The constitution bars the federal and state governments from adopting a state religion, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for individuals’ freedom to choose, practice, propagate, or change their religion. Human rights groups continued to report the federal government often failed to prevent, quell, or respond to violence affecting religious groups, particularly in the northeastern and central regions of the country. In November Kano State police fired tear gas and bullets, killing three members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) during its annual Ashura procession. The government continued to detain the leader of the IMN, the country’s largest Shia group, and restrict the activities, free movement, and free association of its members. There were no reports of accountability for soldiers implicated in the December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report and reports from nongovernment observers, left at least 348 IMN members and one soldier dead, with IMN members buried in a mass grave. A pending bill in Kaduna State would require all preachers to obtain preaching licenses or risk fines and/or imprisonment for up to two years. The draft generated widespread opposition from both Muslim and Christian groups, who cited fears that such steps would lead to broader government restrictions on religious organizations and general religious activity. Members of regional minority religious groups said some state and local government laws continued to discriminate against them, including by limiting their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and obtaining government employment.
The terrorist organization Boko Haram and its splinter organization the Islamic State-West Africa (ISIS-WA) continued carrying out numerous attacks, committing mass killings, and targeting civilians. Nigeria Watch estimated activities by Boko Haram and ISIS-WA resulted in the deaths of 1,794 persons during the year, including members of the two groups, a decrease from the 2,900 deaths recorded in 2016. According to media reports, in September members of Boko Haram killed Chief Imam Ustaz Goni Bukar Tabare and four people in Magumeri, Borno State.
There were incidents of killings and other violence which observers stated were motivated in part by religion, although they said there were other contributing factors, including ethnicity, corruption, criminality, and conflict over grazing rights. In Kaduna State clashes between mainly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and mainly Muslim Fulani herders in January, February, and July resulted in the deaths of dozens of persons. In June ethnic Mambilla tribesmen in Taraba State attacked dozens of Fulani settlements, resulting in the deaths of dozens of individuals. In September Fulani herdsmen attacked villages in Plateau state, killing 19 persons.
Embassy officials met with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, state governors, National Assembly leaders, and other senior federal and state government officials to discuss religious freedom and tolerance, and encouraged them to address interreligious violence and take timely legal action against perpetrators of violence. In meetings with leaders of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and Jama’atu Nasril Islam, the national Islamic umbrella organization, to discuss religious freedom, embassy officers affirmed U.S. support for efforts to combat Boko Haram and ISIS-WA and reviewed efforts to improve relations between Christians and Muslims throughout the country. In April the embassy sponsored a conference that brought together farmers and pastoralists from 16 states and discussed triggers of violence, including religious triggers.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 190.6 million (July 2017 estimate). A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life estimated the population to be 49.3 percent Christian and 48.8 percent Muslim, while the remaining 2 percent belong to other or no religions. Many individuals combine indigenous beliefs and practices with Islam or Christianity. A 2010 Pew report found 38 percent of the Muslim population self-identified as Sunni and 12 percent as Shia, with the remainder declining to answer or identifying as “something else” (5 percent) or “Just a Muslim” (42 percent). Included among the Sunnis are several Sufi groups, including Tijaniyah and Qadiriyyah. There are also Izala (Salafist) minorities and small numbers of Ahmadi Muslims. Christian groups include evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other groups include Jews, Bahais, and individuals who do not follow any religion.
The Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri ethnic groups are most prevalent in the predominantly Muslim northern states. Significant numbers of Christians, including some Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri, also reside in the north, and Christians and Muslims reside in approximately equal numbers in the central part of the country and in the southwestern states, including Lagos, where the Yoruba ethnic group, whose members include both Muslims and Christians, predominates. In the southeastern states, where the Igbo ethnic group is dominant, Christian groups, including Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, constitute the majority. In the Niger Delta region, where the Ogoni and Ijaw ethnic groups predominate, Christians form a substantial majority, and a very small minority of the population is Muslim. Evangelical Christian denominations are growing rapidly in the central and southern regions. Ahmadi Muslims maintain a small presence in several cities, including Lagos and Abuja.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates neither the federal nor the state governments shall establish a state religion and prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. It provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion and to manifest and propagate religion “in worship, teaching, practice, and observance,” provided these rights are consistent with the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or health, and protecting the rights of others. The constitution also states it shall be the duty of the state to encourage interfaith marriages and to promote the formation of associations that cut across religious lines and promote “national integration.” It prohibits political parties that limit membership on the basis of religion or with names that have a religious connotation.
The constitution provides for state-level courts based on common or customary law systems, which have operated in the region for centuries. It specifically recognizes sharia courts of appeal in any states that require it, with jurisdiction over civil proceedings such as marriage, inheritance, and other family matters, where all the parties are Muslims. Sharia courts hear criminal cases in 12 northern states. State laws on sharia criminal courts vary, but at least one state, Zamfara, requires that criminal cases in which all litigants are Muslim be heard in sharia courts. According to state laws, sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including hudood offenses (serious criminal offenses with punishments prescribed in the Quran) and prescribe punishments, such as caning, amputation, and death by stoning. State laws dictate non-Muslims have the option to try their cases in sharia courts if involved in civil or criminal disputes with Muslims. Common law courts hear the cases of non-Muslims and Muslims (in states where they have the option) who choose not to use sharia courts. Sharia courts do not have the authority to compel participation by non-Muslims. Aggrieved parties may appeal sharia court judgments to three levels of sharia appellate courts. According to the constitution, decisions by the state sharia courts of appeal (the highest level of the sharia courts) theoretically can be appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal and then to the Supreme Court, although none have been.
Kano and Zamfara’s state-sanctioned Hisbah Boards regulate Islamic religious affairs and preaching, distribute licenses to imams, and attempt to resolve religious disputes between Muslims in those states. The states of Bauchi, Borno, Katsina, and Yobe maintain state-level Christian and Muslim religious affairs ministries or bureaus with varying mandates and authorities, while many other state governors appoint interfaith special advisers on religious affairs.
In order to build places of worship, open bank accounts, receive tax exemptions, or sign contracts, religious groups must register with the Corporate Affairs Commission as an incorporated trustee, which involves submitting an application form, proof of public notice, a copy of the organization’s constitution, a list of trustees, and a fee of 20,000 naira ($56).
Both federal and state governments have the authority to regulate mandatory religious instruction in public schools. The constitution states schools may not require students to receive religious instruction or to participate in or attend any religious ceremony or observance pertaining to any religion other than their own. State officials and many religious leaders have stated students have the right to request a teacher of their own religious beliefs to provide an alternative to any instruction offered in a religion other than their own. The constitution also says no religious community will be prevented from providing religious instruction to students of that community in any place maintained wholly by that community.
Several states have laws requiring licenses for preachers, places of worship, and religious schools of registered religious groups. A Katsina State law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators. The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,400) for operating without a license.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary Paragraph: In November Kano State police fired tear gas and bullets, killing three members of the IMN during its annual Ashura procession. The government continued to detain Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, leader of the IMN, the largest Shia Muslim group in the country, despite a court order that he be released by January 15. There were no reports of accountability for soldiers implicated in the December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report, left at least 348 IMN members and one soldier dead, with IMN members buried in a mass grave. Some Christian groups reported a lack of protection by government authorities for churches and Christian communities, especially in the central and northern regions. They reported discrimination in acquiring land permits to build churches and in admission to universities in the north. Muslims living in predominantly Christian states reported discrimination by state governments against such practices as women wearing the hijab. There were continued conflicts between migrant ethnic groups, known as settlers, who were mainly Muslim, and longstanding residents or indigenes, who were mainly Christian, which the groups accused the federal government of ignoring. Farmer-herder violence remained a form of the indigene-settler conflict, since herders were generally not seen as indigenous to the land by farmers. The differences between the indigenes and settlers were frequently religious as well as ethnic and economic. State governments often granted preferential treatment, for example in access to education and jobs, to indigenes over settlers.
According to international reports, on November 5, Kano State police fired tear gas and bullets, killing three IMN members during the group’s annual Ashura procession. Police arrested 10 members. The police spokesperson stated the IMN ignored instructions from police not to hold the procession.
The government stated publicly that Sheikh Zakzaky, leader of the IMN and a prominent Shia cleric, would remain in what it said was “protective custody” pending appeal of the December 2016 decision of Federal High Court in Abuja that the government must release him. At year’s end, Zakzaky remained in prison. The court also ruled the government must provide him with a house and pay him and his wife restitution of 25 million naira ($69,600) by January 15; at year’s end, the court’s order had yet to be followed.
There were no reports of accountability for soldiers implicated in the December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report, left at least 348 IMN members and one soldier dead. Dozens of IMN members were still being held since December 2015, charged with the death of the soldier. In August Acting President Osinbajo announced the creation of a Presidential Investigative Panel that committed to transparently and credibly investigating human rights abuses committed by the military. On August 17, the IMN publicly stated it would boycott the panel because it doubted the panel’s sincerity. Outside human rights observers also expressed concern over lack of transparency and rigor of the panel. At year’s end, the panel’s findings were not yet available.
According to local media reports, the 23rd Armored Brigade of the Nigerian Army in Yola, Adamawa State, began an investigation into the disruption of an Assemblies of God church service in March by men in military uniforms but without nametags. Media reported the church had been affected by a leadership crisis, and a clergy member representing a rival faction in the leadership struggle reportedly invited the soldiers to enter the church and remove the presiding pastor. An army spokesperson stated that the army sent no personnel to the church and would investigate whether the attackers were in fact soldiers.
Both Muslim and Christian groups said there was a lack of just handling of their mutual disputes and inadequate protection by federal, state, and local authorities, especially in central regions, where there were longstanding, violent disputes between Hausa and Fulani Muslims and Christian ethnic groups. In disputes between primarily Christian farmers and Muslim herders, herders stated they did not receive justice when their members were killed or their cattle stolen by the farming community, which they said caused them to carry out retaliatory attacks. Farmers stated security forces did not intervene when their villages were being attacked by herdsmen.
A pending bill in Kaduna State would require all preachers to obtain preaching licenses or risk fines and/or imprisonment for up to two years. The bill was introduced in 2016 in the state legislature and remained pending at year’s end. Deputy Governor of Kaduna State Barnabas Bala said the bill was proposed to protect the state from religious extremism and hate speech. The bill would also restrict playing religious recordings at certain times and places as well as prohibit “abusive” religious speech, which it did not define further. The draft bill generated widespread opposition from both Muslim and Christian groups, who cited fears that such steps would lead to broader government restrictions on religious organizations and general religious activity.
The media regularly reported on claims by Christian leaders and organizations that northern leaders, backed by the federal government, were engaged in an effort to Islamize the country. In September Caritas Nigeria stated a bill to regulate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) would give the federal government authority to regulate churches, which are registered as incorporated trustees and thus fall under the category of NGO, and thereby provide the government authority to restrict the activity of churches and promote Islam. The National Assembly member who introduced the bill responded that the bill’s intent was to ensure transparency and accountability in the way NGOs collected and used funds, and he said the bill would not affect mosques or churches. Also in September, CAN reported that the federal government’s proposal to issue Sukuk bonds, an Islamic financial certificate, was in violation of the country’s secular constitution and an attempt to Islamize the country. The minister of information responded that the Sukuk bond issuance was an attempt at financial inclusiveness, and the difference between a Sukuk bond and other bonds was that Sukuk bonds paid no interest.
In December BBC and other media reported that Amasa Firdaus, a law graduate from Ilorin University, was denied admission to the “call to bar” ceremony because she wore a hijab to the ceremony in what her law school said was violation of its dress code.
Christian groups reported authorities in northern states continued to deny building permits to minority religious communities for the construction of new places of worship, expansion, and renovation of existing facilities, or reconstruction of buildings that had been demolished. Christian religious leaders in Adamawa complained that Christians in Yola, Adamawa State, could not obtain permits to purchase land for churches. They said that Christians built the churches anyway, but remained vulnerable when governments decided to demolish them, such as what occurred in Jigawa State. In January the Jigawa State government demolished churches belonging to the Redeemed Christian Church of God and the Lord Chosen God in the state capital, Dutse. The state government said the churches were built illegally and the churches had been given three notices to stop development. CAN said the churches did not receive a response from the government for their land permit application. In Ekiti State in April, the state government was reportedly prepared to demolish a mosque in the state capital, Ado Ekiti. After protests, the governor and Muslim leaders in the state were able to reach an agreement, and the government allowed the mosque to remain, despite not having a permit.
The Hisbah continued to arrest street beggars and prostitutes, and destroy confiscated bottles of alcohol. There were no reports of Christians being forced to use sharia courts.
Christian and Muslim groups continued to report that individual administrators of government-run universities and technical schools in several states refused to admit certain individuals or delayed the issuance of their degrees and licenses because of religion or ethnicity. For example, in Borno State, Christian religious leaders said it is very difficult for Christians to be admitted into certain schools at the University of Maiduguri, especially medicine and engineering, where Muslims make up over 90 percent of the student body. They also stated that Christianity was not offered for the religious studies courses in many public schools in Maiduguri and northern Borno, only Islam. Muslim leaders in Jos, Plateau State, complained that local governments in Plateau discriminated against Muslim residents regarding land purchases, admittance to universities, and access to government jobs. According to Christian and Muslim groups and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, the issue was connected to the country’s indigene-settler conflict, whereby state governments granted benefits, such as access to government services, to ethnic groups considered to be indigenous to a particular state and distinguished them from ethnic groups considered to be settlers, even if their families had lived in the state for generations. In certain states, especially in the Middle Belt, the divide between Christian indigenes and Muslim settlers was religious as well as ethnic and economic.
In February the Kwara State government hosted an international conference on security and peaceful coexistence, which included Muslim and Christian religious leaders. During his remarks, the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar, the spiritual leader of Muslims in Nigeria, said “God did not make a mistake when he created us as Nigerians and put us together. We must understand that and all of us who profess to be Christians or Muslims have a guide which is either the Quran or Bible. In these two major religions there is nowhere where killing of innocent people is allowed.” In July more than 480 participants, including the Army Special Task Force, local government officials, and Christian and Muslim community leaders, met in Kafanchan to discuss establishing peace in the area and address grievances of victims of the communal violence. In January the governments of Nasarawa and Benue States worked together to enact a peace agreement between predominantly Muslim herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers in Agatu, Benue State, after the January 2016 attack on the Christian community by herdsmen left more than 300 farmers dead.
According to press reports, in April Senate President Bukola Saraki stated: “….whatever laws we pass here, will be respectful to the religious beliefs of our people. We will not do anything that will in anyway go against that.”
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
The U.S.-designated terrorist organization Boko Haram split into two factions in 2016, one pledging allegiance to ISIS and calling itself the Islamic State of West Africa (ISIS-WA), headed by Abu Musab al Barnawi, and another headed by Abubakar Shekau and retaining the traditional Boko Haram name, the Jama’atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da’awati wal-Jihad (JASDJ). Most residents and government officials referred to both groups collectively as Boko Haram.
Boko Haram and ISIS-WA continued to attack population centers and security personnel in the states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe. Vulnerable populations, notably those perceived as disagreeing with the groups’ political or religious beliefs or those perceived as interfering with their access to resources, were targeted by the groups. There were multiple reports of Boko Haram killing scores of unarmed civilians. On November 21, Boko Haram blew up a mosque in Mubi, Adamawa State, resulting in the deaths of 50 worshippers.
While Boko Haram no longer controlled as much territory as it once did, the two insurgencies maintained the ability to stage forces in rural areas and launched attacks against civilian and military targets across the Northeast. On November 25, ISIS-WA militants launched an attack on Magumeri town in Magumeri local government area of Borno State, but security forces were able to repel them. From these areas of influence, the groups were still capable of carrying out complex attacks on military positions, and they deployed large numbers of roadside improvised explosive devices. According to estimates from NGO Nigeria Watch, which did not appear to differentiate between Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, 1,794 persons, including Boko Haram members, died as a result of the group’s activities during the year, compared with 2,900 killed in 2016. The Adamawa State chapter of the country’s Muslim Council reported that Boko Haram killed more than 5,247 Muslims since 2013 in Adamawa State. According to reports, Boko Haram killed more than 500 Catholics in Borno State since the insurgency began.
Approximately half of the students abducted by Boko Haram from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in 2014 remained in captivity. The government successfully negotiated the release of 82 of the kidnapped students in May, in addition to the 21 students released in October 2016. According to media reports, in September members of Boko Haram killed Chief Imam Ustaz Goni Bukar Tabare and four other individuals in Magumeri, Borno State. CAN reported more than 900 churches were destroyed by Boko Haram in the northeast since the insurgency began.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Summary paragraph: There were incidents of killings and other forms of violence between members of different religious groups. Many killings occurred between farmers and herders in the central Middle Belt region, where farmers are predominantly Christian and from various ethnic groups, and herders are predominantly Fulani Muslims. This violence included religious differences as a factor, according to scholars and other experts, but also involved ethnicity, politics, and increasing competition over dwindling land resources as a result of population growth, soil degradation, and internal displacement from other forms of violence and criminality occurring in the north. Participants at an April conference identified 13 triggers to farmer-herder conflicts and offered recommendations for peace. Among these triggers of violence was incitement by religious leaders and inaccurate reporting by media, which tended to divide religious communities. Among the solutions identified was to increase interfaith dialogue and initiate sensitization programs. Media reported on claims by Christian groups that northern leaders were engaged in an agenda to Islamize the country. For example, the National Christian Elders Forum issued a communique in July warning of jihad and “brazen” attempts at Islamizing the country. At a CAN-sponsored meeting of Christian leaders in November, participants issued a resolution calling for the National Assembly to withdraw the country from the Organization of Islamic Countries and other Islamic organizations.
On December 22, gunmen suspected of being Fulani herdsmen opened fire on a congregation, killing four and injuring 10 in Nindem, Kaduna State. A report from the Fulani community in southern Kaduna, however, said the attack in Nindem was not perpetrated by Fulani, but was possibly a conflict within the Nindem community. On December 24, a suspected Fulani herdsman attacked a village, Ungwan Mailafiya, in Jema’a Local Government Area and killed six persons. The same Fulani community source said the attack in Ungwan Mailafiya may have been carried out by a Fulani man whose son was killed in the village by local persons. He said authorities were still looking for the man.
On January 21, unknown gunmen opened fire on a Fulani settlement in Kaura Local Government Area of southern Kaduna, killing a pastoralist, 13-year old Yahaya Musa. In retaliation, on February 20 Fulani herdsmen attacked and killed 31 individuals in villages in the same area. In another attack later that day, suspected Fulani herdsmen attacked Zunuruk village in the same area, but were repelled by local residents, resulting in the death of some of the attackers. On February 21, a clash broke out between ethnic Hausa (predominantly Muslim) and Kanikon residents of Kafanchan, the largest city in southern Kaduna, when both groups went to claim dead bodies at the morgue, resulting in a number of deaths, including of two policemen. Some Kanikon residents reportedly assumed the Hausa residents came to claim the bodies of the attackers who were killed in the previous day’s violence. On February 22, police deployed a team of special forces to the troubled area.
According to media reports, on April 15, 12 worshippers died and many more were injured in Asso village in Kaduna state when Fulani herdsmen opened fire on an Easter Vigil service. Media said the attackers boasted about disrupting the Easter celebration.
From June 17-20, ethnic Mambilla residents of the Mambilla Plateau of Taraba State attacked dozens of Fulani settlements throughout the plateau, killing dozens of Fulanis and hundreds of cattle. On June 21, Acting President Osinbajo sent in troops to restore order. Thousands of Fulani residents of the Mambilla Plateau fled into neighboring Cameroon to seek refuge. On July 4, CAN and the Muslim Council of Nigeria brought leaders of the two communities together in a reconciliation summit, but the Fulani leaders walked out and vowed not to engage in reconciliation until those involved in the attacks were brought to justice.
From July 15-17, ethnic Fulani herdsmen and Kadara local residents clashed in Kajuru in Kaduna State, resulting in the deaths of 27 Fulani and six Kadara individuals. Media reports said the clash was the result of an incident days before when Kadara youths killed a Fulani boy who was considered to be a bandit engaged in criminal activities in the area. Fulani youths then reportedly in revenge killed six Kadara youths who were allegedly involved in the initial killing. Immediately after, Kadara youths attacked several Fulani settlements, burning tents and killing approximately 17 Fulanis. Security officials arrived to restore calm soon after, but when they departed, Kadara youths attacked other Fulani settlements and killed an estimated 10 persons. Acting President Yemi Osinbajo ordered additional security reinforcements to the area.
On September 8, Fulani herdsmen attacked villages in Bassa, Plateau State, killing 19 ethnic Irigwe residents, who are mainly Christian, and injuring five. The Plateau State commissioner of police said the attack was in retaliation for the killing of a Fulani boy on August 3. President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the attack, and the government sent a military task force to provide security to the affected community. On September 11, military personnel repelled another attack by Fulani gunmen, killing five. On November 20, ethnic Bachama local residents, who are predominantly Christian, killed more than 50 predominantly Fulani pastoralists in Numan Local Government Area of Adamawa State. The victims were women and children as the attack was carried out while the men were either in town or grazing cattle. The attack was in retaliation for the killing of a Bachama farmer by an unknown gunman, whom local residents suspected of being a Fulani herdsman.
In July a female suicide bomber killed eight individuals and wounded 18 before morning prayer at a mosque in Maiduguri. In January authorities thwarted a suicide bombing near a mosque in Maiduguri when, according to reports, a civilian self-defense force member stopped the bomber from reaching the mosque. Both died in the ensuing explosion.
In June traditional religious practitioners, known as masquerades, attacked a mosque in Moba Local Government Area of Ekiti State, injuring five worshippers, including the imam. The masquerades warned the Muslims against conducting their prayer service while the traditionalists were engaged in their festival, called Egungun.
A Lagos-based NGO, Muslim Rights Concern, said Muslim female students were not allowed to wear the hijab at Adeleke University in Osun State and Afe Babalola University in Ekiti State, both private universities.
According to international reports, in Kaduna State members of the IMN visited three churches to celebrate Christmas with Christians. The IMN advocated for religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence during the visits.
Many religious leaders publicly supported tolerance and interfaith cooperation to resolve conflicts. In January the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue hosted a two-day conference on inclusive and sustainable interreligious dialogue. At the conference, the Sultan of Sokoto condemned what he said was increased hate preaching in the country.
In January religious and political leaders conducted a peace and reconciliation mission to southern Kaduna in an effort to stem the violence between mainly Christian farmers and mostly Muslim herders. The delegation included former Head of State General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Bishop Matthew Kukah, and Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar. General Abubakar said there is no religion that preaches violence, and criminals must be brought to justice to ensure peace.
In January 100 Christian and Muslim religious leaders came together to found the Interfaith Dialogue Forum for Peace (IDFP), a forum of Christian and Muslim representatives to address emerging interfaith issues, primarily in the troubled areas of Kaduna, Plateau, Yobe, Taraba, Borno and Adamawa States. The religious leaders selected Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar and Chairman of CAN Samson Ayokunle to head the IDFP. Its board of trustees includes eminent religious and traditional rulers from throughout the country.
On national hijab day on February 1, a coalition of women’s groups held a press conference in Alausa, in which the women discussed wearing of the hijab as their inalienable constitutional right that must always be protected by the government through laws.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy staff and visiting U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in discussions throughout the year with government officials, religious leaders, and civil society organizations. In February the Ambassador met with the minister of foreign affairs to express U.S. support for efforts to strengthen religious freedom and combat violent extremism, especially in the northeast. In March the Ambassador met with the Governor of Plateau State to discuss his efforts to foster peace and build trust between Muslim and Christian communities after years of intense ethnoreligious conflicts. In August a U.S. embassy official hosted a meeting for officials from the ministries of agriculture and interior, the national police, military, and the Senate and House of Representatives to discuss recommendations to reduce farmer-herder violence in the country. In October the Ambassador met with the Governor of Kano State to discuss efforts to combat violent extremism.
In January the embassy hosted a roundtable discussion with Muslim and Christian religious leaders to reiterate U.S. support for religious freedom and encourage greater interfaith coordination between leaders of the two faiths in order to strengthen unity in the country. In February the Ambassador met with the president of CAN to encourage continued efforts at interfaith dialogue between the Christian and Muslim communities. In April the embassy sponsored a farmer-herder conference that brought together farmers and pastoralists at the community level from 16 states, who discussed triggers of violence, including religious triggers. In August the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials held a roundtable discussion with religious leaders, including members of CAN and the Jama’atu Nasril Islam, the Islamic umbrella association, to assure U.S. support for interfaith efforts aimed at resolving tensions between religious communities.
In November the Deputy Secretary of State met with Muslim and Christian religious leaders to express U.S. support for interfaith cooperation and encourage greater efforts.
The U.S. Consul General in Lagos continued to discuss religious tolerance and interfaith relationship building with a wide range of religious leaders.
The constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. The constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with “the maintenance of public order and morality.” Religious groups must register with the government to acquire property, raise funds, or hold bank accounts. Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations constitute the only registered religious groups in the country. Unregistered religious groups are illegal but generally may practice their faith privately. In the wake of the severing of relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and continuing security concerns for Qatari citizens in Saudi Arabia, the government discouraged citizens and residents from taking part in the Hajj or Umra. The law provides for prison sentences for blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism and criminalizes proselytizing on behalf of any religion other than Islam with a punishment of up to 10 years in prison. The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued occasionally to provide thematic guidance for Friday sermons and reviewed content but did not require clerics to obtain prior approval of their sermons. The eight registered Christian denominations worshipped freely at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex. The government allowed unregistered churches to worship there as well, but only under the patronage of one of the eight recognized denominations. The government said it was open to considering the creation of dedicated worship spaces for Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists. The government reviewed, censored, or banned print and social media religious material it considered objectionable.
Media based in the country periodically published anti-Semitic material. In June the government-funded Al-Jazeera English website posted and then deleted a Twitter message featuring an anti-Semitic cartoon claiming a Jewish plot to deny climate change. In June privately owned Al-Raya newspaper published a cartoon showing a witch with a Star of David wand causing inter-Arab disputes. In July Al-Raya also printed a cartoon depicting an octopus with the Star of David on its forehead trying to devour the Aqsa Mosque. In December, after the announcement that the United States would relocate its embassy, Al-Watan newspaper published a cartoon caricature of an orthodox Jew standing in front of the Arabic word for “Jerusalem.” In December cartoons published in a local media outlet used anti-Semitic imagery in its criticism of a Bahraini nongovernmental delegation to Israel as an act of betrayal of Arab nationalism.
In July embassy officials met with the MEIA to discuss ways to deepen bilateral exchanges on religious topics and to discuss the rights of minority groups. Embassy officials discussed faith, registration restrictions, promotion of religious tolerance, and anti-Semitism issues with quasi-governmental organizations such as the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), academics focused on interfaith dialogue, and religious minority communities including Christians and Hindus.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population as 2.3 million (July 2017 estimate). Citizens make up approximately 11.6 percent of the population, while noncitizens account for approximately 88 percent. Reliable figures are unavailable, but estimates based solely on the religious composition of expatriate source countries suggest Muslims, while they are the largest religious group, likely make up less than half of the total population. Most citizens are Sunni Muslims, and almost all of the remainder are Shia Muslims. The breakdown of the noncitizen population between Sunni, Shia, and other Muslim groups is not available.
Other religious groups in descending order of size include Hindus, almost exclusively from India and Nepal; Roman Catholics, primarily from the Philippines, Europe, and India; and Buddhists, largely from South, Southeast, and East Asia. Smaller groups include Anglicans and other Protestant denominations, Egyptian Copts, Bahais, and Greek and other Eastern Orthodox.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and states sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. The constitution guarantees the “freedom to practice religious rites” to all persons “in accordance with the law and the requirements of the maintenance of public order and morality.” It prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. According to the constitution, the emir must be Muslim.
Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971.
The law provides for a prison sentence of up to seven years for defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. The law stipulates a seven-year prison term for producing or circulating material containing slogans, images, or symbols defaming these three religions. The law also prohibits publication of texts provoking social discord or religious strife, with punishment if convicted of up to six months in prison.
To obtain an official presence in the country, non-Muslim religious groups must apply to register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) Department of Consular Affairs. All mosques and Islamic institutions in the country must be registered with the MEIA. The only registered religious groups are Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations. Protestant denominations other than those among the registered eight denominations, including nondenominational house churches, may be registered with the government with the support of the Church Steering Committee – an umbrella organization consisting of representatives of the eight already registered denominations. In practice, nearly all are registered under the aegis of the Anglican Church. Non-Christian groups must apply for registration through the MFA. The only religions registered to have their own places of worship are Islam and Christianity. Registered groups may hold bank accounts in the organization’s name, apply for property to build worship space (or have already built structures such as private villas recognized as worship spaces to avoid any problems with authorities), import religious texts, and publish religious newsletters or fliers for internal distribution, whereas unregistered entities are unable to open accounts, solicit funds, worship in private spaces legally, acquire religious texts from outside the country, publish religious-themed newsletters or pamphlets, or legally hire staff.
The government maintains an official list of previously registered Christian denominations, consisting of the Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Lebanese Maronite, evangelical Protestant, and Indian Churches. Sunni and Shia mosques are registered with the MEIA.
According to the law, unregistered religious groups (i.e., those not registered or under the patronage of one of the registered groups) that engage in worship activities are illegal, and members of those groups are subject to deportation.
The law restricts public worship for non-Islamic faiths. It prohibits non-Muslim religious groups from displaying religious symbols, which includes banning Christian congregations from advertising religious services or placing crosses outdoors where they are visible to the public. The law criminalizes proselytizing on behalf of an organization, society, or foundation of any religion other than Islam and provides for punishment of up to 10 years in prison. Proselytizing on one’s own accord for any religion other than Islam can result in a sentence of up to five years’’s imprisonment. The law calls for two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 Qatari riyals ($2,700) for possession of written or recorded materials or items that support or promote missionary activity. The law allows importation of religious holy books, such as Bibles.
The government regulates the publication, importation, and distribution of all religious books and materials. The government reviewed, censored, or banned foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content. Religious groups may publish newsletters without government censorship but may only distribute them internally within their respective communities. To import religious materials, groups must submit one copy to the Ministry of Culture and Sports and receive written approval before making large orders or risk having the entire shipment confiscated.
The law designates the minister of endowments and Islamic affairs as the final authority for approving Islamic religious centers. Non-Islamic houses of worship are approved by the MFA in coordination with the private office of the emir.
While a non-Muslim woman is not required by law to convert to Islam when marrying a Muslim, the law considers offspring of such a marriage to be Muslim. A non-Muslim man marrying a Muslim woman must convert to Islam.
Islamic instruction is compulsory for Muslim and non-Muslim students attending state-sponsored schools. Non-Muslims may provide private religious instruction for their children at home or in their faith services. All children may attend secular and coeducational private schools. These schools must offer optional Islamic instruction; non-Islamic religious education is prohibited.
A unified civil court system, incorporating sharia and secular law, has jurisdiction over both Muslims and non-Muslims. The unified court system applies sharia in family law cases, including those related to inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody. For Shia Muslims, a judicial panel decides cases regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other family matters utilizing Shia interpretations of religious law. In other religious matters, the country’s family law applies across all branches of Islam. Non-Muslims are subject to sharia in cases of child custody, but civil law covers other personal status cases, including those related to divorce and inheritance.
Criminal law is based on the principles of sharia. The type of crime determines, however, whether those convicted receive a sharia-based sentence. There are certain criminal charges, such as alcohol consumption and extramarital sex, in which Muslims are punished according to sharia principles, including court-ordered flogging. Sharia-based punishments may also apply to non-Muslims in these cases. The government often commutes harsher punishments mandated by sharia. Muslim convicts may earn a sentence reduction of a few months by memorizing the Quran while imprisoned. Secular law covers dispute resolution for financial service companies. The law approves implementing the Shiite interpretation of sharia upon the agreement and request of the parties involved in the dispute.
The Regulatory Authority for Charitable Activities must approve all religious charitable activities by local charities, including religious ones, in advance. The MFA’s Department of International Cooperation is in charge of supervising donations to, and charitable activities of, foreign religious groups. Because of changes begun in July, the only charities now authorized to disburse funding abroad are Qatar Charity and Qatar Red Crescent.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued to state it would consider requests from nonregistered religious groups to acquire a place of worship if they applied to register but said none had done so. Unregistered groups continued to worship in private.
The government continued to permit adherents of unregistered religious groups, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Bahai Faith, and unregistered small Christian congregations, to worship privately in rented villas, their homes, workplaces, and with others.
Hindus, Buddhists, Bahais, and other unregistered religious groups continued to lack authorized facilities in which to practice their faiths. The director of the Department of Consular Affairs within the MFA continued to state the ministry was open to considering the creation of dedicated worship spaces for Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists, and that any organized, non-Muslim religious group could use the same process as Christians to apply for official registration. Members of at least one group reportedly filed for land in previous years to build their own complex but received no response from the government.
The MEIA reported it continued to hire clerics and assign them to specific mosques. The ministry continued to provide on an ad hoc basis thematic guidance for Friday sermons, especially on certain domestic or international occasions such as Sports Day or during certain international awareness-raising events such as antidrug campaigns. The ministry reviewed content but did not require clerics to obtain prior approval of their sermons. The government reserved the right to take judicial action against individuals who did not follow the guidance.
The MEIA continued to issue a decree during Ramadan describing its view of the correct way for Muslims to perform their religious duties. The decree also stipulated that non-Muslims seen eating or drinking during daylight hours were subject to arrest. All restaurants not located in hotels are required to close in daylight hours during Ramadan.
The government discouraged Qatari citizens and residents from taking part in the Umra or annual Hajj due to the severing of relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Officials at the MEIA stated the decision was made due to concerns for pilgrims’ security given the lack of diplomatic representation or coordination with Saudi religious and security authorities.
Although the law prohibits Christian groups from advertising religious services, Christian churches continued to post hours of services and other information on publicly accessible websites; however, they were not permitted to publish such information in local newspapers or on public bulletin boards.
The government maintained its policy of reviewing, censoring, or banning newspapers, magazines, books, and social media for “objectionable” religious content, such as an attack on Islamic values or depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. More commonly, journalists and publishers reportedly practiced self-censorship regarding material the government might consider contrary to Islam.
The government continued to permit non-Muslim religious groups and individuals to import religious publications, such as Bibles, and other religious items for personal or congregational use, provided they first applied for and received written approval.
The Mesaymeer Religious Complex, also known as “Church City,” continued to provide worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations. The government allowed unregistered churches to worship there as well, but only under the patronage of one of the eight recognized denominations. The Anglican Center within the Mesaymeer Religious Complex housed a number of other smaller denominations and offered space to 76 congregations of different denominations and languages.
The Church Steering Committee continued to meet to consider the concerns of registered non-Muslim religious groups, including the legal status of churches and contracts governing the residency of foreign religious workers in the country.
Christian leaders reported a continued lack of communication with the government throughout the year. New leadership within the MFA, however, worked to re-engage and reported direct contact and dialogue with the Church Steering Committee concerning the desire of the Christian community to develop a positive relationship with the MFA and develop channels of communication for addressing concerns such as the impact of security restrictions. The head of the MFA Human Rights Department expressed willingness to visit the church complex for a tour in early 2018. The government continued to enforce strict security measures at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex, including closing parking lots, setting a curfew on church access, and using metal detectors.
The government prohibited the slaughter of animals outside of licensed facilities – a measure it said was intended to ensure hygienic conditions. In practice, individuals were able to conduct ritual slaughter in private.
Church leaders and religious groups continued to state that individuals practiced self-censorship when expressing religious views online and relied mostly on word of mouth, church websites, social media platforms, and email newsletters to distribute information about religious groups’ activities.
Church leaders stated their ability to collect and distribute funds for charity continued to be limited by the government’s restrictions on the number and type of bank accounts churches could hold, as well as reporting requirements on contractors doing business with churches and on donors. Some smaller unregistered churches continued to use the personal accounts of religious leaders for church activities.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Private media in the country published anti-Semitic material. In June the government-funded Al-Jazeera English tweeted a post featuring an anti-Semitic cartoon claiming a Jewish plot to deny climate change. It showed a character representing a Jew saying: “He, he, he, my global warming, uh, I mean, climate change scam is working out perfectly for our long-term Talmudic plan of world domination!” The tweet was later deleted. In June the privately owned Al-Raya newspaper published a cartoon showing a witch with a Star of David wand causing two Arab men to fight one another in a crystal ball. In July Al-Raya also printed a cartoon depicting an octopus with the Star of David on its forehead trying to devour the Aqsa Mosque. In November local newspaper Al Arab published a cartoon depicting a dark scorpion with a Star of David and the words “Balfour Declaration” in Arabic threatening the people of Palestine. In December, after the announcement by President Trump that the United States would relocate its embassy, Al-Watan newspaper published a cartoon caricature of an orthodox Jew standing in front of the Arabic word for “Jerusalem.” In December cartoons published in a local media outlet used anti-Semitic imagery in its criticism of a Bahraini nongovernmental delegation to Israel as an act of betrayal of Arab nationalism.
The government-funded DICID, which operated independently, hosted discussions on the freedom to worship within one’s home and how seminars and roundtable discussions on religious tolerance could be used to resolve intercommunal strife. The center also hosted discussions on difficulties faced by non-Muslim groups. Publications released by DICID during the year included essays from authors of non-Abrahamic faiths and covered topics ranging from the origins of religious violence to the role of religion in the modern age and the importance of pluralism. During National Day celebrations held at Katara Cultural Village, DICID arranged a prominent display declaring “Qatar Always Tolerates All Religions,” visible to pedestrians walking through the festival.
In October the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Political Studies held a two-day conference on “Christian Arabs in the Greater Mashreq: Determinants of Continuity, Emigration, and Forced Emigration.” Although it did not touch upon the conditions of Christians in Qatar or the Gulf Cooperation Council and focused only on Christians in the Levant, Egypt, and Iraq, conference participants, mostly from overseas, spoke openly about the challenges facing Christians in the Middle East and highlighted forms of persecution that force Christians to leave the region.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers continued to meet with relevant government bodies, including the Department of Consular Affairs at the MFA, the Ministry of Interior Department of Human Rights, and the MEIA, as well as quasi-governmental religious institutions, concerning the rights of religious minorities, Sunni-Shia relations in the country, interest in international exchange programs for imams and Awqaf officials, and government efforts to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies within mosques. The embassy worked to broker re-engagement between the MFA and the leadership of the Church Steering Committee of the Mesaymeer Religious Complex after a prolonged lack of engagement. They also met with representatives of Christian groups in the country. The embassy worked with DICID in planning a February 2018 interfaith conference that would involve participants from each of the Abrahamic religions. The head of DICID worked with the embassy to engage newspaper cartoonists and editors on the need to promote religious tolerance and discuss which kinds of images and statements could be viewed as anti-Semitic content.
