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Afghanistan

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam may exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property, according to the Sunni Islam Hanafi school of jurisprudence. The constitution states the Hanafi school of jurisprudence shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community continued to say the government’s provision of security in Shia-predominant areas was insufficient. Shia representatives said they saw no increase in Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) protection; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the Shia community ahead of large Shia gatherings. Following a series of deadly attacks by ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) in March that targeted Sikhs and killed 25 persons, approximately 200 members of the Sikh community departed the country for India, indicating they left because of the lack of security and insufficient government protection. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling commercial and civil disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation by the local community and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils.

There were reports that ISIS-K, an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities and that the Taliban targeted and killed individuals because of their religious beliefs or their links to the government. During the year, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded 19 attacks attributed to ISIS-K and other antigovernment elements targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 20 attacks in 2019 – causing 115 civilian casualties (60 deaths and 55 injured), compared with 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured) in 2019. According UNAMA, consistent with trends observed in the past four years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras. Two major attacks on the Shia Hazara community occurred during the year. On March 6, two gunmen opened fire on participants, primarily Shia Hazara, attending a commemorative ceremony in Kabul, killing 32; ISIS-K claimed responsibility. On May 12, three gunmen stormed a maternity clinic in a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons, including mothers, infants, and health-care workers; no group claimed responsibility, although the government believed ISIS-K was responsible. On March 25, gunmen attacked a Sikh gurdwara (house of worship and community gathering place) in Kabul, killing 25 and injuring 11. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for this attack. On March 26, an IED detonated during funeral services for the Sikh victims, injuring one person. Police also found and defused two other IEDs targeting Sikhs on March 26 and 27. The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam. Taliban gunmen killed progovernment imams and other religious officials throughout the country. The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. According to observers, the Taliban applied its interpretation of Islam in conducting a parallel system of justice. In February, in Baghlan Province, the Taliban shot and killed a pregnant woman named Fatima, who was accused of adultery. Media reported an Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission statement that on June 19, Taliban physically abused and killed the imam of a mosque in Baghlan Province for performing funeral rites for a local police commander. Insurgents claiming affiliation with ISIS-K reportedly engaged in similar activities. According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques, including attacking two mosques in June, leading to the deaths of two imams and other worshippers. During the year, antigovernment forces carried out several attacks on religious leaders that resulted in fatalities.

Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported verbal harassment by some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they still were able to practice their respective religions in public. Hindus and Sikhs said their children were harassed by fellow students in public schools, sometimes to the point that parents withdrew them from classes. According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. Christian groups reported public sentiment, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. They said individuals who converted or were studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims reported they continued to worship only privately, at home or in nondescript places of worship, to avoid discrimination and persecution. One mullah in Herat reportedly detained and punished with beatings more than 100 persons for what he said were violations of sharia; authorities did not restrain his activities, citing the need to focus on the Taliban. Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment by local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering. Observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities, such as music concerts, they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. According to minority religious leaders, due to the small size of their communities, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of violent attacks on the community, societal discrimination, and lack of employment opportunities. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported continued interference with efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, by individuals who lived near cremation sites. Despite requesting and receiving local authority support for security during their cremation ceremonies, the Hindu and Sikh communities continued to face protests and threats of violence that prevented them from carrying out the sacred practice. Before every cremation ceremony, the community requested the support of police, who sent security forces to the area to help avoid any disturbance. According to members of the community, at year’s end, approximately 400 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remained in the country, down from approximately 600 at the start of the year.

U.S. Embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and why it is important as well the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism, facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, and create policies to foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA), among other government agencies. The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers. Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, as well as religious minorities, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. On February 17, embassy officials conducted a discussion via the Lincoln Learning Center in Khost Province with students, civil activists, and youth to explore how religious freedom is promoted in the United States. The embassy used virtual platforms to engage communities so these discussions could continue despite COVID-19 restrictions. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify ways to counter violent religious extremism, empower female religious leaders, and promote tolerance for religious diversity. The embassy also used social media to condemn attacks on places of worship.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 36.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not track disaggregated population data. According to Pew Forum data from 2009, Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent of the population.

According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. According to Sikh leaders, there are fewer than 400 members of the Sikh community remaining in the country, compared with an estimated 600 at the start of the year and 1,300 in 2017. Most of the community is located in Kabul, with smaller groups in Nangarhar and Ghazni Provinces. Hindu community leaders estimate there are fewer than 50 remaining Afghan Hindus, all male and primarily businessmen with families in other countries.

