms on their premises.
Civil society observers and religious freedom activists continued to report that authorities allowed Muslims to celebrate Ramadan openly, but they said COVID-19 restrictions affected the number of public iftars, and authorities urged citizens to celebrate the holiday at home.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Activists and human rights groups continued to report social pressure among the majority Muslim population against conversion from Islam. Religious community members said ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity risked harassment and discrimination. Some said social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials and that Muslims in the community forced them to bury individuals in distant cemeteries or allowed burials only with Islamic religious rites.
Unlike in previous years, there were no reports of individuals being attacked or harassed for their conversion to a minority faith.
Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to state they faced societal scrutiny and discrimination.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
On February 2, the Secretary of State met with religious leaders representing Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities to solicit their views on the state of religious freedom in the country. In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador and other embassy officials and senior officials from the Department of State, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, raised religious freedom concerns with the country’s leadership. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials met with multiple senior government officials, including the President, Foreign Minister, and officials from the National Human Rights Center and the CRA, and raised concerns about the ability of children to attend mosques with their parents, imprisonment and mistreatment of individuals for their religious beliefs, the draft law on religion, and bureaucratic impediments to the registration of religious minority groups. The embassy used social media to raise issues of concern but also to highlight achievements, such as the country’s removal from the Special Watch List and the government’s public clarification that minors could attend mosque if accompanied by their parents.
The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom held a series of engagements with the Foreign Minister and the Ambassador of Uzbekistan to the United States, raising the status of the country’s draft religion law and of the registration of religious organizations and places of worship, as well as the need for the government to allow children to participate in religious activities and to release individuals charged and detained for exercising their faith peacefully. Religious freedom issues were also on the agenda for the annual bilateral consultations, held on November 20, with the main topics being the draft law on religion, continuing the registration of religious organizations (including Jehovah’s Witnesses), and the number of religious prisoners still imprisoned by the government. Several Department of State senior officials, including the Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, also raised religious freedom points in their meetings.
At various levels of government and in different forums, U.S. officials continued to urge the government to amend the religion law to allow members of religious groups to practice their faiths freely outside registered houses of worship and to relax requirements for registering faith-based organizations. They continued to press the government to provide protection for public discourse on religion and remove restrictions on the importation and use of religious literature, in both hardcopy and electronic versions. They also raised the difficulties religious groups and faith-based foreign aid organizations faced with registration and with authorities’ limiting their access to religious literature. The U.S. government supported the implementation of the country’s religious freedom roadmap and the drafting of legislation overhauling the law on religion as concrete steps to enhance religious freedom. The U.S. government urged the government of Uzbekistan to seek a joint opinion on the draft law on religion from the OSCE and Venice Commission.
Embassy representatives frequently discussed individual religious freedom cases with foreign diplomatic colleagues to coordinate efforts on monitoring court cases.
Throughout the year, and despite COVID-19 restrictions, embassy officials maintained contact with religious groups, human rights activists, and other civil society representatives to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Topics included the registration of minority religious groups, religious education for children, and concerns about the wearing of hijabs and beards for Muslims.
In its public outreach and private meetings, the embassy again drew attention to the continuing inability of certain Christian groups to register houses of worship, of evangelical Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses to discuss their beliefs openly in public, and of Muslim parents to take their children to mosque or educate them in their faith. Embassy officials and visiting U.S. government officials continued to meet with representatives of religious groups and civil society and with relatives of prisoners to discuss freedom of conscience and belief. Embassy engagement included meetings with virtually all major religious denominations in the country, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptist groups, Jewish leaders, Muslim scholars, and religious freedom activists.
On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State removed Uzbekistan from the Special Watch List, determining that it no longer engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.” Uzbekistan had previously been designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 2006 to 2017 and was moved to a Special Watch List in 2018 and 2019.