Republic of Korea
The constitution provides for religious freedom and prohibits discrimination based on religion. A legal revision will remove certain religious tax exemptions in January 2018. Watchtower International, a Jehovah’s Witnesses-affiliated nongovernmental organization (NGO), reported there were 277 Jehovah’s Witnesses in prison for conscientious objection to military service, with an additional 654 on trial and 56 under investigation as of November. The total number of cases (680) was more than the 633 cases in 2016, although the number of prisoners was down from 352 in the previous year. The NGO also reported that the number of conscientious objectors on trial was at a 10-year high. In June the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK), an independent government human rights body, sent a recommendation to the minister of defense and the speaker of the national assembly to introduce legislation to provide an alternative service option and to revise the military service law related to conscientious objectors. The Ministry of National Defense (MND) stated that it would reassess the need for an alternate service that is consistent with international human rights standards, but expressed concerns that some would use this service to evade military service. The MND conducted a public opinion survey during the year and based on the results will consider a public hearing at the national assembly. The national assembly did not reply to the recommendation by year’s end.
The NHRCK reported 15 cases alleging religious discrimination as of September. Muslim groups reported a general view existed associating Muslims with terrorist activities and instances in which women wearing hijabs were denied job interviews.
U.S. embassy officials discussed issues related to religious freedom, including the jailing of conscientious objectors, with government officials, NGO representatives, and religious leaders. The embassy hosted a youth interfaith dialogue, cosponsored by the Korean Conference of Religions for Peace (KCRP), including Muslim, Catholic, and Buddhist students.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 51.2 million (July 2017 estimate). According to a 2016 census released by the Korea Statistical Information Service, approximately 20 percent of the population is Protestant; 16 percent Buddhist; 8 percent Roman Catholic; and 56 percent professes no religious belief. The census counts members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the Seventh-day Adventists, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church) as Protestants. Followers of all other religious groups, including Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Jeongsando, Cheondogyo, Daejonggyo, Daesun Jinrihoe, and Islam, together constitute less than 1 percent of the population. According to the Israeli Embassy, there is a small Jewish population estimated at 300 individuals in Seoul consisting almost entirely of expatriates. According to the Korean Muslim Federation (KMF), the Muslim population is estimated at 135,000, of which approximately 100,000 are migrant workers and expatriates mainly from Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states that all citizens have freedom of religion and that there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social, or cultural life on account of religion. Freedoms in the constitution may be restricted by law only when necessary for national security, law and order, or public welfare, and any restriction may not violate the “essential aspect” of the freedom. The constitution states that religion and state shall be separate. The Religious Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism is charged with promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding by supporting collaborative activities across various religions.
The law requires military service for virtually all male citizens between the ages of 20 and 30. Military service lasts between 21 and 24 months, depending on the branch of service. The law does not allow for alternative service or conscientious objectors, who may receive a maximum three-year prison sentence for refusing to serve. Conscientious objectors sentenced to more than 18 months in prison are exempt from further military service and reserve duty obligations, and are not subject to further fines or other punishment.
Those who complete their military service obligation and subsequently become conscientious objectors are subject to fines for not participating in mandatory reserve duty exercises. The reserve duty obligation lasts for eight years, and there are several reserve duty exercises per year. The fines vary depending on jurisdiction but typically average 200,000 Korean won (KRW) ($190) for the first conviction. Fines increase by KRW 100,000 to 300,000 ($94 to $280) for each subsequent conviction. The law puts a ceiling on the fine at KRW 2 million ($1,900) per conviction. Civilian courts have the option, in lieu of levying fines, to sentence individuals deemed to be habitual offenders to prison terms or suspended prison terms that range from one day to three years.
The law allows religious groups to register as juristic persons upon obtaining permission from their local government. Registration documents certifying the organization as a religious group may vary by local government. For example, the Seoul metropolitan government requires a group to submit an application for permission to establish the organization as a corporate body, a prospectus of the religious organization, the founder of the group’s personal information, guidelines and regulations defining the group’s purpose and activities, meeting minutes of the group’s first gathering, and a list of executives and employees.
To obtain tax benefits, including exemption of acquisition or registration taxes when purchasing or selling property to be used for religious purposes, organizations must submit to their local government their registration as a religious and nonprofit corporate body, an application for local tax exemption, and a contract showing the acquisition or sale of property. Individual religious leaders and practitioners are eligible to receive tax benefits on earned yearly income upon submitting receipts of donations made to religious organizations. In December 2016, however, a revision to the Income Tax Act discontinued some tax benefits, effective January 2018, for Christian pastors, Catholic priests, and Buddhist monks; previously they were exempt from taxation on their earned income.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism’s Office of Religious Affairs manages relations with large-scale religious groups that have a nationwide presence, such as the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and the Christian Council of Korea.
The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools. Private schools are free to conduct religious activities.
The preservation law provides government subsidies for historic cultural properties, including Buddhist temples, for their preservation and upkeep.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued to detain and imprison conscientious objectors to military service. Most conscientious objectors refused military service for religious reasons. The courts sentenced most conscientious objectors to 18 months in prison. While absolved of any additional military commitment after serving time in prison, conscientious objectors still had a criminal record that could affect future employment opportunities, including limitations on holding public office or working as a public servant.
Watchtower International, a Jehovah’s Witnesses-affiliated NGO, reported there were 277 Jehovah’s Witnesses in prison for conscientious objection to military service, with an additional 654 on trial and 56 under investigation, as of November. The total number of cases (680) was more than the 633 cases in 2016, although the number of prisoners was down from 352 in the previous year.
As of October, Watchtower International estimated that since 1950, more than 19,248 conscientious objectors had served prison time in the country. They also reported that the number of objectors on trial was at a 10-year high, saying the volume was due to the courts’ hesitation to rule on objector cases prior to a pending Constitutional Court ruling on the current law. The Constitutional Court had previously ruled in 2004 and again in 2011 that the Military Service Act was constitutional with regard to conscientious objection.
The media reported the number of cases of lower courts acquitting conscientious objectors was increasing; however, many were subsequently found guilty after their cases were appealed to the Supreme Court. As of September, the lower courts issued 35 not guilty decisions. In contrast there were seven in 2016 and six in 2015.
On June 27, the NHRCK sent a recommendation to the minister of defense and the speaker of the national assembly to introduce legislation to provide an alternative service option and to revise the military service law related to conscientious objectors. The MND stated that it will reassess the need for an alternate service that is consistent with international human rights standards, but expressed concerns that some would use this service to evade military service. The MND conducted a public opinion survey late in the year and based on the results will consider a public hearing at the national assembly. The national assembly did not respond to the recommendation by year’s end.
In an August survey by private polling organization Real Meter, 78.1 percent of respondents said implementation of the new tax law should begin in 2018 as planned. Religious organizations, however, expressed concern that the criteria for taxation specify benefits that are not actual income and may inflate the estimates of income for some religious leaders. The organizations were also concerned about distinguishing taxation on religious activities from taxation on clergy, pastors, priests, and Buddhist monks.
According to the KMF, a Muslim serviceman filed a complaint with the MND for not providing a place of worship for Muslims despite doing so for Buddhists, Catholics, and other Christians.
According to a report from The Washington Times, Buddhists monks held round-the-clock meditation in Seongju County to protest deployment of an antimissile system near places sacred to the Won Buddhist school. The report said roads to the antimissile sites were blocked and guarded by authorities. Monks reportedly said this blocked the road to a holy site. According to the same report, monk Won Ik-son said the prayer protests were “our resistance to the government’s violation of our freedom of religion.” The government and other sources, including other Won Buddhists, said it was the Won Buddhist themselves and other protesters who were blocking the road, not the government, to protest the government’s lack of consultation with the local community in its decision to move forward with the antimissile installation. The government said it was sensitive to the Won Buddhists’ concerns, and it had not forcibly removed the protesters who were still blocking access to the antimissile site at the end of year.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The NHRCK reported 15 cases alleging religious discrimination as of September. The NHRCK did not provide details on cases under investigation.
Muslim groups reported discrimination, such as a general view associating Muslims with terrorist activities, and instances in which women wearing hijabs were denied job interviews.
Prominent religious leaders regularly met under government auspices to promote religious freedom, mutual understanding, and tolerance. The KCRP hosted religious leaders from multiple faiths at religious events throughout the year, including seminars, exhibitions, arts and cultural performances, and interfaith exchanges to promote religious freedom, reconciliation, and coexistence among religions. While Islam is not one of the seven religious groups represented in the KCRP (which comprises the National Council of Churches of Korea, Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, Catholic Church, Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Cheondogyo, and the Association of Korean Native Religions), approximately 11 Muslim religious leaders and academics attended its annual seminar. The Religious Affairs Division of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism supported such efforts with a total budget of KRW 6.2 billion ($5.8 million), with KRW 2.5 billion ($2.4 million) for Buddhist events, KRW 757 million ($710,000) for Christian events, KRW 500 million ($469,000) for Won Buddhist events, KRW 1.1 billion ($1 million) for Cheondogyo events, and KRW 1.3 billion ($1.2 million) for Confucian cultural activities.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged the government – including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism; Ministry of Justice; and National Assembly members – on religious freedom and tolerance, including urging the government to make legal provision for conscientious objection on religious grounds.
Embassy officials met with members of various religious groups and NGOs, including associations representing Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, Confucianists, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Cheondogyo, and indigenous religions, to discuss the state of religious tolerance and concerns about the imprisonment of conscientious objectors.
The embassy hosted a youth interfaith dialogue, cosponsored by the KCRP, where students representing the Muslim, Catholic, and Buddhist faiths discussed stereotypes, shared values, and ways to identify and overcome religious discrimination.
The constitution prohibits restrictions on freedom of conscience and belief, as well as forcing an individual to espouse a religious belief contrary to the individual’s convictions. It stipulates all religions are independent from the state and have the freedom to organize “in accordance with their own statutes.” According to law, the state recognizes the “important role” of the Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC) in the history of the country. The law specifies a three-tiered classification of religious organizations, although civil associations wishing to perform religious functions may organize under a separate provision of the law. Religious organizations recognized as religious denominations under the law receive state support and permission to minister to persons in the armed forces, hospitals, retirement homes, public schools, mass media, penitentiaries, and orphanages. Religious minorities continued to report registration requirements limited their ability to function and restricted where they could bury their dead. There were continued reports of the slow pace of restitution of confiscated properties, especially to the Greek Catholic Church and the Jewish community. As of December the government rejected 980 restitution claims for confiscated religious properties and approved 26. Minority religious groups continued to state that the national and local governments gave preference to the ROC, to report incidents of discrimination against them, and to object to government implementation of laws regarding religious instruction in schools. The naming of some streets, organizations, schools, and libraries after persons convicted of war crimes or crimes against humanity continued. Holocaust education remained optional in schools. Government leaders continued to speak out against anti-Semitism.
In October self-declared anti-Muslim activists interrupted a performance in the Cluj-Napoca Opera House during the recital of the Islamic call to prayer. Several mainstream media outlets depicted refugees and asylum seekers as Muslim “invaders.” Minority religious groups reported continued harassment of their congregations by ROC priests and adherents, including the denial of access to cemeteries. According to a report on hate speech, a considerable number of users and groups on social media advocated for the extermination of Jews or other violent acts. Members of the ROC praised convicted war criminals and Legionnaires. The media and the Jewish community reported several instances of vandalism of Jewish religious properties, including the destruction by unidentified vandals of 10 tombstones in a Jewish cemetery in Bucharest.
In meetings with the general secretary of the government, U.S. embassy officials raised continued concerns about the slow pace of the restitution process and the low number of properties restored to minority religious groups. Embassy officials facilitated meetings between the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and government officials to help speed the processes of property restitution and pensions for Holocaust survivors. The embassy supported the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania (Wiesel Institute) and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in their efforts to establish a museum of Jewish history. The Ambassador participated in commemorations of the Holocaust, speaking out against the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the country. Embassy representatives continued to meet with Greek Catholic priests to discuss ROC-Greek Catholic relations and incidents of discrimination. The Ambassador hosted several events for religious leaders to facilitate interreligious dialogue and understanding.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 21.5 million (July 2017 estimate). According to a 2011 government census, ROC adherents constitute 86.5 percent of the population and Roman Catholics almost 5 percent. According to the census, there are approximately 151,000 Greek Catholics; however, Greek Catholics estimate their numbers at 488,000. Other religious groups include Old Rite Russian Christians; Protestants, including Reformed Protestants, Pentecostals, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and other Protestant denominations; Jews; Muslims; Jehovah’s Witnesses; Bahais; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons); Zen Buddhists; members of the Family (God’s Children); the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church); and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. Atheists and nonbelievers represent less than 1 percent of the population.
According to the census, Old Rite Russian Christians are mainly located in Moldavia and Dobrogea. Most Muslims live in the southeast around Constanta. Most Greek Catholics reside in Transylvania. Protestants of various denominations and Roman Catholics reside primarily in Transylvania. Orthodox and Greek Catholic ethnic Ukrainians live mostly in the north. Orthodox ethnic Serbs are primarily in Banat. Members of the Armenian Apostolic Church are concentrated in Moldavia and the south. Virtually all members of the Protestant Reformed and Unitarian Churches of Transylvania are ethnic Hungarians. More than half of the Roman Catholic and evangelical Lutheran churches in Transylvania are composed of ethnic Hungarians. Approximately 40 percent of the country’s Jewish population of 3,400 resides in Bucharest.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits restricting freedom of thought, opinion, conscience or religious beliefs, as well as forcing individuals to espouse a religious belief contrary to their convictions. It stipulates all religions are independent from the state and have the freedom to organize “in accordance with their own statutes” under terms defined by the law. The law specifies the state’s recognition of the “important role of the Romanian Orthodox Church” as well as the role of “other churches and denominations as recognized by the national history” of the country.
The constitution also states religious denominations shall be autonomous and enjoy state support, including the facilitation of religious assistance in the army, hospitals, penitentiaries, retirement homes, and orphanages. The law forbids public authorities or private legal entities from asking individuals to specify their religion, with the exception of the census.
The provisions of the law devoted to religion stipulate a three-tier system of religious classification with “religious denominations” at the highest level, followed by “religious associations,” and “religious groups” at the most basic level. Organizations in the top two tiers are legal entities, while religious groups are not. Under separate provisions of the law governing associations and foundations, civil associations may also engage in religious activities and have the status of legal entities.
By law, there are 18 religious organizations recognized as “religious denominations,” all of which were in existence at the time the specific law on religion was enacted in 2006. They include the ROC; Orthodox Serb Bishopric of Timisoara; Roman Catholic Church; Greek Catholic Church; Old Rite Russian Christian (Orthodox) Church; Reformed (Protestant) Church; Christian Evangelical Church; Romanian Evangelical Church; Evangelical Augustinian Church; Lutheran Evangelical Church; Unitarian Church; the Baptist Church; Pentecostal Church; Seventh-day Adventist Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Federation of Jewish Communities; Muslim Denomination (Islam); and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
For additional organizations to obtain recognition as religious denominations, the law specifies they must demonstrate 12 years of continuous activity since the law’s passage, which cannot occur before 2018. After it demonstrates 12 years of continuous activity, a religious association is eligible to apply for the status of religious denomination if it has a membership of 0.1 percent of the population (approximately 21,500 persons) or more.
The law defines a religious association as an organization of at least 300 citizens who share and practice the same faith and that has attained legal status through registration with the Registry of Religious Associations in the office of the clerk of the court where the main branch of the association is located. To register, religious associations must submit to the government their members’ personal data (e.g., names, addresses, personal identification numbers, and signatures), which the law says may not be shared with other public institutions or used in any other way. To operate as religious associations, organizations also require approval from the National Secretariat for Religious Denominations, which is subordinated to the Prime Minister’s Office. At year’s end, 33 entities with diverse religious affiliations were registered as religious associations, up from 27 in 2016.
The law defines a religious group as a group of individuals who share the same beliefs. Religious groups do not have to register to practice their religion and do not need approval from the national secretariat to operate.
Civil associations engaged in religious activities function like secular associations and foundations; however, they do not receive the same benefits as religious denominations or religious associations. Civil associations may not qualify under the numerical/administrative criteria (300 members) for recognition as religious associations or may choose not to apply for such recognition. These associations do not require approval from the National Secretariat for Religious Denominations to operate. Their registration falls under the provisions of law governing the establishment of foundations, associations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which require a minimum membership of three individuals. Such civil associations are not required to submit their members’ personal data.
Religious denominations are eligible for state financial and other support. They have the right to teach religion classes in public schools, receive government funds to build places of worship, partially pay clergy salaries with state funds, broadcast religious programming on radio and television, and apply for broadcasting licenses for their own stations. Under the law, the amount of state funding a denomination receives is determined by the number of adherents reported in the most recent census, as well as by “the religious denomination’s actual needs.”
Religious associations do not receive government funding, but both they and religious denominations receive tax exemptions on income and buildings used for religious, educational, or other social purposes. Religious groups do not receive either government funding or tax exemptions.
Both religious denominations and religious associations may own or rent property, publish or import religious literature, proselytize, establish and operate schools or hospitals, own cemeteries, and receive tax exemptions on income and buildings used for religious, educational, or other social purposes. Religious groups have no legal status to engage in such activities; however, they may practice their religious beliefs, including in public.
Civil associations engaged in religious activities may engage in religious worship. While they do not receive the same tax exemptions or other benefits granted to religious denominations and religious associations, they may receive the tax advantages and other benefits accruing to civil associations and foundations.
Legal provisions allow local authorities to fund places of worship and theological schools belonging to religious denominations, including providing funding for staff salaries and building maintenance, renovation, and conservation or construction of places of worship. No similar provisions exist for religious associations or other associations engaged in religious activities; however, these associations may receive funding through legal provisions for civil associations and foundations.
The law entitles all types of religious organizations to bury their deceased members in cemeteries belonging to other religious organizations – with the exception of Jewish and Muslim cemeteries – in localities where they do not have cemeteries of their own and where there is no public cemetery. Public cemeteries must have separate sections for each religious denomination if requested by the denominations operating in the locality.
The law allows clergy from recognized religious denominations to minister to military personnel. This includes the possibility of clergy functioning within the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, Intelligence Service, Foreign Intelligence Service, Protection and Guard Service, Special Telecommunications Service, and General Directorate for Penitentiaries. Under various other arrangements, clergy of recognized religious denominations, and in some cases religious associations, may enter hospitals, orphanages, and retirement homes to undertake religious activities. Religious denominations and religious associations may undertake activities in penitentiaries, subject to approval by the director of the detention facility.
The law provides for the restitution of religious properties confiscated between 1940 and 1989, during World War II (WWII) and the ensuing communist regime, as long as the properties are in the possession of the state. These two regimes confiscated the property of both individuals and religious denominations. The Jewish community was forced to “donate” property during WWII and afterward. In accordance with communist-era legislation on the status of religions, if the majority of a “local community of believers” changed their religion, the properties of the church they had left followed them to the new church. The communist regime also outlawed the Greek Catholic Church, forced church members to convert to Orthodoxy, and confiscated all church property. It transferred all places of worship and parish houses to the ROC and most other properties (land and buildings) to the state.
Under the law, if a confiscated property is used “in the public interest,” such as for a school, hospital, or museum, and is returned to its previous owner, the current occupants are allowed to stay in it for 10 years after the restitution decision and pay a capped rent. The law does not address the general return of properties currently used as places of worship. Although the provisions of the law on restitution state a separate law will be adopted to address such cases, to date there is no such law.
A separate statute on the reinstatement of the Greek Catholic Church regulates the restitution of properties to the Greek Catholic Church from the ROC. Restitution decisions are made by a joint commission representing the two churches and based on “the will of the believers from the communities that possess these properties.” The Greek Catholic Church may pursue court action if attempts to obtain restitution of its properties through dialogue are unsuccessful.
The law establishes a points system of compensation in cases where in-kind restitution is not possible. Religious groups may use the points only to bid on other properties in auctions organized by the National Commission for Real Estate Compensation (NCREC). The NCREC also validates compensation decisions of other local or central authorities, including those of the Special Restitution Commission (SRC), which decides on restitution claims filed by religious denominations and national minorities. The law establishes a 240-day deadline by which claimants must submit additional evidence in their cases at the specific request of the entity in charge of resolving their restitution claim. If a claimant does not meet the deadline, the administrative authority may reject the case. The authority may extend the deadline by an additional 120 days if the claimants prove they made a concerted effort to obtain the evidence, usually in the possession of other state authorities, but were unable to do so.
The law nullifies acts of forced “donations” of Jewish property during WWII and the communist era, and lowers the burden of proof for the previous owners or their heirs to obtain restitution. The law designates the present-day Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania as the legitimate inheritor of forfeited communal Jewish property and accords priority to private claims by Holocaust survivors. The law does not address heirless or unclaimed property left by Holocaust victims.
By law, religious education in schools is optional. Each of the 18 legally recognized religious denominations is entitled to offer religion classes, based on its own religious teachings, in schools. A denomination may offer classes regardless of the number of students adhering to the denomination in a school. The law allows for exceptions where the right of students to attend religion classes cannot be implemented “for objective reasons,” without specifying what these reasons may be.
Under the law, parents of students under 18 years of age are required to request their children’s participation in religion classes, while students 18 and older may themselves ask to attend religion classes. Although a student normally takes a school course based on the religious teachings of the denomination to which the student belongs, it is also possible for a student to take a religion course offered by his or her denomination outside the school system and bring a certificate from the denomination to receive academic credit.
Religion teachers are government employees, but each religious denomination approves the appointment and retention of the teachers of its religion classes.
The law forbids religious proselytizing in schools. If teachers proselytize, the school management decides the punishment based on the conclusions of an internal committee.
The law states the religion of a child who has turned 14 may not be changed without the child’s consent, and from age 16 an individual has the right to choose her/his religion.
The law bans discrimination on religious grounds in all areas of public life. It also bans religious defamation and stirring conflict on religious grounds, as well as public offenses against religious symbols. Penalties may include fines varying from 1,000 to 100,000 lei ($260 to $25,800), depending on whether the victim is an individual or a community.
The law prohibits establishment of fascist, Legionnaire, racist, or xenophobic organizations, which it defines in part as groups that promote violence, religiously motivated hatred, or anti-Semitism. Penalties for establishing such organizations range from three to 10 years’ imprisonment and the loss of certain rights. Criminal liability is waived if the person involved in establishing such an organization informs authorities before the organization begins its activity; penalties are halved if the individual helps authorities with the criminal investigation. Legislation also makes manufacturing, selling, distributing, owning with intent to distribute, and using Legionnaire symbols illegal. Penalties range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment.
Publicly denying, contesting, approving, justifying, or minimizing, in an “obvious manner” as determined by a judge, the Holocaust is punishable by six months’ to three years’ imprisonment or by a fine, depending on circumstances, of up to 200,000 lei ($51,500). Publicly promoting the cult of persons convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes may incur fines and prison terms ranging from six months to three years and from six months to five years if done online. The same penalties apply to publicly promoting fascist, Legionnaire, racist, or xenophobic ideas, worldviews, or doctrines.
The law allows religious workers from legally recognized religious organizations to enter and remain in the country under an extended-stay visa. Visa applicants must receive approval by the State Secretariat for Religious Affairs and submit evidence they represent religious organizations legally established in the country. The secretariat may extend such visas for up to five years.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). On May 25, the government approved a memorandum to clarify how the government would include the working definition of anti-Semitism into professional training programs and in the civics studies curricula, adopted by consensus at the IHRA Plenary meeting in Bucharest one year earlier.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: The government approved recognition of several religious groups as religious associations but rejected the applications of others. Minority religious groups, in particular, continued to object to the legal classification system for religious organizations. There were continued reports of the slow pace of restitution of confiscated properties, especially reports from the Greek Catholic Church and the Jewish community, and the number of agency and court decisions returning properties remained low. Minority religious groups continued to state that the national and local governments gave preference to the ROC, to report incidents of discrimination against them, and to object to government implementation of laws regarding religious instruction in schools. The naming of some streets, organizations, schools, and libraries after persons convicted of Nazi-era war crimes or crimes against humanity continued. Prosecutions for anti-Semitic speech and Holocaust denial remained rare, while Holocaust education remained optional in schools. Government leaders continued to speak out against anti-Semitism, and the government transferred property to the Wiesel Institute to establish a museum on the history of Romanian Jewry.
As of December, the government approved six applications for religious association status during the year, all of which were Christian associations. In one case, the National Secretariat for Religious Denominations did not issue an advisory opinion because the submitted documentation did not meet the criteria established by law. The establishing act and the statute of the association that did not receive the advisory opinion expressed the will of only seven members and not 300, as required by law, and the official name of the association was not used consistently in all the documents submitted. Groups whose applications were rejected could reapply once they had prepared the necessary documents to complete their applications.
Bahai leaders continued to seek amendment of the law to include provisions for the burial of deceased persons who did not belong to one of the 18 recognized denominations; Bahais were registered as a religious association and not as a denomination.
Religious groups continued to state they viewed the 300-person membership requirement and the need to submit their members’ personal data for registration as a religious association as discriminatory because other types of associations only required three members and did not have to submit the personal data of their members. They also continued to criticize the three-tier classification system for religious organizations.
In May the media reported two persons found dead in their home in Dobresti, a village in Dolj County, were swiftly buried without any religious ceremony following a decision by the mayor. The vice mayor reportedly transported the bodies in plastic bags via bulldozer and dumped them into an unmarked grave on the outskirts of the cemetery. The mayor stated he was concerned about health risks associated with decaying bodies and there was not enough time to call a priest or buy a coffin and a cross.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that in several areas of the country, some members encountered opposition to their activities and threats from ROC priests, police, and public authorities. In July the mayor of Balilesti village in Arges County and a local ROC priest threatened representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and forced them out of the village. Following a complaint, police instructed the mayor and the priest to respect the law on religious freedom. In July an ROC priest from the village of Tonea, Calarasi County, accused two members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses of distributing religious “propaganda” and threatened to use physical violence against them.
The same month two ROC priests from the village of Radacineni, Valcea County, said to members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses the priests would “protect their parish with their own blood” and threatened to use a sword against them if they came again to the village. Following complaints submitted by Jehovah’s Witnesses, police fined the priests. The Jehovah’s Witnesses also said a local police agent from Margineni, Prahova County, had asked two members of the religious group to identify themselves and said in front of a crowd gathered by an ROC priest the two could be terrorists. After escorting the members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to police headquarters, the Jehovah’s Witnesses said a police agent disapproved of their “activity” and took no measures when the ROC priest threatened to force them out of the village with the help of locals. The prosecutor’s office attached to the Prahova Tribunal dismissed the criminal complaint submitted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the case. Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported that in the village of Raucesti, Neamt County, agents of the National Police urged two of the religious group’s representatives to leave the village and told them they needed a permit from local authorities to carry out religious activities. Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a criminal complaint regarding this case. At the end of the year, the case remained pending before the prosecutor’s office attached to the Neamt Tribunal.
A Roman Catholic official said the National Audio-Visual Council, a government-appointed entity that monitors broadcast content and issues broadcasting licenses, repeatedly rejected requests for local radio licenses to allow the Catholic “Radio Maria” network to expand the number of stations on which it broadcast.
In 2016, a former city hall candidate, Catalin Berenghi, filed a court case to annul the 2015 government decision transferring land in Bucharest to the Muslim community in order for it to build a mosque. Beginning in May, an online campaign generated approximately 8,000 motions from individuals desiring to become additional plaintiffs in the court case, thereby delaying the court’s consideration of the original motion. As of December, the case was pending before the Bucharest Court of Appeal.
In May the Roman Catholic Archbishopric of Bucharest criticized the mayor’s office for not enforcing court rulings to demolish a 19-story building constructed within the protected zone around the Roman Catholic Saint Joseph Cathedral, a designated historical monument. According to media reports, Mayor Gabriela Firea stated on a television show she would ask the residents of Bucharest, via an opinion poll, if they agreed to spend millions of euros to demolish the building.
In September the Bucharest City Council allocated one million euros ($1.2 million) for the continued construction of the Romanian People’s Salvation Cathedral, the patriarchal cathedral of the ROC. The president of Save Romania Union in Bucharest criticized the decision, stating the cathedral did not represent a priority for Bucharest due to more pressing needs, such as addressing the city’s traffic congestion; several journalists agreed with her opinion.
As of December, the National Authority for Property Restitution (NAPR), the government agency responsible for overseeing the restitution process, reported the SRC had approved the restitution of three “immovable properties” (land or buildings) to religious denominations, approved compensation in 26 cases, and rejected 980 other claims during the year. In 231 cases, the filers withdrew, redirected, or attached their claims to other files. According to data provided by NAPR and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the number of cases NAPR reviewed decreased 37 percent from 1,955 in 2016 to 1,227.
According to the NAPR, as of December religious groups appealed 85 decisions by the SRC to the courts during the year. The Roman Catholic Church made 31 appeals; the ROC made 16; the Greek Catholics made eight appeals; the Reformed Church made four appeals; and the Jewish community made 12 appeals. Information concerning court decisions on these cases was unavailable.
The NAPR reviewed 744 claims submitted by the Greek Catholic Church during the year but did not restore any property to the church or grant it compensation in any cases. The NAPR continued to report the reason for the SRC’s rejection of some claims for restitution of Greek Catholic properties was that the previous transfer of those properties to the ROC occurred under the communist regime. According to the NAPR, these properties did not belong to the state and therefore the state could not return them.
The Greek Catholic Church reported continued court delays on restitution lawsuits. Two court decisions on Greek Catholic restitution cases were reported during the year. In both cases, the courts rejected restitution claims, but a final decision was pending at year’s end.
Restitution of a property in Bixad, previously restored to the Greek Catholic Church by the government and confirmed by earlier court decisions, continued to be delayed while courts considered the case anew, following a 2016 decision by the Alba Tribunal, a county-level court, allowing the Satu Mare County Council to revive its claim for ownership of the property. At year’s end, the case was still pending.
Two cases filed in 2016 by the Greek Catholic Church with the European Court of Human Rights for restitution of churches in Bistrita and Breb remained pending. In each case, the Church’s complaint concerned court decisions awarding Greek Catholic property to the ROC based on census data showing Greek Catholics as a minority.
Although the government did not issue regulations for implementing new property restitution legislation passed in 2016, which granted priority to cases involving Holocaust survivors, the NAPR approved priority status for the 50 such applications it had received by August. The NAPR awarded compensation to Holocaust survivors in two cases and requested additional documents for the remaining 48 cases.
The Caritatea Foundation, the NGO established by the Federation of Jewish Communities and the WJRO to oversee Jewish communal property claims, reported the SRC had approved nine pending claims as of August – all via compensation – and rejected 107 others. In 62 other cases, claimants withdrew their requests. No new claims were submitted during the year. The foundation stated the SRC continued to fear assuming responsibility for restitution and preferred to pass decisions on to the courts. The foundation also continued to state the claims procedure was overly bureaucratic and unreasonable, in particular because the SRC often requested the submission of numerous additional documents, giving Jewish claimants little time to meet the 120-day deadline for document submission.
The Caritatea Foundation also said the NCREC continued to invalidate previous positive decisions for compensation by the SRC, citing the case of a Jewish community property in Galati, which remained pending following the NCREC’s denial of previously awarded compensation due to a name change of the street where the property had been located.
The Reformed, Roman Catholic, Unitarian, and Evangelical Lutheran churches said the government continued to reject their restitution claims on the grounds the entities registered as the former property owners were not the contemporary churches. Church leaders said the communist regime had dismantled the former church entities while confiscating their property, meaning the former property owners no longer existed as such but the contemporary churches, as the successors to the dismantled churches, were in effect the same entities whose property had been seized. Fifty claims submitted by the Roman Catholic Church were resolved as of year’s end. The government decided to grant compensation in three cases, 38 claims were denied, and in nine cases the claimants renounced, redirected their claims, or annexed them to other files. Twenty-five claims submitted by the Reformed Church were reviewed and 17 were denied; in seven cases, the plaintiffs either renounced, redirected their claims, or annexed them to other files; in one case, the government granted compensation. During the year, the government reviewed and denied the four pending claims of the Unitarian Church. One claim for restitution filed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church was resolved as of December, and the government granted compensation.
The Roman Catholic Church’s appeal of the SRC’s 2015 rejection of its claim for restitution of the Batthyaneum Library and an astronomical institute in Alba Iulia remained pending with the court. Greek Catholic priests continued to state that local authorities did not grant construction permits for places of worship, even though there were no apparent legal grounds for denying them. Greek Catholics attributed the delayed issuance of permits to pressure from the ROC.
The percentage of schoolchildren opting to take religion classes remained at almost 90 percent and, according to the media, NGOs, and parents’ associations, continued to be the result of manipulation and pressure by the ROC as well as the failure of school directors to offer parents alternatives to the religion classes. Observers reported school inspectorates did not enforce a ministerial order mandating annual submission of requests to take religion classes and instead considered children’s initial requests to be valid for an entire four-year study cycle.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church reported schools continued to schedule exams on Saturdays without providing the option for Seventh-day Adventist students, for whom Saturday is the Sabbath, to take the exams on another day.
In September, 20 NGOs sent a public letter to the Ministry of Education requesting a ban on religious services during the opening of the school year. The NGO letter stated children were “forced” to take part in religious services organized in schools, which represented a “serious violation of religious freedom.”
Minority religious groups, including the Christian Evangelical Church, reported authorities continued to allow only the ROC to play an active role in the annual opening ceremonies at schools and other community events and usually did not invite other religious groups to attend such ceremonies.
In public speeches, some politicians and the media continued to equate Romanian Orthodoxy with national identity. A National Liberal Party deputy, Daniel Gheorghe, said in October that the Orthodox Church was the “spinal column of the Romanian nation.”
Religious groups reported military chaplains continued to be ROC priests with the exception of one Roman Catholic priest and one pastor from the Evangelical Alliance.
The government-established Elie Wiesel Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania reported prosecution of anti-Semitic speech and Holocaust denial remained a rare occurrence. According to statistics released by the government, during the year, the national-level Prosecutor General’s Office compiled a list of 42 cases to be resolved. Of those cases, the office reportedly resolved one case through a waiver of criminal prosecution (defined as there being no public interest in prosecution) and dropped 12 other cases.
According to the Wiesel Institute, the delay in the prosecution of cases continued due to lengthy investigations. As of October, Gorj police, under the supervision of the Targu Jiu prosecutor’s office, continued to investigate a case from 2014 based on a complaint from the Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism (MCA), an independent NGO, concerning a lampshade posted for sale online and advertised as being made of “Jewish skin.”
The Wiesel Institute reported local authorities continued to name some streets, organizations, schools, and libraries after persons convicted of Nazi-era war crimes or crimes against humanity and to allow the erection of statues and busts depicting persons convicted of war crimes. The Wiesel Institute asked city authorities in Cluj-Napoca to rename a street named after Radu Gyr, a commander of the Legionnaire movement and apologist for anti-Semitism who was convicted of war crimes. As of December the local government had not changed the name of the street.
According to the Wiesel Institute, the committee for renaming streets within the Bucharest prefect’s office recommended against the renaming of a street honoring Mircea Vulcanescu, a cabinet member in the government of WWII leader Ion Antonescu who supported anti-Semitic policies and was convicted as a war criminal. In May the Bucharest Tribunal ruled Vulcanescu’s conviction for war crimes in 1948 was politically motivated because he had opposed the communist regime. Several academics criticized the tribunal’s decision, stating Vulcanescu’s original conviction was based on his activity as a member of the Antonescu cabinet and not on his opposition to the communist regime. In October the Ministry of Finance appealed the decision; the case remained pending in the Court of Appeal at the end of the year.
The government continued to implement the recommendations of the 2004 International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (Wiesel Commission) Report and to cooperate with the USHMM in promoting Holocaust education. The Wiesel Institute continued to organize training sessions for history teachers, carry out educational activities for students, and inform the public about the Holocaust.
Despite the government’s commitment to cooperate with the USHMM to promote Holocaust education, observers reported the general history curricula continued not to provide a mandatory class on the country’s Holocaust history. The high school course “History of the Jews – The Holocaust” remained optional. During the 2016-17 school year, 2,894 students in 75 schools enrolled in this course, a number that observers considered extremely low when compared with the total student population.
In May the Wiesel Institute took possession of a building in central Bucharest transferred to it by the Bucharest General Council for establishment of a new museum on the history of the country’s Jewish community. The Ministry of Defense promised to facilitate the transfer of historical artifacts to the Wiesel Institute for use in the museum.
Pursuant to its pledge to implement the recommendations of the 2004 International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (Wiesel Commission) Report, the government again commemorated the annual National Holocaust Remembrance Day in October, marking the day when the Romanian authorities began deporting the country’s Jews to Transnistria, with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial in Bucharest. The president and other government officials made public statements against anti-Semitism during the year.
Following vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in Bucharest in April, then-Prime Minister Grindeanu said, “I firmly condemn the serious act of vandalism that occurred at the beginning of this week in the greatest Jewish cemetery in Bucharest. Anti-Semitic acts and vandalism are unacceptable.” In June President Iohannis participated in an awards ceremony in the United States hosted by the Global Forum of the American Jewish Committee. After receiving the “Light Unto the Nations” distinction, he said, “We cannot allow Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism to affect the health of democracies.”
The Wiesel Institute continued to organize training courses on the history of the Holocaust for teachers, police officers, and other professionals. In April the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a conference on the recently adopted working definition of anti-Semitism by the IHRA. During the conference, NGO representatives, leaders of the Jewish community, and academics discussed the implications of the working definition and the way law enforcement, academics, and educators can use it. On May 25, the government approved a memorandum stipulating measures to be taken by the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior, law enforcement authorities, and Ministry of Education to include the working definition in their professional training programs and in the civics studies curricula.