The Ahmadi Muslim community estimates it has 450 adherents nationwide, down from 600 in 2017. Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including at least one Jew.

Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Baha’i faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam the official state religion and says no law may contravene the tenets and provisions of the “sacred religion of Islam.” It further states there shall be no amendment to the constitution’s provisions with respect to adherence to the fundamentals of Islam. According to the constitution, followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”

The penal code contains provisions that criminalize verbal and physical assaults on religion and protects individuals’ right to exercise their beliefs for any religion. The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. An article in the penal code specifies what constitutes an insult to religion, stating, “A person who intentionally insults a religion or disrupts its rites or destroys its permitted places of worship shall be deemed as a perpetrator of the crime of insulting religions and shall be punished according to provisions of this chapter.” The penal code specifies that deliberate insults or distortions directed towards Islamic beliefs or laws carry a prison sentence of one to five years and specifies imprisonment for persons using a computer system, program, or data to insult Islam.

Another article of the penal code states persons who forcibly stop the conduct of rituals of any religion, destroy or damage “permitted places of worship” (a term not defined by the code) where religious rituals are conducted, or destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion are subject to imprisonment of three months to one year or a fine ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 afghanis ($390-$780). In cases where killings or physical injury result from the disturbance of religious rites or ceremonies, the accused individual is tried according to crimes of murder and physical injury as defined by law.

While apostasy is not specifically provided for under the penal code, it falls under the seven offenses making up hudood crimes as defined by sharia. According to the penal code, perpetrators of hudood crimes are punished according to sharia as interpreted by the Sunni school of Hanafi jurisprudence. According to Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case,” beheading is appropriate for male apostates, while life imprisonment is appropriate for female apostates, unless the individual repents. A judge may also impose a lesser penalty, such as short-term imprisonment or lashes, if doubt about the apostasy exists. Under Hanafi jurisprudence, the government may also confiscate the property of apostates or prevent apostates from inheriting property. This guidance applies to individuals who are of sound mind and have reached the age of maturity. Civil law states the age of maturity for citizens is 18, although it is 16 for females with regard to marriage. Islamic law defines age of maturity as the point at which one shows signs of puberty, and puberty is usually applied as the marriageable age, particularly for girls.

Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts. If someone converts to another religion from Islam, he or she shall have three days to recant the conversion. If the person does not recant, then he or she shall be subject to the punishment for apostasy. Proselytizing to try to convert individuals from Islam to another religion is also illegal according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which is applied in the courts. Those accused of proselytizing are subject to the same punishment as those who convert from Islam.

Blasphemy, which may include anti-Islamic writings or speech, is a capital crime according to the Hanafi school. Accused blasphemers, like apostates, have three days to recant or face death, although there is no clear process for recanting under sharia. Some hadiths (sayings or traditions that serve as a source of Islamic law or guidance) suggest discussion and negotiation with an apostate to encourage the apostate to recant.

According to a 2007 ruling from the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court, the Baha’i Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy. All Muslims who convert to it are considered apostates; Baha’is are labeled infidels by other Muslims.

Licensing and registration of religious groups by the MOHRA are not required. Registration as a group (which gives the group the status of a council, known as a shura) or an association conveys official recognition and the benefit of government provision of facilities for seminars and conferences. By law, anyone who is 18 years of age or older may establish a social or political organization. Such an entity must have a central office as well as a charter consistent with domestic laws. Both groups and associations may register with the Ministry of Justice. The ministry may dissolve such organizations through a judicial order. Groups recognized as shuras may cooperate with one another on religious issues. Associations may conduct business with the government or the society as a whole.

A mass media law prohibits the production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and denominations. It also prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam and bans articles on any topic the government deems might harm the physical, spiritual, and moral well-being of persons, especially children and adolescents. The law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan, a government agency, to provide broadcasting content reflecting the religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country, all based on Islam. Some radio stations provide religious programming for Sunni Muslims, and a smaller number of radio stations provide religious programming for Shia Muslims. The law also obligates the agency to adjust its programs to reflect Islamic principles as well as national and spiritual values.