In an article published by the privately owned Adevarul newspaper, Radu Preda, who is the executive president of the government-sponsored Institute for Investigating Communist Crimes, which studies the former communist regime, said the dismantling of the Greek Catholic Church by Stalin was “God’s pedagogy.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In October anti-Muslim activist Calin Marincus and several members of the New Right Party interrupted an artistic performance of a mass in the Cluj-Napoca Opera House, which also included the recital of the Islamic call to prayer. The media reported the activists started singing the Romanian national anthem and Marincus made statements opposing the construction of any “mega-mosque” on Romanian soil. Police removed the protesters from the building and fined them.
Greek Catholic priests said ROC priests continued to harass and intimidate Greek Catholics, especially in rural areas, and to encourage ROC members to try to prevent individuals from joining the Greek Catholic Church.
According to non-Orthodox religious groups, ROC priests continued not to allow them to bury their dead in ROC or public cemeteries or otherwise continued to restrict such burials by requiring the burials take place in isolated sections of a cemetery or follow Orthodox rituals during the funeral services. According to the Greek Catholic Church, in the village of Tiur, the ROC representatives who managed the local cemetery did not allow a Greek Catholic priest to bury a deceased person. The Christian Evangelical Church (CEC) reported that in the village of Sarulesti Gara, the ROC priest refused the burial of persons belonging to other religious denominations in the local cemetery. According to the CEC, there were two cases when the same priest forcefully entered the house of the deceased persons and buried them according to the Orthodox ritual, contrary to the families’ request for burial next to CEC members. The CEC also said ROC priests forced former Orthodox believers who converted to the evangelical Christian faith to give up their graves leased from the local cemetery managed by the ROC. Non-Orthodox religious groups continued to report difficulties in obtaining land to establish cemeteries. The CEC reported that in the village of Cosesti, the mayor’s office rejected the request for land to establish a cemetery and did not approve the establishment of a cemetery next to the local church, citing the local ROC priest’s opposition.
According to Greek Catholic leaders, the ROC, in conjunction with local authorities, continued to deny the Greek Catholic Church and its followers access to the ROC cemetery in Sapanta, which had previously belonged to the Greek Catholic Church.
Bahais reported an ROC priest in one neighborhood in Bucharest repeatedly told parents and residents the purpose of an after-school program owned by a member of the Bahai community was “dangerous” for their children and was to “manipulate and twist their children’s minds.”
A survey by Kantar TNS, commissioned by the Wiesel Institute and released in October, found that while 68 percent of the 1,014 adults 18 years and older surveyed had heard of the Holocaust, only 41 percent believed the Holocaust had occurred in the country. Approximately 55 percent of the respondents blamed the Holocaust on Nazi Germany, while 22 percent considered the wartime government of general Ion Antonescu responsible. Of the respondents, 44 percent considered Antonescu a hero; 46 percent of those interviewed agreed with the statement “it would be better for Jews to go live in their country.”
Material promoting anti-Semitic views and glorifying Legionnaires appeared in both print and social media. According to a report released in April on hate speech on social media during 2016 by the Wiesel Institute, 59 percent of the recorded hate speech incidents targeted Jews. The report stated 2 percent of recorded hate speech repeated longstanding accusations against Jews, such as declaring the Talmud a “satanic Bible” or characterizing Jews as being part of a plot to bring the anti-Christ to earth. The report found 22 percent of the recorded hate speech posted by users and groups on social media advocated the extermination of Jews or other violent acts.
According to the MCA, in May the Ion I. Bratianu Cultural Foundation, a Bucharest-based NGO that organizes cultural and scientific events, hosted the launch of an anti-Semitic book, The Nazi Zionism, by retired general Radu Theodoru. The MCA stated it had informed the prosecutor’s and mayor’s offices about the book launch before it took place, but the authorities did not intervene.
Observers reported members of the ROC continued to make public statements praising convicted war criminals and members of the Legionnaire Movement. In the context of the ROC’s Commemorative Year Dedicated to the Defenders of Orthodoxy During Communism, ROC Spokesperson Vasile Banescu stated Mircea Vulcanescu was among those who should be honored because they “sacrificed themselves for the defense of national and Christian values.”
In September the media reported hundreds of individuals participated in a march recreating Elie Wiesel’s deportation journey as a protest against anti-Semitism.
Several mainstream media outlets depicted refugees and asylum seekers as Muslim “invaders,” while conspiracy theories and antagonistic speech against Muslims appeared frequently on social networks. In August during a World Cup qualification match against Armenia, observers reported Romanian supporters displayed a banner reading “No to Islamization.” An article published by the Evenimentul Zilei news site in August regarding the recent flow of migrants was titled, “The Migrant Invasion: Muslims Storm Romania’s Borders.”
In April vandals destroyed 10 tombstones in a Jewish cemetery in Bucharest, according to the MCA. Police identified three underage individuals who allegedly were responsible for the crime. Although the vandalism took place on Holocaust Remembrance Day, observers reported the police investigation found the perpetrators had acted without a specific reason. At year’s end, the case remained pending before a Bucharest district court.
In June the Jewish community in Cluj-Napoca notified police about anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial messages painted on the exterior wall of the Memorial Temple of Deported Jews synagogue in Cluj-Napoca. A police investigation remained pending at the end of the year.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The embassy raised its continued concerns about the slow pace of religious property restitution with the general secretary of the government. The embassy also continued to facilitate meetings between the WJRO and the government to help speed the processes of property restitution and pensions for Holocaust survivors.
Embassy officials and representatives of the USHMM continued discussions with government ministers, officials in the education ministry, and heads of the major political parties. They stressed the importance of full official recognition of the Holocaust in the country, the necessity of expanding Holocaust education for both students and civil servants, and the need for complete implementation of the recommendations of the Wiesel Commission.
The embassy continued to assist the USHMM’s effort to access the country’s national archives by engaging with various ministries and agencies. Embassy officials also continued to support the Wiesel Institute in establishing a museum on the history of Romanian Jews by raising the project in meetings with key ministries, engaging the Ministry of Defense on the transfer of historical artifacts to the Wiesel Institute for use by the museum, and by the Ambassador’s participation on the museum’s consultative committee.
Embassy officials met with a regional leader of the Greek Catholic Church in Bucharest to discuss its relations with the ROC, incidents of discrimination by local authorities, and its relationship with the national government. The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to hold meetings with Muslim and Jewish community leaders to discuss ways of promoting religious diversity and curbing religious discrimination. The Ambassador and embassy officers also continued to meet with the Romanian Orthodox Patriarch to discuss their shared interest in maintaining regional stability, encouraging progress on rule of law reform efforts, and combatting trafficking in persons.
In late June the Ambassador traveled to Iasi to participate in the 76th anniversary commemoration of the Jewish pogrom there. The Ambassador recited a poem by a Jewish writer before laying a wreath at the Jewish cemetery. In October at a ceremony for National Holocaust Commemoration Day, the Ambassador spoke about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the country and laid a wreath.
During the year, the Ambassador hosted an iftar and other events that gathered religious leaders of various faiths to facilitate interreligious dialogue and understanding.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the rights to worship and profess one’s religion. The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law lists Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The law distinguishes between “religious groups,” which have the right to conduct worship services but may not engage in many other activities, and two categories of “religious organizations,” which obtain legal status through registration with the government to conduct a full range of religious and civil functions. The Supreme Court ruled to criminalize the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist,” effectively banning their activities and literature, and ordered their headquarters property to be liquidated. Authorities continued to detain and fine members of minority religious groups and minority religious organizations for alleged extremism. In one case, there were reports that authorities tortured an individual in a pretrial detention facility. Authorities convicted and fined several individuals for “public speech offensive to religious believers.” The government prosecuted individuals of many denominations for unauthorized missionary activity under the amendments to antiterrorism laws passed in 2016, known as the Yarovaya Package. Police conducted raids on the private homes and places of worship of religious minorities. Religious minorities said local authorities used the country’s anti-extremism laws to add to the list of banned religious texts. Local officials continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land and denied them construction permits for houses of worship. There were reports of Jehovah’s Witnesses facing discrimination from school officials following the organization’s ban. The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to any other church or religious association, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions. The government increasingly fined and issued deportation orders for foreign nationals engaging in religious activity, including a rabbi, four Korean citizen Baptists, and an Indian citizen Pentecostal pastor.
Media, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious groups reported a number of attacks on individuals based on their religious identity. There were physical assaults on Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims, as well as other attacks on individuals, possibly based on both their ethnicity and religion. NGOs reported overall there were fewer instances of violence based on religious identity than in prior years. In separate instances, arsonists attacked a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ home and place of worship. Acts of vandalism motivated by religious hatred continued to occur, including against Jewish, Orthodox, Protestant, Pentecostal, and Buddhist religious sites.
The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials met with a range of government officials to discuss the treatment of religious minorities, particularly the use of the law on extremism to restrict the activities of religious minorities, and the revocation of registration of some minority religious organizations. Embassy officials raised consular cases with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs involving the discriminatory enforcement of the law against U.S. citizens who had engaged in religious activity, including preventing them from obtaining legal counsel, not allowing them to speak in their own defense at legal hearings, and not providing adequate translation into English. Consular officers attended several court hearings involving a U.S. citizen accused of violating the law on missionary activities. The Ambassador met the patriarch and the head of external relations of the ROC, the Chief Rabbi of Russia, the head of the Russian Jewish Congress, and the papal nuncio to discuss interfaith cooperation and ways to promote religious tolerance. Embassy officers met regularly with ROC clergy and staff and with representatives of minority religious groups, including rabbis, muftis, Protestant pastors, Catholic priests, U.S. missionaries, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as with NGOs and civil society leaders, to discuss religious legislation and government practices with regard to religious minorities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 142.2 million (July 2017 estimate). The most recent figures from a 2015-2016 poll by the Pew Research Center report 71 percent of the population consider themselves Orthodox, while 10 percent identify as Muslim. Religious groups constituting less than 5 percent of the population each include Buddhists, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, members of The Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Bahais, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), pagans, Tengrists, Scientologists, and Falun Gong adherents. The 2010 census estimates the number of Jews at 150,000; however, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities (FEOR) stated in February 2015 the actual Jewish population is nearly one million, most of whom live in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Immigrants and migrant workers from Central Asia are mostly Muslim. The majority of Muslims live in the Volga Ural region and the North Caucasus. Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia also have sizable Muslim populations.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates the state is secular and provides for religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship, including the right to “profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion, or to profess no religion.” It provides the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and provides equality of rights and liberties regardless of attitude to religion. The constitution also bans any limitation of human rights on religious grounds and prohibits actions inciting religious hatred and strife. The constitution states all religious associations are equal and separate from the state. The law acknowledges Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, constituting an inseparable part of the country’s historical heritage. The law recognizes the “special contribution” of Russian Orthodox Christianity to the country’s history as well as the establishment and development of its spirituality and culture.
The law states the government may restrict religious rights only to the degree necessary to protect the constitutional structure and security of the government; the morality, health, rights, and legal interests of persons; or the defense of the country. It is a violation of the law to force another person to disclose his or her opinion of a religion or to participate or not participate in worship, other religious ceremonies, the activities of a religious association, or religious instruction.
The law states those who violate religious freedom will be “held liable under criminal, administrative, and other legislation.” The administrative code and the criminal code both punish obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and belief with imprisonment of up to three years and fines of up to 200,000 rubles ($3,500) or 500,000 rubles ($8,600), depending upon which code governs the offense.
Incitement of “religious discord” is punishable by up to four years in prison. Under the criminal code, maximum fines and prison sentences for “actions directed to incite hatred or enmity” on the basis of religion may be punished by fines of 300,000 to 500,000 rubles ($5,200 to $8,600), compulsory labor for up to four years, or imprisonment for up to five years. If these actions are committed with violence, by a person with official status (a term which applies to anyone working for the government or state-owned entities, as well as people in management roles at commercial or nongovernment entities), or by a group of individuals, the punishment is 300,000 to 600,000 rubles ($5,200 to $10,400), compulsory labor for up to five years, or imprisonment for up to six years.
The law criminalizes offending the religious feelings of believers; actions “in public demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the religious feelings of believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($5,200), 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 ($8,600), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.
By law officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law criminalizes a broad spectrum of activities as extremism, including incitement to “religious discord” and “assistance to extremism,” but the law does not precisely define extremism or require that an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremism.
Being a member of a banned religious association designated as extremist is punishable by up to six years in prison for individuals and up to 12 years for persons with official status. First time offenders who willingly forsake their membership in banned religious organizations are exempt from criminal liability if they committed no other crimes.
Local laws in the regions of Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism.”
The law creates three categories of religious associations with different levels of legal status and privileges: groups, local organizations, and centralized organizations. Religious groups or organizations may be subject to legal dissolution or deprivation of legal status by a court decision on grounds including violations of standards set forth in the constitution or public security.
In June 2016 the Russian Supreme Court upheld a 2014 order liquidating the Moscow branch of the Church of Scientology (COS) on the grounds it did not qualify as a religious organization.
The “religious group” is the most basic unit and does not require state registration; however, when a group first starts its activities, it must notify authorities in the “location of the religious group activity,” typically the regional Ministry of Justice (MOJ) office. A religious group may conduct worship services and rituals (but the law does not specify where or how) and to teach religion to its members. It does not have legal status to open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces. Individual members of a group may invite foreigners as personal guests to engage in religious instruction, and may import religious material. According to the law, a religious group may use property bought for the group’s use by its members, or residential property owned or rented by its members, or public spaces rented by its members, to hold services.
A “local religious organization” (LRO) may register with the MOJ if it has at least 10 citizen members who are 18 or older and are permanent local residents. LROs have legal status and may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces.
“Centralized religious organizations” (CRO) may register with the MOJ at the regional or federal level by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination. In addition to having the same legal rights as LROs, centralized organizations also may open new LROs without a waiting period.
Registration of an LRO or CRO requires an association provide the following: a list of the organization’s founders and governing body, with addresses and passport information; the organization’s charter; the minutes of the founding meeting; certification from the central religious organization (in the case of LROs); a description of the organization’s doctrine, practices, history, and attitudes towards family, marriage, and education; the organization’s legal address; a certificate of payment of government dues; and a charter or registration papers of the governing body in the case of organizations whose main offices are located abroad. The law imposes reporting requirements on CROs and LROs receiving funding from abroad. They are required to report an account of their activities, a list of leaders, the source of foreign funding, and plans for how the organization intends to use any funds or property obtained through foreign funding. Reports are annual by default, but the MOJ may require additional ad hoc reports.
Foreign religious organizations (those created outside of the country under foreign laws) have the right to open offices for representational purposes, either independently or as part of religious organizations previously established in the country, but they may not form or found their own religious organizations in the country and may not operate houses of worship. Foreign religious organizations able to obtain the required number of local adherents may register as local religious organizations.
The government (the MOJ or the Prosecutor General’s Office) oversees a religious organization’s compliance with the law and may review its financial and registration-related documents when conducting an inspection or investigation. The government may send representatives (with advance notice) to attend a religious association’s events, conduct an annual review of compliance with the association’s mission statement on file with the government, and review its religious literature to decide whether the literature is extremist. The law contains ongoing reporting requirements on financial and economic activity, funding sources, and compliance with antiterrorist and anti-extremist legislation. The government may obtain a court order to close those associations that do not comply with reporting or other legal requirements.
The law allows the government to limit the places where prayer and public religious observance may be conducted without prior approval. LROs and CROs may conduct religious services and ceremonies without prior approval in buildings, lands, and facilities owned or rented by these associations, as well as in cemeteries, crematoria, places of pilgrimage, and living quarters. Baptism ceremonies in rivers and lakes, as well as services conducted in parks, open spaces, or courtyards, do not fall under this exemption. In these cases, LROs and CROs must seek government approval at least one week in advance and provide the government with the names of organizers and participants as well as copies of any written materials to be used at the event.
A Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program requires members of a religious group to comprise at least 10 percent of a military unit before an official chaplain of that group is appointed. Chaplains are not enlisted or commissioned, but are classified as assistants to the commander. Chaplains are full-time employees of the Ministry of Defense, paid out of the defense budget. The program allows for chaplains from the four traditional religions only, and calls for at least 250 chaplains.
The Yarovaya Package also amends federal law with regard to missionary activity, which the law defines 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 this law, in order to share beliefs outside of officially sanctioned sites (which include buildings owned by a religious organization, buildings whose owners have given permission for activities to take place, pilgrimage destinations, cemeteries and crematoria, and indoor spaces of educational organizations historically used for religious ceremonies), an individual must have a document authorizing the individual to share beliefs from a religious group or registered organization. This letter must be provided to the authorities and the individual must carry a copy of it. The law explicitly bans any beliefs from being shared in residential buildings without such documentation (unless in the form of a religious service, rite, or ceremony), or on another organization’s property without permission from that organization. Materials disseminated by missionaries must be marked with the name of the religious association providing the authorization.
Engaging in missionary activity prohibited by the amended law carries a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($86 to $860) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,700 to $17,300) for legal entities (which includes both LROs and CROs). Foreign citizens or stateless persons who violate restrictions on missionary activities may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($520 to $860) and are subject to administrative deportation.
Several regional governments have their own restrictions on missionary activity.
Republics in the North Caucasus have varying policies on wearing the hijab in public schools. Hijabs are banned in public schools in Stavropol and Mordovia, rulings that have been upheld by the Russian Supreme Court. In March the Chechen parliament adopted amendments to the regional law on education to allow schoolgirls to wear hijabs.
The law does not provide precise criteria on how written religious materials may be classified as “extremist.” Within the MOJ, the Scientific Advisory Board reviews religious materials for extremism. Composed of academics and representatives of the four traditional religions, the board reviews materials referred to it by judicial or law enforcement authorities, private citizens, or organizations. If the board identifies material as extremist, it issues a nonbinding advisory opinion, which is then published on the MOJ website and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation. In addition to the Scientific Advisory Board, regional experts also may review religious materials for extremism.
Prosecutors may take material to a court and ask the court to declare it extremist, but materials introduced in court during the consideration of administrative, civil, or criminal cases may also be declared extremist sua sponte (i.e., of their own accord). By law publications declared extremist by a federal court are automatically added to the federal list of extremist materials. Courts may order internet service providers to block access to websites containing materials included on the federal list of extremist materials. There is no legal procedure for removal from the list even if a court declares an item no longer classified as extremist, but lists are reviewed and re-issued on a regular basis and publications may be dropped from lists. The law makes it illegal to declare the key texts, or “holy books” of the four traditional religions to be extremist.
According to the administrative code, mass distribution, production, and possession with the aim of mass distribution of extremist materials by private individuals may result in 15 days’ imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($17 to $52), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($35 to $87) for public officials, as well as the confiscation of these materials. Courts may suspend for 90 days the operations of legal entities found to be in possession of extremist materials and fine them 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,700 to $17,300). Individuals who produce materials later deemed extremist may not be punished retroactively but must cease production and distribution of those materials.
The law allows the transfer of state and municipal property of religious significance to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and movable property. The law grants religious organizations using state historical property for religious purposes the right to use such state property indefinitely. The law prohibits the transfer of living quarters for religious use and the use of living quarters for missionary activity unless the activity is a part of a “religious service, rite, or ceremony.”
Religious education or civil ethics classes are compulsory in all secondary schools, public and private. Students may choose to take a course on one of the four traditional religions, a general world religions course, or a secular ethics course. Regional and municipal departments of education oversee this curriculum at the local level in accordance with their capacity to offer the courses, and according to the religious makeup of the given location. There is no requirement for representatives of religious organizations to be licensed to conduct religious education in Sunday schools and home schooling. Religious instructors in any other state or private school must be licensed to teach religious courses.
The Office of the Director of Religious Issues within the Office of the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman handles complaints about the government dealing with religious freedom. The ombudsman may intercede on behalf of those who submit complaints; however, the ombudsman may not compel other government bodies to act or directly intervene in complaints not addressed to the government.
The law entitles individuals and organizations to take religious freedom cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The state must pay compensation to a person whose rights were violated as determined by the ECHR and ensure his or her rights are restored to the extent possible. The Constitutional Court determines whether judgments by international and regional courts, including the ECHR, are consistent with the constitution.
There is compulsory military service for men, but the constitution provides for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience, including religious belief. The standard military service period is 12 months, while alternative service is 18 months in a Ministry of Defense agency or 21 months in a nondefense agency. Failure to perform alternative service is punishable under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from an 80,000 ruble ($1,400) fine to six months in prison.
By law religious associations may not participate in political campaigns or the activity of political parties or movements, or provide material or other aid to political groups. This restriction applies to religious associations and not to their individual members.
The ROC and all members of the Public Chamber (a state institution made up of representatives of public associations) are granted the opportunity to review draft legislation pending before the State Duma on a case-by-case basis. No formal mechanism exists for permanent representation of religious organizations in the Public Chamber. Individuals may be invited into the Public Chamber from both traditional religions and other religious groups.
The law states foreigners or stateless individuals whose presence in the country is deemed “undesirable” are forbidden to become founders, members, or active participants in the activities of religious organizations. The same is true for individuals whose activities are deemed extremist by the courts or who are subject to prosecution under the law on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism.
The government, through its visa regulations, has increasingly limited the ability of non-Russian citizens to engage in religious activity. Religious work is no longer permitted on humanitarian or missionary visas. Those engaging in religious work now require both a contract with a legally registered religious organization and a work visa.
Under the criminal code, an individual convicted of committing an act of vandalism motivated by religious hatred or enmity may be sentenced to up to three years of compulsory labor or prison.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: Authorities continued to detain and fine members of minority religious groups and organizations for alleged extremism. In one case, there were reports that authorities tortured an individual in a pretrial detention facility. The Supreme Court ruled to criminalize the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist,” and ordered their headquarters property be liquidated. In various cities across the country authorities dissolved or disbanded minority religious associations, often on grounds they were conducting “extremist activity.” The authorities convicted and fined individuals for public speech they said was offensive to religious believers. Police continued to raid the private homes and places of worship of religious minorities, disrupting religious services. Under the Yarovaya Package, the government continued to prosecute individuals of several denominations. Religious minorities continued to state local authorities used the country’s anti-extremism laws to add to the list of banned religious texts. Local officials continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land and denied them construction permits for houses of worship. As in prior years, the government granted privileges to the ROC accorded to no other church or religious association, including greater access to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, police, and the military forces. The government also fined and deported several foreign nationals engaging in religious activity including a rabbi, four Korean citizen Baptists, and an Indian citizen Pentecostal pastor.
According to the NGO Forum 18, the federal government increasingly restricted the exercise of freedom of religion since the re-election of President Vladimir Putin in 2012, enacting laws and prosecuting individuals for exercising their freedom of religion or belief.
In its yearly October report, the NGO Memorial published a list of political prisoners in the country that included 70 persons (at least three of whom are Crimean Tatars) persecuted because of their religion. According to Memorial, more than half its reported number of political prisoners in the country were imprisoned because of their religious activities, though it stated the overall list was incomplete, and the total number may be two to three times larger. The report noted an increase in political prisoners in recent years in connection to religious freedom. It stated none of the individuals on the list used violence, called for violence, or planned violent acts. The majority on the list are Muslims, many of whom were accused of participating in the organization Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami, as well as followers of Turkish theologian Said Nursi. Jehovah’s Witnesses joined the list of victims persecuted for religious reasons following the Supreme Court ban.
According to Forum 18, authorities continued to pursue multiple cases against Muslims on extremism charges for reading the works of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi. On December 8, Forum 18 reported that during the year, at least 12 Muslims were on trial or under investigation for being members of “Nurdzhular,” an organization banned as extremist reportedly based on Nursi’s teachings. Others reported that no such organization existed.
In November Forum 18 reported Yevgeny Kim was tortured while in pretrial detention in 2015. The report stated he suffered an attempted rape, was beaten, and had multiple ribs broken. On June 19, the Blagoveshchesk City Court found him guilty of organizing activities of a banned extremist organization and inciting hatred for meeting to study the works of Said Nursi. The court sentenced him to three years and nine months in a penal colony.
In the December 8 article, Forum 18 reported that, on December 7, a court sentenced three Dagestani Muslims to prison terms, Ziyavdin Dapayev to a four-year term and Sukhrab and Artur Kaltuyev to three-year terms. They were being held without bail pending appeals. The government stated they and other Nursi readers belong to the banned organization Nurdzhular, which the government deemed extremist. The court also ordered the destruction of many of Nursi’s works. A Turkish company, Sozler, which published Nursi’s works in Russian, accused law enforcement agencies of falsifying witness testimony and appealed to the General Prosecutor’s Office to investigate.
Additionally, the December 8 Forum 18 article said there were two separate, ongoing criminal cases in Krasnoyarsk against Muslims Andrei Dedkov and Andrei Rekst on extremism charges related to studying Nursi readings. Authorities accused Dedkov of organizing gatherings to study Nursi works and accused Rekst of participating in the gatherings. On December 8, Forum 18 reported there already had been eight hearings in Dedkov’s case and 13 in Rekst’s case. Authorities held Dedkov in pretrial detention from April 2016 until March 3, and he was under house arrest and under travel restrictions at year’s end. Rekst remained free on bail at year’s end.
In the same article, Forum 18 reported six other cases in Novosibirsk for alleged participation in the banned “extremist” organization Nurdzhular – two that authorities closed, two investigations that remained in progress, and two awaiting court hearings. On November 15, the October District Court in Novosibirsk closed the cases of pensioner Uralbek Karaguzinov and undergraduate student Mirsultan Takhir-ogly Nasirov after fining them each 90,000 rubles ($1,500). Two other Muslims remained under investigation, but they were unavailable to stand trial. One was abroad and the whereabouts of the other was unknown. The two awaiting court hearings included Uzbek citizen Bobirjon Tukhtamurodov, whom authorities originally treated as a witness but formally charged on October 31. Forum 18 reported Tukhtamurodov had refugee status in Russia but if found guilty, could lose this protection and be forced to return to Uzbekistan.
On April 19, police arrested Ilgar Vagif-ogly Aliyev in a nighttime raid in Dagestan. Authorities accused him of holding classes involving a group of Nursi adherents. He faced up to 10 years in prison.
On December 22, the Oryol Regional Court denied an appeal to release Dennis Christensen, a Danish citizen and elder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Oryol Congregation detained on “extremist activity” charges on May 25, when at least 15 armed persons, including Federal Security Service (FSB) personnel, raided the religious services of the congregation. On September 28, the Oryol Regional Court had denied a similar appeal. In June authorities dissolved the Oryol LRO on extremism charges. On July 20, the Sovietskiy District Court extended Christensen’s pretrial detention to November 23 and on November 20 the court again extended his pretrial detention until February 23, 2018. If convicted, Christensen faced six to 10 years in prison. On September 4, the ECHR began an examination of the case after Christensen appealed to it.
On May 11, Ruslan Sokolovsky, a blogger from Yekaterinburg, received a 3.5-year suspended sentence, during which time he is banned from attending mass gatherings. Since his arrest he was in pretrial custody twice and otherwise under house arrest. In September 2016 authorities arrested him for “inciting enmity and hatred” and “offending the feelings of believers” by playing the game Pokemon Go in an Orthodox church and posting antireligious videos online. Authorities added other criminal charges in January.
According to COS representatives and media, on December 4, the Nevskiy District Court extended the pretrial detention of five COS leaders in St. Petersburg to March 2018. Authorities arrested the five on June 6, when security services raided the St. Petersburg COS branch and homes of its leaders as part of a probe into what they said was possible “illegal entrepreneurship” (i.e., selling religious books), extremism, and incitement of hatred; these charges were punishable by six to 10 years’ imprisonment. Police arrested, interrogated, and detained the Church employees, four of whom received two months’ pretrial detention; the fifth was put under house arrest. On October 19, the court changed the pretrial detention conditions to house arrest for two of the individuals. The prosecution appealed the ruling for house arrest for one of them, Sahib Aliyev, and on November 22, he was taken back to prison. At year’s end, the executive director of the religious group, Ivan Matsitsky, and Aliyev remained in prison.
The COS petitioned the ECHR following the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision upholding a 2014 order liquidating its Moscow branch on the grounds it did not qualify as a religious organization. The case before the ECHR was pending at the end of the year.
In March media reported that the Moscow District Military Court sentenced Imam Makhmud Velitov of Moscow’s Yardam Mosque to three years in a prison colony on terrorism charges for a 2013 sermon at a funeral in which he publicly advocated the “doctrine of political Islam,” said to be a characteristic of the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization, which was banned by the government as a terrorist organization in 2003.
According to Eurasianet, in January the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Imam Magomed Nabi Magomedov but reduced his sentence by six months. The nonprofit SOVA Center for Information and Analysis reported that in October 2016, the Caucasus Regional Military Court found Magomedov guilty of making statements in a sermon justifying terrorism and hatred and sentenced him to five years in prison. Memorial said it studied the sermon and did not find it to contain any calls to acts of violence or terrorism.
In November police detained approximately 25 mosque attendees in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan, according to the online news site Caucasian Knot. They were subsequently released. According to an eyewitness, police stopped both drivers and pedestrians near the mosque. Those detained were brought to the police station and divided into two groups. Those whose names had previously been included in the police extremism-prevention registration lists were questioned, photographed, and released. Those whose names had not been on the lists were questioned for a longer time. Authorities recorded their personal data, including information about their family members, and put them on the police extremism-prevention registration lists. In June Caucasian Knot reported the Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed that Dagestan removed from the police extremism-prevention registration lists followers of “unconventional Islamic concepts.”
On November 27 the Kurgan City Court acquitted for a second time Imam Ali Yakupov of the Kurgan Mosque on charges of inciting hatred. According to the SOVA Center, on June 22 the Kurgan Regional Court granted an appeal from the prosecutor’s office to overturn an April acquittal, and returned the case to the Kurgan City Court.
In August the Central District Court of Sochi found Viktor Nochevnova guilty of insulting the feelings of believers and fined him 50,000 rubles ($860) for reposting seven cartoon depictions of Jesus on his social media vKontakte page.
In February a court in Stavropol dismissed a criminal case against atheist blogger Viktor Krasnov whom authorities charged in March 2016 with offending the feelings of believers for comments he posted on a website in 2014 describing the Bible as a “collection of Jewish fairytales” and denying the existence of God.
Media reported in October First Deputy Chairman of the Duma Committee on Public Associations and Religious Organizations Ivan Sukharev requested the prosecutor general to take action against the Satanic Church of the Russian Federation. According to Sukharev, the organization’s activities offended the religious sensibilities of those adhering to traditional faiths. The Moscow Times reported the Satanic Church of Russia was established in 2013 and received legal recognition in May 2016.
Media, NGOs, and religious minorities reported continued attempts by authorities to dissolve minority religious associations, often on the grounds they were conducting extremist activity.
On August 17, the MOJ formally placed the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ parent organization in the country and 395 related LROs on its list of “extremist” groups, a procedural move following the Supreme Court’s decision on April 20, upheld by the Appellate Chamber of the Supreme Court on July 17, which criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The decision terminated all activity of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal entities throughout the country, effectively banning their worship.
A court on December 6 ordered the confiscation of the St. Petersburg headquarters of the Jehovah’sWitnesses (25 acres of real estate in the town of Sestoresk), in a decision based on the April 20 Supreme Court ruling. Since 2010 the property was owned by U.S. citizens based in Pennsylvania. The Jehovah’s Witnesses had a month to appeal in the St. Petersburg City Court and said they would take their case to the ECHR. On December 14 authorities broke into the Kolomyazhskiy Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in St. Petersburg, cordoned off the building, and took control of the property. According to jw.org, no Jehovah’s Witnesses in the hall were injured during the raid, and the building appeared to be undamaged. Prior to the April Supreme Court ruling, authorities continued to disband Jehovah’s Witnesses communities across the country. In addition to communities in Taganrog, Samara, Abinsk, Belogorod, Stary Oskol, Elista, and Orel, which had been ruled extremist and dissolved in previous years, authorities disbanded the Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Birobidzhan following a February 9 Supreme Court ruling, and ordered the liquidation of the community in Cherkessk, Karachai-Cherkessia on February 10. Forum 18 also reported that in January the Arkhangelsk Jehovah’s Witness community voluntarily dissolved after heavy pressure from authorities and ROC Moscow Patriarchate (ROC-MP) “antisect” activists.
According to the SOVA Center, in August the ECHR accepted eight complaints related to the ban or denial of registration of several religious organizations and prosecution for religious activities. The court took the complaints, filed between 2011 and 2017, into consideration simultaneously. Among them was a complaint from nine followers of Said Nursi for the banning of several Nursi texts and extremism charges.
In some cases, it was difficult for minority religious organizations to obtain state registration. In October the SOVA Center reported that since April the parish of St. Maria Gatchinskaya in the Leningrad Region unsuccessfully tried three times to register with the local authorities. The parish belonged to the Suzdal Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church.
According to the MOJ, in 2015, the most recent year for which figures were provided, the government approved 1,335 new registrations of religious organizations, most of which were ROC-affiliated.
Unlike previous years, the government did not designate any religious groups or organizations as “foreign agents.”
In addition to the order that criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist” and ordered their headquarters property to be liquidated, individual Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 19 cases of interference in church members’ private lives. In most of these cases, according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, officers of government agencies raided the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses, often carrying out unauthorized and illegal searches and seizure of private belongings, such as in Novouzensk, Saratov Region on January 19. In at least six cases, large numbers of officers took part in the raids; in at least five cases, officers reportedly planted “extremist” literature to fabricate charges against the Witnesses, such as on February 21 in Mikhaylovsk, Stavropol Territory. Authorities also broke into homes, often did not declare their purpose or show a court order, and ordered people around at gunpoint.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 25 cases of police raids on Kingdom Halls or on other meeting places. In almost all cases, the police officers disrupted religious services in progress or denied the Witnesses the opportunity to conduct their scheduled services. In many cases, the officers questioned those in attendance, recorded their identification information, and photographed or video recorded them. On May 4, the prosecutor’s office issued a warning to the chairman of the Krymsk Jehovah’s Witnesses LRO, stating the chairman and members of the LRO could be subject to administrative and criminal liability for holding religious services. According to jw.org, as of June 16, at least five other LROs had received similar warnings since the Russian Supreme Court ruling to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses.
On May 8, an independent foreign Baptist preacher, who had lived in Oryol since 2005, and his wife left the country permanently, according to his website. In May he had filed an appeal with the ECHR after the Supreme Court denied his appeal January 20 of a 2016 conviction for allegedly advertising and holding religious services in his home. At year’s end the ECHR had not ruled on the appeal.
Caucasian Knot reported that on June 2 the Lazarevskoe District Court of Sochi found former chairman of the Board of Elders of the Circassians-Shapsugs Ruslan Gvashev guilty of organizing an unsanctioned action, a prayer service, on the Adygs’ Memory Day, and fined him 10,000 rubles ($170). (The Adygs are a mostly Sunni Muslim people of the northwest Caucasus region.) On May 21, Gvashev took part in a mourning prayer at the Tulip Tree, a place considered sacred by the Adygs. According to witnesses, 67-year-old Gvashev was taken to court in a state of hypertensive crisis and the judge would not postpone the session despite a doctor’s recommendation he be hospitalized. In October the Krasnodar Territorial Court dismissed a complaint filed by Gvashev. According to his defense attorneys, the Tulip Tree is a place of worship and the Memory Day mourning for Adygs who suffered during the Caucasian War is a ritual action not requiring approval.
Authorities issued Aleksei Presbyter of the Evangelical Christian Baptists an administrative fine for holding religious meetings in the village of Chara. Presbyter had not sent the MOJ notification of either the place and or the start of the religious activity. On March 10, the Uritsky District Court of Orel Oblast (province) fined three representatives of the Evangelical Christian Baptists 5,000 rubles ($86) each for violating the law on missionary activity. The court convicted them of illegally distributing religious literature and inviting people to their religious meetings, without notifying the MOJ as required by law.
NGOs and religious figures criticized Education Minister Olga Vasilyeva for her January call to ban hijabs in public schools across the country.
Regional governments continued to restrict missionary activity, with officials often citing concerns about missionaries as sources of foreign influence.
Representatives of minority religious associations and NGOs continued to state that the Yarovaya Package, enacted for the stated purpose of enhancing the country’s antiterrorism capability, gave the authorities a range of powers to limit civil society. They said the broad definition of “missionary activity” in the legislation meant it included not only proselytizing, but also disseminating religious materials, preaching, and engaging in interfaith discussions about religion, including in private residences without prior authorization.
In January the chairman of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, a consultative body to the president, released the council’s draft expert conclusion that the Yarovaya Package restricted the constitutional rights of citizens and the restrictions were disproportionate to their effectiveness in combating terrorism. The council also said the law was arbitrarily enforced, with a focus on Protestants.
Authorities continued to pursue cases under the Yarovaya Package during the year. According to Forum 18, there were 193 legal cases against 136 individuals and 57 religious communities for unauthorized missionary activity between July 2016 and July 2017. Religious communities and individuals involved included Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Baptist Union, the Council of Churches, ISKON, Muslims, individuals associated with the Bible distribution organization the Gideons, Seventh-day Adventists, the Federation of Jewish Communities, a Kabbalah teacher, Buddhists, the Salvation Army, the Administrative Center of the New Apostolic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church, the Mormons, the Ukrainian Reformed Orthodox Church, and the ROC abroad. Of these, 143 cases resulted in initial convictions, with 140 fines imposed. Of the foreigners prosecuted, five were ordered deported, the first in February, and one had the deportation order overturned on appeal. Authorities in more than half the regions in the country initiated at least one prosecution under this law. The individuals charged with unauthorized missionary activity reportedly were prosecuted for activities such as holding prayer meetings at home, posting worship times on a religious community’s website, and giving a lecture on yoga. In these cases, authorities confiscated religious literature from 11 religious communities. In three of the cases, judges ordered the literature destroyed, although two of these rulings were subsequently overturned. Those convicted were fined from 5,000 to 100,000 rubles ($86 to $1,700). According to Forum 18, authorities did not initiate charges against any individuals or communities associated with the ROC-MP.
Between September 2016 and August, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 58 cases in which police officers arrested Witnesses for talking to others about their beliefs. In most cases, they were detained for a time at the police station and police often initiated an administrative case for engaging in missionary activity. On March 22 the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy Jehovah’s Witnesses community unsuccessfully appealed a February 10 Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy Court ordered fine of 100,000 rubles ($1,700) for carrying out illegal missionary activity aimed at public dissemination of information about their beliefs among people who were not participants. According to Forum 18, authorities also accused the group of “activity with extremist goals” because of the alleged presence of materials from the federal list of extremist material.
Forum 18 reported that on May 24, a Tomsk court fined the Northern Tomsk Jehovah’s Witnesses community 100,000 rubles ($1,700) for carrying out illegal missionary activity. The community allegedly held a worship meeting where nonmembers were present. On June 19, the October District Court of Tomsk rejected the community’s appeal without consideration.
According to Forum 18, on May 23, the Kurchatov District Magistrate’s Court in Chelyabinsk fined ISKON leader Aleksandr Kulikov 5,000 rubles ($86). The court accused Kulikov of missionary activity among underage children without parental permission after his group’s religious procession reportedly passed nine-year-olds.
On March 13, as reported in independent media outlet Dozhd, the Smolny District Court of St. Petersburg denied a February appeal by a police officer of a ruling that yoga teacher Dmitry Ugay was not a missionary. In January the judge had dropped the case, in which Ugay was charged with illegal missionary activity under the Yarovaya legislation for giving a talk about the philosophy behind yoga at a festival in St. Petersburg.
Religious minorities said local authorities used the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred religious texts and other books relating to religion. According to the SOVA Center, during the first half of the year authorities added seven nonviolent texts criticizing the ROC and religion, and one text by a Christian human rights organization criticizing Islam to the MOJ’s list of extremist materials. The list grew to 4,345 entries at the end of the year from 4,015 at the end of 2016. Forum 18 reported that other texts added during the year, included the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation of the Bible, other Jehovah’s Witnesses and Islamic books, several Jewish texts, two Christian books, and an atheist slideshow. According to Forum 18, on August 31, the ECHR began considering two cases brought against the government by Aslambek Ezhayev and Sozler, publishers of Islamic religious texts ruled “extremist.”
On July 14, the MOJ added Jewish author Markus Leman’s book The Forcibly Baptized to its list of extremist materials. According to Interfax, on March 22 the Central District Court of Sochi ruled the book extremist because it contained information aimed at inciting hatred of Christians and propagating the superiority and exclusiveness of Judaism over Christianity. FEOR spokesman Borukh Gorin condemned the ruling, stating it was part of a judicial policy in Sochi to limit the growth of Jewish spiritual life.
On December 20, the Leningrad District Court upheld a Vyborg City Court August 17 ruling that the Jehovah’s Witnesses New World Translation of the Bible is “extremist literature.” Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said members who use the Bible therefore could be subject to criminal prosecution. In court, lawyers for the Jehovah’s Witnesses said the expert panel should recuse itself, and presented evidence that the three expert panel members (a mathematician, a linguist, and a political scientist whose study was the basis for the August 17 ruling) had previously published opinions prejudicial toward the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the December case, the expert panel also determined the New World Translation was not a Bible. The head of the Leningrad District Court rejected the premise that the experts should recuse themselves and allowed the proceeding to continue.
A court confiscated Nizhny Tagil Evangelical Christian Church’s Bibles (including an edition used by the ROCMP) and ordered their destruction. In the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region, a court ordered the destruction of Hindu texts, including the Bhagavad Gita.
Internet providers throughout the country continued to block access to the jw.org website.
The Salsk District Court fined the Salsk Jehovah’s Witnesses community 40,000 rubles ($690) and confiscated literature on April 27 for carrying out activities of a religious organization without displaying its full official name on its building. The community argued it did not own the building and therefore could not alter its facade.
On May 12 the Lenin District Magistrate’s Court fined the Moksha-Erzyan Evangelical Lutheran Church 30,000 rubles ($520) for not displaying a sign showing its full official name.
Reports persisted that local officials continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land and continued to deny construction permits for houses of worship.
Muslim leaders continued to state Moscow’s four mosques were inadequate for the city’s Muslim population. In August media reported Mufti Albir Krganov announced a fifth mosque would be built in Moscow in the future and land allocation was being discussed. In December the mufti told media that he had discussed the issue with Moscow city officials.
In the fall, the Muslim community in Kaliningrad went to court seeking compensation for its financial losses following a court-ordered halt to the construction of its mosque in 2013. The community stated it had been trying to build a mosque since 1993. At the September 19 hearing, the city administration recognized the validity of the Muslim community’s claims, but it disputed the requested monetary compensation. According to the New Kaliningrad news, the Muslim community revised its claim from 98 million rubles ($1.7 million) to 85 million rubles ($1.5 million), while the city administration said the damages amounted to 60 million rubles ($1 million). The community also appealed to the ECHR against the city administration for blocking the mosque. Media reported in December the Central District Court awarded the Muslim community 66 million rubles ($1.1 million) in compensation. The head of the organization told media that the community did not need money, but rather a mosque.
In a long-running case, Forum 18 reported the demolition of a Buddhist monastery on top of Kachkanar Mountain (in the Ural Mountains approximately 125 miles north of Yekaterinburg) was tentatively scheduled for some time in the winter of 2017-18. According to Forum 18, on September 25 the senior Sverdlovsk Region bailiff said demolition would be postponed until the region received federal funding to cover the costs. In a November article, Interfax reported that authorities denied the Buddhists of Kachkanar Mountain registration as a religious organization.
In September the Supreme Court dismissed a suit brought by the ISKON for compensation for the 2014 loss of a temple near Dinamo metro station in Moscow. In October a lawyer for the ISKCON told Forum 18 the religious group had abandoned plans to build more places of worship in the country. “We are not building temples in the traditional Indian style now, because it is very difficult to get permission. After the fiasco with our temple in Molzhaninovo District [in Moscow], we do not undertake such projects.” He referred to the Moscow Property Department’s unilateral termination of the group’s lease in 2013 resulting in the group’s inability to proceed with building its new temple and the subsequent refusal to overturn the decision in 2015. The Moscow authorities did not offer any alternative sites, according to the community’s lawyer, nor did courts approve financial compensation for the approximately 73 million rubles ($1.3 million) the community said it already spent on the project. The community’s lawyer said it was renting space for worship and had not experienced any problems.
While difficulties remained, religious organizations said there was some movement in reclaiming former properties confiscated during the Soviet era. On October 25, in an official ceremony that included the President of Germany, the government returned the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul to the Lutheran Church. The occasion coincided with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
On November 14, the Supreme Court confirmed a recommendation to “abridge the parental rights of people who involved children in sects, extremist organizations, or terrorist organizations.” The court order specified that it was parental abuse to involve a child in activity of a public or religious association which has been banned.
According to media accounts, there were cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses facing discrimination in schools. In the village of Bezvodnoye in Kirov Oblast, a teacher reportedly humiliated two young students whose mother is a Jehovah’s Witness. The teacher justified her actions by stating that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned in the country. On May 17 in the Moscow Region, a school principal issued a written warning to the parents of an eight-year-old student who had spoken about God to a classmate. The document referred to the April Supreme Court decision and prohibited on school grounds “all actions that do not relate to the educational process.” The principal threatened to report the matter to the police and “to raise the issue of transferring the child to another form of training.”
On May 15, the management of a chemical factory in the Smolensk Region dismissed all of its Jehovah’s Witnesses employees. According to jw.org, management said they received an order from the FSB to dismiss all of the Witnesses because “extremists” cannot work at the factory.
According to the SOVA Center, on October 24, it became known that prosecutors in Blagoveshchensk asked students of the College of Culture and Arts whether their teachers attended the New Generation Church. The students had to answer in writing questions about whether they were inclined to join the church and, if they were members, whether they were forced to raise money for the needs of the church. The questionnaire also identified which teachers and students attended church meetings.
According to Russian Religion News, public schools in the country became more receptive to religious teaching, specifically of the ROC. Minister of Education and Research Igor Skubenko of Arkhangelsk Oblast welcomed in August the involvement of the ROC in all spheres of life, including in education, stating, “When the Church is nearby that is healthy. In this way the people are cleansed from an alien ideology.”
In February media reported the deputy head of the Federation Council’s Committee on Constitutional Legislation and State Development, Yelena Mizulina, would lead a working group to fight the influence of more than “500 destructive sects” operating in the country. Mizulina noted the existing legislation lacked a definition of the term “sect.” She said the MOJ reported 52 sects were banned and dissolved in the country in 2015 and 2016, but “such a large-scale spread of sectarian organizations clearly shows that something is wrong with the existing legislation.” According to the SOVA Center, the working group included several “experts on sects” from the Russian Association of Centers for the Study of Religions and Sects, including its president Alexander Dvorkin; representatives of the ROC-MP; representatives of the security services, including the FSB; and Larisa Astakhova, head of the religious studies department at Kazan Federal University, whose expert testimony on the activities of the Moscow COS served as one of the grounds for liquidating it.
As in years past, according to NGOs, the government continued to cooperate more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations. Although neither the constitution nor the law explicitly accorded privileges or advantages to the ROC, they said the ROC continued to benefit from a number of formal and informal agreements with government ministries, giving it greater access than other religious organizations to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, the police, and the military forces. 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
There were reports of multiple denials of religious minorities’ members’ requests for alternative civil service. According to Forum 18, a draft commission in the Chuvash Republic rejected Jehovah’s Witness Avel Lukin’s plea for alternative civil service. The commission cited the Supreme Court’s decision to liquidate the religious organization. The Shumerlya District Court rejected Lukin’s appeal on July 4, but Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that he would continue to challenge the decision. According to jw-russia.org, he was drafted into the strategic missile forces. The status of any appeal was unknown at year’s end.
Human rights activists and Jewish community leaders criticized as anti-Semitic comments made by officials regarding protests against the handover of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg to the ROC. On January 23, Duma Deputy Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy criticized the protests, stating protesters were “continuing the work” of their descendants, “who destroyed our cathedrals … with revolvers in 1917.” Deputies of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly condemned the “disgusting phenomenon of anti-Semitism” by Tolstoy. FEOR leaders condemned the statement as an anti-Semitic reference to conspiracy theories about Jews fomenting the Bolshevik Revolution. Tolstoy expressed surprise and stated he was “misunderstood.” On February 12 while criticizing opponents of the transfer, Duma Deputy Vitaly Milonov stated, “Christians survived despite the fact that the ancestors of Boris Vishnevsky and Maksim Reznik boiled us in cauldrons and fed us to animals.” Russian Jewish Congress president Yury Kaner told media: “It is clear …that these lawmakers [Vishnevsky and Reznik] are of Jewish descent and that he means Jews by his statement.” FEOR spokesman Borukh Gorin told media “for a State Duma deputy, it is unacceptable to make such irresponsible statements.” State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin backed Tolstoy, while head of the Presidential Human Rights Council Mikhail Fedotov criticized the remarks by expressing surprise at hearing a “respected parliamentarian repeating a favorite thesis of anti-Semites.” The government did not censure or punish Tolstoy, although St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly member Boris Vishnevskiy announced plans to refer Tolstoy’s comments to the Investigative Committee for possible extremist content. On January 27, three days after his remarks, Tolstoy was appointed head of the country’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The SOVA Center reported that on October 17, the television station Zvezda, owned by the Russian Ministry of Defense, aired a film called Espionage under the Guise of Religion. The program used examples of Scientologists and Jehovah’s Witnesses as “proof” that some representatives of religious minorities and “sects” were closely associated with intelligence agencies in the United States.
MOJ official Marina Molodtsova, special investigator on a committee investigating the 1918 killings of Czar Nicholas II and his family, stated on November 28 that her committee would investigate claims that the family was killed in a “ritual murder,” which Jewish community members reported gave new life to an old conspiracy that Jews killed the family in a ritual murder. Russian Orthodox Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov stated he believed these claims. Alexander Boroda, president of the FEOR said, “Accusing Jews of a ritual killing is one of the most ancient anti-Semitic slanders.”
In March President Putin met separately with Metropolitan Kornily, leader of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church, and with Central Muslim Spiritual Board head and Chief Mufti Talgat Tajuddin to discuss the communities’ activities. The presidential press secretary said the president has “regular communication with members of Russian religious denominations …”
According to international media, on January 25, the Supreme Court of Tartarstan denied the appeal of Pentecostal Pastor Victor-Immanuel Mani, an Indian national, against deportation; he left the country. In December 2016 the Naberezhniye Chelny City Court in Tartarstan had fined Mani 30,000 rubles ($520) and ordered his deportation for illegal missionary activity under the Yarovaya Package. According to Forum 18, Mani held religious meetings in rented premises and advertised them on the church’s social network vKontakte page without necessary authorization documents from the local religious organization. His wife and child were Russian citizens. On November 11, the Russian Supreme Court overturned the deportation order of the lower court but left the fine in place.
On April 3, a foreign rabbi left the country after a March 23 Krasnodar regional court ordered his deportation, upholding a February order by authorities. In December 2016 the Ministry of Internal Affairs had canceled his residency permit on the grounds that he posed a risk to national security.
In early July four Korean Baptists left the country. According to reports, at the end of June, two men and two women arrived from Irkutsk to a village in the Republic of Buryatia. Media reported that none of the four Baptist communities registered in Buryatia issued a document authorizing them to carry out missionary work. According to the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, a court in Buryatia fined and ordered their deportation for illegal missionary activity and violation of the rules for entry into the country.
The Constitutional Court reviewed the appeal of two foreign Mormon volunteers who were fined 2,000 rubles ($35) and deported, along with four other volunteers, in August 2016 because they were registered at the location of the Mormon Church instead of at their rented apartment. The court ruled in favor of the two volunteers.
According to independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, since the Yarovaya Package was implemented, evangelical Christian and Baptist churches often came under the scrutiny of law enforcement. In one case, the Ukrainian pastor of the evangelical Restoration Christian Center and his wife were pulled over “two or three times a day” by police in Moscow and twice fined for an illegible license plate. According to Novaya Gazeta, the Federal Migration Service refused the pastor’s residency permit (his temporary residency permit expires in December 2018) and informed him that documents for his deportation were already prepared. In August he was summoned to an interrogation and threatened with arrest. Novaya Gazeta suggested this harassment was related to a criminal case against the church’s charitable foundation, Restoration, which operated rehabilitation centers for drug addicts. In January authorities filed a criminal case against organizers of the foundation, alleging the organizers illegally held six drug addicts and kidnapped two others, despite other drug addicts at the center testifying they were there voluntarily. Authorities detained five of the center’s Russian employees, three of whom were later released and placed under house arrest. The residents of the rehabilitation centers told media that during their interrogation, investigators demanded they give evidence against the organizers of the center and against the head of Restoration Christian Center.
Between January and April Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 27 negative television reports about their religion. They said state-controlled media regularly reported stories critical of the group, which the Jehovah’s Witnesses said negatively influenced public opinion towards them.
The Jewish community again reported fewer government restrictions on their religious activities.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Media, NGOs, and religious groups reported physical assaults related to religious identity during the year, although according to data collected by the SOVA Center, there were fewer recorded instances of violence based on religious identity than in prior years. SOVA recorded three acts of violence directed against religious groups compared to 21 such acts in 2016. SOVA also separately recorded 13 acts of violence against Central Asians and individuals from the Caucasus during the same period compared to 31 in 2016. Because ethnicity and religion are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many of these incidents as being solely based on religious identity. The media also attributed some of these attacks to the political or human rights activities of the victims.
On May 2, the SOVA Center reported that in April in Penza Oblast, three unidentified persons beat an imam in his home. The assailants kicked him and hit him with a bat.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses there were 12 cases of physical assaults, one of which included a threat of murder, on adherents between September 2016 and August. In March a man with a dog threatened to set the animal loose on attendees during a religious service in a Kingdom Hall in St. Petersburg. He attacked one individual, shouted insults, and damaged the building. The same month in Moscow, a man threatened two Jehovah’s Witnesses with a knife, injuring one of them.
The SOVA Center reported that on August 17, in Nikonovsky village in the Moscow region, a local resident shouted insults and physically attacked a 56-year-old Jehovah’s Witness. According to the report, the attacker approached three Jehovah’s Witnesses sitting on a bench and holding a Bible in their hands. The attacker shouted, “Get out! You are banned!” and struck one of the Witnesses on the head with a glass jar before scattering the contents of her bag. The victim suffered a concussion and was taken to the hospital. The victims filed a police report, but the results of the case were not known.
The Slavic Center for Law and Justice reported two armed men broke into a Pentecostal church in January, beat two parishioners, and threatened them at knifepoint. The assailants demanded to see a list of church members, identified themselves as “native Orthodox,” and promised to eradicate all “sectarians.” The assailants reportedly had been known for prior antigovernment internet posts.
Following the March 31 adoption by the Chechen Parliament of amendments to the local law allowing students to wear clothes reflecting their religious beliefs, the head of the ROC-MP legal service said it violated “the principle of secular education in state schools,” and should be adjusted. She said “the federal law does not give students the right to wear clothes ‘in accordance with religious beliefs.’” According to the presidential press secretary, the Kremlin had not yet taken a position on the legislation. In January the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion reported that according to a poll, 47 percent of Russians saw nothing offensive in the practice of Muslim girls wearing hijabs in schools, compared to 35 percent in 2012. Forty-seven percent were against this practice, down from 53 percent in 2012.
The Press Secretary of the ROC-MP, Patriarch Kirill, said in June it would be desirable to include study of the basics of the Church Slavonic language in the school curriculum for cultural purposes. Earlier in the year, the president of the Russian Academy of Education, Professor Liudmila Verbitskaia, called for consideration of teaching Church Slavonic in schools.
Media and NGOs reported attempted arson attacks by critics of the film Matilda, which premiered in October and depicted Tsar Nicholas II, when he was an unmarried crown prince, romantically involved with a ballerina. The Orthodox Church canonized Nicholas II in 2000 and some Orthodox critics called the film blasphemous. According to the news outlet Znak, one individual in Yekaterinburg ran his car filled with containers of gasoline into a theater screening the film. According to media outlets, on September 11, arsonists set fire to two cars outside the law firm representing the film’s director. Interfax reported that on September 12, the Cinema Park and Formula Kino network of movie theaters announced they would not screen the film due to threats against the theaters. There were calls to ban the film by government officials, including head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov. In a letter to the minister of culture posted online on August 8 by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Kadyrov stated that tens of thousands of believers of different faiths requested the film not be allowed to air in the country because they regard it as deliberate mockery of the feelings of believers.
The SOVA Center reported 26 acts of vandalism motivated by religious, ethnic, or ideological hatred during the year (compared to 28 such acts in 2016). The majority of the sites belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which the SOVA Center attributed to the Supreme Court ban on the organization. Acts of vandalism included the defacement of 11 Jehovah’s Witnesses buildings, eight Orthodox monuments, a Protestant church, and a Pentecostal building. In August in the Murmansk region, unidentified vandals desecrated a Buddhist stupa.
Between September 2016 and August, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 16 attacks on Kingdom Halls, including one resulting in damage from arson, with at least nine of these cases following the April Supreme Court ban. On April 30 in Lutsino, Moscow Oblast, the home of a Jehovah’s Witnesses family was burned to the ground, along with the adjoining home of their elderly parents. On May 24, in Zheshart in the Komi Republic, arsonists caused significant damage to a building used by Jehovah’s Witnesses for religious services. According to the SOVA Center, the first instance of vandalism occurred within hours of the Supreme Court’s decision on April 20, when a group of unidentified men in two cars drove up to a Jehovah’s Witnesses building in St. Petersburg and blocked the vehicle exit. One of the assailants shouted threats and threw rocks at the building’s glass windows and door.
According to the SOVA Center, on February 3, in Saransk four unidentified men riding a bus yelled obscenities at a Tatar girl wearing a hijab and threatened to hit her with a glass bottle. Witnesses report she exited the bus following the incident.
According to jw.org, on May 11 a group of men interrupted Jehovah’s Witnesses religious services in Tyumen and threatened to harm the attendees.
The ROC called Jehovah’s Witnesses a dangerous, totalitarian, and harmful sect and supported its ban by the government. “The decision on the ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses is a positive step in the fight against the spread of cultist ideas, which have nothing in common with the Christian religion…Their doctrine contains a multitude of false teachings…and therefore they cannot in any way be called Christian,” the head of the ROC synod’s Department for External Church Relations, Metropolitan of Volokolamsk Hilarion, said on the program Church and World on the Rossiia-24 television channel.
According to a study published by the SOVA Center and the Fare Network in June, soccer fans often displayed neo-Nazi symbols at championships hosted by the Amateur Football League and many other amateur competitions. The 2016-17 season was also marked by the appearance of banners featuring anti-Semitic stereotypes and caricatures. The report noted soccer league and law enforcement agencies were making efforts to curb the presence of far-right symbolism at matches.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and embassy representatives met with a range of government officials to discuss the treatment of religious minorities and the revocation of the registration of some religious organizations. Embassy officials raised consular cases with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs involving the discriminatory enforcement of the law against U.S. citizens who had engaged in religious activity, including preventing them from obtaining legal counsel, not allowing them to speak in their own defense at legal hearings, and not providing adequate translations into English so they could understand the nature of the proceedings against them. Embassy officials attended hearings in the Supreme Court case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Consular officers attended hearings of a U.S. citizen accused of violating laws on missionary activities.
On November 21, in commemoration of the International Day for Tolerance, the Ambassador hosted a group of religious leaders for an interreligious dialogue promoting tolerance.
The Ambassador met with ROC Patriarch Kirill in November and Metropolitan Hilarion in February to discuss ROC-state relations, interfaith cooperation, religion in society, and ways to promote religious tolerance.
In November the Ambassador met with Rabbi Berel Lazar, the Chief Rabbi of Russia, to discuss the state of the Jewish community in the country. The Ambassador had similar meetings throughout the year with representatives of the Russian Jewish Congress.
In November the Ambassador met with Papal Nuncio Archbishop Celestino Migliore.
On October 27, in conjunction with International Religious Freedom Day, the Ambassador engaged with the Russian public in a question and answer video on the importance of religious freedom, which was posted to the embassy’s social media pages.
Representatives from the embassy and Consulates General in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok met regularly with the ROC, rabbis and leaders of the Jewish community, muftis and other Islamic leaders, Protestant pastors, Catholic priests, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. These discussions covered developments related to religious legislation, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases.
Embassy and other U.S. government officials also met with civil society and human rights leaders to discuss religious legislation, government practices, and country-specific cases of religion and religious freedom. The groups included religious charities, members of the Russian Civic Chamber, the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, and the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis.
Embassy officers met with U.S. missionaries and religious workers to inquire about their experiences with immigration, registration, and police authorities, as well as with local populations, as a gauge of religious freedom.
According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based on sharia as interpreted within the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The government published a new counterterrorism law in November that replaced the 2014 counterterrorism law and criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts deemed contrary to sharia, including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In July authorities executed four Shia individuals convicted on terrorism-related charges in connection with the 2011-12 Eastern Province violence and protests. Also in July the Supreme Court upheld death sentences on at least 15 individuals from the Eastern Province, presumed to be largely Shia, some of whom may have been minors at the time they committed offenses. At year’s end, at least 33 individuals, presumed to be largely Shia, were on death row for their roles in protests in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province in 2011 and 2012. Some human rights organizations stated the convictions and executions were motivated by sectarianism, while the government stated the individuals were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced as a result of the security-related crimes they committed and in accordance with the law. In April a court sentenced Ahmad al-Shammari to death after he was convicted on charges related to apostasy for allegedly renouncing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad on social media. Beginning in September authorities detained dozens of persons, including prominent clerics, religious scholars, and academics, according to multiple media reports. Human rights groups said the detentions resulted from an investigation into the individuals’ purported connections to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or MB-inspired groups. Some human rights groups said authorities also arrested Shia clerics and activists who advocated for equal treatment of Shia Muslims. The government convicted and imprisoned individuals on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery. The government sometimes harassed, detained, arrested, and occasionally deported some foreign residents who participated in private non-Islamic religious activities, citing prohibitions on gender mixing, noise disturbances, and immigration violations. Observers noted a pattern of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims with respect to access to public services and equitable representation in government, educational and public sector employment opportunities, and judicial matters. The government continued to censor or block some religion-related content in the media, including social media and the internet. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV, understood by some outside the country as the “religious police”) monitored social behavior in order to enforce laws and regulations protecting “public morals.” Some observers noted a decreased public presence of CPVPV officers in major cities, with the exception of Mecca and Medina. During the year the government undertook activities it stated were aimed at promoting “moderate” Islam as well as curbing radical ideology and intellectual extremism. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated during an investment conference in Riyadh in October that “we are returning to a centrist version of Islam, to a moderate version of Islam that is open to the world, to all faiths, and to all traditions and peoples,” according to press reports. In May authorities inaugurated the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (GCCEI)—known as “Etidal” (moderation) – which aims to promote moderation and “expose, combat and refute extremist ideology.” In April the government launched the Saudi Ideological Warfare Center (IWC) to confront the “roots of extremism and promote an accurate understanding of Islam.”
A pattern of societal prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued regarding access to private sector employment. Social media provided an outlet to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of religious groups.
Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs. In discussions with the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other relevant ministries and agencies, senior embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses and violations of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. Embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained and imprisoned individuals and discuss religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia Muslims and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 22, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 28.6 million (July 2017 estimate), including more than eight million foreign residents. Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 20 million citizens are Sunni Muslims.
Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 15 percent of the citizen population. Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (followers of Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Mahdi, whom they recognize as the Twelfth Imam) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region. Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000. Twelver Shia adhere to the Jafari School of jurisprudence. Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Jafar as the Seventh Imam). Seveners number an estimated 700,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they constitute the majority of the province’s inhabitants. Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, number approximately 2,000, half of whom are Saudi citizens of Yemeni or South Asian origin and half expatriates, primarily from South Asia. Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.
Foreign embassies indicate the foreign population in the country, including many undocumented migrants, is mostly Muslim. According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, of the country’s total population (including foreigners), there are approximately 25.5 million Muslims, 1.2 million Christians (including Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics); 310,000 Hindus; 180,000 religiously unaffiliated (including atheists, agnostics, and individuals who did not identify with any particular religion); 90,000 Buddhists; 70,000 followers of folk religions; and 70,000 adherents of other religions.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state in which Islam is the official religion. The Basic Law says sharia is the “foundation of the Kingdom” and states the country’s constitution is the Quran and the Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion. Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, a crime which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.
Blasphemy against Islam is a crime that may also legally be punished by death but courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy in recent years. Punishments for blasphemy can include lengthy prison sentences and lashings. Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.
The government published a new counterterrorism law in November that replaced the 2014 counterterrorism law “with immediate effect” and ordered the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to draft implementation regulations within 180 days. The new law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” By year’s end, authorities had not yet issued new implementation regulations. The implementation regulations for the 2014 counterterrorism law criminalized “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.” The right to access legal representation for those accused of violating the counterterrorism law is limited; according to the law, “the Attorney General may, at the investigative stage, restrict this right whenever the interests of the investigation so require.” There is no right to access government-held evidence.
The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland. Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize. The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority. Children born to Muslim fathers are deemed Muslim by law.
The country is the home of Mecca and Medina, two of Islam’s holiest sites. The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering Mecca or Medina. Muslims visit the cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and on the Umrah pilgrimage. The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims. Since 1986 under King Fahad, the country’s sovereign employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities. The government also establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.
Since 2016 Saudi-based clerics traveling abroad for proselytization activities must first obtain the permission of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA). The stated purpose of the regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars with what the government regards as questionable credentials to travel, and to prevent the appearance of interference, or actual interference, by Saudi-based clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.
Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali School of jurisprudence. Private schools are not permitted to deviate from the official, government-approved religious curriculum. Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students sometimes receive a course on Islamic civilization, or else “free time” in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; both courses amount to one hour of instruction per week. Private international schools may also teach courses on other religions or civilizations.
The CPVPV is a semiautonomous government agency with authority to monitor social behavior and enforce moral standards consistent with the government’s policy and in coordination with law enforcement authorities. CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms but are required to wear identification badges and legally may only act in their official capacity when accompanied by regular police. The CPVPV reports to the king through the Council of Ministers, and the Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees its operations on the king’s behalf. A 2016 decree limits its activities to providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to the police.
The purview of the CPVPV includes combating public socializing and private contact between unrelated men and women (gender mixing); practicing or displaying emblems of non-Islamic faiths or failing to respect Islam; “immodest” dress, especially for women; displaying or selling media contrary to Islam, including pornography; producing, distributing, or consuming alcohol; venerating places or celebrating events inconsistent with approved Islamic practices; practicing “sorcery” or “black magic”; and committing, facilitating, or promoting acts, publications, or thoughts considered lewd or morally degenerate, including adultery, homosexuality, and gambling.
The judicial system is based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna, fatwas (legal opinions or interpretations) issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS, or ulema) that reports to the king, and other royal laws and ordinances. The Basic Law states governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality according to sharia and further identifies the Quran and the Sunna as the sources for fatwas. The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings (ifta), and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions. The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters. The CSS is headed by the grand mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali School of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni Schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i). There are no Shia members. Scholars are chosen at the king’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with most members serving for life.
Judges are not bound to adhere to the legal principle of precedent and, in the absence of a formal, written uniform criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely. Appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts. Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali School.
The calculation of accidental death or injury compensation differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff. In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, the plaintiff is entitled to receive only 50 percent of the compensation a Muslim male would receive; all other non-Muslims are entitled to receive one-sixteenth the amount a male Muslim would receive.
Judges have been observed to discount the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam, and to favor the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims. Under the government’s interpretation of the Quran, judges may place the value of a woman’s testimony at half that of a man’s.
The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia. The Human Rights Commission (HRC), a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints. There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC; during the year the commission had approximately 28 members from various parts of the country, including two Shia members.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary Paragraph: On July 11, authorities executed four Shia individuals on terrorism-related charges and in the same month the Supreme Court upheld the convictions and death sentences of at least 15 other individuals, presumed to be Shia, for involvement in the 2011-12 Eastern Province violence and protests. Human rights organizations reported their convictions were based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture while the government stated they were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced fairly and in accordance with the law. Between May and the end of the year, security forces reportedly killed multiple individuals and displaced residents when they confronted armed groups and nonviolent resistance to the government’s decision to demolish the predominantly Shia al-Musawara neighborhood of Awamiya in Qatif Governorate; 12 security officers were killed in the course of the security operation. The government imprisoned individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery. Authorities reportedly detained and imprisoned prominent clerics, religious scholars, and academics, including Shia clerics and activists, according to multiple media reports. Many foreign residents worshiped privately within their homes or in other gatherings, but authorities raided some private Shia and non-Muslim religious meetings and arrested, detained, or deported participants. The government continued to censor and block content in the media, including social media and on the internet. It continued to employ religious police to enforce “public morals.” Authorities continued to engage in instances of prejudicial treatment and discrimination against Shia Muslims with respect to access to public services, equitable representation in government, educational and public sector employment opportunities (including in the military and other security services), and judicial matters.
On July 11, authorities executed four Shia individuals – Amjad al-Moaibad, Yusuf al-Mushaikhas, Zaher al-Basri, and Mahdi al-Sayegh – on terrorism-related charges connected to the 2011-12 Eastern Province violence and protests. The government characterized that unrest as terrorism, while one nongovernmental organization (NGO) attributed the unrest to the Shia perception of economic neglect and political marginalization by the government. Human rights organizations stated their convictions were based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture, while some third-party observers questioned the impartiality of the judiciary, citing sectarianism.
Up to 33 individuals, presumed to be largely Shia, faced the possibility of execution as they awaited implementation orders for death sentences already confirmed by the Supreme Court for their roles in protests in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province in 2011 and 2012, according to human rights organizations. Up to nine of these persons – including Ali al-Nimr (the nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, Abdullah al-Zaher, Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, and Mujtaba al-Sweikat – may have been minors at the time they committed the acts for which they were convicted; however, the government disputed these claims, noting the courts and sharia system use the Islamic hijri calendar for age computations. Human rights organizations said many of the convictions were based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture. Many of these individuals alleged authorities tortured them during pretrial detention and interrogation. Some Shia and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary.
In January the government began demolition operations in the predominately Shia, 400-year old neighborhood of al-Musawara in Awamiya, Qatif Governorate, which were met by nonviolent protests, according to press reports. Beginning in May, security forces reportedly killed more than 15 persons and displaced thousands of residents in the course of security operations there. The government stated the security action was a counterterrorism effort and reported that eight members of the police and four members of the special forces had been killed, according to press reports. The demolition and future redevelopment of al-Musawara had been announced in 2016.
Human rights organizations alleged that security forces used heavy-handed tactics against some civilians, and razed hundreds of buildings, including a historic Shia mosque. Authorities reportedly promised compensation for many al-Musawara residents who evacuated, according to media reports. Human Rights Watch reported that some residents who remained were restricted to their homes due to fear of a security response. NGOs also received reports alleging security forces fired on areas outside of Musawara, occupied a public school, closed clinics and pharmacies, and prevented access to other essential services. In April UN special rapporteur experts warned that demolitions would “erase” the neighborhood’s “unique regional heritage.” As of the end of the year, some residents whose houses were not destroyed had returned, according to press reports, while others accepted compensation and left the area.
The government imprisoned individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery.
In April a court sentenced Ahmad al-Shammari to death after he was convicted on charges related to apostasy, according to media reports. Shammari allegedly posted videos to social media accounts in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. At year’s end, the status of Shammari’s judicial appeal was unknown.
Beginning in September, authorities detained dozens of individuals, including prominent clerics Salman al-Awda, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Amri, and other religious scholars and academics, according to multiple media reports. The government announced arrests related to a “foreign spy cell” with links to the MB. Human rights groups said the detentions resulted from an investigation into the individuals’ purported connections to the MB or MB-inspired groups.
On January 15, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced an unnamed Yemeni expatriate to 21 years in prison followed by deportation for insulting Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and the movement of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab on his Facebook page, according to media reports. At year’s end, the disposition of the case was unknown.
On March 16, the SCC banned imam Awad al-Qarni from tweeting and ordered his Twitter account closed on charges related to spreading content that “could jeopardize public order and provoke public opinion,” according to the newspaper Arab News. Qarni has more than two million followers on Twitter, according to press reports. The SCC said the content “could affect the relationship of the people with the leadership, and the relationship of Saudi Arabia with other countries.” The court also fined him 100,000 Saudi riyals (SR) ($26,700). Qarni was said to be among the individuals detained beginning in September according to human rights organizations.
In May authorities arrested two women on allegations of practicing witchcraft, after a video that purported to show a woman trying to photocopy images of talismans circulated widely on social media, according to media reports.
On July 20, a criminal court convicted cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki on charges of extremism, fanaticism, and holding an impure (takfiri) ideology. Authorities reportedly arrested Maliki in 2015 after he made public statements suggesting a link between Wahhabism and ISIS. His supporters attributed the arrest to his condemnation of anti-Shia discrimination. The court’s initial sentence included a three-month prison sentence, a fine of 50,000 SR ($13,300), and closure of his Twitter account. Maliki was among the clerics reportedly detained in September.
On August 20, Riyadh police arrested a 15-year-old boy who appeared in a video clip that purported to show him abusing a copy of the Quran. According to media reports, he could face up to five years in prison under the anticybercrimes law for disrespect for religious values.
There was one report of government authorities calling for the prosecution of an individual for apostasy. Security officials detained several foreigners on charges of sorcery and witchcraft, according to local media reports. In August authorities referred cleric Ali Al-Rabieei for prosecution for allegedly tweeting sectarian and anti-Shia content, according to media reports.
By year’s end, the government had not carried out the remaining 950 lashes on Raif Badawi in accordance with a sentence based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the internet. In 2015, authorities publicly lashed Badawi 50 times. Originally sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, a court increased Badawi’s sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes. Badawi remained imprisoned at year’s end.
Authorities arrested more than 1,000 Eastern Province Shia since 2011 in connection with public protests demanding greater rights for Shia and violence, according to NGO reports. Shia groups that track arrests and convictions of Shia reported more than 300 persons remained in detention in prisons throughout the Eastern Province and others remained subject to travel bans. Most were held on charges involving nonviolent offenses, including participating in or publicizing protests on social media, inciting unrest in the country, and insulting the king.
Human rights organizations and legal experts criticized both the old and new antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.
The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Muslim religions. According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and Saudi Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, detention, and, for noncitizens, deportation.
Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship. The government continued to address ideology it deemed “extremist” by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence abroad, including in Syria and Iraq. The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques.
Practices diverging from the official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, were forbidden.
While authorities indicated they considered members of the Ahmadiyya community to be Muslims, the group’s legal status remained unclear, and the mainly foreign resident Ahmadi Muslims reportedly hid their faith to avoid scrutiny, arrest, or deportation.
Authorities again permitted large-scale public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, Eastern Province, where the population is majority Shia Muslim. As a result of several 2015 ISIS-inspired or directed attacks on Shia gathering places in the Eastern Province, there was again a significant deployment of government security personnel in the Qatif area during the Ashura commemoration in September. Processions and gatherings appeared to increase over previous years due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities. Outside of the Eastern Province, Saudi and expatriate Shia reported it was either difficult or not possible to engage in public commemorations or worship, fearing repercussions from authorities.
Certain Christian congregations were reportedly able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.
The government reported that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasi-governmental organization), and, when appropriate, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Religious groups reported, however, that officials typically charged those arrested during private worship services with gender-mixing, playing music, or other infractions not explicitly related to religious observance. There were no known reports of individuals contacting these or other governmental agencies for redress when their ability to worship privately was infringed.
According to government policy, non-Muslims were prohibited from being buried in the country. There was, however, at least one public, non-Islamic cemetery in Jeddah, although the government did not support it financially. The only other known non-Muslim cemetery was private and only available to employees of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (also known as Saudi Aramco). Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.
Authorities generally required Shia mosques to use the Sunni call to prayer, including in mixed neighborhoods of both Sunni and Shia residents. In some predominantly Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Shia call to prayer. In smaller Shia villages where there was virtually no CPVPV presence, reports indicated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times per Sunnis practice), or not at all.
The government continued to set policy aimed at enforcing Islamic norms; for example, the government threatened to expel foreigners who did not refrain from eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan, and it prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic, according to media reports.
The CPVPV continued to monitor social behavior and promote official standards of morality. Instances of CPVPV field officers who approached and harassed individuals reportedly continued to decrease in most urban areas, such as Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam.