According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, national culture, as well as academic principles” and develop courses on religion based on the “Islamic sects” in the country. The national curriculum includes materials designed separately for Sunni-majority schools and Shia-majority schools as well as textbooks that emphasize nonviolent Islamic terms and principles. The curriculum includes courses on Islam but not on other religions. Non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools, but there are no alternatives offered. The registration process for madrassahs requires a school to demonstrate it has suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students live on campus. MOHRA registers madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the Ministry of Education registers madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-registered madrassahs, students receive instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels. Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allow students to pursue higher education at government universities.

According to the law, all funds contributed to madrassahs by private or international sources must be channeled through the Ministry of Education.

The civil and penal codes derive their authority from the constitution. The constitution stipulates the courts shall apply constitutional provisions as well as the law in ruling on cases. For instances in which neither the constitution nor the penal or civil codes addresses a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi jurisprudence within the limits set by the constitution to attain justice. The constitution also allows courts to apply Shia law in cases involving Shia followers. Non-Muslims may not provide testimony in matters requiring Hanafi jurisprudence. The constitution makes no mention of separate laws applying to non-Muslims.

A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she is not an adherent of one of the other two Abrahamic faiths – Christianity or Judaism. It is illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man.

The government’s national identity cards indicate an individual’s religion as well as nationality, tribe, and ethnicity. Individuals are not required to declare belief in Islam to receive citizenship.

The constitution requires the President and two Vice Presidents to be Muslim. Other senior officials (ministers, members of parliament, judges) must swear allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam as part of their oath of office.

The constitution allows the formation of political parties, provided the program and charter of a party are “not contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” The constitution states political parties may not be based on sectarianism.

The law mandates an additional seat in parliament’s lower house be reserved for a member of the Hindu or Sikh communities. The person occupying the seat is not obliged to swear allegiance to Islam, only to obey the law and serve all citizens and the state.

MOHRA is responsible for managing Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, revenue collection for religious activities, acquisition of property for religious purposes, issuance of fatwas, educational testing of imams, sermon preparation and distribution for government-supported mosques, and raising public awareness of religious issues.

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

Government Practices

Media reported and representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community continued to say government security and development initiatives in Shia-predominant areas were insufficient, merely symbolic measures – and that the government failed to implement effective measures to protect the community, including from nonstate actors. Members of the Shia community reported they saw no increase in ANDSF protection during the year; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the community ahead of large Shia gatherings. The Ministry of Interior again promised to increase security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians under police authority to provide extra security for the Ashura commemoration. According to media reports, security forces took special precautions to reduce street traffic in the affected neighborhoods of Kabul during the Ashura commemoration period. There were no reports of violence during Ashura processions.

Following a series of deadly attacks by ISIS-K in March that killed 25 persons, approximately 200 members of the Sikh community departed the country for India, indicating they left because of lack of security and insufficient government protection.

There were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty. Baha’is continued to be labeled as “infidels” by many Muslims, although they were not always considered converts from Islam (apostates); as such, they were not charged with either crime.

MOHRA officials said the ministry had no official statistics on the number of mullahs and mosques in the country because it lacked the financial resources to generate a comprehensive registry, but they estimated there were approximately 160,000 mosques. MOHRA reported that at year’s end, of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 7,000 mullahs were registered with and paid by MOHRA. They said registered mullahs working directly for MOHRA continued to receive monthly salaries of between 7,710 and 15,420 afghanis ($100-$200) from the government, depending on their location, the size of their congregation, and the knowledge of the mullah. MOHRA reported that just 7,000 mosques in the country were registered with the ministry.

MOHRA reported it continued to allocate approximately 65 percent of its budget (188 million afghanis – $2.44 million) for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques. Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about new construction.

Hindu and Sikh groups again reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy but not to spread information about their religion or encourage others to practice it. Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing commercial and civil disputes in the courts for fear of retaliation and that they avoided pursuing land disputes through the courts for the same reason, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property.

Although the government provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs also reported that individuals who lived near the cremation site continued to interfere with their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government allocated 80 million afghanis ($1.04 million) for the repair of places of worship, including for Sikh and Hindu sites, of which 40 million afghanis ($520,000) were expended as of October 2020. Community leaders reported that MOHRA provided free water and electricity and was making efforts to provide repair services for a few remaining Sikh and Hindu temples.