The government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious centers of instruction or provide them employment benefits, which the government provided to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions.
The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam. The project continued as part of the government’s Vision 2030 announced in April 2016. The government continued to distribute revised textbooks, although intolerant material remained in circulation, particularly at the high school level, including content justifying the execution of “sorcerers” and social exclusion of non-Muslims, as well as statements that Jews, Christians, Shia, and Sufis did not properly adhere to monotheism. In September Human Rights Watch reported some school textbooks continued to employ biased, anti-Semitic, and anti-Shia language. Some teachers reportedly continued to express intolerance of other faiths and of alternative viewpoints regarding Islam.
Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import a Bible for personal use, but the government regularly exercised its ability to inspect and confiscate personal religious materials.
The government continued to exclude perspectives at variance with the prevailing Sunni interpretation of Islam from its extensive government-owned religious media and broadcast programming.
The CPVPV, in coordination with the Information and Communication Technologies Authority, continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring online content which reportedly contained “objectionable” content and “ill-informed” views of religion. The CPVPV shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for users “committing religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users in accordance with the anticyber crimes law. The government also reportedly located and shut down websites used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence. In September authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain private messenger apps, including Viber, Facetime, and Facebook Messenger. Some users reported that WhatsApp and Skype remained blocked.
The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, while the remaining 30 percent were at private residences or were built and endowed by private persons. The construction of new mosques required the permission of the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits. The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerical workers.
Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars. Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to extend its explicit endorsement of these mosques, according to some NGO reports. The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques. Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques. Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques. Two Shia mosques in Dammam remained licensed by the government and served approximately 750,000 worshippers. According to NGO reports, construction of Shia mosques was not approved outside Shia enclave areas. There continued to be no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers such as Jeddah, Riyadh, or al-Khobar. Shia in those areas were therefore forced to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment. Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship and were detected by authorities.
Following attacks against Shia mosques and gathering places in 2015, security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province. Additionally, media and other sources reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.
Multiple reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations. The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari School of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in the Eastern Province cities of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where the majority of Twelver Shia lived. According to a Human Rights Watch report issued in September “the Saudi judicial system…is controlled by the religious establishment and often subjects Saudi Shia to discriminatory treatment or arbitrary criminalization of Shia religious practices.”
Reported instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur with respect to educational and public sector employment opportunities. Shia stated they experienced systemic government discrimination in hiring. There was no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shia in the private sector, but some Shia stated that public universities and employers discriminated against them, occasionally by identifying an applicant for education or employment as Shia simply by inquiring about the applicant’s hometown. Many Shia reportedly stated that openly identifying as Shia would negatively affect career advancement.
Although Shia constituted approximately 10 to 15 percent of the total citizen population and at least one-quarter of the Eastern Province’s population, representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population, including in national security-related positions in the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the MOI. There was only one Shia minister in the national government. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, or ministry branch directors in the Eastern Province. There were five Shia members of the 150-member Shura Council. In the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia held 16 of the 30 elected seats on these municipal councils. In predominantly Shia areas, there was some Shia representation in the ranks of the traffic police, municipal government, and public schools. A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.
Shia were reportedly not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals remained Sunni, while some teachers were Shia. Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.
Some Sunni clerics continued to employ anti-Shia, anti-Christian, and anti-Semitic rhetoric in Sunni mosques during the year, according to media reports. The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance on the substance of Friday sermons and restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons it considered sectarian or political, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. Despite these efforts by the government to tone down some of the more intolerant language in sermons, there were reports from local groups that some Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, used religiously intolerant language in their sermons. Cases of government-employed clerics using anti-Semitic language in their sermons were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities. The law requires government-employed clerics to give all sermons delivered in mosques in the country. The sermons must first be vetted and cleared by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. During the year the ministry issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. According to the ministry, during the year no clerics publicly espoused intolerant views warranting dismissal. Unauthorized imams, however, continued to employ intolerant views in their sermons.
The government required noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.” Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicated other religious designations such as “Christian.”
The government did not formally permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with resident clergy, according to non-Muslim religious officials in neighboring countries. This was reportedly particularly problematic for Catholic and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis.
According to NGO reports, Umm al-Qura University’s Department of Islamic Studies continued to teach a course on Judaism saying that Jews rely on three texts: “The Torah, The Talmud, The Protocols of Zion.” (“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is an anti-Semitic tract originally disseminated by the Czarist secret police alleging a Jewish plot aimed at world domination.) In addition, the reports characterized the course curriculum as heavily anti-Semitic, speaking of the “evil traits” of the Jewish people.
Observers noted the presence of some anti-Semitic texts at government-sponsored book fairs during the year.
The government’s stated policy was for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials. The government also provided the names of offices where grievances could be filed.
In May the country hosted the Arab-Islamic-American summit in Riyadh, which focused on “promoting coexistence and constructive tolerance between different countries, religions, and cultures” and emphasized “the importance of renewing and rationalizing intellectual discourse to be consistent with moderate Islam, which calls for tolerance, love, mercy, and peace, stressing that the misconceptions about Islam must be addressed and clarified,” according to the Riyadh Declaration published after the event. In April the government launched the Saudi Ideological Warfare Center, headed by Dr. Mohammed al-Issa under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense, to confront the “roots of extremism and promote an accurate understanding of Islam.” According to social media postings by the center, the IWC aimed to promote a “message of moderation, tolerance, dialogue, and the appreciation of diversity, as well as moderation in Islam.” Also in April, the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue launched the Tabayan (clarification) program intended to confront the religio-ideological underpinnings of violent extremism by encouraging critical thinking at the country’s universities.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in October stated during an investment conference in Riyadh that “we are returning to a centrist version of Islam, to a moderate version of Islam that is open to the world, to all faiths, and to all traditions and peoples,” according to local press reports. There were several high-profile examples of outreach to other faiths. In November the Maronite Christian patriarch of Lebanon, Bechara Boutrous al-Rai, met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh in what Reuters described as the second such visit since 1975. Muslim World League Secretary General, Royal Court Advisor, and member of the ulemaMohammed al-Issa visited the Vatican in September to meet with the pope. He visited Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in November.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Unlike in previous years, there were no reports of so-called religious vigilantes and/or “volunteers” unaffiliated with the CPVPV harassing and assaulting citizens and foreigners.
Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment. Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” In addition, terms like “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in public discourse.
NGOs reported that Nakhawala Shia faced more discriminatory practices than did Twelvers in the Eastern Province. Discrimination in employment and education was based on the Nakhawala surname “al-Nakhly,” which roughly translates as “farmers” and identifies their minority status and group.
While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, according to Freedom House, “self-censorship [on social media] remained prevalent when discussing topics such as politics, religion, or the royal family.”
During the year a study by Human Rights Watch documented the use of social media by prominent clerics and others to demean Shia Muslims using derogatory terms or by attacking their beliefs and practices.
Anti-Semitic comments by journalists, academics, and clerics appeared in the media. For example, according to press reports, Mohammed al-Arefe, a religious leader based in Saudi Arabia with a large following on social media, delivered repeated anti-Semitic speeches, according to Politico.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs. In discussions with the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other relevant ministries and agencies during the year, senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and violations of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices as well as the role of and impediments imposed by guardianship laws considered as Islamic. Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia and citizens who no longer consider themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.
At the May Arab-Islamic-American summit, President Trump joined with King Salman in inaugurating the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, known as Etidal (moderation), with the aim of promoting moderation and “exposing, combating, and refuting extremist ideology.”
Embassy and consulate officials sponsored nearly 30 individuals to participate in exchange programs in the United States focused on such topics as interfaith dialogue, countering radical ideologies, and the role of faith and religious organizations in providing social services.
Embassy and consulate officials continued to meet with members of religious minorities, including Shia Muslims and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents, to discuss religious freedom concerns.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia 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. Most recently, on December 22, the Secretary of State re-designated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanction that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
The constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, as well as the right to change one’s religion. It states everyone shall have the freedom to worship individually or with others, in private or in public. It also states the freedom to express one’s religious beliefs may be restricted by law only as necessary to protect the lives and health of the people, to preserve public safety and order and the country’s democracy. The constitution forbids the establishment of a state religion, guarantees equality for all religious groups, and prohibits incitement of religious hatred. The law grants special privileges and treatment to seven religious groups it defines as “traditional”; some other religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized these privileges as unconstitutional. Some minority religious groups also protested the registration process, which smaller religious groups said was difficult and costly to fulfill, rendering them without property rights, tax exemptions, and legal status. The government continued its restitution of religious properties confiscated since 1945, estimating it had returned 70 percent of the properties.
Reports and instances of discrimination primarily involved smaller and nontraditional groups. Media reported some public discrimination against Protestant groups around the October celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Articles critical of nontraditional religious groups continued to appear in the press and web portals, describing some religious groups as “sects.” Anti-Semitic literature was available in some bookstores, and the Jewish community reported incidents of anti-Semitic comments in online media. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported two incidents of physical assault and two instances of vandalism against their property.
U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. government representatives urged government officials from the Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities and the Office for Human and Minority Rights to eliminate bias in the registration of religious groups. The embassy also urged the government to continue implementing restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property and closely monitored the development of a memorial at the World War II (WWII)-era Staro Sajmiste concentration camp site. Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of a wide range of religious groups to discuss the interaction between traditional and nontraditional religious groups, property restitution, and interfaith dialogue. The Ambassador hosted an interreligious luncheon on National Religious Freedom Day to discuss the status of interfaith cooperation and religious groups’ interactions with the government on religious freedom issues. In June he hosted an iftar, where he brought together members of two competing Islamic communities to encourage cooperation between the groups. A senior embassy officer hosted an interfaith dialogue in October to hear concerns of nontraditional religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 7.1 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 85 percent of the population is Orthodox Christian, 5 percent Roman Catholic, 3 percent Sunni Muslim, and 1 percent Protestant. The remaining 6 percent includes Jews, Buddhists, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, agnostics, atheists, other religious groups, and individuals without a declared religious affiliation. The vast majority of the population identifying as Orthodox Christian are members of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), a category not specifically listed in the census. Adherents of the Macedonian, Montenegrin, and Romanian Orthodox Churches may be included in the numbers of “Orthodox Christians” or in the “other Christian” category that is part of the remaining 6 percent, depending on how they self-identify.
Catholics are predominantly ethnic Hungarians and Croats residing in Vojvodina Province. Muslims include Bosniaks (Slavic Muslims) in the southwest Sandzak region, ethnic Albanians in the south, and Roma located throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees the freedom of belief and religion as well as the right to change one’s religion. It states everyone shall have the freedom to worship and practice religion individually or with others, in private or in public, and no one shall be obliged to declare one’s religion. The constitution states the freedom to express one’s religion or beliefs may be restricted by law only as necessary to protect the lives and health of the people, the morals of democratic society, freedoms and rights guaranteed by the constitution, or public safety and order or prevent incitement of religious, national, or racial hatred. The constitution forbids the establishment of a state religion, guarantees equality for religious groups, and calls for separation of religion and state. It states churches and religious communities shall be free to organize their internal structure, perform religious rites in public, establish and manage religious schools and social and charity institutions in accordance with the law. The constitution prohibits religious discrimination or incitement of religious hatred, calls upon the government to promote religious diversity and tolerance, and states religious refugees have a right to asylum, the procedures for which shall be established in law.
The law bans incitement of discrimination, hatred, or violence against an individual or group on religious grounds and carries penalties ranging from one to 10 years in prison, depending on the type of offense.
The law grants special treatment to seven religious groups defined as “traditional” by the government. These are the SOC, Roman Catholic Church, Slovak Evangelical Church, Reformed Christian Church, Evangelical Christian Church, Islamic community, and Jewish community. “Church” is a term reserved for Christian religious groups, while the term “religious community” refers to non-Christian groups and to some Christian entities. The Islamic community is divided between the Islamic Community of Serbia (emphasis added), with its seat in Belgrade, and the Islamic Community in Serbia (emphasis added), with its seat in Novi Pazar. Although the law generally prohibits the registration of multiple groups with the same name, both Islamic communities are officially registered with the government.
The seven traditional religious groups recognized by law are automatically registered in the Register of Churches and Religious Communities. In addition to these groups, the government grants traditional status, solely in Vojvodina Province, to the Diocese of Dacia Felix of the Romanian Orthodox Church, with its seat in Romania and administrative seat in Vrsac in Vojvodina.
The law also grants the seven traditional religious groups the right to receive value-added tax (VAT) refunds, to have their faith taught in public schools, and to provide chaplain services to military personnel.
There are 20 “nontraditional” religious groups registered with the government: the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Evangelical Church in Serbia, Church of Christ’s Love, Spiritual Church of Christ, Union of Christian Baptist Churches in Serbia, Nazarene Christian Religious Community (associated with the Apostolic Christian Church [Nazarene]), Church of God in Serbia, Protestant Christian Community in Serbia, Church of Christ Brethren in Serbia, Free Belgrade Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Zion Sacrament Church, Union of Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement, Protestant Evangelical Church Spiritual Center, Evangelical Church of Christ, and, added during the year, the Slovak Union of Baptist Churches, Union of Baptist Churches in Serbia, and Charismatic Community of Faith in Serbia. Several of these organizations are umbrella groups that oversee many individual churches, sometimes of slightly differing affiliations.
The law does not require religious groups to register, but it treats unregistered religious organizations as informal groups that do not receive any of the legal benefits registered religious groups receive. For example, only registered religious groups may build new places of worship, own property, apply for property restitution, or receive state funding for their activities. Registration is also required for opening bank accounts and hiring staff. The law authorizes the government to provide social and health insurance and fund retirement plans only for religious clerics of registered groups. The law also grants property tax exemptions to all registered groups. Registered religious groups are exempt from paying administrative taxes and filing annual financial reports.
To obtain registration a group is required to submit the following: the names, identity numbers, copies of notarized identity documents, and signatures of at least 100 citizen members of the group; the group’s statutes and a summary of its religious teachings, ceremonies, religious goals, and basic activities; and information on sources of funding. The law prohibits registration if an applicant group’s name includes part of the name of an existing registered group. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains the Register of Churches and Religious Communities and responds to registration applications.
According to the constitution, the Constitutional Court may ban a religious community for activities infringing on the right to life or health, the rights of the child, the right to personal and family integrity, public safety, and order, or if it incites religious, national, or racial intolerance. It also states the Constitutional Court may ban an association that incites religious hatred.
The MOJ’s Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities manages all expert and administrative matters pertaining to the cooperation of the state with churches and religious communities. These includes assistance to national minorities in protecting the religious traditions integral to their cultural and ethnic identity; cooperation between the state and Serbian Orthodox dioceses abroad; support for religious education; and support for and protection of the legal standing of churches and religious communities. The government’s Office for Human and Minority Rights, which addresses policy and monitors the status of minorities, also oversees some religious issues.
The law recognizes restitution claims for religious property confiscated in 1945 or later for registered religious groups only. The law permits individual claims for properties lost by Holocaust victims during WWII, but religious groups may not claim property confiscated prior to 1945. Legally registered endowments may apply for restitution. Religious communities that had property and endowments seized after WWII may apply for the restitution of their benefits.
In accordance with the Teresina Declaration on Holocaust era assets, the law provides for the restitution of heirless and unclaimed Jewish property seized during the Holocaust, allowing the Jewish community to file restitution claims based on these seizures, while still permitting future claimants to come forward. The law defines “heirless property” as any property that was not the subject of a legitimate claim for restitution. The Jewish community must prove the former owner of the property was a member of the community and the property was confiscated during the Holocaust. The law also stipulates financial support from the state budget for the Jewish community of 950,000 euros ($1.14 million) per year for a 25-year period, which began with an initial payment in March.
The constitution states parents and legal guardians shall have the right to ensure the religious education of their children in conformity with their own convictions. The law provides for religious education in public schools, but only for the seven traditional groups. Students in primary and secondary schools must attend classes in one of the seven traditional religions or an alternative civic education class. Parents choose which option is appropriate for their child. The curriculum taught in the religion classes varies regionally, reflecting the number of adherents of a given religion in a specific community. Typically, five interested students is the minimum needed to offer instruction in a particular religion. In areas where individual schools do not meet the minimum number, the Ministry of Education attempts to combine students into regional classes for religious instruction. The Commission for Religious Education appoints religious education instructors from lists of qualified candidates supplied by each religious group. The commission is comprised of representatives of each traditional religious group, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, and the Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities. Representatives of the Islamic Community of Serbia and the Islamic Community in Serbia participate in the work of the commission.
The constitution recognizes the right of conscientious objection based on religious beliefs. It states no person shall be obliged to perform military or any other service involving the use of weapons if this is inconsistent with his or her religion or beliefs, but that a conscientious objector may be called upon to fulfill military duty not involving carrying weapons.
The constitution allows any court with legal jurisdiction to prevent the dissemination of information advocating religious hatred, discrimination, hostility, or violence.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, public prosecutors rarely prosecuted physical assaults against their members or vandalism against their property as religiously motivated crimes, but rather as simple assault or property violations, which carried lesser penalties under the law than religiously motivated crimes, or else treated incidents as private disputes. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, prosecutors did not treat any crimes against their members as religiously motivated in either 2017 or 2016. The NGO Center9 also stated it was unaware of any prosecutions made under the statutes criminalizing religiously motivated crimes. Some observers stated they believed prosecutors intentionally filed lesser charges in these cases to minimize the appearance of religious intolerance.
The MOJ reported it approved three of six registration applications groups submitted during the year. The ministry rejected one application by the Nichiren Buddhist Community on the grounds that the paperwork filed was incomplete and explained to the group the additional information required. The community reapplied under the new name of Buddhist Religious Community; its revised application was under review at year’s end. The ministry said it rejected an application for registration by the First Mennonite Roma Church because the applicant explicitly stated it would not follow guidelines from the ministry to correct the application and provide additional documents. At year’s end, the ministry was still reviewing the original application of the sixth group, the Old Orthodox Catholic Church.
Minority religious groups, Center9, and other observers continued to state the law was inherently biased in differentiating between so-called traditional and nontraditional religious groups. They also stated the laws governing churches and religious communities were in conflict with constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and equal status among religious groups. For example, in addition to the benefits traditional religious groups received according to law, the government provided those groups with financial support for religious events and publication or printing of religious materials. Minority groups also cited an inequitable distribution of government scholarships, at all educational levels, among religious groups. They stated the Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities, which provided support to religious groups, had the additional mandate of protecting the Serbian national identity and cooperating with SOC eparchies (dioceses) abroad. In addition, the Roman Catholic Church, a traditional church, complained about what it said was preferential treatment of the SOC.
Critics, including Baptist and evangelical leaders, continued to urge the government to repeal the law categorizing religious groups as traditional or nontraditional.
Some NGOs and religious leaders also continued to advocate the removal of the prohibition on registering new religious groups with names similar to those of groups previously registered. One church voiced concern that this prohibition forced groups to add an additional nationalistic qualifier to their church names in order to differentiate new groups in the register – creating divisions along nationalist lines within religious groups. Examples of such naming conventions included the Slovak Baptist Union, the Slovak Lutheran Church, and the Hungarian Reformed Church. Other groups said removing the prohibition would allow for other Orthodox Churches to register. The government position was to defer recognition of other Orthodox Churches (Macedonian or Montenegrin) absent the existence of mutual agreements between those Churches and the domestic SOC, such as the agreement the SOC had with the Romanian Orthodox Church in Vojvodina Province.
Representatives from the Christian Baptist and Protestant Evangelical Churches continued to protest the legal requirement that groups register in order to obtain legal status. Representatives from Center9 said the requirement to submit legal documents and the signatures of 100 citizens was costly, time-consuming, and often impossible to fulfill for many smaller churches and those whose members were primarily noncitizens.
One evangelical leader reported that government institutions sometimes made it difficult for nontraditional groups to register, but that it seemed to depend on the competency of individual government staff. Multiple groups, including the Christian Baptist Church, Protestant Evangelical Church, Anglican Church, and Center9, reported that lack of registration did not directly impede any organization from worshiping, but it did impose other restrictions, including difficulties in applying for property restitution, opening bank accounts, purchasing or selling property, and publishing literature. Groups with a long history in the country were sometimes able to circumvent some of these restrictions by, for example, using historical documents to open bank accounts. They said, however, that the possibility of workarounds was situational and depended on local officials.
The Christian Baptist Church and the Protestant Evangelical Church, among others, refused to register under the existing law, citing their centuries-long history in the country and legal status under previous laws. At year’s end, their joint 2013 complaint to the European Court of Human Rights alleging the law violated the rights and freedoms safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights was still pending. Representatives from the two Churches reported they were not optimistic about a satisfactory ruling.
The Macedonian and Montenegrin Orthodox Churches, whose autocephaly the SOC continued not to recognize, remained unregistered. Government officials continued to state the canons of the Orthodox churches should govern issues among individual Orthodox churches and secular authorities should not try to resolve them. Communication between the SOC and the Macedonian Orthodox Church continued regarding the latter’s potential recognition, but no such communication existed between the SOC and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church.
The only chaplains providing religious services in the armed forces were clergy from the seven traditional religious groups.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported police were increasingly aware of their rights to distribute religious literature publicly. They also reported that courts overturned any citations police officers issued for such activity by their members.
Romanian Orthodox priests continued to hold services in the Romanian language in the eastern part of the country, where there was no formal recognition of the Romanian Orthodox Church, in accordance with the priests’ agreement with the local SOC bishop. The Romanian Orthodox Church reported the government continued to deny construction permits for new church buildings in the eastern part of the country, forcing the Romanian Orthodox Church to repurpose existing buildings for religious use. The government stated the issue should be resolved between the SOC and Romanian Orthodox Church, and it would not take action until the two groups reached agreement.
The government continued restitution of religious properties confiscated in 1945 or later, returning 5575 hectares of agricultural land, 776 hectares of forest, 32 hectares of construction land, 861 square feet of residential building property, and 14,047 square feet of business facilities to the SOC and Roman Catholic, Romanian Orthodox, Evangelical Christian, Greek Catholic, Reformed Christian, and Slovak Evangelical Churches, as well as the Jewish community. Government officials estimated it had returned 70 percent of previously confiscated religious properties.
Despite their status as registered groups, both Islamic communities continued to report difficulties in their claims for communist-era property restitution. Both groups said each had filed claims for the same list of properties throughout Serbia, and the Restitution Agency confirmed it had not finalized any of the claims. Representatives of both Islamic communities, international observers, and local political leaders said the Restitution Agency was unwilling to resolve the cases because it would mean deciding on the “rightful” Islamic group, which the government was unwilling to do. Each group called on the government to resolve the standoff by acknowledging it as the official representative of the Islamic community.
There was a continuing debate on the role of Milan Nedic’s collaborationist National Salvation government during the Nazi occupation. The Belgrade Higher Court held additional hearings in a court case Nedic’s family brought before it seeking Nedic’s rehabilitation. In November 2016 the Association of Jewish Communities filed a request to participate in the rehabilitation case as an intervener (an outside party having a legal interest in the proceedings). The Belgrade Higher Court rejected the request in February, arguing that non-contested cases did not recognize the institution of an intervener. In early September the Appellate Court in Belgrade confirmed that decision.
In August the government transferred oversight of the commission charged with developing a memorial at Staro Sajmiste – the WWII-era concentration camp where thousands of Jews, Serbian political opponents, and Roma were killed – from the city of Belgrade to President Aleksandar Vucic. Commission leaders said they hoped the move would increase funding for the memorial and accelerate the pace of work. By year’s end, the new commission had not yet been formed, leaving the old commission to continue working in lame-duck status. In February the first draft law authorizing the Staro Sajmiste memorial drew criticism from international Jewish organizations and the country’s Helsinki Committee for Human Rights for perpetuating “a decades-long revisionism of WWII in Serbia” and minimizing the “massive destruction of the Jewish community.” The draft’s language had emphasized Serb casualties at Staro Sajmiste and responsibility of the Nazi puppet government, the Independent State of Croatia, for the genocide that took place there. The commission rescinded the draft following the criticism and continued to revise it at year’s end.
In August Member of Parliament (MP) Vladimir Djukanovic of the Serbian Progressive Party wrote on Twitter that he had heckled Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out literature in front of a market, calling it his “good deed for the day.”
The national television service, Radio Television of Serbia, continued to broadcast a daily 10-minute Religious Calendar program about major holidays celebrated by monotheistic religions.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The government did not keep records of religiously motivated violence, and reporting from individual religious organization was sparse. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported two incidents of physical assault against members engaged in field ministry on April 14 and May 8. Both incidents involved an unknown assailant approaching a small group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and grabbing and/or pushing an individual to the ground. One incident involved damage to a mobile literature cart.
Translations of anti-Semitic literature were available from nationalist groups and publishers. Anti-Semitic literature, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, continued to be available in many bookshops, and anti-Semitism was present in online portals. Some youth groups and internet forums continued to promote anti-Semitic speech. Several anti-Semitic statements were posted in the online comment section of a January 27 Vecernje Novosti article describing a Holocaust seminar in Belgrade.
Articles critical of nontraditional religious groups continued to appear in online media. Several nontraditional religious leaders reported the media often labeled nontraditional religions as “sects,” which the leaders stated contributed to negative stereotyping.
In October during several events celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, media reported some MPs and other public officials had called Protestant groups “sects,” and openly disparaged Protestant organizations. An October 25 article in the right-leaning daily tabloid “Alo” reported on the negative reactions of several MPs to a national assembly-hosted interfaith celebration marking the Reformation anniversary. MPs Vladimir Djukanovic of the Serbian Progressive Party and Marijan Risticevic of the People’s Peasant Party criticized the event and declined to attend. On his Facebook profile, Djukanovic posted that he “received an invitation from a sect to the parliament address. To make things worse, the sect is organizing an event to mark the 500 anniversary of Reformation…Scandalous.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported two incidents of vandalism at the kingdom halls in Belgrade and Bor. On May 26, unidentified individuals jumped over the fences of the Belgrade kingdom hall and inflicted minor damage to landscaping and building exteriors. On April 4 in Bor, unidentified suspects threw eggs and balloons filled with paint at the facade of the kingdom hall and later that same day threw rocks on the roof, damaging tiles.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In an October meeting with the Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities, U.S. embassy staff again urged the directorate to engage in interfaith initiatives and to eliminate both intentional and unintentional bias in the application of the law with regard to the registration of religious groups, especially nontraditional groups.
The embassy continued to work with the Restitution Agency and other members of government in the application of the heirless and unclaimed Jewish property law, encouraging the government to move forward with appointing an oversight committee as required by the law.
Embassy officials met individually with members of the SOC, two Islamic communities, Jewish community, Baptist community, evangelical community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormon Church to discuss interaction and cooperation among religious groups, property restitution, the ability to practice their faith freely, support from the government, and societal perceptions of the groups.
Embassy representatives continued to monitor progress on the establishment of a WWII memorial at the site of the Staro Sajmiste concentration camp and to encourage communication between opposing sides concerning the memorial. Embassy staff also urged representatives in President Vucic’s government to form the new commission, although the government had not done so by year’s end.
During a January lunch in honor of National Religious Freedom Day, the Ambassador and members of six religious communities – the SOC, two Islamic communities, Jewish community, Roman Catholic Church, and Reformed Christian Church – discussed the status of interfaith cooperation. They also discussed the groups’ struggles in working with the government, implementing religious education, and developing membership in the face of increasing secularism. The Ambassador hosted a June iftar, which brought together members of the two Islamic communities in an effort to develop additional cooperation between the groups. In October the embassy hosted a roundtable to commemorate International Religious Freedom Day and hear concerns from representatives of nontraditional religious groups, including the Association of Evangelical Students, Protestant Evangelical Church, Baptist Church in Belgrade, and Anglican Church.
The constitution, laws, and policies provide for religious freedom, subject to restrictions relating to public order, public health, and morality. The government continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). The government restricted speech or actions it perceived as detrimental to “religious harmony.” There is no legal provision for conscientious objection, including on religious grounds, and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 12 conscientious objectors remained detained at year’s end. In April an Indian imam who uttered an Arabic prayer during which he asked for “help against Jews and Christians” was fined and deported for acts “prejudicial to the maintenance of religious harmony and likely to disturb public tranquility.” Three foreign Islamic preachers were banned from entering the country in October and November, and two foreign Christian speakers were banned from preaching in September because the government reportedly viewed their teaching as damaging to social harmony. The government changed a voluntary program into a mandatory requirement that all Muslim religious teachers and centers of learning register with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS). Parliament discussed the existing prohibition on wearing the hijab for certain civil servants, but the prohibition remained. In September former Parliamentary Speaker Halimah Yacob, who wears the hijab, became president. The post was reserved in this presidential cycle for eligible Malays, who are mostly Muslim. The government made multiple high-level affirmations of the importance of religious harmony, launched an initiative to foster understanding of different religious practices, and created a fund and documentary to explore religious differences and prejudices.
Journalists wrote articles throughout the year encouraging their readers not to view Muslims with suspicion and telling Muslims they should not feel responsible for the actions of radicalized Muslims.
The U.S. embassy engaged with senior government officials, including President Halimah Yacob, at a June iftar during which the Charge d’Affaires gave a speech about religious tolerance in a pluralistic society. The embassy hosted a variety of events and programs with religious groups, including an interfaith youth forum to facilitate discussion on ways to combat religious discrimination in the religious leaders’ home communities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.9 million (July 2017 estimate). The local government estimates a total population of 5.6 million, with 3.9 million of this total citizens or permanent residents, of which 81.5 percent state a religious affiliation. Approximately 33.2 percent of the population of citizens and permanent residents are Buddhist, 18.8 percent Christian, 14 percent Muslim (predominantly Sunni), 10 percent Taoist, and 5 percent Hindu. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church).
According to a 2017 report by the Department of Statistics, 74.3 percent of the resident population is ethnic Chinese, 13.4 percent ethnic Malay, 9.0 percent ethnic Indian, and 3.2 percent other, including Eurasians. Nearly all ethnic Malays are Muslim. According to a 2016 national survey, among ethnic Indians, 59.9 percent are Hindu, 21.3 percent are Muslim, and 12.1 percent are Christian. The ethnic Chinese population includes Buddhists (42.3 percent), Christians (20.9 percent), and Taoists (12.9 percent).
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states every person has a constitutional right to profess, practice, or propagate his or her religious belief as long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. The constitution also prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion in the administration of any law or in the appointment to or employment in any office under a public authority. It states that every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs and it does not prohibit restrictions in employment by a religious institution.
The government maintains a decades-long ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church. The government banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1972 on the grounds the Church was prejudicial to public welfare and order because it objected to national service, reciting the national pledge, or singing the national anthem. A 1996 decision by the Singapore Appeals Court upheld the rights of individual members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to profess, practice, and propagate their religious beliefs. The government does not arrest Jehovah’s Witnesses for attending or holding meetings in private homes; however, it does not allow them to hold public meetings or publish their literature, which is banned. The government banned the Unification Church in 1982 on grounds it was a “cult” that could have detrimental effects on society.
The Presidential Council for Religious Harmony reports on matters affecting the maintenance of religious harmony and considers cases referred by the minister for home affairs or by parliament. The president appoints the council’s members on the advice of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The law requires two-thirds of Council for Religious Harmony members be representatives of the major religions in the country, which according to law are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
The law authorizes the minister of home affairs to issue a restraining order against any person in a position of authority within a religious group if the minister ascertains the person causes feelings of enmity or hostility between different religious groups, promotes political causes, carries out subversive activities, or excites disaffection against the government under the guise of practicing religion. Restraining orders are discretionary, depending on the situation, and prevent a person in a position of authority within a religious group from making or participating in additional statements; failure to comply can result in criminal action. Any restraining order issued must be referred to the Council for Religious Harmony, which recommends to the president that the order be confirmed, cancelled, or amended. Restraining orders lapse after 90 days, unless confirmed by the president. The minister must review a confirmed restraining order at least once every 12 months and may revoke such an order at any time. The law prohibits judicial review of such restraining orders. In addition, under the penal code, “wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person” or knowingly promoting “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred, or ill will between different religious or racial groups” can result in detention and or imprisonment.
The constitution states Malays are “the indigenous people of Singapore” and requires the government to protect and promote their interests, including religious interests. The MUIS, established under the Ministry for Culture, Community, and Youth, administers affairs for all Muslims in the country such as the construction and management of mosques, halal certification, fatwa issuances, preparation of Friday sermons, and the Hajj. The MUIS includes representatives from Sunni as well as Muslim minority groups, including Shia. Use of MUIS sermons is not compulsory, but imams who use their own content are responsible for it and may be investigated if there are complaints.
The law requires all associations of 10 or more persons, including religious groups, to register with the government. Registration confers legal identity, which allows property ownership, the ability to hold public meetings, and the ability to conduct financial transactions. Registered religious groups may apply to establish and maintain charitable and humanitarian institutions, which enable them to solicit and receive funding and tax benefits, such as income tax exemption. Registered societies are subject to potential deregistration by the government on a variety of grounds, such as having purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or good order. Deregistration makes it impossible to maintain a legal identity as a religious group, with consequences related to owning property, conducting financial transactions, and holding public meetings. A person who acts as a member of or attends a meeting of an unregistered society may be punished with a fine of up to 5,000 Singapore dollars (SGD) ($3,700), imprisonment of up to three years, or both.
Prisoners are allowed access to chaplains of various faiths.
The government may prohibit the importation of publications, including religious publications, under the law. A person in possession of a prohibited publication can be fined up to 2,000 SGD ($1,500) and jailed for up to 12 months for a first conviction. All written materials published by the International Bible Students Association and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, publishing arms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, remain banned by the government.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) establish the guidelines on land development and use of space for religious activities. The URA regulates all land usage and decides where organizations may be located. Religious buildings are primarily classified as places of worship. A group seeking a new place of worship must apply to the URA for a permit. The Ministry of Social and Family Development and the URA determine whether a religious institution meets the requirements as a place of worship, such as being located in an allotted zone and meeting the maximum plot ratio and building height. URA guidelines regulate the use of commercially and industrially zoned space for religious activities and religious groups, and apply equally to all religious groups. Commercial or industrial premises that host religious activities but are not zoned as places of worship must be approved by the URA. They may not be owned by or leased to religious organizations and must be available to rent out for other nonreligious events. They may not display signage, advertisements, or posters of the religious use; be furnished to resemble a worship hall; or display any religious symbols, icons, or religious paraphernalia when the premises are not in use by the religious organization. Use of the space for religious purposes must not cause parking, noise, or other problems.
Registration of religious teachers and centers of learning with the MUIS, which includes minimum standards and a code of ethics, has been mandatory since January, although reports say the majority of teachers had previously registered on a voluntary basis. As of October, there are 193 registered Islamic centers of learning and more than 3,000 registered Islamic religious teachers.
The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools, although it is allowed in the country’s 57 government-subsidized religiously affiliated schools. Religious instruction in these schools is provided outside of regular curriculum time and must not include proselytization; students have a right to opt out and be given alternatives such as civics and moral education in lieu of religious instruction. The constitution states that no person shall be required to receive instruction or take part in any ceremony or act of worship other than his or her own. Religious instruction is allowed in private schools not aided by the government. At the primary level, the law allows seven designated private schools (six Sunni madrassahs and one Seventh-day Adventist school) to educate primary-age students, provided these schools continue to meet or exceed public school performance benchmarks in annual national exams. Other Muslim minority groups may operate part-time schools.
The law empowers the Ministry of Education to regulate schools, including prohibiting students from wearing anything not forming part of an official school uniform. The law prohibits the wearing of hijabs or headscarves in public schools. International, other private, and government-aided religious schools are not subject to the same restrictions. For example, in madrassahs, headscarves are part of the uniform. Headscarves are not banned at institutions of higher learning. All madrassahs are under the purview of the MUIS.
The law allows the Muslim community, irrespective of school of Islam or ethnicity, to have personal status issues governed by Islamic law, “as varied where applicable by Malay custom.” Ordinarily the Shafi’i school of law will be used, but there are provisions for use of “other accepted schools of Muslim law as may be appropriate.” Under the law, a sharia court has nonexclusive jurisdiction over the affairs of marriages where both parties are or were married as Muslims, including maintenance payments such as alimony and child support, disposition of property upon divorce, custody of minor children, and inheritance. According to legal experts in inheritance, a man will receive twice the share of a woman of the same relational level. The law permits a person involved in a sharia court divorce case to apply for permission to begin civil proceedings concerning division of property or custody of children. Orders of the sharia court are enforced by the ordinary civil courts. Appeals within the sharia system go to an appeal board, which is composed of three members of the MUIS, selected by the president of the MUIS from a panel of seven individuals nominated every two years by the president of the country. The ruling of the appeal board is final and may not be appealed to any other court. The law allows Muslim men to practice polygamy, but the Registry of Muslim Marriages may refuse requests to marry additional wives after soliciting the views of existing wives and reviewing the husband’s financial capability. Additionally, under the law, certain criminal offenses apply only to those who profess Islam, including cohabitation outside of marriage and publicly expounding any doctrine relating to Islam in a manner contrary to Islamic law. Muslim men and women who cohabit with a member of the opposite sex (including non-Muslims) to whom they are not married are liable to a maximum fine of 500 SGD ($370) or maximum imprisonment of six months, or both. Instead of imprisonment, a women may be sentenced to a “place of safety established under any written law” for a period not to exceed 12 months. The punishment for teaching or publicly expounding any doctrine contrary to Muslim law is a maximum fine of 2,000 SGD ($1,500), maximum imprisonment of 12 months, or both.
The law does not recognize a right to conscientious objection. Male citizens or second generation permanent residents are required to complete 24 months of uniformed national service upon reaching age 18, with no alternative provided to national service.
The Presidential Council for Minority Rights, an advisory body that is part of the legislative process, examines all legislation to ensure it does not disadvantage particular religious groups. The council also considers and reports on matters concerning any religious group that the parliament or the government refers.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official website reported as of December, 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained in the armed forces detention facility for refusing to complete national service on religious grounds. Conscientious objectors were generally court martialed and sentenced to detention, typically for 12 to 39 months. Although they remained technically liable for national service, servicemen who had refused to serve on religious grounds were generally not called up for reservist duties. They did not, however, receive any form of legal documentation that officially discharged them from reservist duties.
Government ministers and officials regularly cited religious harmony as an important policy goal. In April the government deported Imam Nalla Mohamed Abdul Jameel to India after he was convicted and fined 4,000 SGD ($3,000) for “committing acts known to be prejudicial to the maintenance of religious harmony and likely to disturb public tranquility.” The imam, who had worked in the country since 2010, was removed from speaking at the mosque after a video of him reciting an Arabic prayer from his home village in India asking for “help against Jews and Christians” surfaced on Facebook. The police initiated an investigation when a member of the public filed a complaint. In public meetings with various faith groups, including Christian and Jewish leaders and Minister of Home Affairs K. Shanmugam, Nalla apologized repeatedly, adding that he understood the charges against him were necessary to “preserve the sanctity of interfaith harmony.” In a separate case, two individuals investigated for uploading and commenting on the video were officially warned but not prosecuted for violating religious harmony laws.
The government said that all religions would be held equally responsible for maintaining religious harmony. In June the MUIS barred Singaporean “extremist” Islamic preacher Rasul Dahri from teaching in the country, and the Ministry of Information and Communications banned nine of his publications. In October the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) banned two foreign Islamic preachers, Ismail Menk (known as Mufti Menk) and Haslin bin Baharim, from entering the country on the grounds that their “exclusivist” and “divisive” preaching would damage social harmony. In November the ministry banned a third foreign Islamic preacher on the same grounds. In September the MHA declined applications to speak in Singapore for two foreign Christian preachers whom it said had previously made “denigrating and inflammatory comments” about Muslims and Buddhists. In September the National Council of Churches advised its member churches to exercise “careful discernment” before inviting preachers in order “to preserve the harmonious religious environment that currently exists.”
Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told parliament in October, “Religion can be and has been a source of strength to our society, but we must also watch for exclusivist, intolerant practices because these can deepen fault lines and weaken our entire society.” Shanmugam said the law on religious harmony is expected to be tightened in 2018 to ensure that religious groups do not sponsor foreign speakers who promote ill will. Several Christian and Muslim groups spoke against amending the legislation, on the grounds that religious groups already practiced a culture of religious sensitivity and already self-selected speakers to avoid those promoting disharmony.
Although government policy prohibited the wearing of hijabs by certain public sector professionals, such as nurses and uniformed military officers and at some schools, many statutory boards within government agencies continued to allow Muslim staff to wear the hijab while the government continued to evolve its stance “gradually and carefully.” Some in the Muslim community continued to petition for a change in government policy, as did opposition Member of Parliament Muhammad Faisal Abdul Manap in parliament in April. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong endorsed Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli’s response that such a “deeply emotive” matter should be resolved by government and community leaders working together quietly. The prime minister said on Facebook the best way to make progress on such sensitive issues “is quietly, outside the glare of publicity.”
The September presidential election was won by former parliamentary speaker Halimah Yacob, who is Muslim and wears the hijab. President Halimah’s portrait was displayed in all schools and government buildings. In 2016 the government passed legislation that resulted in the 2017 presidential election being reserved for eligible Malay, and effectively Muslim, candidates. The legislation, which generated some controversy in social media, states that the presidency should be reserved for a certain race if a person of that community has not occupied the office for five consecutive terms, effectively 30 years.
The government assisted religious groups in locating spaces for religious observance in government-built housing, where most citizens lived. The government continued to enforce the maintenance of ethnic ratios in public housing and prevent the emergence of religious enclaves in concentrated geographic areas.
As part of the Ministry of Education’s National Education Program, the official primary and secondary public school curricula encouraged religious harmony and tolerance. All schools celebrated the annual racial harmony day in July, which promoted understanding and acceptance of all religions within the country. Children wore traditional clothing and celebrated the country’s racial and religious diversity. Students were encouraged to recite the “Declaration of Religious Harmony.”
Missionaries, with the exception of members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and representatives of the Unification Church, were permitted to work and to publish and distribute religious texts. While the government did not formally prohibit proselytization, it continued to discourage its practice in speeches and through the application of laws regarding public speech and assembly as it deemed proselytizing might offend other religious groups and upset the balance of intergroup relations.
Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said in parliament in October that as fears over terrorism increased, local Muslims found it “unpleasant” being “under constant scrutiny” and that “for the Malay-Muslim community, this sense of being misunderstood is deeply felt.”
Associate Professor of Sociology Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir published an op-ed in March in which he said Islam was the most regulated religion in the country and described a “culture of fear” among Muslim clerics, whom he said sensed the Muslim community’s anger at the “disciplining of Islam” but who felt limited in their response because they feared overstepping the boundaries of state-endorsed Islam.
The government launched the “BRIDGE” initiative in March, which aimed to foster understanding of different religious practices and beliefs and to encourage discussions, as well as to support interfaith initiatives through the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY)’s Harmony Fund. For example, one such discussion was on how “religion is hijacked by extremists” and how teenagers self-radicalize.
Minister of State and chair of NGO OnePeople.sg, Janil Puthucheary, hosted a television documentary called Regardless of Religionwhich explored religious differences and prejudices. Puthucheary attended interfaith dialogues and religious events, including those held by minority religious groups such as the Jaafari Muslim Association, a Shia Muslim organization that opened a new religious center in August in Geylang.
The government appointed all members of the MUIS and the Hindu Endowments Board, and nominated four of the 11 members of the Sikh Advisory Board. These statutory boards managed various aspects of their faith communities, ranging from managing properties and endowments to safeguarding customs and the general welfare of the community.
The MUIS continued to operate the Harmony Center, which was set up to promote greater religious understanding. The Harmony Center housed artifacts and information about Islam, as well as nine other major religions in Singapore. It also organized interfaith programs, including dialogues with leaders from other religions. Additionally, the Ministry of Home Affairs, encouraged by the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), encompassing the leaders of the 10 largest religious groups in the country, opened organized daily tours of the interactive Harmony in Diversity Gallery.
The government continued to support the operation of an “interracial and religious confidence circle” (IRCC) in each of the country’s 27 electoral constituencies. The IRCCs gave religious group leaders a forum for promoting religious harmony at the municipal level. Under the auspices of the MCCY, the IRCCs conducted local interreligious dialogues, counseling and trust-building workshops, community celebrations, and similar activities. Throughout the year, interfaith dialogues were held in different communities around the island.
The government continued to engage religious groups through the community engagement program (CEP), created to foster social cohesion and minimize ethnic or religious discord in the event of a terrorist attack or other civil emergency. The government trained community leaders involved in the CEP in emergency preparedness and techniques for promoting religious harmony. Throughout the year, the CEP continued to conduct outreach activities to strengthen intercommunal and interreligious bonds.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Journalist Elgin Toh and other journalists wrote articles throughout the year encouraging their readers not to view Muslims with suspicion and telling Muslims they should not feel responsible for the actions of radicalized Muslims.
According to an August op-ed in the Singapore Straits Times, a public Facebook group, Melayu Singapura Tolak Syiah (Singapore Malays Reject Shia) with 1,814 members, often demonizes Shia. Comments on YouTube and other social media referred to Shia as “deviant”, “apostates,” and by other negative terms.
In June vandals wrote the word “terrorist” on a cartoon image of a Muslim woman who wore a hijab on a temporary board fence surrounding a construction site. Numerous individuals subsequently posted comments online to support the Muslim community, and the Free Community Church hosted an iftar in addition to a talk on Islam by Muslim scholar Mohamed Imran Taib.
Shia and Sunni Muslims continued to cooperate and to share Sunni mosques, and held intrafaith iftars during Ramadan. The Sunni Ba’alwie Mosque hosted an iftar with Shia guests, and a Shia youth group hosted an interfaith iftar for 100 guests. Some Shia and Sunni Muslims stated that trust in the minority Shia community of approximately 5,000 persons (1 percent of the Muslim community) by the majority Sunnis declined as the influence of anti-Shia discourse in neighboring Malaysia increased. Shia continue to work with Muslim authorities to secure permission to open a second Shia mosque.
In April the Muslim community, with encouragement from the government, opened use of some facilities of its new Yusof Ishak Mosque to persons of all faiths. Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob and mosque chairman Ayub Johari said that the mosque would help spread an ethos of religious plurality.
In October a Hindu sanctum was consecrated at the multireligious Loyong Tua Pek Kong Temple, which also houses Hindu, Taoist and Buddhist deities, as well as a Muslim shrine. The deputy prime minister said the event was a good example of multireligious harmony.
The Buddhist Singapore Soka Association invited dignitaries from other religions to its Lotus Sutra Exhibition in October, during which it hosted a number of interfaith lectures, one of which was given by MUIS president Mohammad Alami Musa.
The IRO, which includes leaders of the 10 major religions in the country, has the stated objective of inculcating a spirit of friendship among the leaders and followers of various religious groups and promote mutual respect, assistance, and protection by conducting interreligious prayer services, seminars, and public talks throughout the year. The major religious groups have taken turns organizing the annual Harmony Games, an MCCY-supported sports event for youth of all faiths; the Muslim community organized the games during the year.
A number of people-to-people initiatives promoted religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. These included a meeting organized by community group Explorations into Faith in April to discuss building inclusive interfaith public spaces; an ongoing dialogue entitled, “Religion and Atheism: A Conversation” in which atheists, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims discussed race and religion; and dinners during which groups of strangers discussed sensitive religious issues.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The embassy’s June iftar was attended by then-Speaker of Parliament (and now President) Halimah Yacob, senior representatives from Malay Muslim organizations, representatives from many ethnic and religious groups, media representatives and government officials. The speech by the Charge d’Affaires advocated for religious tolerance and respect.
U.S. embassy representatives interacted with a variety of religious groups, including the IRO, the MUIS, and representatives from Sunni, Shia, and Christian groups, to reinforce the importance of religious freedom. The embassy utilized social media to highlight the Charge d’Affaires’ religious outreach and demonstrate appreciation of and respect for the country’s religious diversity.
The embassy supported a four-day Southeast Asian interfaith youth forum in April in collaboration with Critical Xchange, a local Muslim NGO. The forum brought together 10 young leaders for workshops, with a focus on collaborating to develop ideas for new interfaith initiatives that would tackle religious discrimination in their home communities. The interfaith forum was highlighted on the embassy’s Facebook page, and featured in Berita Harian, a local Malay language newspaper.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs in public and private. It declares all religious communities shall enjoy equal rights and prohibits the incitement of religious hatred or intolerance. The law does not require religious groups to register with the government to engage in religious activities, but registration is necessary to obtain status as legal entities, preferential tax treatment, and social benefits, such as social security contributions for clergy. Representatives of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) visited the country in March and continued to engage the government regarding remaining unresolved Jewish claims for restitution. The Ministry of Culture (MOC) sponsored two interfaith dialogues, one on providing spiritual services in hospitals and the other on circumcision and the spiritual needs of Muslims in the military.
In April Bernard Brscic, an economist and former state secretary in a previous prime minister’s cabinet, made inflammatory anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim remarks during a television interview, referring to the “so-called” Holocaust and “an invasion of Muslim…hordes.” The state prosecutor was investigating whether he should have been prosecuted for hate speech. In January vandals defaced a Catholic chapel on Smarna Gora hill above Ljubljana with graffiti reading, “Allahu akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic). Police had not made any arrests in the case by year’s end. Muslim and Catholic leaders condemned the act, and National Assembly Speaker Milan Brglez condemned the vandalism as an “outrageous act of intolerance against believers.” Construction continued in Ljubljana on the country’s first mosque, but completion was delayed due to a shortage of funds. The Muslim community anticipated opening the mosque in 2018.
U.S. embassy officers continued to meet regularly with government officials responsible for upholding religious freedom, including the MOC’s Office for Religious Communities. In observance of Religious Freedom Day in January, the Ambassador hosted a luncheon for leaders of the major religious communities, including representatives from the Roman Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish communities, to discuss ways to protect religious freedom and promote religious tolerance. Other issues included religious communities’ response to the 2015-16 immigrant and refugee crisis, concerns about hate speech and vandalism of religious structures, and their interactions with the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights’ Religious Dialogue Council.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.0 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2002 census, the most recent available, 57.8 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, 2.4 percent Muslim, 2.3 percent Serbian Orthodox, 0.9 percent “other Christian,” and 10.1 percent atheist. In addition, 23 percent identified as “other” or did not declare a religion, 3.5 percent declared themselves “unaffiliated,” and 10.1 percent selected no religion. The Jewish community estimates its size at approximately 300 individuals. The Orthodox and Muslim communities include a large number of immigrants from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, respectively.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees the freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their beliefs in public and private. It declares all religious communities shall have equal rights and provides for the separation of religion and state. The constitution guarantees equal human rights and fundamental freedoms to all individuals irrespective of their religion; it also prohibits incitement of religious discrimination and inflammation of religious hatred and intolerance. The constitution recognizes the right of conscientious objection to military service for religious reasons.
The law states individuals have the right to freely select a religion; the freedom of religious expression (or rejection of expression); the right – alone or in a group, privately or publicly – to express their religious beliefs freely in “church or other religious communities,” through education, religious ceremonies, or in other ways; and the right not to be forced to become a member or to remain a member of a religious group, nor to attend (or not attend) worship services or religious ceremonies. In addition, the law guarantees the right to refuse to comply with legal duties and requirements that contradict an individual’s religious beliefs, provided such refusals do not limit the rights and freedoms of other persons.
The law requires churches and other religious communities to register with the government to obtain status as legal entities, but it does not restrict the religious activities of unregistered religious groups. According to the law, the rights of religious groups include autonomy in selecting their legal form and constituency; freedom to define their internal organization as well as name and define the competencies of their employees; autonomy in defining the rights and obligations of their members; latitude to participate in interconfessional organizations within the country or abroad; authority to provide religious services to the military, police, prisons, hospitals, and social care institutions; and freedom to construct buildings for religious purposes. The law states religious groups have a responsibility to respect the constitution and the legal provisions on nondiscrimination.
The rights of registered religious groups as recognized legal entities include eligibility for rebates on value-added taxes, government cofinancing of social security for clergy, and authorization to request social benefits for their religious workers.
To register legally with the government, a religious group must submit an application to the MOC providing proof it has at least 10 adult members who are citizens or permanent residents; the name of the group in Latin letters, which must be clearly distinguishable from the names of other religious groups; the group’s address in the country; and a copy of its official seal to be used in legal transactions; it must pay an administrative tax of 22.60 euros ($27). The group must also provide the names of the group’s representatives in the country, a description of the foundations of the group’s religious beliefs, and a copy of its organizational act. If a group wishes to apply for government cosponsorship of social security for clergy members, it must show it has at least 1,000 members for every clergy member.
The government may only refuse the registration of a religious group if the group does not provide the required application materials in full or if the MOC determines the group is a “hate group” – an organization engaging in hate crimes as defined by the penal code.
By law MOC’s Office for Religious Communities monitors and maintains records on registered religious communities and provides legal expertise and assistance to religious organizations. The MOC establishes and manages the procedures for registration, issues documents related to the legal status of registered communities, distributes funds allocated in the government’s budget for religious activities, organizes discussions and gatherings of religious communities to address religious freedom concerns, and provides information to religious groups about the legal provisions and regulations related to their activities.
In accordance with the law, citizens may apply for the return of property nationalized between 1945 and 1963. The state may provide monetary compensation to former owners who cannot receive payment in kind; for example, the state may authorize monetary compensation if government institutions are using the property for an official state purpose or public service such as education or healthcare.
According to the constitution, parents have the right to provide their children with a religious upbringing in accordance with the parents’ beliefs. The government requires all public schools to include education on world religions in their curricula, with instruction provided by school teachers. The government allows churches and religious groups to provide religious education in their faiths in both private and public schools and preschools, on a voluntary basis outside of school hours.
The law mandates Holocaust education in schools. This instruction focuses on the history of the Holocaust inside and outside of the country. Schools use a booklet published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of the Holocaust education curriculum to create awareness of the history of Jews and anti-Semitism in Europe before World War II (WWII) and of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. The booklet emphasizes the responsibility of everyone to remember the victims of the Holocaust.
The constitution provides for an independent Office of the Ombudsman for the Protection of Human Rights to investigate and report on alleged human rights violations by the government. The national assembly appoints the ombudsman and allocates the office’s budget, but otherwise the ombudsman operates independently of the government. Individuals have the right to file complaints with the ombudsman to seek administrative relief regarding abuses of religious freedom committed by national or local authorities. The ombudsman’s office may forward these complaints to the state prosecutor’s office, which may then issue an indictment, call for further investigation, or submit the claim directly to a court, whereupon the complaints become formal. The ombudsman also submits an annual human rights report to the national assembly and provides recommendations and expert advice to the government.
The Ombudsman for the Protection of Human Rights has issued an opinion that, based on the constitution and the law, “circumcision for nonmedical reasons is not permissible and constitutes unlawful interference with the child’s body, thereby violating his rights.”
The law requires that animals be stunned prior to slaughter, which effectively bans Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter.
The penal code’s definition of hate crimes includes publicly provoking religious hatred and diminishing the significance of the Holocaust. Punishment for these offenses is imprisonment of up to two years, or, if the crime involves coercion or endangerment of security – defined as a serious threat to life and limb, desecration, or damage to property – imprisonment for up to five years. If an official abusing the power of his or her position commits these offenses, he or she may be subject to imprisonment of up to five years. Members of groups that engage in these activities in an organized and premeditated fashion – hate groups, according to the law – may also receive a punishment of up to five years in prison.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Representatives from the WJRO visited the country in March for continued talks on property restitution issues involving the Jewish community. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the WJRO discussed carrying out a research project to determine the scope of heirless and unclaimed Jewish-owned property, and negotiations were continuing at year’s end. Restitution efforts for property seized during the Holocaust were complicated by the timeframe (1945-63) covered by the law on property nationalization claims, which excluded property seized from Jewish families prior to 1945.
The Constitutional Court continued its review of a case the Slovene Muslim Community filed in 2014 that alleged a 2012 law prohibiting the slaughter of animals without prior stunning violated religious freedom. The Slovene Muslim Community was not affiliated with the larger Islamic Community of Slovenia. The Jewish community had reportedly also raised concerns over the prohibition. The government defended the law as necessary to comply with EU regulations to prevent “unnecessary suffering” to animals.
In a January 27 speech to parliament commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Speaker of the National Assembly Brglez told parliamentarians they must never forget the Holocaust and said the inalienable rights to religious freedom enshrined in international conventions and the country’s constitution were intended to protect against such horrors in the future.
The Council of the Government of the Republic for Dialogue on Religious Freedom conducted two interfaith dialogue meetings with representatives of the country’s largest religious communities. The government established the council under the auspices of the MOC’s Office for Religious Communities to promote transparency between religious groups and the government, while encouraging dialogue on issues of concern among the country’s religious communities. Although the dialogues were closed to the media and general public, the Office for Religious Communities subsequently published transcripts online.
In January the council organized a dialogue on providing spiritual care in hospitals. While many hospitals had Roman Catholic chapels, members of other faiths had more limited opportunities to attend religious services while hospitalized. Council participants agreed clergy and members of other religious faiths should be free to use the Roman Catholic chapels for worship and religious services. The October meeting focused on providing spiritual care for Muslims in the military. The armed forces (SAF) employed full-time Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy to provide religious services, but no Muslim imams. While Muslims in the SAF had access to their local religious communities while serving domestically, such access could be limited during foreign missions or training abroad. The council came to no conclusion on this issue but stated it would continue the search for possible solutions in future dialogues. The SAF also did not employ Orthodox Christian or Jewish clergy.
Council participants at the October dialogue also discussed religious objections to the human rights ombudsman’s 2012 opinion that “ritual circumcision of boys for religious reasons…is unacceptable for legal and ethical reasons and doctors should not perform it.” The ombudsman, who reviewed the issue in 2012 at the request of the country’s medical ethics committee, told the council participants new legislation would be necessary to make religious circumcision legal and regulate how the procedure was would be carried out in the public health system. The government, however, did not make any changes to the law or the constitution pertaining to circumcision. As a result, many Muslims had the procedure performed in Austria. There were no reports that the prosecutor’s office had received any complaints or prosecuted any cases regarding illegal circumcision.
The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights received one formal complaint pertaining to religious freedom concerning an incident in September in which local school administrators invited two Roman Catholic clergy to offer a religious blessing for a new primary school building near Grosuplje. The complaint alleged the blessing, in which the clergy read from religious scriptures and invited the audience to join in prayer, violated the law prohibiting organized religious ceremonies and confessional activities in public schools. The ombudsman’s office chose not to forward the complaint to prosecutors pending an investigation by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Sport.
In May authorities in the country’s second-largest city, Maribor, banned performances by Croatian singer Perkovic Thompson, citing security risks. The mayor of Maribor, Andrej Fistravec, said Thompson’s concert, scheduled for May 20, should not take place, because the singer promoted fascism, which the mayor could not condone. Fistravec cited Thompson’s use of the Croatian WWII Ustasa fascist chant “Za dom spremni” (“Ready for the Home (land)”) and his use of the names of Ustasa concentration camps in his songs. Several other mayors, including Ljubljana Mayor Zoran Jankovic, said they agreed with Fistravec, and more than 800 citizens signed an online petition stating Thompson’s concert breached the constitution and the criminal code by “glorifying fascism, Nazism, and intolerance.”
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
During an April interview on a Nova24 television news program, Bernard Brscic, an economist who served as a state secretary in the cabinet of a former prime minister, described Europe’s 2015-16 immigration crisis as an “invasion of Muslim and Negro hordes” and referred to the “so-called” Holocaust as “a perfidious way for the Jews to create collective guilt…and establish a multicultural dystopia.” The country’s media reported widely on and criticized Brscic’s comments, and the director of the Jewish Cultural Center threatened to press charges under the country’s Holocaust denial law. The local prosecutor’s office declined to prosecute after an investigation, concluding that Brscic was expressing an opinion on whether contemporary Germans bore responsibility for the Holocaust rather than denying the Holocaust itself. In July the general state prosecutor ordered an internal investigation, which remained in progress at year’s end, as to why the local prosecutor’s office had dropped the case against Brscic.
In January police received a report that individuals had defaced a Catholic chapel on Smarna Gora hill above Ljubljana with graffiti in the Latin alphabet reading, “Allahu akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic) and “sharia.” The Slovenian Bishops’ Conference and the Islamic Community in Slovenia both condemned the vandalism, as did National Assembly Speaker Brglez, who described the incident as “an outrageous act of intolerance against believers.” According to press reports, former Defense Minister Ales Hojs wondered why police had not responded more vigorously to the incident.
Construction continued in Ljubljana on the country’s first mosque, which was reportedly delayed because of insufficient funds to complete the project. Most of the funding for the mosque had come from Qatar. The Islamic community said it expected the mosque to open in 2018.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with government officials responsible for upholding the constitutional commitment to religious freedom, including the MOC’s Office for Religious Communities, to discuss issues such as interfaith dialogue, the status of the Constitutional Court case pertaining to the prohibition of animal slaughter without prior stunning, and the Islamic community’s efforts to complete construction of the Ljubljana mosque.
In March the State Department Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, along with his Israeli counterpart, visited the country to participate in talks with the WJRO and the government on how to resolve the remaining property restitution issues involving the Jewish community.
Embassy officers continued to meet regularly with representatives of all major religious groups to discuss protection of the rights of religious groups. In January in observance of Religious Freedom Day, the Ambassador hosted representatives of the Roman Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish communities to discuss ways to protect religious freedom and promote religious tolerance. Other issues included religious community response to the 2015-16 immigrant and refugee crisis, concerns about hate speech and vandalism of religious structures, and their interactions with the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights’ Religious Dialogue Council.
The provisional federal constitution (PFC) provides for the right of individuals to practice their religion, makes Islam the state religion, prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and stipulates all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia. The federal government had limited ability to implement the PFC beyond greater Mogadishu; most other areas of the country were outside its control. Federal state and interim regional administrations, including Somaliland, Puntland, the Interim Juba Administration (IJA), the Interim South West Administration (ISWA), the Interim Hirshabelle Administration (IHA), and the Interim Galmudug Administration (IGA), governed their respective jurisdictions through local legislation but did not fully control them. The constitutions of Somaliland and Puntland declare Islam as the state religion, prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion, bar the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and require all laws to comply with the general principles of sharia. In July Somaliland authorities closed the only Catholic church in Hargeisa; the church had reopened in October 2016. In May the minister of education, culture, and higher education unveiled the National Curriculum Framework for public and private primary and secondary schools, which the minister said was in part to better regulate Islamic instruction.
The terrorist group al-Shabaab killed, maimed, or harassed persons suspected of converting from Islam or those who failed to adhere to the group’s religious edicts. During the year, al-Shabaab was responsible for the killings of civilians, government officials, members of parliament, Somali national armed forces, police, and troops from contributing countries of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Al-Shabaab continued its campaign to characterize the AMISOM peacekeeping forces as “Christians” intent on invading and occupying the country. According to Morning Star News reports, in February al-Shabaab forces killed a secret Christian convert from Islam, Faduma Osman, and her 11-year-old son and wounded her husband. In June al-Shabaab fighters stormed an army base in Puntland, killing 70 persons and wounding dozens more. Al-Shabaab said it attacked the base because of the presence of foreign soldiers and Puntland “apostates.” ISIS-affiliated fighters maintained a presence in the northern regions of Puntland.
There was strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islamic traditions. Conversion from Islam to another religion remained socially unacceptable in all areas. Those suspected of conversion faced harassment by members of their community.
The U.S. government did not maintain a permanent diplomatic presence in the country. Travel by U.S. government officials to the country continued to increase from previous years, although trips remained limited to areas when security conditions permitted. U.S. government engagement to promote religious freedom focused on supporting efforts to bring stability, reestablish rule of law, and advocate for freedom of speech and assembly.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11 million (July 2017 estimate). Other sources, including the World Bank, estimate the population to be at least 14 million. According to the federal Ministry of Religious Affairs, more than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Members of other religious groups combined constitute less than 1 percent of the population and include a small Christian community, a small Sufi Muslim community, and an unknown number of Shia Muslims. Immigrants and foreign workers, who are mainly from East African countries, belong mainly to other religious groups.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The PFC provides for the right of individuals to practice their religion but prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam. It states all citizens, regardless of religion, have equal rights and duties before the law but establishes Islam as the state religion and requires laws to comply with sharia principles. No exemptions from application of sharia legal principles exist for non-Muslims. The PFC does not explicitly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions.
The constitutions of the regional administrations of Somaliland in the northwest and Puntland in the northeast make Islam the state religion, prohibit Muslims from converting, prohibit the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and stipulate all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia.
The Somaliland constitution states: “Every person shall have the right to freedom of belief and shall not be compelled to adopt another belief. Islamic Sharia does not accept that a Muslim can renounce his beliefs.” The Puntland constitution prohibits any law or culture that contravenes Islam and prohibits demonstrations contrary to Islam. The constitution and other laws of Puntland do not define contravention of Islam.
Other regional administrations, including the IGA, IHA, IJA, and ISWA, have constitutions identifying Islam as the official religion. These constitutions stipulate all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia. The IGA, IHA, and ISWA have not enacted laws directly addressing religious freedom.
The national penal code generally remains valid in all regions of the country. It does not prohibit conversion from Islam to another religion, but it criminalizes blasphemy and “defamation of Islam,” which carry penalties of up to two years in prison.
The PFC and the Puntland constitution require the president, but not other office holders, to be Muslim. The Somaliland constitution requires, in addition to Somaliland’s president, the candidates for vice president and the House of Representatives to be Muslim.
The judiciary in most areas relies on xeer (traditional and customary law), sharia, and the penal code. Each area individually regulates and enforces religious expression, often inconsistently.
The Somaliland constitution prohibits the formation of political parties based on a particular religious group, religious beliefs, or interpretation of religious doctrine, while the PFC and the constitutions of other regional administrations do not contain this prohibition.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs has legal authority to register religious groups. Guidance on how to register or what is required is inconsistent. The ministry has no ability to enforce such requirements outside of Mogadishu.
Somaliland does not have a mechanism to register religious organizations or specific requirements to register Islamic groups. The Puntland government does not have any laws governing registration or a mechanism to register religious groups. Other regional administrations do not have a mechanism to register religious organizations.
In Puntland, religious schools and formal places of worship must obtain permission to operate from the Puntland Ministry of Justice and Religious Affairs. In Somaliland, religious schools and formal places of worship must obtain permission to operate from the Somaliland Ministry of Religion. Neither Puntland nor Somaliland law delineates consequences for operating without permission. All other regional administrations require formal places of worship and religious schools to obtain permission to operate from local authorities.
The federal Ministry of Education has the mandate to regulate religious instruction throughout the country. Federal and regional authorities require Islamic instruction in all schools, public or private, except those operated by non-Muslims. Private schools have more leeway to determine their curriculum. Non-Muslim students attending public schools may request an exemption from Islamic instruction, but according to federal and regional authorities, there have been no such requests.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights.
Federal and regional governments maintained bans on the propagation of religions other than Islam, but there were no reports of enforcement. According to federal and regional government officials, there were no cases of individuals charged with apostasy, blasphemy, or defamation of Islam.
The government reportedly continued not to strictly enforce the registration requirement for religious groups opening schools for lay or religious instruction. Many religious groups did not register, but some religious groups said the government did not pursue adverse actions against them.
The Somaliland government neither banned unregistered religious groups nor imposed financial penalties on any religious groups. In July Somaliland authorities closed the only Catholic church in Hargeisa; the church had reopened in October 2016. Government authorities said they closed the church to respect the wishes of the majority Muslim population and their religious leaders who believed the church was trying to sway Muslim believers. Somaliland Religious Affairs Minister Sheikh Khalil Abdullahi publicly said the issue created divisions that were “not in [the region’s] interests.”
The Puntland government neither banned nor imposed financial penalties on any religious groups.
In May the minister of education, culture, and higher education unveiled a national curriculum framework for public and private primary and secondary schools, which he said was designed in part to regulate Islamic instruction more effectively.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
Al-Shabaab continued to impose violently its own interpretation of Islamic law and practices on other Muslims and non-Muslims. Al-Shabaab forces targeted and killed federal government officials and their allies, calling them non-Muslims or apostates. In June hundreds of al-Shabaab fighters stormed an army base in Puntland, killing up to 70 persons and wounding dozens more in one of the deadliest attacks to target Somali security forces. Al-Shabaab said it attacked the base because of the presence of foreign soldiers and Puntland “apostates.”
Between May 21 and May 24, al-Shabaab abducted approximately 70 persons, including women and children, burned numerous homes, and caused more than 15,000 persons to flee their homes during raids in Lower Shabelle, according to the United Nations. Some men who were abducted told human rights groups they were not allowed to pray and did not have access to water for ablutions. According to a Human Rights Watch report, at least two dozen were released following clan intervention, but an unknown number remained in detention.
According to Morning Star News reports, in February al-Shabaab forces killed a secret Christian convert from Islam, Faduma Osman, and her 11-year-old son and wounded her husband. Osman’s two daughters and her nine-year-old son escaped and were found safe in another town. On January 10, al-Shabaab announced it had executed a teenage boy and young man in Middle Juba for engaging in sexual conduct.
Al-Shabaab continued its campaign to characterize the AMISOM peacekeeping forces as “Christians” intent on invading and occupying the country. In July al-Shabaab’s ambush on an AMISOM convoy in Lower Shabelle resulted in the deaths of at least 24 soldiers. Al-Shabaab stated it killed the soldiers to protest the continued presence of foreign and western-trained peacekeepers. According to Human Rights Watch, al-Shabaab abducted AMISOM troops during attacks. The Ugandan government confirmed seven Ugandan AMISOM troops remained captive from a 2015 attack on the AMISOM base in Janale. An unknown number of Kenyan and other AMISOM troops also remained captive.
According to humanitarian groups, al-Shabaab continued to threaten to execute anyone suspected of converting to Christianity. In the areas it controlled, al-Shabaab continued to ban cinemas, television, music, the internet, and watching sporting events. It prohibited the sale of khat (a popular stimulant drug), smoking, and behavior it characterized as un-Islamic, such as shaving beards. It also enforced a strict requirement that women wear full veils.
According to humanitarian groups, al-Shabaab continued to harass secular and faith-based humanitarian aid organizations, threatening the lives of their personnel and accusing them of seeking to convert Somalis to Christianity.
Fear of reprisals from al-Shabaab often prevented religious groups from operating freely. Al-Shabaab reportedly threatened to close mosques in areas it controlled if the mosques’ teachings did not conform to the group’s interpretation of Islam.
In areas under its control, al-Shabaab continued to mandate schools teach a militant form of jihad emphasizing that students should wage war against those it deemed infidels, including countries in the region, the federal government, and AMISOM. Following the introduction of its new education curriculum in April, al-Shabaab began forcing communities in Hirshabelle and Galmudug to enroll children ages seven to 14 into al-Shabaab-managed Quranic schools, according to humanitarian groups. Al-Shabaab arrested or fined parents who failed to comply with the directive. According to humanitarian groups, on June 17, al-Shabaab militants in Xarardhere arrested 17 elders for refusing to obey the group’s edict; days later, the group released 15 of the elders who promised to enroll 50 children. On June 20, al-Shabaab threatened parents in Jowle, Dhalwo, and Tulo-Hajji villages for refusing to enroll persons 10 to 20 years old in the newly opened al-Shabaab-managed madrassahs in Jowle and Xarardhere, according to humanitarian groups. On July 4, humanitarian groups reported that at least 100 elders, imams, and teachers of Quranic schools not linked to al-Shabaab were arrested within the vicinity of Warshubo, Xarardhere, for resisting al-Shabaab’s school enrollment demands. Reports from humanitarian groups indicated that in early July al-Shabaab abducted at least 45 elders in Ceel Buur for failing to hand over 150 children to the group.
Al-Shabaab extorted high and unpredictable zakat (an Islamic obligation to donate to charity during Ramadan) and sadaqa (a voluntary charity contribution paid by Muslims) taxes in the regions it controlled, according to humanitarian groups.
A small group of ISIS fighters remained in Puntland and were proponents of sharia. Its strength was estimated as small (approximately 200 combatants), but the group enjoyed relative freedom of movement and recruited from within towns surrounding the Golis Mountains.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There reportedly continued to be strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islam traditions.
Conversion from Islam to another religion continued to remain socially unacceptable, and individuals suspected of conversion and their families were reportedly subject to harassment from members of their local communities.
Christians and members of other non-Muslim religious groups continued to report they were unable to practice their religion openly due to fear of harassment across most of the country. The small Christian community continued to keep a low profile with regard to religious beliefs and practices. Other non-Islamic groups likely also refrained from openly practicing their religion.
There were no public places of worship for non-Muslims in the country.
Private schools were the primary source of education. The majority offered religious instruction in Islam. Externally funded madrassahs throughout the country provided inexpensive basic education, and many taught Salafist ideology, especially in al-Shabaab controlled areas.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Travel by U.S. government officials to the country continued to increase during the year, although trips remained limited to select areas and only when security conditions permitted. Embassy officials met with Ministry of Religious Affairs officials and religious leaders to advocate the promotion of religious tolerance. U.S. government efforts to promote religious freedom focused on supporting the efforts of the government to bring stability, reestablish rule of law, and advocate for freedom of speech and assembly.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. The government does not require religious groups to register; however, registered groups receive tax-exempt status. In June the High Court ruled that public schools could not promote one religion to the exclusion of others. The Organization for Religious Education and Democracy, which brought the court case against six schools, argued that religious practices at these schools resulted in the suppression of scientific teachings of evolution and that a religious ethos was a form of coercion and an abuse of learners’ rights. Throughout the year, religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concerns that two separate draft laws requiring religious groups to register with the government and to define and punish hate crimes and speech could potentially infringe on religious freedom and freedom of speech. In January twin brothers Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie appeared in court to face terrorism charges after their 2016 arrests for allegedly planning to attack U.S. and Jewish targets. The Johannesburg High Court postponed their trial to February 20, 2018, to allow for arguments regarding the constitutionality of the Terrorism Act, under which they were arrested. In March Rastafarians welcomed a High Court ruling that declared a ban on marijuana use by adults in private homes to be unconstitutional.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) recorded 44 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, compared with 43 in 2016. The SAJBD also reported members of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee made anti-Semitic comments during Israel Apartheid Week in March. Other individuals publicly made anti-Semitic comments throughout the year. Unknown individuals vandalized two mosques in Western Cape Province, smearing pig’s blood and leaving a pig’s snout at one of the mosques.
U.S. government officials met with religious groups and NGOs, including Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish representatives, to gauge and discuss issues of religious freedom, including cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, and a proposed draft bill that would require religious institutions receive permission to operate.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 54.8 million (July 2017 estimate). According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, 81 percent of the population is Christian. Approximately 15 percent of the population adheres to no particular religion or declined to indicate an affiliation; some of these individuals are likely adhere to indigenous beliefs. Muslims constitute 1.7 percent of the population, while Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and adherents of traditional indigenous beliefs together constitute less than 4 percent of the population. Many indigenous persons adhere to a belief system combining Christian and indigenous religious practices. The Church of Scientology estimates it has approximately 100,000 members.
The Pew Research Center estimates 84 percent of the Christian population is Protestant, 11 percent Roman Catholic, and 5 percent other denominations (2010 estimate). African independent churches constitute the largest group of Christian churches, including the Zion Christian Church (approximately 11 percent of the population), the Apostolic Church (approximately 10 percent), and a number of Pentecostal and charismatic groups. Other Christian groups include Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists, and members of the Greek Orthodox, Dutch Reformed, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Congregational churches.
Persons of Indian or other Asian heritage account for 2.5 percent of the total population. Approximately half of the ethnic Indian population is Hindu, and the majority resides in KwaZulu-Natal Province. The Muslim community includes Cape Malays of Malayan-Indonesian descent, individuals of Indian or Pakistani descent, and approximately 70,000 Somali nationals and refugees. The SAJBD estimates the Jewish community at 75,000 to 80,000 persons, the majority of whom live in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief, including the right to form, join, and maintain religious associations. It prohibits religious discrimination and specifies freedom of expression does not extend to advocacy of hatred based on religion. The constitution permits legislation recognizing systems of personal and family law to which persons professing a particular religion adhere. It also allows religious observances in state or state-supported institutions, provided they are voluntary and conducted on an equitable basis. These rights may be limited if the limitation is “reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom” and takes account of “all relevant factors.” Cases of discrimination against persons on the grounds of religion may be taken to Equality Courts, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), and the Constitutional Court. The constitution also provides for the promotion and respect of languages used for religious purposes, including, but not limited to, Arabic, Hebrew, and Sanskrit.