According to MOHRA, due to insecurity, the ministry did not have access to most of the country, especially in districts, villages, and rural areas. MOHRA officials said there were hundreds or thousands of unregistered mosques and madrassahs located in Taliban-controlled areas. They said that in rural areas and most villages, mosques were used as madrassahs and that because most mosques were not registered, most madrassahs were not either. In November, the First Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, ordered the Central Statistics Office to register all teachers and students of the 362 madrassahs in Kabul City and of the 130 madrassahs in the other districts of Kabul Province. Once registration was complete in Kabul Province, the office was expected to conduct the same process throughout the country. According to MOHRA, there was no system or mechanism for opening a new madrassah, particularly at the district level and in villages. MOHRA officials said it did not have a database or information on the number of madrassahs or mosques, except for information on the number of mosques located at provincial or district centers with imams on the MOHRA’s payroll. According to media reporting, there were approximately 5,000 madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country registered with MOHRA. More than 300,000 students were enrolled in these registered madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to MOHRA’s estimates. The government stated that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it did not have sufficient resources to consolidate data on the enrollment of students in religious institutions.

MOHRA officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery. Government officials said they were concerned about their inability to supervise unregistered madrassas that could teach violent extremist curricula intolerant of religious minorities and become recruitment centers for antigovernment groups.

Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Approximately 80 Ministry of Education-registered public madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. An estimated 1,000 public madrassahs were registered with the ministry, each receiving financial support from the government. There were no estimates of the number of unregistered madrassas available.

Members of the Ulema Council, the highest religious body in the country, continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government. The council also provided advice to some provincial governments; however, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition. President Ashraf Ghani held meetings with Ulema Council members on promoting intrafaith tolerance and “moderate practices” of Islam.

Minority religious groups reported the courts continued not to apply the protections provided to those groups by law, and the courts denied non-Muslims equal access to the courts and other legal redress, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights.

Representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, including Sikhs and Hindus, reported a consistent pattern of discrimination at all levels of the justice system. As Taliban representatives engaged in peace process discussions, some Sikhs and Hindus expressed concern that in a postconflict environment they might be required to wear yellow (forehead) dots, badges, or armbands, as the Taliban had mandated during its 1996-2001 rule. Non-Muslims said they continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence. Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.

Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to state they faced discrimination in the judicial system, including long delays in resolving cases, particularly regarding the continued appropriation of Sikh properties.

MOHRA’s office dedicated to assisting religious minorities, specifically Sikhs and Hindus, focused on helping Sikhs and Hindus secure passports and visas so they could permanently leave the country, most often to India.

Some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government, including Second Vice President Sarwar Danish and a number of deputy ministers, governors, and one member of the Supreme Court, but no cabinet-level positions, unlike in previous years. Shia leaders continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics, which they attributed to the government’s marginalization of minority groups and the lack of a supportive social environment. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia were overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. According to some observers, Hazaras, who are mostly Shia Muslims, often faced discrimination based on their ethnicity and religion. Some observers also said the country’s Shia were underrepresented in government not because of their religion, but because of their Hazara ethnicity. According to NGOs, the government frequently assigned Hazara police officers to symbolic positions with little authority within the Ministry of Interior. NGOs also reported that Hazara ANDSF officers were more likely than non-Hazara officers to be posted to insecure areas of the country.

A small and decreasing number of Sikhs continued to serve in government positions, including one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, one as an elected member in the lower house, and one as a presidential advisor on Sikh and Hindu affairs.

Three Ismaili Muslims were members of parliament, down one from 2019, and State Minister for Peace Sadat Mansoor Naderi is also an Ismaili Muslim. Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.

The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques. The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council (a Shia-led initiative with some Sunni members), and MOHRA continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation. On October 25 and November 12, they held meetings in Kabul to address concerns and find areas of mutual cooperation. On October 1, women’s rights activist Jamila Afghani organized the country’s first women’s Ulema conference, held in Kabul. Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

According to journalists, local observers, and UNAMA, attacks by ISIS-K and other insurgent groups continued to target specific religious and ethnoreligious groups, including the Shia Hazara. During the year, UNAMA documented a reduction from 2019 in civilian casualties from attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers. UNAMA recorded 19 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 20 attacks in 2019. The attacks caused 115 civilian casualties (60 deaths and 55 injured), compared with 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured) in 2019. The report attributed all the attacks to antigovernment elements.