The constitution allows for the presence and operation of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious, and Linguistic Communities (CRL) with the mission of fostering the rights of communities to freely observe and practice their cultures, religions, and language. The CRL is an independent national government institution whose chair is appointed by the president and whose commissioners include members of the clergy, scholars, and politicians, among others.
The law does not require religious groups to register; however, registered religious and other nonprofit groups may qualify as public benefit organizations, allowing them to open bank accounts and exempting them from paying income tax. To register as a public benefit organization, groups must submit a nonprofit organization application, including their constitution, contact information, and list of officers and documentation stating they meet a number of prescribed requirements that largely ensure accounting and tax compliance, to the provincial social development office. Once registered, the group must submit annual reports on any changes to this information, important achievements and meetings, and financial information, as well as an accountant’s report.
The government allows, but does not require, religious education in public schools but prohibits advocating the tenets of a particular religion.
The law allows marriages to be conducted under customary law; however, it only applies to “those customs and usages traditionally observed among the indigenous African people” and may be performed by all religious groups and their leaders.
The constitution grants detained persons visitation rights with their chosen religious counselor.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In June the High Court ruled that a public school could not promote that it adhered to only one or predominantly only one religion to the exclusion of others and could not favor or promote the interests of one religion over others. The ruling would also be binding on other schools nationwide. The Christian Action Network criticized the ruling, arguing that parents must be allowed to decide the religious ethos of schools through the School Governing Bodies (school boards). The Organization for Religious Education and Democracy (OGOD) brought suit against six schools: Randhart, Baanbreker, and Garsfontein primary schools; and Linden, Oudtshoorn, and Langenhoven secondary schools. The OGOD argued that required religious practice at these schools resulted in the suppression of scientific teachings of evolution and that a religious ethos was a form of coercion and an abuse of students’ rights.
In March the High Court issued a ruling declaring unconstitutional a ban on marijuana use by adults in private homes. The court gave parliament two years to change the related sections of the relevant legislation. Since 2002, the Rastafarians had called for the drug, colloquially known as dagga, to be declared lawful on religious grounds. Jeremy Acton, the head of the Dagga Party of South Africa, brought the court case.
In June Muslim inmates at the Tswelopele Correctional Service in Northern Cape Province stated the prison was preventing them from practicing their religious beliefs and sometimes forced them to attend Christian gatherings against their will. The Northern Cape Department of Correctional Services denied the allegations.
Several groups, including the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the nonprofit Christian organization Freedom of Religion South Africa (FORSA), and the International Institute for Religious Freedom, stated their opposition to a CRL legislative proposal in 2016 requiring religious groups to register, stating it would restrict their religious freedom. The proposal would require religious groups to register formally with the government and to create a peer review council, consisting of representatives from various religious groups, which would grant organizations and individual religious leaders permission to operate. Accredited umbrella organizations for each religious group would recommend the licensing of institutions and individual members of the clergy. Another recognized umbrella organization would then either approve or decline licensing the institutions. The groups in opposition stated the proposal’s envisioned regulation of all religious organizations was unconstitutional and unnecessary because existing laws could be used to address governmental concerns of improper religious activities, such as feeding congregants snakes and dangerous substances. In a May 16 open letter to CRL Chairwoman Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, FORSA argued that the proposal’s designation of the CRL as the final arbitrator of religious affairs exceeded its constitutional and self-described mandate as a governmental advisory body. The groups also expressed concern that the bill would prevent religious groups that are independent of mainstream religious faiths and organizations from legally operating in the country.
According to the media, the proposal was prompted by the CRL’s 2016 investigation that revealed some independent church leaders instructed their congregations to eat live snakes, expose their faces to insect repellant, drink gasoline, and pay large sums of money to receive blessings and miracles. The CRL also found that some religious organizations failed to adhere to tax rules and demonstrated a lack of financial transparency. Opponents of the proposal stated the CRL based its investigation and subsequent report that justified the recommendation for legislation on generalizations about alleged abuses. They said the supporting evidence was based on an inadequate number of interviews with religious groups. The Council for the Protection and Promotion of Religious Rights and Freedoms – established to oversee the process drawn up by religious and civil organizations that define religious freedoms, rights, and responsibilities of citizens – described the report’s proposals as “the fruit of a poisonous tree.” In October the CRL submitted its report and recommendations for draft legislation to the Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs for review before parliament recessed.
In February and December, the government held public meetings with religious groups, civil society, and NGOs to discuss a draft hate crimes and hate speech bill. The bill, first introduced in October 2016, would criminalize any action or statement motivated by bias or hatred towards an individual based upon his or her ethnic, national, religious, or sexual identity; health status; employment status or type; or physical ability. The bill would provide law enforcement officials and courts increased authority to arrest and punish offenders and would mandate prison sentences of up to three years for first-time offenses. The Ministry of Justice invited public commentary on the draft bill and received more than 77,000 responses from individuals, religious groups, and other organizations. Opponents to the bill, including religious figures, media representatives, and civil society and NGOs, argued the bill’s definition of hate crimes and speech was too vague and could potentially restrict freedom of religion and speech. FORSA expressed concern that the bill’s provisions were “over-broad and unconstitutional” and could punish churches and Christians who spoke out against homosexuality. The Hate Crimes Working Group, a network of civil society groups, stated that existing laws adequately addressed hate speech and the bill, if passed, could have unintended consequences. As of December, the government took no further action on the draft bill, and the draft legislation was expected to be debated in parliament in early 2018, according to media reports.
In January twin brothers Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie appeared in court to face terrorism charges after their 2016 arrest for allegedly planning to attack U.S. and Jewish targets. The Johannesburg High Court postponed their trial to February 20, 2018, to allow for arguments regarding the constitutionality of the Terrorism Act, under which they were arrested.
In August the Western Cape High Court in Cape Town heard a case brought by the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) regarding the nonrecognition of Islamic marriages by the state. The WLC stated the failure of legislation to recognize Islamic marriages degraded Muslim women’s rights. The Association of Muslim Women of South Africa and the United Ulama Council of South Africa opposed the WLC case, stating it violated freedom of religion by singling out Islam. According to media sources, the president, the minister of home affairs, and the minister of justice and correctional services all filed papers opposing the WLC on the grounds that Muslim communities in the country did not support the idea of new legislation. The case was pending as of year’s end.
Some prominent individuals were quoted throughout the year making anti-Semitic statements. According to the South African Jewish Report, on June 29, the South African Equality Court ruled that Bongani Masuku, International Relations Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), had to issue a formal apology to the Jewish community for anti-Semitic comments he made in 2009. The COSATU announced its intention to appeal the ruling. In September the Times of Israel reported the South African Jewish Board of Directors filed a lawsuit against Black First Land First leader Andile Mngxitama after the board said he posted several anti-Semitic messages online. The Equality Court reviewed the case and reportedly dismissed it.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In January unknown individuals vandalized two mosques in the Cape Town region, smearing pig’s blood and leaving a pig’s snout at one of the mosques. As of the end of the year, police had not charged or prosecuted anyone in the case.
The SAJBD recorded 44 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, compared with 43 in 2016. The incidents included verbal threats and intimidation (7), verbal abuse (15), abusive communications – all mediums (16), and graffiti/offensive slogans (6). The organization also reported members of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee made anti-Semitic comments during Israel Apartheid Week in March. One member said he wanted to kill Jews because “they don’t behave when they are in other people’s countries,” and another member impersonated Hitler and made Nazi-style salutes.
On February 3, the media news service quoted Edward Zuma, son of President Jacob Zuma, as saying that “white fund managers and many more Jewish-based entities” enjoyed preferential treatment from the Public Investment Corporation.
On May 29, a student from Edenvale High School in Johannesburg interrupted a Holocaust-related student theater performance with anti-Semitic statements. The student and his school’s principal apologized for the incident, and the school agreed to work with the Jewish community to improve sensitivity training for students. In August unknown individuals painted anti-Semitic messages and swastikas on several University of Pretoria message boards. The university condemned the incident.
In October during a sermon at Masjid Al-Furqaan in Cape Town, Imam Abduragmaan Alexander addressed the Islamic community, saying: “You have no guts, no courage, no power, and no motivation to liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque from the bloody hands of the Zionist entity.” Imam Alexander further said Palestine and the Al-Aqsa Mosque were crying out, “Nation of Islam, you are a billion Muslims, yet you are unable to liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque from the hands of the oppressive occupying Jews.” Iman Alexander continued to say “never will the Jews or the Christians approve of you until you follow their religion.”
As of December the Equality Court had yet to render a ruling on the 2015 case of Port Elizabeth lawyer Maureen Jansen, who posted anti-Semitic statements on social media.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy representatives met with religious leaders and NGOs, including individuals from the Muslim Judicial Council, Islamic Council of South Africa, the Church of Scientology, the Inner Circle (a Muslim lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex organization), Hindu Maha Sabha, and the SAJBD to discuss the environment for religious freedom and concern over cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. In February a representative from the Office of International Religious Freedom met with representatives from Jewish organizations to discuss anti-Semitism trends in the country and campus anti-Semitism. He also met with CRL, FORSA, and SAHRC representatives to discuss the draft legislation regarding registration and hate crimes and hate speech.
The Interim National Constitution (INC) provides for freedom of religious creed and the rights to worship, assemble, and maintain places of worship. Some laws and government practices are based on the government’s interpretation of a sharia system of jurisprudence, which human rights groups state does not provide protections for some religious minorities, including minority Muslim groups. The law criminalizes apostasy, blasphemy, conversion from Islam to another religion, and questioning or criticizing the Quran, the Sahaba (the Companions of the Prophet), or the wives of the Prophet. While the law does not specifically address proselytizing, the government has criminally defined and prosecuted proselytizing as a form of apostasy. On April 3, a member of the government-appointed Presbyterian Evangelical Community Committee (ECC) of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPECS) killed church elder Yonan Abdullah during an altercation between ECC supporters and those opposing the ECC’s efforts to sell a school property to a private investor. Between February and April, the authorities arrested – and released on bail – more than 60 members of the SPECS who protested the sale. On January 29, authorities convicted Czech religious worker Peter Jasek and two Sudanese associates of eight crimes, including espionage and “warring against the state,” and sentenced them to life imprisonment. The court dropped all charges against another colleague and released him. Both Jasek, who had been documenting abuses of Christian converts, and his two Sudanese associates received presidential pardons and authorities released them in February and May, respectively. Human rights groups continued to accuse the government of interfering in internal community disputes over the sale of church lands to investors, such as those belonging to evangelical Protestant groups, including the SPECS and the Sudan Church of Christ (SCOC), and the inability of these Christian groups to seek legal recourse. Authorities continued to influence the internal affairs of churches through intimidation, harassment, and arrests of those opposed to government interference within evangelical churches. While the law does not prohibit the practice of Shia Islam, authorities took actions against adherents. Some Shia reported authorities continued to prevent them from publishing articles about Shia beliefs. In August government officials accused a Shia Muslim man of espousing “nonmainstream beliefs.” The man subsequently signed a written statement of repentance. In May authorities demolished two SCOC churches in Soba County of Khartoum State, stating the churches were constructed on publicly-owned land. In July Khartoum State officials reportedly rescinded a 2016 order to demolish 25 churches; no further demolitions took place through the end of the year. According to multiple sources, authorities regularly charged and convicted Christian and Muslim women with “indecent dress” for wearing pants and fined and lashed them. The Khartoum State Ministry of Education ordered Christian schools to operate on Sundays in order to meet minimum required instruction hours.
Muslims and non-Muslims said a small and sometimes vocal minority of Salafist groups continued to be a concern because some advocated violence. Some Christian leaders of the Sudan Inter-Religious Council said they felt the council was dominated by Muslim leaders, although others felt the council was a good forum to discuss challenges faced by evangelical Christian churches. The imam of Khartoum’s Al-Noor Mosque delivered a sermon in response to the investment minister’s statement in favor of normalizing ties with Israel, saying Jews were to blame for “all things evil.” In November fans of the al-Hilal soccer team displayed a portrait of Adolf Hitler and a sign that spelled out the word “Holocaust” during a match; the Sudanese Football Association fined the team and took action against the fans responsible.
In high-level discussions with the government, U.S. officials encouraged respect for religious freedom and the protection of minority religious groups. The Deputy Secretary of State, USAID Administrator, U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, an official from the U.S. Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom, and U.S. embassy officials raised specific cases with government officials and emphasized the government’s need to take concrete steps to improve religious freedom and bring the country’s legal framework into compliance with its international human rights obligations. In meetings with the foreign minister, the Charge d’Affaires raised the issue of the detained pastors, urging the government to grant a fair and speedy trial. Embassy officials stressed that respect for religious freedom was crucial to improved relations with the United States. The embassy maintained close contact with religious leaders, faith-based groups, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and monitored and attended many of the legal proceedings for those prosecuted in connection with their religious beliefs. The embassy used social media to highlight its concerns about the April killing of the Presbyterian Church leader, as well as the demolition of Soba Al-Aradi Church.
Since 1999, Sudan 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 22, the Secretary of State redesignated Sudan as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the restriction on making certain appropriated funds available for assistance to the Government of Sudan in the annual Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, currently set forth in section 7042(j) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2014 (Div. K, Pub. L. 113-76), and any provision of law that is the same or substantially the same as this provision, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 37.3 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the Sudanese government, approximately 97 percent of the population is Muslim. It is unclear whether government estimates include South Sudanese (predominantly Christian or animist) who did not leave after the 2011 separation of South Sudan or returned after conflict erupted in South Sudan in 2013, or other non-South Sudanese, non-Muslim groups. During the year 195,000 South Sudanese refugees arrived in the country, bringing the total estimated number of South Sudanese refugees in Sudan to more than 772,000. Some religious advocacy groups estimate non-Muslims make up more than 20 percent of the population.
Almost all Muslims are Sunni, although there are significant distinctions among followers of different Sunni traditions, particularly among Sufi orders. There are also small Shia Muslim communities based predominantly in Khartoum. At least one Jewish family remains in the Khartoum area.
The government reports the presence of 36 Christian denominations in the country. Christians reside throughout the country, primarily in major cities such as Khartoum, Port Sudan, Kassala, Gedaref, El Obeid, and El Fasher. Christians also are concentrated in some parts of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State.
There are relatively small but long-established groups of Coptic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians in Khartoum, El Obeid in North Kordofan, River Nile and Gezira States, and eastern parts of the country. There are also Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox communities, largely made up of refugees and migrants, in Khartoum and the eastern part of the country. Other larger Christian groups include the Roman Catholic Church, Episcopal Anglican Church, Sudan Church of Christ, Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and Presbyterian Church of the Sudan. Smaller Christian groups include the Africa Inland Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Sudan Interior Church, Sudan Pentecostal Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Government statistics indicate less than 1 percent of the population, primarily in Blue Nile and South Kordofan States, adheres to traditional African religious beliefs. Some Christians and Muslims also incorporate aspects of these traditional beliefs into their religious practice. There is also a small Bahai community, which operates primarily underground.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The INC provides for freedom of religious creed and worship, and grants individuals the right to declare their religious beliefs and manifest them through worship, education, practice, or performance, subject to requirements of laws and public order. It prohibits the coercion of individuals to adopt a faith they do not believe in or to engage in rites or services without consent. Authorities may suspend these rights during a state of emergency. The INC states that nationally-enacted legislation shall be based on sharia. The government has not amended the INC to reflect the 2011 independence of South Sudan.
The INC allows religious groups to establish and maintain humanitarian and charitable institutions, acquire property and materials related to their religious rites and customs, write and disseminate religious publications, teach religion, solicit public and private contributions, select their own leaders, observe days of rest, celebrate religious holidays, and communicate with constituents on matters of religion.
The INC states that where the majority of residents do not practice the religion or customs on which the national legislation is based, citizens may introduce new legislation consistent with their religion and customs or refer the existing legislation to the Council of States, the lower house of parliament.
The INC denies recognition to any political party that discriminates based on religion and specifically prohibits religious discrimination against candidates for the national civil service. Constitutional violations of freedom of religion may be pursued in the Constitutional Court; however, cases of discrimination often originate and are addressed in lower courts dealing with civil or criminal charges.
National laws are based on a sharia system of jurisprudence. The criminal code states the law, including state and local, shall be based on sharia sources and include hudood, qisas, and diyah principles (specific serious crimes and related restitution and punishment). The criminal code takes into consideration multiple sharia schools of jurisprudence (madhahib). The Islamic Panel of Scholars and Preachers (Fiqh Council) determines under which conditions a particular school of thought will apply. Other criminal and civil laws, including public order laws, are determined at the state and local level.
The law does not prohibit individuals from converting to Islam from another religion. The criminal code does not explicitly mention proselytizing, but criminalizes both conversion from Islam to any other faith (apostasy) and acts that encourage conversion from Islam. Those who convert from Islam to another religion as well as any Muslim who questions or criticizes the teachings of the Quran, the Sahaba (the Companions of the Prophet), or the wives of the Prophet may also be considered guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death. Those charged with apostasy are allowed to repent within a period decided by the court, but may still face up to five years in prison.
The criminal code’s section on “religious offenses” criminalizes various acts committed against any religion. These include insulting religion, blasphemy, disturbing places of worship, and trespassing upon places of burial. The criminal code states, “whoever insults any religion, their rights or beliefs or sanctifications or seeks to excite feelings of contempt and disrespect against the believers thereof” shall be punished with up to six months in prison, flogging of up to 40 lashes, and/or a fine. The article includes provisions that prescribe penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment and 40 lashes for any non-Muslim who curses the Prophet Muhammad, his wives, or members of his respective households.
The Ministry of Guidance and Endowments (MGE) regulates Islamic religious practice, including activities such as reviewing Friday sermons at mosques, supervises churches, and is responsible for guaranteeing equal treatment for all religious groups. The MGE also provides recommendations to relevant ministries regarding religious issues government ministries encounter. The president appoints the Fiqh Council, an official body of 40 Muslim religious scholars responsible for explaining and interpreting Islamic jurisprudence, to four-year renewable terms. The council advises the government and issues fatwas on religious matters, including levying customs duties on the importation of religious materials, payment of interest on loans for public infrastructure, and determination of government-allotted annual leave for Islamic holidays. The council’s opinions are not legally binding. Muslim religious scholars are free to present differing religious and political viewpoints in public.
To gain official recognition by the government, religious groups must register at the state level with the MGE, or a related ministry such as the Ministry of Culture, or the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), depending on the nature of the group and its activities. The HAC oversees NGOs and nonprofit organizations. Religious groups that also engage in humanitarian or development activities must register with those bodies as nonprofit NGOs by filing a standard application required by the HAC for both local and international NGOs. The application must include the names and addresses of founding members, a copy of the organization’s constitution, and an organization chart, and be accompanied by a fee. Such organizations must have at least 30 members, although the relevant minister may register an organization with fewer members if it provides proof of its financial stability. In addition, the law states an international NGO may not be from a country in a state of war with Sudan, must be registered in its country of origin, have an approved registration certificate from a Sudanese embassy or diplomatic mission, present evidence of its financial and technical capabilities, and meet other conditions the minister may apply. Groups registered with the HAC must then submit their activities and financial statements to the government for review and approval. Only religious groups that register are eligible to apply for other administrative benefits, including land ownership, tax exemptions, and work permits.
The law does not permit Shia Muslims to hold worship services; however, they are allowed to enter Sunni mosques to pray.
The state-mandated education curriculum requires that all students receive religious instruction. It further mandates that all schools, including international schools and private schools operated by Christian groups, provide Islamic education classes to Muslim students, from preschool through the second year of university. The law does not require non-Muslims to attend Islamic education classes, and mandates that public schools provide Christian students with other religious instruction if there are at least 15 Christian students in a class. According to the Ministry of Education, following the separation of South Sudan, this ratio has not been met in most schools. Non-Muslim students therefore normally attend religious study classes of their own religion outside of regular school hours in order to fulfill the religious instruction requirement.
The Ministry of Education is responsible for determining the religious education curriculum. According to the ministry, the Islamic curriculum must follow the Sunni tradition.
The MGE determines, along with the state-level entities responsible for land grants and planning, whether to provide authorization or permits to build new houses of worship, taking into account zoning concerns such as the distance between religious institutions and population density (the allocation of land to religious entities is determined at the state level). The MGE is mandated to assist both mosques and churches in obtaining tax exemptions and duty-free permits to import items such as furniture and religious items for houses of worship; it also assists visitors attending meetings sponsored by religious groups and activities to obtain tourist visas through the Ministry of Interior. The MGE also coordinates travel for the Hajj and Umra for government representatives.
Public order laws, based largely on the government’s interpretation of sharia, vary by state. These laws prohibit “indecent” dress and other “offenses of honor, reputation, and public morality.” Authorities primarily enforce such laws in large cities and enforce laws governing indecent dress against both Muslims and non-Muslims. The criminal code states that acts are contrary to public morality if they are deemed so by the religion of the person performing the act or the custom of the country where the act occurs. In practice, the special Public Order Police and courts, which derive their authority from the Ministry of Interior, have wide latitude in interpreting what dress or behaviors are indecent and in arresting and passing sentence on accused offenders.
Some aspects of the criminal code specify punishments for Muslims based on government interpretation of sharia punishment principles. For example, the criminal code stipulates 40 lashes for a Muslim who drinks, possesses, or sells alcohol; no punishment is prescribed for a non-Muslim who drinks or possesses alcohol in private. The criminal code stipulates if a non-Muslim is arrested for public drinking, or possessing or selling alcohol, he or she is subject to trial, but the punishment will not be based on hudood principles. The INC was amended in August to change the penalty for adultery with a married person from stoning to hanging (a punishment more commonly executed than stoning, according to legal experts). The penalty for adultery by an unmarried person is 100 lashes. An unmarried man could additionally be punished with expatriation for up to one year. These penalties apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims. Adultery is defined as sexual activity outside of marriage, prior to marriage, or in a marriage that is determined to be void. The code was not changed after the secession of South Sudan, and most articles of the code specify punishments according to region, the North (majority Muslim) and the then-South (majority Christian), rather than the religion of the accused.
Under the law, the justice minister may release any prisoner who memorizes the Quran during his or her prison term. The release requires a recommendation for parole from the prison’s director-general and a religious committee composed of the Sudan Scholars Organization and members of the Fiqh Council, which consults with the MGE to ensure decisions comply with Islamic legal regulations.
Under the law, a Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman (although most Sudanese sharia schools of thought advise that the non-Muslim women must be “people of the book,” i.e. either Christian or Jewish). A Muslim woman, however, legally may only marry a Muslim man. A Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim man may be charged with adultery.
Separate family courts exist for Muslims and non-Muslims to address personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and child custody, according to their religion. By law, in custody dispute cases where one parent is Muslim and the other is Christian, courts grant custody to the Muslim parent if there is any concern that the non-Muslim parent would raise the child in a religion other than Islam.
According to Islamic personal status laws, Christians (including children) may not inherit assets from a Muslim.
Government offices and businesses are closed on Friday for prayers and follow an Islamic work week of Sunday to Thursday. The law requires employers to give Christian employees two hours off on Sundays for religious activity. Leave from work is also granted to celebrate Orthodox Christmas, an official state holiday, along with several key Islamic holidays.
An interministerial committee, which includes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), and in some cases Military Intelligence, must approve foreign clergy and other foreigners seeking a residency permit.
The INC’s bill of rights says all rights and freedoms enshrined in international human rights treaties, covenants, and instruments ratified by the country are integral parts of the INC’s bill of rights.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: A member of the government-appointed ECC of the SPECS killed a SPECS elder during an altercation. Plainclothes police reportedly witnessed but did not intervene in the attack, and then arrested the alleged attacker, whose trial was pending at year’s end. A Khartoum court in January convicted a Czech Christian aid worker, a Sudanese Church of Christ pastor, and a Sudanese student from Dafur of crimes including espionage and “warring against the state.” The three were pardoned separately in February and May. While authorities permitted the Czech aid worker to immediately leave the country, the two Sudanese were eventually allowed to leave the country after intense international pressure prompted the government to lift the travel ban imposed on them at their release. Evangelical Protestant groups, including the SPECS and the SCOC, continued to oppose the government’s involvement in internal disputes about continued sale of church lands to investors, the detention of clergy and other religious leaders, and the inability of Christian groups to seek legal recourse. On August 23, the NISS arrested seven SCOC church leaders and interrogated them for six hours, reportedly for refusing to comply with an August 14 government order to hand over church leadership to a government committee. The leaders reportedly were released on bail after authorities told them to comply with the government order, which they rejected. On October 22, police briefly detained and later released five SCOC church leaders after they refused to cancel prayer services at the Harat Church in Omdurman. The government reportedly charged them with disturbing the peace. There were reports of authorities arresting, intimidating, and detaining Christian clergy and church members on religious grounds, denying permits for the construction of churches, closing or demolishing existing churches and church schools, censoring religious materials and leaders, and restricting non-Muslim religious groups and missionaries from operating in or entering the country.
On April 3, a member of the ECC stabbed and killed SPECS elder Yonan Abdullah during an altercation between ECC supporters and opponents within SPECS over control of the SPECS-operated Omdurman Evangelical Church School. According to SPECS members, the ECC supported government efforts to sell off church properties to private investors; the SPECS members accused the government of interfering in the internal affairs of the church. Yonan was among a group of SPECS members protesting against ECC efforts to take control of the school. Eyewitnesses reported that plainclothes police officers at the school did not intervene in the attack but arrested the alleged attacker whose trial was pending at year’s end. From February to April police arrested more than 60 SPECS members opposed to the ECC’s efforts to sell the school. The government denied the accusation that it was behind the April 3 attack and attributed the incident to “internal feuding between two Christian administrative boards.” At year’s end, the government had not implemented a 2015 court decision stipulating that only a SPECS-appointed entity could govern the property decisions of the SPECS Church in Khartoum, and not the government-recognized ECC, which continued to sell the church’s land to private investors throughout the year. As of year’s end, the government had implemented neither a February Constitutional Court ruling that the government-recognized ECC was illegal, nor the court’s order for the ECC’s dissolution.
On January 29, a Khartoum court convicted Czech Christian aid worker Petr Jasek, Sudanese Church of Christ pastor Hassan Abdelrahim, and Sudanese student Abdelmoneim Abdumaula, from Darfur, of eight crimes, including espionage and “warring against the state.” On January 29, a court sentenced Jasek to life imprisonment, and Abdelrahim and Abdumaula to 12 years’ imprisonment. The men had been in detention since their initial arrest in December 2015. They had reportedly donated money to fund medical treatments for Ali Omer, a Darfuri student injured during antigovernment demonstrations in 2013, and documented alleged abuses against Christians who said they were persecuted in the Nuba Mountains and Darfur. Authorities arrested Jasek at Khartoum Airport when he attempted to leave the country with photos and documentation of abuses against Sudanese Muslims who converted to Christianity. Authorities said Jasek had illegally entered Sudan via South Sudan and provided money to rebel movements, and that Jasek, Abdelrahim, and Abdumaula conducted interviews and took pictures without obtaining prior governmental permission.
Following pressure from the international community and the arrival in Khartoum of Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir pardoned Jasek, who returned to the Czech Republic on February 26 after 14 months in NISS custody. On May 11, President Bashir pardoned and released Abdelrahim and Abdumaula following sustained international advocacy on their behalf, but the government banned them from obtaining passports and leaving Sudan. Following further international pressure, the NISS and Ministry of Interior lifted the travel ban on the two men in October. While in detention the three men were transferred multiple times with no reason given to various NISS detention facilities and were finally held in Al Huda Prison during their trial. All three men reported prison officials physically abused them and kept them in poor conditions. Jasek additionally said he suffered from several medical problems caused by his poor treatment in prison.
On January 19, the MGE reportedly appointed Angel Alzaki to head a government-backed Executive Committee of the SCOC, effectively removing Yacoub Tilian from SCOC’s leadership position. On August 23, the NISS arrested seven SCOC church leaders and interrogated them for six hours, reportedly for refusing to comply with an August 14 government order to cede church leadership to a government committee. The leaders reportedly were released on bail after authorities told them to comply with the government order, which they rejected. SCOC Head of Missions Pastor Kowa Shamaal and SCOC Moderator Ayoub Mattan were among the seven church leaders arrested for challenging the order. Shamaal was previously arrested in December 2015 with Petr Jasek, Hassan Abdelrahim, and Abdelmoneim Abdumaula but was acquitted of all charges and released in January.
According to Morning Star News, on September 22, the NISS arrested SCOC Elder Mahjoub Abotrin at his home in Omdurman. They interrogated him and released him the same day without charges. According to SCOC sources, Abotrin was arrested for his refusal to turn over the leadership of the SCOC to government appointees. The mandate of the current leadership expires in March 2018. The SCOC constitution calls for a general assembly every three years to appoint church leaders. Some observers stated a factor in the government’s intervention was that most SCOC members are ethnically Nuba, from the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan state, where the government was fighting a continuing insurgency. The observers said the government has accused ethnic Nuba of supporting the 2011 secession and continuing conflict in the areas adjacent to the border with South Sudan and has thus targeted them for their religious and ethnic affiliations. On October 22, police briefly detained and later released SCOC Moderator Reverend Ayoub Tiliyan, Reverend Ali Haakim Al Aam, Pastor Ambrator Hammad, evangelist Habil Ibrahim, and Elder Abdul Bagi Tutu for refusing to cancel prayer services at the Harat Church in Omdurman. The government reportedly charged them with disturbing the peace.
According to reports the Public Order Police frequently charged women with “indecent dress,” and there were numerous court convictions. Religious leaders and government officials confirmed that Muslim and Christian women were fined and lashed on a daily basis in Khartoum for wearing pants and other dress considered indecent by the Public Order Police.
International and domestic human rights observers continued to express concern that 2015 legal amendments widening the definition of apostasy targeted and discriminated against minority Muslim groups, especially Shia, whose practice of Islam differs from that of the Sunni majority. Many individuals from Muslim minorities, such as Shia or Quranist groups, reported that their places of worship have remained closed since 2014. They also stated that they needed to keep a low profile regarding their places of worship, as well as religious events and gatherings. Some Shia reported they remain prohibited from writing articles about their beliefs. In August government officials accused a Shia man of espousing “non-Sunni” religious beliefs. Reportedly, the man signed a written statement of repentance under pressure from the government. Persons continued to reference the case against 25 Muslims who faced the death penalty in 2015 on charges of apostasy for following the “wrong” version of Islam and who were acquitted in early 2016.
The Public Order Police arrested journalist Marwa Altijani on September 24, after she published two satirical articles on a popular website discussing religious concepts, including the divinity of God. She also reportedly wrote that it was not wrong to be a lesbian. Authorities charged her with apostasy under the relevant articles of the Criminal Code and released her two days later. They later dismissed the charges against her based on their assessment that she was psychologically unfit to stand trial.
In May the Omdurman sector prosecutor filed apostasy and public disturbance charges against Mohamed Salih Aldisogi after he attempted to change his religion on his state identification documents from Muslim to “nonreligious.” The prosecutor dropped all charges against Aldisogi after a state-appointed psychiatrist examined him without his consent and concluded he was not mentally competent to stand trial.
On October 1, police arrested Salafist preacher Muzamil Fageeri in front of his house in Khartoum State and charged him with apostasy after lawyers accused him of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, his companions, and wives while lecturing at the Musaab bin Omair dormitory in Khartoum. Police released Fageeri several days later. Independent observers stated they believed police arrested him because of a personal dispute between Fageeri and another imam.
On August 15, police evicted Reverend Yahia Nalu, pastor of the SPECS Omdurman church, and another minister who was living with Nalu and his family. from their home where Nalu and his family had lived for one year and a half. Police later arrested Nalu and held him for one day for “criminal trespass” after he refused to leave his home. The Administrative Court denied Nalu’s appeal of his eviction on August 20, and his legal counsel decided to take his case to the Supreme Court. Nalu’s trial began in November, but the judge repeatedly postponed hearings for administrative reasons.
There were reports government security services continued to monitor mosques closely for Friday sermon content. Observers stated authorities provided talking points and required imams to use them in their sermons.
Prisons provided prayer spaces for Muslims, but authorities did not allow Shia prayers independent of Sunni prayers. Shia prisoners were permitted to join prayer services led by Sunni imams. Some prisons, such as the Women’s Prison in Omdurman, had dedicated areas for Christian observance. Christian clergy held services in prisons, but access was irregular.
The government continued to state it did not have non-Muslim teachers available to teach Christian courses in public schools. Some public schools excused non-Muslims from Islamic education classes. Some private schools, including Christian schools, received government-provided Muslim teachers to teach Islamic subjects, but non-Muslim students were not required to attend those classes.
According to various church representatives, the government skewed its decisions on permit issuances for houses of worship towards mosques. Some churches reported they were less willing to apply for land permits or to construct churches given the government’s previous repeated denials. The government attributed its denial of permits to the churches not meeting government population density parameters and zoning plans.
Local parishioners reported that, compared to Islamic institutions, Christian places of worship were disproportionately affected by zoning changes, closures, and demolitions. The government said places of worship that were demolished or closed lacked proper land permits or institutional registration. The government stated mosques, churches, schools, hospitals, and residences were all affected equally by the urban planning projects. Sources estimated at least 24 churches, Christian schools, libraries, and cultural centers were “systematically closed,” demolished or confiscated by the government between 2011 and 2017.
In May government authorities demolished the SCOC in Khartoum (also known as Soba Al-Aradi church). In December 2016 the government issued a written notice to the Church, stating it had no legal right to the land on which the church was built in 1986. The Sudanese Council of Churches (SCC) and lawyers appealed on behalf of the church. While the church’s case was still pending in May, authorities appeared during a Sunday morning service to demolish the church. Parishioners and neighbors prevented the complete razing of the church by standing in front of the demolition vehicle until authorities left the site. Some of the church walls remained standing, but the church was rendered unusable. News of the demolition circulated widely on social media. As of year’s end, the church neither received compensation nor relocated elsewhere in Khartoum.
Two weeks after the demolition of Soba Al-Aradi church, authorities carried out the demolition of a large brick wall surrounding the Dihinat SCOC in the Kalakla sector of Khartoum State. A man dressed in a military uniform reportedly told church leaders that he had bought the land on which the church stood, as well as an adjacent plot. As of year’s end, the church building remained partially demolished.
During the July visit of Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, government officials told Welby they had formally cancelled a July 2016 order from the Khartoum State Government to demolish 25 churches the government had repeatedly denied existed. The government did not demolish any of the 25 churches by year’s end.
In August the state government made a request to five pastors that they demolish their churches – two SCOC churches, two Episcopal churches, and one Baptist church – located in Jaboronna Camp outside of Khartoum. The reason provided was that the Khartoum State Ministry of Physical Planning had begun rezoning the surrounding area three weeks earlier than announced and had already demolished several nearby homes. The pastors demolished their church buildings accordingly on August 3, based on verbal guarantees from government officials that the churches would be compensated and granted land elsewhere in Khartoum. Church leaders confirmed that the government provided temporary places of worship to each of the five pastors until they were fully compensated for the demolished churches. These were the first such reports of government provision of temporary places of worship to Christians pending compensation. There were no reports of compensation to two demolished churches (one Catholic and one Presbyterian) in Soba County of Khartoum State in December 2016, which authorities stated were on publicly owned land.
Unknown intruders on broke into the home of a human rights lawyer who defended multiple pastors in religious freedom trials on August 19, while his family was out of town. The individuals broke the metal locks on his steel door, took all of his English-language files and academic papers, and two removable flash drives. They also took his family’s television, his two children’s guitars and laptops, and his wife’s jewelry. In October 2016 unknown assailants also broke into his home and smashed all of the windows and mirrors; no belongings were taken. The lawyer was forced to relocate his family as a result of the intrusions. Observers alleged that authorities may have been responsible for both incidents.
The Church of Jesus Christ in Aliza, Khartoum North, continued to seek restitution for the government’s demolition of its church building in 2014 due to what the MGE said was lack of proper land permits and registration. According to the SCC, the church had not received compensation, and authorities continued to prevent it from constructing a new building.
The government continued to state that church demolitions were purely a land administrative issue that impacted not only churches, but also mosques, hospitals, schools, and private homes, but did not provide examples of mosques being destroyed during the year. The NISS noted the locations of other churches and mosques it was tracking which were located on what the government referred to as “unplanned areas” in Khartoum State. Christian leaders and lawyers said that gaining outright land titles remained very difficult given that the government legally continued to own all land, and thus the legal status of churches remained unclear.
In July the Khartoum State Ministry of Education ordered Christian schools (except for Coptic schools) to operate on Sundays in order to adhere to the national general schedule of operations mandating that schools operate from Sunday to Thursday. Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour publicly expressed concern that the order would damage the country’s international reputation. Members of the Khartoum State parliament also voiced opposition to parliamentary Deputy Speaker Mohamed Hashim, and told the Khartoum State minister of education the decision to cancel the Sunday holiday was not well studied. The order remained in place at year’s end; Coptic schools continued to be exempted. Local authorities reportedly threatened schools planning to oppose the order and resume Saturday instruction, although no schools reported they had been sanctioned for noncompliance. Schools temporarily increased instruction hours during the week in order to remain closed on Sundays and still meet the required hours of annual instruction. Schools and parents voiced concern that this was unsustainable for schools and students, and feared that schools would need to open on Sundays to alleviate the burden on teachers and families. Religious rights groups, including the SCC, stated the order could prevent Christian students from attending worship services and prevent parents from raising their children as Christians. In September approximately 60 parents of Christian and Muslim students who studied at Christian schools gathered outside of the Council of Ministers in Khartoum to protest the order requiring the schools to operate on Sundays.
The government continued to restrict some religiously-based political parties, including the Republican Brothers Party, which opposes the government’s use of sharia as a source of law. The Political Parties Affairs Council, which oversees the registration of political parties, refused to register the party, and the party’s leader filed a case in the Constitutional Court, which remained pending at year’s end.
Government officials continued to state Islamic principles should inform official policies and often pointed to sharia as the basis for the country’s legal framework. President Bashir and other senior figures frequently emphasized the Islamic majority of the country.