UNAMA continued to report high levels of ISIS-K-directed, sectarian-motivated violence, primarily targeting the Shia Muslim, mostly ethnic Hazara, population. It documented 10 incidents of sectarian-motivated violence against Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims, and Sikhs, resulting in 308 civilian casualties (112 killed and 196 injured), compared with 2019 when there were 10 incidents resulting in 485 civilian casualties (117 killed and 368 injured).

Several major attacks against the Shia Hazara community occurred during the year. On March 6, gunmen attacked a ceremony in Kabul attended primarily by Shia Hazara, killing 32 persons; ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. On May 12, three unidentified gunmen stormed a maternity clinic in a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons, including mothers, infants, and healthcare workers; no group claimed responsibility. On October 24, a suicide bomber staged an attack on an educational center in the same Shia Hazara-dominant neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons and wounding 57. Most of the casualties were between the ages of 15 and 25. ISIS-K claimed responsibility.

On March 25, gunmen attacked a Sikh gurdwara in Kabul, killing 25 and injuring 11 during a six-hour siege. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for this attack. On March 26, an IED detonated during funeral services for the Sikh victims, injuring one. On March 27, police found and defused another IED near the Kabul gurdwara. In the months that followed, many Sikh families departed the country, primarily to India, due to threats against Sikhs and what they perceived to be inadequate government protection.

Progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks for which no group claimed responsibility. Media reported that on January 28, the district director of the Hajj and Religious Department for Pashtun-Zarghon District in Herat Province, Mullah Abdulhamid Ahmadi, was shot and killed by unidentified individuals. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Media reported that on February 2, unidentified gunmen killed one person praying in a Shia mosque in Herat. On February 11, five children were killed and three others wounded when a bomb exploded at their Sunni madrassah in Kunduz Province. All the children were under the age of 14. On May 13, unknown gunmen attacked worshippers praying at a Sunni mosque in Khost Province. One person was killed and another wounded. On May 19, unidentified gunmen killed three persons and wounded another in a Sunni mosque in Khost. Also on May 19, in Parwan Province, gunmen opened fire on worshippers gathered at a Sunni mosque, killing 12, including four children, and wounding six. None of the perpetrators was identified.

On June 18, a bomb killed at least seven students at a seminary in Takhar Province. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, and there was no investigation of the incident by year’s end.

According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted progovernment Sunni mosques. On June 2, a bomb exploded inside the Sunni Wazir Akber Khan Mosque in Kabul, killing the imam and one other worshipper attending evening prayers. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. On June 12, a bomb in the Sunni Sher Shah Suri Mosque in Kabul killed four men gathered for Friday prayers, including the imam. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Following these attacks on two mosques in June, clerics gathered in Kabul to demand government protection of religious figures. Media reported that the Ministry of Interior said it had assigned a team to investigate the incidents.

The Taliban continued to kill religious leaders and threaten them with death for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam or its political agenda. Media reported that on December 22, the Taliban killed Imam Mawlawi Ghullam Sakhi Khatib in Farah because of his progovernment messaging.

In several cases, the responsibility for attacks on progovernment religious leaders was unclear. In these instances, although no individual or group claimed responsibility, local authorities said they suspected that ISIS-K or, less frequently, the Taliban were responsible. On June 13, an imam in Takhar Province was killed and two of his companions wounded by unidentified gunmen as the imam returned from prayers. No group claimed responsibility. On October 17, a religious scholar was killed by a bomb that exploded inside the seminary where he studied in Nangarhar Province; no group claimed responsibility.

There continued to be reports of the Taliban monitoring the social practices of local populations in areas under their control and imposing punishments on residents according to their interpretation of Islamic law. According to observers, the Taliban applied its interpretation of Islam in conducting a parallel system of justice. In February, in Baghlan Province, the Taliban shot and killed a pregnant woman named Fatima, who was accused of adultery. The man with whom she was reportedly involved escaped. Media reported that on August 4, the Taliban killed a local singer in Takhar Province as he returned home from a wedding because the Taliban considered singing to be prohibited in Islam.

There were again reports of Taliban warnings to mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. As a result, according to MOHRA officials, imams continued to state they feared performing funeral rites for members of the ANDSF and other government employees. According to media, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that on June 19, the Taliban tortured and killed the imam of a mosque in Baghlan Province for performing the funeral rites of a local police commander.

According to religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISIS-K in their sermons.

There again were reports of the Taliban taking over schools in areas under their control and imposing their own curricula; however, it was difficult to obtain information in Taliban-controlled territory.

Shia Hazara leaders said the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations in Doha offered a chance for a peaceful future but were concerned a postsettlement Taliban would “turn back the clock” to a time when human rights, including religious freedom, were not respected in Afghanistan. Hazara leaders expressed concern that, if the Taliban established an Islamic emirate in the country, the Taliban would not accept Shia Islam as a formal religion and would ignore laws currently in place that protect Shia. In March, the UN Security Council issued UN Security Council Resolution 2513 noting that the Security Council did not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Islamic Republic’s negotiating team for the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations included Shia Hazara representatives.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Since religion and ethnicity in the country are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions. Members of the Hindu community reported they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress.

According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. According to some sources, converts to Christianity and individuals studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members opposed to their interest in Christianity. Christian sources estimated there were “dozens” of Christian missionaries in the country, mostly foreign but some local.

According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, members of their groups continued to worship only in private to avoid societal discrimination and persecution.

Women of several different faiths, including Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, some women said they continued to wear burqas or other modest dress in public in rural areas and in some districts in urban areas, including in Kabul, in contrast to other more secure, government-controlled areas, where women said they felt comfortable not wearing what they considered conservative clothing. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and increase their security in public.

Ahmadi Muslims continued to report verbal abuse on the street and harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith. They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad. They said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Ahmadis continued to report the increasing need to conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public and their intent to depart the country permanently if there was a peace agreement with the Taliban. Ahmadis said they received direct as well as indirect threats against their safety in the form of notes, telephone messages, and other menacing communications because of their faith. Ahmadis representatives said they did not report these threats to police because they feared additional verbal harassment and physical abuse from police and other officials.

Christian representatives continued to report public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations, sometimes 10 or fewer persons, in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. They reported pressure and threats, largely from family, to renounce Christianity and return to Islam. The dates, times, and locations of these services were frequently changed to avoid detection. There continued to be no public Christian churches.

According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few remaining places of worship. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were a total of 70 gurdwaras and mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, although they did not specify how many of each. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said their complaints over seizures of their places of worship in Ghazni, Herat, Kandahar, Khost, Nangarhar, Paktiya, and Parwan Provinces – some pending since 2016 – remained unresolved at year’s end. The ONSC established a commission to assist in the restoration of these properties, but no further action was taken by year’s end.

Community leaders continued to say they considered the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons. Sikh and Hindu leaders again reported neighboring residents tended to place household trash in their temples of worship. Although they filed official complaints to police, neither local authorities nor local imams took action to remedy the situation.

According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and one school in Kabul remained operational. Sikh and Hindu representatives, however, again said these schools lacked capable teachers, books, and other items necessary to teach students.

While in past years Sikh leaders stated the main cause of Sikh emigration was lack of employment opportunities, due in part to illiteracy resulting from lack of access to education, during the year they said threats from antigovernment groups, inadequate government protection, and multiple attacks on the community in March caused many families to emigrate or consider doing so. Many left for India, where international Sikh organizations facilitated their relocation. Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples because they could not afford permanent housing. Both Sikh and Hindu communities stated emigration would increase as economic conditions declined and security concerns increased. Community leaders estimated fewer than 400 members of the Sikh and Hindu community remained in the country at year’s end, down from approximately 600 at the start of the year. They said the departure mirrored events in 2018, when 500 to 600 Sikhs fled the country following a major attack on the community. Some Sikhs and Hindus also reported that they faced frequent calls to convert to Islam.

Media published reports of both Shia and Sunni leaders condemning particular secular events as contrary to Islam; however, there were no prominent reports of joint condemnations. Media reported a cleric in the city of Herat banned public music and concerts, stating that certain television programs and social media platforms were un-Islamic. The cleric enjoyed the support of hundreds of supporters; according to press and other observers, local law enforcement rarely interfered with the cleric’s strict interpretation and enforcement of sharia. The same mullah reportedly detained and punished with beatings more than 100 persons for what he said were violations of sharia, such as women not covering their hair or public contact between unrelated men and women.

Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the self-proclaimed last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby abandoned Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump; reportedly many abandoned Islamic cemeteries were also used as dumping sites. The lone Jew said it was becoming more difficult for him to perform his religious rituals. He said that in the past, Jews from international military forces and foreign embassies had attended the synagogue, but they could no longer do so due to security concerns.

Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul, but security restrictions limited access.