The government continued to restrict non-Muslim religious groups from operating or entering the country and continued to monitor activities and censor material published by religious institutions. The MGE said it granted a limited number of Christian missionary groups permission to engage in humanitarian activities and promote Muslim-Christian cooperation.
The government denied Christian churches or their humanitarian institutions tax-exempt status. Christian churches reported authorities required them to pay or negotiate taxes on items such as vehicles.
Leading officials from various churches reported the government refused to grant, or delayed renewing, work and residency visas to church employees of foreign origin, including missionaries and clergy, or to individuals it thought would proselytize in public places. This reportedly had a particularly negative impact on the Catholic Church whose clergy are mostly of foreign origin, while most clergy of other Christian denominations are ethnically Sudanese. The government only granted residence permits with less than a year’s validity. According to Catholic Church officials, the government continued to maintain restrictions on the entry of foreign clergy. In October the government issued 30 visas and residence permit renewals to Church personnel (clergy and nuns) after a six-month delay, representing only a portion of the international staff requested by the Church. Approximately 25 foreign missionaries left the country during the year due to protracted delays in obtaining visas and/or renewing residence permits. The government required clergy to pay a 70 Sudanese pounds (SDG) ($8) fine for every day they were not in residency status, approximately 12,600 SDG ($1,400) over six months.
The government closely scrutinized those suspected of proselytizing and used administrative rationales, or other aspects of the law such as immigration status, to either deport or exert financial pressure on such individuals. As a result, most non-Muslim groups refrained from public proselytizing.
Some religious groups reported the government barred the import of unapproved religious texts, and said most Christian denominations were unable to import teaching materials and religious texts as guaranteed by the constitution. According to a Morning Star News Service report in October, authorities in Port Sudan continued to detain a shipping container with Arabic language Bibles destined for Khartoum for two years without explanation.
A small number of Christian politicians, the majority of whom were members of the Coptic Church, continued to hold seats in the government.
Christian groups continued to call for a Christian director in the MGE Office of Church Affairs. The MGE-appointed director as of year’s end was a Muslim.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Government officials reported continued tensions between members of some Muslim groups. Muslims and non-Muslims said a small, growing, and sometimes vocal minority of Salafist groups continued to be a concern because some advocated violence. Some groups said that, by allowing the largest of these Salafist groups, the Ansari al-Sunna, to operate with little surveillance or intervention, the government gave tacit approval to the organization’s views.
Individual Muslims and Christians reported generally good relationships at the societal level and stated that instances of intolerance or discrimination by individuals or nongovernmental entities were generally considered to be isolated incidents.
The Sudan Inter-Religious Council, a registered nonprofit, nonpolitical organization consisting of scholars, half Muslim and half Christian, was mandated by its constitution to advise the MGE and to encourage interfaith dialogue. During the year members stated they continued to search for ways in which their involvement could promote the coexistence of religious groups in the country. The council, which was very active during the secession of South Sudan, became less active in resolving domestic religion-related disputes thereafter. Some Christian leaders stated they felt the council was dominated by Muslim leaders, while others, particularly those who participated, felt the council was a good forum to discuss challenges faced by evangelical Christian churches.
On August 25, Muhammad Hassan Tanoun, imam of Khartoum’s Islamist Al-Noor Mosque, delivered a sermon in which he stated, “ever since [the Jews] appeared on the face of the Earth, they have been the head of the serpent” and that “all things evil and all the tragedies on Earth are caused by their schemes, their deception, and their wickedness.” He also said, “How can the movement for normalization [of ties with Israel] be spreading in Muslim countries, even though those Jews are your worst enemies, oh Muslims?” His sermon followed statements made by Investment Minister Mubarak Al-Fadil Al-Mahdi on August 21 in favor of normalizing ties with Israel.
In another reaction to the investment minister’s remarks on normalizing ties with Israel, Major General Younis Mahmoud stated during an August 23 interview on Khartoum TV, reported on the Memri TV website, that the Quran provided evidence that “these Jews, these Zionists, never adhere to treaties” adding that “the fingerprints of the Jews and Zionists are on today’s problems.”
On November 25, fans of the al-Hilal soccer team displayed a portrait of Adolf Hitler and a sign that spelled out the word “Holocaust” during a match against a rival team. While the team condemned the fans responsible for the incident, its Facebook page posted pictures of the fans holding up the signs and portrait. The Sudanese Football Association (SFA) fined the team 40,000 SDG ($4,400) and banned the fans responsible from attending al-Hilal’s first 2018 game. As of December the International Football Association (FIFA) was investigating the incident, as was the team and the SFA. The UK-based organization Football Against Racism in Europe described the team’s fans celebrating the Holocaust and Adolf Hitler as “a gruesome first for Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Rival factions within SPECS led by Nalu and the MGE-supported Reverend Hamad Mohamed Saleh, who replaced Rafat Samir Musaad as leader of the SPECS in 2013, contested ownership of land where a house was located adjacent to a SPEC church and two evangelical Christian schools. Saleh, who possessed government-recognized ownership documentation for the property, signed a 50-100 year rental agreement with a business investor. The property is located next to the Omdurman Evangelical School, where SPECS church elder Yonan Abdullah was killed in April during an attack on Nalu’s supporters who protested the investor’s purchase of the school. Saleh previously signed legal agreements that allowed the same investor to rent properties where the SPECS-operated Bahri Presbyterian Evangelical Church, Omdurman Evangelical School, and Wad Medani Evangelical School were located. Although government officials denied playing any role in the dispute between Nalu’s and Saleh’s rival SPECS church factions, observers considered Nalu’s eviction to be another government attempt to support Saleh’s faction and to interfere in the internal affairs of religious groups.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In high-level meetings, Department of State officials, including the Deputy Secretary of State and the Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, encouraged the government to respect religious freedom and protect the rights of minority religious groups. In a speech on religious freedom at the Al-Noor Mosque in November, the Deputy Secretary urged the government to take concrete steps to protect the rights of religious minorities, and called for an immediate suspension of the demolition of houses of worship. The Special Envoy raised, in high-level government meetings, the prolonged detention of Hassan Abdelrahim and other clergy by the NISS without charge and urged the government to grant a fair and speedy trial.
In meetings between the Charge d’Affaires and the minister of guidance and endowments, the Charge promoted religious freedom as a means of achieving peace and stability. He said persons of different religions need to be able to practice their religious beliefs freely and that creating an environment without fear of harassment based on religion was crucial to bringing peace and stability to the country’s conflict areas. This included the Nuba Mountains, where there is a large Christian population. He also noted that as fighting has returned to South Sudan, the daily number of South Sudanese arrivals, many of whom are Christian, was increasing and the government should accommodate these refugees.
In May an official from the Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom met in Khartoum with government representatives, including Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour. They discussed ways Sudan could take concrete steps toward substantially improving the state of religious freedom in the country by addressing the concerns that had led to its designation as a Country of Particular Concern. The official stressed the need to address religious freedom concerns and urged a formal response to the proposed religious freedom action plan provided by the embassy in 2016. During the trip, the official also visited Bahri and Omdurman churches, and met with both SPECS factions, the Sudan Interreligious Council, and several other religious groups. Embassy officials proposed a roundtable on the registration and construction of religious properties as an important first step in such a process.
Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires emphasized religious freedom formed a key basis for broader normalization of bilateral relations and conveyed strong concerns to Minister of Guidance and Endowments Amar Mirghani Hussein Mohammed and other relevant officials regarding imprisoned evangelical Christian religious workers convicted of espionage; harassment of Muslim minorities; apostasy and blasphemy laws; threats by the Governor of Khartoum State to demolish more than 25 churches and religious establishments; arrests at the Omdurman Evangelical School of more than 60 clergy and lay members of Omdurman Presbyterian Church; the illegal sale of church properties; the denial of licenses for new churches; and enforcement of “indecent dress” laws.
Embassy officials met regularly with imams and Sufi clerics, and clergy and parishioners of Catholic and Protestant churches to hear their views on the religious freedom situation. Embassy officials attended religious ceremonies of different groups and underscored in regular meetings with leaders of Muslim and Christian groups the importance of religious tolerance. U.S. government representatives closely monitored and attended many of the legal proceedings concerning religious organizations and religious leaders. Embassy officials regularly attended weekly hearings from August to November for Peter Jasek, Pastors Kowa Shamal and Hassan Abdelrahim, and human rights activist Abdelmoneim Abdumaula. The Charge d’Affaires also attended the funeral of slain SPECS elder Yonan Abdullah.
The embassy regularly utilized its social media outlets to share articles and messaging related to religious tolerance and freedom. The embassy used social media to draw attention to the demolition of Soba Al-Aradi church and the killing of the Presbyterian elder by other church members aligned with the government. Messaging also often highlighted religious diversity in the United States and efforts by local communities to remain inclusive and maintain an open dialogue. The embassy issued statements in observance of both Christian and Islamic holidays.
Since 1999, Sudan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. On December 22, 2017, the Secretary of State redesignated Sudan as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the restriction on making certain appropriated funds available for assistance to the Government of Sudan in the annual Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, currently set forth in section 7042(j) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2014 (Div. K, Pub. L. 113-76), and any provision of law that is the same or substantially the same as this provision, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
The constitution protects “the freedom to practice one’s religion alone or in the company of others” and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government facilitated revenue collection for 17 religious groups through the taxation system and distributed publicly funded grants to 42 applicant religious groups in proportion to their membership. The government also provided grants to religious groups for religious education, spiritual work in the healthcare sector, refugee reception and integration, and security measures. The government continued to implement a plan to combat hate crimes, including religiously motivated ones. The plan resulted in additional funding and training for police and funding for civil society to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiments. The Living History Forum, a government-funded agency, trained 2,500 teachers and other school personnel on preventing and combating intolerance, including anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiments. Leading national and local politicians, including the prime minister, condemned anti-Semitic incidents in December. After a television broadcaster aired footage of a government-funded Muslim school seemingly segregating its pupils by gender on a school bus, the prime minister called the separation of the students “despicable.” Jewish groups criticized the police for approving an application by the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), widely characterized as a neo-Nazi group, for a protest march that would have passed near a Gothenburg synagogue on Yom Kippur. A court later changed the routing of the march. Several representatives of the Sweden Democrats (SD) political party made anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic remarks. The prime minister and other national and local officials stated their public support for religious freedom and the protection of religious groups.
According to the government, there were 1,177 suspected religiously motivated hate crimes reported to the police in 2016, a 24 percent decline from 2015. As in previous years, Muslims were the most frequently targeted group and Jews the most targeted relative to the size of the community. Incidents included acts of violence, illegal threats, discrimination, defamation, hate speech, vandalism, and graffiti. The government’s National Council for Crime Prevention (NCCP) stated it was likely all hate crimes continued to be significantly underreported, and a suspect was charged in just 4 percent of cases reported in 2015. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Open Doors reported 123 Christian immigrant interviewees, the majority from Muslim-majority countries, had been the victims of at least 512 anti-Christian incidents, including violence, sexual assault, death threats, social exclusion, insults, and other threats between 2012 and 2017. Assailants threw flaming objects at the synagogue in Gothenburg and at the Jewish cemetery in Malmo in December, and protesters in Malmo yelled “shoot all the Jews.” Government officials, including the prime minister, condemned the Gothenburg and Malmo incidents. A Jewish association in Umea closed in April after repeated harassment, which it tied, at least in part, to the NRM. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim groups expressed concern about the increase in NRM activities. In what police suspected were cases of arson, the country’s largest Shia mosque, in Jarfalla, was severely damaged in a fire in April, and another mosque in Orebro was destroyed by fire in September. In September, 10 Muslim groups called for action to guarantee the safety of the country’s mosques and their visitors.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials continued to engage regularly with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Culture, members of parliament, the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities (SST), the office of the national coordinator to combat violent extremism, and national and local police on issues related to religious freedom, including reports of tensions between religious groups, reports of antireligious acts against immigrants and other minorities, and the increased activity of neo-Nazi groups. Embassy officials spoke to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives in Gothenburg, Malmo, Stockholm, Umea, and Uppsala about their ability to practice their faiths freely and safely, and raised the concerns of specific religious groups with political leaders.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.0 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the Church of Sweden (Lutheran), approximately 61 percent of citizens are members. According to government statistics and estimates by religious groups, other Christian groups – including the Roman Catholic Church, the Pentecostal movement, the Missionary (or Missions) Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) – together total less than 7 percent of the population. The Pew Research Center estimated in 2016 that 8.1 percent of the population is Muslim. According to the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, Jews number approximately 20,000-30,000, concentrated mainly in larger cities such as Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo.
Smaller religious communities include Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and members of the Church of Scientology, Word of Faith, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), and Mandaeism.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides “the freedom to practice one’s religion alone or in the company of others.” The law mandates there be no limitation of rights or freedoms on the grounds of religious opinion.
The constitution instructs public institutions to combat discrimination based on religious affiliation. According to law, complaints about discrimination for religious reasons in the private sector, in the government, or by a government agency or authority must be filed with the Discrimination Ombudsman. The ombudsman represents an individual in the event of legal proceedings.
The constitution states that “the opportunities of religious minorities to preserve and develop a cultural and social life of their own shall be promoted.” No one is obliged to belong to a religious community or “divulge religious beliefs in relations with public institutions.”
There is no requirement in the law to register or recognize religious groups. Faith communities registering with the SST, however, receive tax exemptions similar to those of nonprofit organizations and are eligible to receive government funding. In order to register with the SST, a religious group must submit an application to the Ministry of Culture demonstrating the group fulfills certain requirements, including that it be stable and have operated in the country for at least five years, have a clear and stable structure, be able to function on its own, serve at least 3,000 persons (with exceptions), and be present in different locations in the country.
According to the law, animal slaughter must be preceded by stunning and/or the administration of anesthetics to minimize the animal’s suffering.
The law stipulates that male circumcision may be performed only by a licensed doctor or, for boys under the age of two months, by a person certified by the National Board of Health and Welfare. The board certifies mohels (individuals who conduct ritual Jewish circumcisions) to perform the operations on boys younger than two months but requires the presence of a medical doctor, who must administer anesthesia to the infant.
The government facilitates fundraising by religious groups by offering them the option of collecting contributions through the internal revenue service in exchange for a one-time fee of 75,000 Swedish kronor (SEK) ($9,200) and an annual fee of SEK 21 ($2.60) per member per year. The Church of Sweden is exempted from the annual fee as it, unlike the other religious groups participating in the scheme, does not receive financial support from the SST. Only religious groups registered with the SST may participate in the scheme. Religious groups freely choose what percentage of members’ annual taxable income to collect, with a median collection rate of 1 percent. When an individual joins a registered religious organization, the organization informs the Tax Agency that the new member wants to participate in the scheme. The Tax Agency subsequently begins to subtract a percentage of the member’s gross income and distributes it to the religious organization. The contribution is then noted on the member’s annual tax record. The member’s contribution is not deductible from income tax. Seventeen religious organizations participate in the scheme, including the Church of Sweden, the Roman Catholic Church, four Muslim congregations, and two Syriac Orthodox churches.
The government provides publicly funded grants to registered religious groups through the SST, which is under the authority of the Ministry of Culture. The grants are proportional to the size of a group’s membership. Registered religious groups may also apply for separate grants for specific purposes, such as security expenses.
The military offers food options compliant with religious dietary restrictions. Each military district has a chaplain who holds the position regardless of his or her religious affiliation. According to the law, chaplains may be of any religious affiliation, but all chaplains seconded to the armed forces belong to the Church of Sweden. Regardless of religious denomination, chaplains are required to perform religious duties for other faiths or refer service members to spiritual leaders of other faiths if requested. Jehovah’s Witnesses are exempt from national military service. Armed forces guidelines allow religious headwear. Individuals serving in the military may observe their particular religious holidays in exchange for not taking leave on public holidays.
Religious education to include all world religions is compulsory in public and private schools. Teachers use a curriculum that encompasses lessons about the major world religions without preference for any particular religious group. Parents may send their children to independent religious schools, which are supported by the government through a voucher system and which must adhere to government guidelines on core academic curricula, including religious education. Such schools may host voluntary religious activities outside the classroom, but these activities may not interfere with government guidelines on core academic curricula.
Hate speech laws prohibit threats or expressions of contempt for persons based on several factors, including religious belief. Penalties for hate speech range from fines to a sentence of up to four years in prison, depending on the severity of the crime.
Law enforcement authorities maintain statistics on hate crimes, including religiously motivated hate crimes. Authorities may add a hate crime classification to an initial crime report or to existing charges during an investigation, as well as at the trial and sentencing phase of a crime. In such cases, the penalties would increase.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Swedish Police Authority (SPA) continued to strengthen efforts to combat hate crimes, including antireligious hate crimes, in response to government directives from 2014. The police expanded its designated hate crime investigation units in Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo and conducted training for police across the country throughout the year. The National Police Commissioner announced in September that an additional SEK 10 million ($1.22 million) would be spent over the following year to prevent and investigate hate crimes. A follow-up report the SPA issued in February assessed “that it is still too early to comment on the effect with regard to the increased ability to investigate hate crimes.”
The SST offered security training to all 42 religious communities in its network and carried out such training for 75 religious representatives throughout the year. The training sessions taught the community leaders to evaluate and respond to threats, deal with hate crimes, and improve physical security.
The Jewish congregation in Malmo welcomed security grants from the SST that, for the first time, could be spent on hiring security personnel. The share of the congregation’s budget spent on security decreased significantly during the year as a result. The congregation also commended the Malmo police for providing increased protection during religious services and the municipal government for funding public tours of the synagogue. The Stockholm Jewish congregation similarly welcomed the new security grants but nevertheless reported that it spent 20-25 percent of its budget on security.
Several Christian churches and organizations criticized the Swedish Migration Agency for its treatment of asylum seekers who risked religious persecution in their home countries. According to a representative of an ecumenical organization, Migration Agency staff routinely evaluated asylum seekers’ claims to be Christian using questions that cast undue doubt on the asylum seekers’ faith and required an unreasonable level of knowledge about scripture, denominations, and other aspects of Christianity. The Christian newspaper Dagen reported in July and August that the Migration Agency had denied asylum requests of nine self-professed Christians who risked religious persecution in Iran and Pakistan. The representative of the ecumenical organization estimated that the actual number of Christians who risked religious persecution in their home countries after being denied asylum was “much higher.” The Migration Agency announced in July that it would review its procedures, investigate alleged wrongful denials of asylum, and increase religious training for its staff.
In April the Swedish Labor Court ruled against a midwife who had sued the regional administration of Jonkoping for discrimination on religious grounds. Hospitals in the region did not hire the midwife because she refused to participate in abortions, citing her Christian faith. The court ruled the regional administration’s decision to employ other candidates willing to carry out all the duties of a midwife and participate in abortions did not constitute a violation of her religious rights.
The government continued to implement its “national plan to combat racism, similar forms of hostility, and hate crimes,” launched in late 2016, including a focus on Holocaust remembrance. In accordance with the plan, the government gave the Living History Forum an additional SEK 14.1 million ($1.72 million) to promote tolerance, including religious tolerance. Throughout the year, the forum and the National Agency for Education carried out college-accredited training for 1,200 teachers and other school personnel to prevent and combat intolerance, including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. The forum also arranged five conferences across the country attended by 1,500 school personnel on the same topics and conducted regular training for police, social workers, and other civil servants. In October the forum launched an online training platform to assist teachers in classes about anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
After the Jewish Association in Umea closed in April following threats and harassment, the Governor of Vasterbotten, Magdalena Andersson, and leading municipal politicians joined a “kippah (yarmulke) walk” in support of the city’s Jewish community. Minister for Home Affairs Anders Ygeman commented, “It is of course completely unacceptable that any person is subjected to threats based on his or her religion. We must therefore ensure that the association has all the support it needs.”
The SST regularly educated municipalities about how to support and communicate with religious minorities and promote religious tolerance on the local level, for example, in conjunction with the planned construction of a mosque in Karlstad.
The SST held courses throughout the year for foreign-educated religious leaders and religious youth leaders to inform them about their rights and responsibilities in accordance with national laws and norms and strengthen their ability to safeguard religious freedom in their communities.
An imam and a Christian leader separately expressed concern about calls from leading politicians for increased government control over government-supported independent schools run by religious groups, as well as calls by some politicians to ban such schools outright. The governing Social Democratic Party decided at a party congress in April to support a prohibition on all religious activities at schools receiving government funds, including independent schools. “I want all children to attend schools free of religious aspects,” stated Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. In April the leader of the Left Party, Jonas Sjostedt, called for a ban on all independent religious schools, adding that “it is completely wrong that schools exist in Sweden that indoctrinate children into a specific religion. To learn about religion is one thing – you should learn about all faiths. But to practice religion in school is another thing; it does not belong there.” The Liberal Party and the SD decided at their respective party congresses in November to support a prohibition on establishing new independent religious schools. Three SD Members of Parliament (MPs) – Jeff Ahl, Johan Nissinen, and Marcus Wiechel – introduced a bill in parliament in September to ban all such schools outright. By year’s end, the government had not taken any action to propose such a prohibition.
In April television broadcaster TV4 aired secretly recorded footage showing a government-funded independent school with a self-identified “Muslim profile” in Stockholm seemingly segregating its pupils by gender on a school bus. Some students and teachers said the school had separated the boys from the girls because the former were being disruptive. Reacting to the broadcast, Prime Minister Lofven said, “I think this is despicable. This doesn’t belong in Sweden,” adding, “We take the bus together here, regardless if you’re a girl or a boy, woman or a man.” The school’s vice principal said it had no intention of separating the children by gender and said, “This is not something that has been known or sanctioned by school management.”
According to a survey conducted by the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in April, there were 71 independent schools that self-identified as religious, of which 59 were Christian, 11 Muslim, and one Jewish.
Schools continued to sponsor visits to Holocaust sites such as Auschwitz as educational tools. Students participated in such trips regardless of religious background.
The SST distributed grants totaling SEK 88.8 million ($10.84 million) to 42 religious groups in 2016, the latest year for which figures were available, consisting of SEK 53.5 million ($53.5 million) for operating expenses, SEK 10.6 million ($1.29 million) for theological training and spiritual care in hospitals, SEK 15 million ($1.83 million) for building renovations and refugee assistance, and SEK 9.7 million ($1.18 million) to install physical security measures and hire security personnel. Other than for operating expenses, the SST allocated funds based on grant applications for specific projects, which several religious groups often carried out jointly.
Financed in part by a grant of SEK 1.2 million ($147,000) from the Agency for Youth and Civil Society (MUCF) and supported by the City of Malmo, the city’s Jewish congregation and NGO Xenofilia carried out training to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of religious intolerance in schools. A total of 256 teachers, librarians, student counselors, and youth leaders in Malmo and the broader Skane region participated in the project during the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017; 87 percent of participants stated the course had improved their ability to counteract anti-Semitism.
The MUCF distributed SEK 1.4 million ($171,000) to civil society to combat anti-Muslim sentiment in 2016, the most recent year for which figures were available. For example, the MUCF awarded the NGO Fritidsforum SEK 811,000 ($99,000) to counter anti-Muslim attitudes at youth recreation centers.
Some Muslim groups and the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities continued to state they considered the law requiring stunning of and/or administration of anesthetics to animals prior to slaughter to be in conflict with their respective religious rituals. The Muslim community remained divided over whether the requirement conformed to halal procedures. The Jewish community reported the law effectively prevented the production of kosher meat. Most halal and all kosher meat was imported.
The Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, the U.S. NGO Anti-Defamation League (ADL), media, politicians, and others criticized the Gothenburg police for approving an application by the NRM for a protest march that would have passed within 500 yards of the Gothenburg synagogue on Yom Kippur (September 30). The Administrative Court of Gothenburg subsequently ruled to move the NRM’s protest further from the synagogue.
There were multiple reports that representatives of the SD, the country’s third largest political party, made denigrating comments about religious minorities. The newspaper Expressen and other media outlets reported in April that Susanne Larsen, the SD’s party chairperson in Halland and a member of the Halmstad municipal council, had made denigrating comments about Muslims on social media and shared articles from anti-Muslim online sources. Larsen denied allegations that in 2014, she wrote, “Muslims are evil and dangerous. What the Swedish government is doing today with the construction of mosques is to recognize Islam as a religion, and then the Muslims have received what they need to continue their mission … War is being imported to all of Europe in the form of Muslims.” Larsen resigned in August, citing personal reasons, and the SD expelled her from the party in September.
In Fargelanda, the SD expelled a local politician and party member after public broadcaster Radio Sweden reported in February that he had made anti-Muslim comments on social media in December 2016: “We should begin by placing pig’s blood and pig’s offal in places where Muslims congregate. When they subsequently get angry and attack us, we can take the next step and claim self-defense as permitted by the law.”
In January the SD forced a local politician to resign from the party after she told a newspaper she “hated all Muslims” and posted other derogatory comments about them online. The local SD leadership condemned her statements.
The SD expelled a local politician in Borlange in February after he referred to a party colleague as a “[expletive] Jew whore” in an audio clip that was circulated in the media.
In September Mattias Karlsson, an SD MP and the party’s former interim leader, called the Church of Sweden’s practice of occasionally inviting imams to read from the Quran in its churches “absurd, directly deplorable, and sickening.” He added, “Reading from the Quran in a Christian church – when the Quran states that Christians should be killed – is almost comparable to reading aloud from Mein Kampfin a synagogue.”
Speaking at the SD’s party congress in November, Martin Strid, a local party representative from Borlange stated, “There is a scale from one to 100. At one end of the scale, you are 100 percent a human, humane. At the other end of the scale, you are 100 percent ‘Mohammedan.’ All Muslims are somewhere along that scale. If you are ISIS, you are pretty close to 100 percent ‘Mohammedan.’ If you are an ex-Muslim, you have come pretty far toward being fully human.” He added, “[Islam] is a religion based on hatred, lies, and bondage … The punishment for leaving Islam is death, the punishment for criticizing Islam is death, and the punishment for making jokes about Islam is death.” SD leader Jimmie Akesson threatened to expel Strid from the party and called his statements “completely unacceptable” and “the worst thing I have ever heard in such a context.” Strid left the SD shortly after the party congress, and members of the public reported him for hate speech to the police and the discrimination ombudsman.
An SD-owned online newspaper, Samtiden, featured authors who made denigrating comments about Islam and Muslims. For example, on May 29, columnist Olof Hedengren called Islam an “existential threat,” and on April 25, he stated, “Islam is nondemocratic, homophobic, segregationist (us versus ‘the infidels’), and demeaning to women.”
In conjunction with International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, Minister for Home Affairs Ygeman and Minister for Culture and Democracy Kuhnke spoke at separate events to commemorate victims of the Holocaust and call for religious tolerance. Prime Minister Lofven condemned the Holocaust during a visit to Auschwitz in June accompanied by a survivor.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to an annual report by the NCCP, the number of hate crimes, which the NCCP classified as having a religious motivation, reported to the police declined by 24 percent in 2016, (the latest year for which figures were available) to 1,177, compared with 1,558 in 2015. According to the NCCP, “The statistics in the report can indicate how hate crimes are labeled as such in police reports and indicate structures among reported cases. However, the statistics say very little about the prevalence of hate crimes in society because most acts of crime are not reported to the police.”
Reported hate crimes with suspected anti-Muslim motives declined by 21 percent (to 439), those with suspected anti-Christian motives declined by 26 percent (to 289), and those with suspected anti-Semitic motives declined by 34 percent (to 182). As in previous years, Muslims were the most frequently targeted group among reported cases, and Jews were the most targeted relative to the size of the community. The number of reported incidents in the category “other antireligious hate crimes” declined by 19 percent (to 267). The NCCP categorized this group of incidents as those directed at religions other than Islam, Christianity, or Judaism; those between denominations of the same religion; and those related to conversions from one faith to another.
For each group in the NCCP report, the most common type of reported incident was making of illegal threats. The NCCP identified 38 anti-Muslim acts of violence (a decline of 17 percent), 32 reported anti-Christian acts of violence (no change from 2015), 10 reports of anti-Semitic violence (an increase of 25 percent), and 56 acts of violence in the category “other antireligious hate crimes” (an increase of 47 percent). Other types of reported incidents included discrimination, defamation, hate speech, and vandalism and graffiti.
According to the NCCP, the share of total reported hate crimes committed at housing facilities for asylum seekers increased from 1 percent in 2015 to 6 percent in 2016. The increase was particularly pronounced for reported anti-Christian incidents and those in the category “other antireligious hate crimes,” which increased from 7 percent to 13 percent and from 10 percent to 16 percent, respectively.
An NCCP poll released during the year illustrated the issue of underreported hate crimes. Of 11,600 Swedish residents who participated in the poll, 0.6 percent stated they were victims of religiously motivated hate crimes in 2015 – equivalent to approximately 47,000 individuals as a proportion of the country’s population. Only 26 percent of respondents who said they had been victims of such crime, however, had reported the incident to the police, according to the poll. Of those incidents that were reported, the NCCP stated authorities charged suspects in only 4 percent of cases.
The NGO Open Doors released a report describing the results of a survey, conducted between February and May, on religious persecution of Christian migrants in the country. The report consisted of a survey among 123 individuals who arrived in the country after July 1, 2012, and had “experienced religiously motivated persecution in Sweden due to their Christian faith.” The study questioned victims about the types of religious harassment they had experienced; it was not a survey of the prevalence of religiously motivated incidents experienced by all migrants. Respondents reported they had been the victims of at least 512 acts of religious persecution because of their Christian faith since arriving in the country. Fifty-three percent of respondents had reportedly been victims of at least one act of religiously motivated violence, 45 percent had received at least one religiously motivated death threat, and 6 percent were reportedly victims of religiously motivated sexual assault. Other incidents of religious persecution included social exclusion (30 percent), insults (28 percent), and threats (26 percent).
The respondents identified the perpetrators as other refugees and migrants (in 415 incidents), interpreters (in 52 incidents), and others (in 45 incidents). Eighty-one percent of respondents reported the anti-Christian incidents taking place in housing operated by the Swedish Migration Agency. Of the 123 participants in the study, 75 percent were male and 85 percent were citizens of Iran, Afghanistan, or Syria. Converts were overrepresented in the study, constituting 77 percent of participants. According to the report, only 33 respondents reported at least one of the incidents to the police, and only 49 out of 512 incidents were reported to the police. The authors of the report consequently concluded the actual prevalence of religious persecution of Christian migrants was significantly more widespread than suggested by the number of incidents reported to the police.
On December 9, a group of 10-20 masked men threw flaming objects at the synagogue in Gothenburg. No one was injured in the attack, and the building did not catch fire. Members of a Jewish youth group hosting a party in a connecting building hid and alerted police. Police arrested three men for suspected arson, one of whom remained detained by the end of the year, and the other two remained suspects. The prosecutor in charge of the case said she believed the incident was a response to unrest in the Middle East following the recognition of Jerusalem by the United States as the capital of Israel. The community group Together for West Gothenburg arranged a demonstration on December 10, during which they “love bombed” the synagogue by decorating it with flowers and paper hearts.
On December 11, an unknown perpetrator threw two Molotov cocktails at a chapel in a Jewish cemetery in Malmo. There were no injuries, and the chapel did not sustain any damage.
On December 12, two young men issued a bomb threat to a security guard working at the offices of the Malmo Jewish congregation.
At a protest in Malmo on December 8 and 9 in response to the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, protesters shouted “shoot all the Jews” and “the Jews should remember that Mohammed’s army will return,” according to public broadcaster Radio Sweden. The Jewish community in Malmo reported the statements to the police as hate speech.
Prime Minister Lofven condemned the incidents in Gothenburg and Malmo in a statement issued on December 10, which read in part, “I am outraged at the attack on the Gothenburg synagogue yesterday and at incitements of violence against Jews at a demonstration in Malmo. Anti-Semitism has no place in our Swedish society. The perpetrators will be brought to justice.” Prime Minister Lofven and other ministers also spoke at a demonstration of approximately 150 persons in support of religious rights and tolerance outside the Great Synagogue of Stockholm on December 20. Mayors Ann-Sofie Hermansson of Gothenburg and Kent Andersson of Malmo condemned the incidents and issued their support for the Jewish communities in their respective cities. Minister for Culture and Democracy Alice Bah Kuhnke attended a “kippah (yarmulke) walk” in Malmo on December 16 in support of the city’s Jewish community. Minister for Coordination and Energy Ibrahim Baylan and Minister for the Environment Karolina Skog both visited the Gothenburg synagogue to show the government’s support. Other members of the government, including Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallstrom and Minister for Justice Morgan Johansson, also condemned the incidents in Gothenburg and Malmo, as well as anti-Semitism more broadly.
The country’s largest newspapers condemned the attacks on the Jewish congregations in Gothenburg and Malmo. The country’s largest broadsheet Dagens Nyheter stated in an editorial on December 10, “Anti-Semitism is a specific type of disease that must be strongly attacked wherever it spreads.” The country’s largest tabloid Aftonbladet stated in an editorial on December 11, “It is important that the perpetrators in Gothenburg and Malmo are brought to justice. It must be clear to all that Sweden does not accept any form of anti-Semitism.”
The Jewish association in Umea closed its office in April and was looking for a new location in response to repeated neo-Nazi threats and harassment, which it tied, at least in part, to the NRM. For example, one member received Nazi literature in her home mailbox every year on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day; individuals repeatedly placed stickers featuring Nazi imagery and links to the website of the NRM and painted swastikas and the phrase, “We know where you live,” on the association’s building. Association members received online threats, and neo-Nazis interrupted at least one of the association’s events. In addition, a board member’s car was vandalized in an incident that the police suspect may have been tied to his involvement with the association. Victims reported a number of the incidents, but police had made no arrests by year’s end. Speaking about the closure of the Jewish association’s office, a representative of the ADL said, “This situation simply cannot be acceptable in today’s Sweden.” The ADL wrote to Prime Minister Lofven, urging the government to do more ensure the protection of Jewish institutions in the country.
An imam in Malmo reported that members of his congregation were frequently victims of harassment on religious grounds, mainly in the form of hate speech. According to the imam, most victims did not report the incidents to the police due to a belief that the perpetrators would neither be identified nor brought to justice.
The newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported in May that suspected supporters of ISIS and other extremist groups had threatened and harassed Shia Muslims, including by making death threats.
The country’s largest Shia mosque, the Imam Ali Islamic Center in Jarfalla, was severely damaged on April 30 in what police labeled a suspected act of arson. A representative of the congregation stated, “There is hatred and threats against us because Islamic State considers us their greatest enemy, whereas rightwing extremists view Muslims as a homogenous group.” Police arrested and quickly released a suspect shortly after the incident and had made no subsequent arrests by year’s end. No one was injured in the fire.
A mosque in Orebro was destroyed in a fire on September 26. Police labeled the incident as suspected arson and arrested a suspect on the same day. The suspect admitted to the crime, but police stated they did not believe there was a political or religious motive, citing the suspect’s possible mental illness.
In response to the arson attack on the mosque in Orebro and to “a series of attacks on mosques since 2014 that are becoming more frequent and vicious,” 10 Muslim groups issued a joint statement in September. They “demanded that necessary action is taken to guarantee the safety of the country’s mosques and their visitors,” and added that Muslim groups “have repeatedly pointed out the threat and security risks the country’s mosques. The government agencies in question have responded with an unwillingness to take action.” A leader of a signatory group added in an interview with news service TT, “We think this is so serious that the authorities must act quickly and forcefully to stop similar attacks against mosques and other religious places of worship, such as synagogues and churches.”
The NRM was involved in a number of antireligious incidents during the year, and Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders described the increased activity of the group as a significant concern for members of their faiths. In September a court in Eskilstuna charged an NRM member with hate speech for raising a Nazi flag outside the Eskilstuna city hall to commemorate Adolf Hitler’s birthday on April 20. On September 30, Yom Kippur, approximately 500 supporters of the NRM marched through Gothenburg, clashing with police and approximately 10,000 counterdemonstrators. Jewish community members said their Yom Kippur observance was not disrupted. Police arrested 22 NRM supporters and on December 18, charged NRM leader Simon Lindberg with hate speech for raising his fist and yelling “Hell seger (Hail victory)” during the September 30 march.
On December 18, a court in Gothenburg convicted 11 counterdemonstrators, sentencing eight to prison, for throwing rocks and firecrackers at police during the NRM’s September 30 march in Gothenburg.
A group of self-professed NRM members disrupted the December 20 demonstration supporting religious rights in front of the Great Synagogue of Stockholm, which included the participation of Prime Minister Lofven and other political leaders, by yelling during a speech by Minister of Culture Alice Bah Kuhnke. Police arrested one man for hate speech.
On September 20, the Hudiksvall District Court convicted a man of hate speech for posting on social media a picture of himself wearing a T-shirt with the text “Death to ZOG [Zionist Occupation Government].” According to the magazine Expo, the man “had been involved in the white power movement for several years.”
An imam at a mosque in Helsingborg called Jews “the offspring of monkeys and swine” during a speech at a protest in July against Israeli policies in Jerusalem. A local Jewish group reported the imam to the police for hate speech.
In March the World Jewish Congress released a report analyzing anti-Semitism on social media in the country in 2016. According to the report, there were approximately 2,350 anti-Semitic posts on social media in 2016, a decline from previous years. The report stated the government had been actively working to prevent such occurrences. It reported most of the anti-Semitic discourse consisted of expressions of hatred against Jews and the use of anti-Semitic symbols.
Citing a lack of evidence, a court in Malmo acquitted a man with stated ISIS sympathies of terrorist charges in conjunction with a fire at a Shia mosque in the city in 2016.
In July NRM members vandalized an art installation in Visby commemorating victims of the Holocaust. The perpetrators posted pictures of the incident on their own online Twitter feed.
Individuals posted NRM leaflets on the Malmo synagogue on two separate occasions.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy representatives continued to engage regularly with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Culture, MPs, the SST, the office of the national coordinator to combat violent extremism, national and local police, and local government officials on issues related to religious freedom, including concerns of specific religious groups, reports of tensions between religious groups, reports of religiously motivated acts against immigrants and other minorities, and the increased activity of neo-Nazi groups.
Embassy officials spoke to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives in Gothenburg, Malmo, Stockholm, Umea, and Uppsala about their security concerns and about threats to religious freedom more broadly.
Embassy officials made presentations on two occasions, in February and November, to a group of young evangelical Christian leaders on religious freedom in the country and abroad.