Media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports. Women who swam at a private swimming club in Kabul and exercised at a gym in Kandahar told media they experienced harassment from men when going to and from these facilities and sometimes faced the disapproval of their families due to traditional attitudes against women’s participation in sports.

NGOs reported some Muslims remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and why it is important as well the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. In meetings with members of the President’s staff, the ONSC, MOHRA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials continued to promote understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism. Senior embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to accept and protect religious minorities, although COVID-19 restrictions changed the platforms for engagement used by embassy officials, and many discussions were held virtually.

Senior embassy officials met with leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities following the March attacks on the Sikh community to understand their concerns and their ability to practice their faith. On March 28, senior embassy officials met with Shia Hazara leaders to discuss the peace process and the protection of Afghan ethnic and religious minorities. On October 14, senior embassy officials met virtually with members of the Shia Hazara community to discuss their perspectives on the peace negotiations and how they might affect their community, including religious freedom.

Embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to discuss the issue of ensuring madrassahs did not offer a curriculum encouraging religiously motivated violent extremism, which could foment intolerance towards the country’s religious minorities. The embassy continued to coordinate with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to promote respect for religious diversity.

Embassy officials held regular meetings with government officials from MOHRA; leaders of religious minorities, including Shias, Sikhs, Hindus, and Ahmadis; imams; scholars; and NGOs to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue, especially in the context of peace negotiations. The embassy reaffirmed the U.S. government’s commitment to promoting religious freedom and tolerance. It coordinated events with researchers and religious scholars throughout the provinces to discuss religion as an avenue to promote tolerance. On February 17, embassy officials conducted a discussion via the Lincoln Learning Center in Khost with students, civil activists, and youth to explore how religious freedom is promoted in the United States. On February 20, representatives of the Lincoln Learning Center in Gardiz visited the Sikh minority community of Gardiz to highlight interfaith tolerance. On May 21, the Lincoln Learning Center network hosted a speaker who shared his personal experience about how Muslim Americans observe Ramadan in the United States. In addition, in the context of the connections between ethnicity and religious identities in the country, embassy officials hosted panel discussions to analyze antiracism efforts through an Islamic lens.

The embassy hosted in-person and virtual roundtables with researchers, Sunni and Shia religious scholars, Ulema Council members, including members of the Women’s Ulema, and MOHRA representatives to discuss means to counter violent extremism related to religion and to promote tolerance.

The embassy also used social media to support religious freedom. On January 16, U.S. Religious Freedom Day, the embassy highlighted on Twitter and Facebook a roundtable with faith communities that centered on how tolerance promotes peace and underscored the U.S. government’s support for religious freedom. Senior Department of State officials condemned the late March attacks on the Sikh community in Kabul through tweets and media statements. In drawing attention to diversity in June, the Charge d’Affaires shared a quote on social media expressing U.S. commitment to stand with an Afghanistan that promotes freedoms for all its citizens, including in following their faith. The Charge d’Affaires condemned through Twitter the June 2 attack on a Kabul mosque that resulted in the death of its imam and other worshippers.

Armenia

Executive Summary

The constitution states that everyone has freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) as the national church and preserver of national identity but also establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. The law prohibits, but does not define, proselytism, which may be interpreted as forced conversion. The trial continued of a prominent Baha’i lawyer, charged in 2017 with organizing illegal migration to the country. Baha’i community members said they believed the charges were brought because of his religion. On February 18, the Constitutional Court ruled as unconstitutional the blanket restriction on religious membership among law enforcement in the Law on Police Service. Following the ruling, a police officer dismissed in 2018 for his religious affiliation was reinstated in his position. Societal debate continued concerning government plans to review the public school curriculum on the history of the Armenian Church, which was in progress at the end of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. During the hostilities, the government declared martial law, under which restrictions were imposed on freedoms of expression, assembly, and movement. Most of the restrictions were lifted December 2. In the territories previously controlled by Armenia-supported separatists, numerous incidents of neglect, destruction, and desecration of religious sites were reported. The Azerbaijani government stated 63 of the 67 mosques in these territories had been destroyed. It was unknown how many were damaged during earlier hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a result of neglect, or due to intentional damage. Some mosques were reportedly used to house livestock, including pigs. International journalists visiting these territories following the fall fighting confirmed the destruction of Muslim graves and graveyards while under Armenia-supported separatist control.

Religious minorities said they continued to face hate speech and negative portrayals of their communities, especially in social media, although many reported a decrease in negative commentaries in mid-November after the end of intensive fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. According to observers, anti-Semitism increased in the country after Israeli-supplied weapons were used by Azerbaijan during the conflict. The Holocaust and Genocide Memorial – a memorial in downtown Yerevan marking the Holocaust and mass killing of more than one million Armenians by Ottoman Turkey – was vandalized on two occasions under unknown circumstances. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were no instances of verbal harassment towards the group’s members during the year. One other minority religious group that preferred not to be identified reported a single incident of harassment during the year. Sources stated that societal and family pressure remained a major deterrent for ethnic Armenians to practice a religion other than the Armenian Apostolic faith.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance, respect for religious minorities, and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly consulted with minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, as well as with individual members of the Muslim community, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Embassy officials engaged government officials and civil society representatives to discuss the impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on religious groups and religious sites of significance to Armenian communities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 92 percent of the population identifies as Armenian Apostolic. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics; Armenian Uniate (Mekhitarist) Catholics; Orthodox Christians; and evangelical Christians, including Armenian Evangelical Church adherents, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, charismatic Christians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are also followers of the Church of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East; Molokan Christians; Yezidis; Jews; Baha’is; Shia Muslims; Sunni Muslims; and pagans, who are adherents to a pre-Christian faith. According to an International Republican Institute (IRI) poll released in December 2019, 97 percent of the country’s population identifies as Armenian Apostolic, 2 percent other, and 1 percent none. According to members of the Jewish community, there are approximately 800 to 1,000 Jews in the country.

According to the country’s 2011 census, there are more than 35,000 Yezidis, with some more recent estimates suggesting approximately 50,000. Yezidis are concentrated primarily in agricultural areas northwest of Yerevan around Mount Aragats. Armenian Uniate Catholics live primarily in the north. Most Muslims are Shia, including Iranians and temporary residents from the Middle East.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The law prohibits, but does not define, “soul hunting,” a term describing both proselytism and forced conversion. The law prohibits religious organizations with spiritual centers located outside the country from receiving funding from those foreign centers, but there is no mechanism to enforce the law. The law also prohibits religious organizations from funding or being funded by political parties.

The law does not categorize or regulate the residence status of foreign religious volunteers.

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

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

The criminal code prohibits “obstruction of the right to exercise freedom of religion” and prescribes punishment ranging from fines of up to 200,000 drams ($390) to detention for up to two months.

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

The penitentiary code allows penal institutions to invite clergy members to conduct religious ceremonies and use religious objects and literature. Prisoners may request spiritual assistance from the religious group of their choice. A joint Ministry of Defense-AAC agreement allows only AAC clergy to serve as military chaplains.

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

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

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

The labor code prohibits employers from collecting and analyzing data on the religious views of employees. Changes to the labor code, adopted by the National Assembly on June 2, authorize up to four days of unpaid leave for observing national and religious holidays or remembrance days, regardless of religious affiliation.

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

The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred calling for violence through public statements, mass media, or using one’s public position and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($390 to $970) to prison terms of between three and six years.

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

Government Practices

During the year, Edward Manasyan, a prominent member of the Baha’i community, continued to face 2017 charges of facilitating illegal migration to the country by advising Iranians wishing to settle in the country. He was held in pretrial detention for eight months before the trial court judge released him on bail in 2018. On July 17, the Court of Appeals rejected two of the 2019 appeals filed by the Baha’i community against the NSS in connection with concerns over surveillance of Baha’i community members preceding Manasyan’s arrest. The Baha’i appeal stated the NSS illegally used wiretaps to surveil the community’s office as well as the community secretary and used the information gathered as the basis to charge Manasyan. The community’s appeal of these decisions with the Court of Cassation remained pending by year’s end. At year’s end, Manasyan’s trial was also ongoing.

According to sources, throughout the year, Narek Malyan, the founder of the initiative Veto, and his supporters continued to harass the Yezidi Center for Human Rights and its founder, Sashik Sultanyan, as part of their broader online campaign of harassment of Open Society Foundations-Armenia, a donor organization of the Yezidi Center for Human Rights. On September 8, Malyan stated he applied to the NSS to launch a criminal case against Sultanyan, accusing him of inciting national religious enmity, based on an interview Sultanyan gave to an Iraqi-based media outlet in which he discussed the issues faced by the Yezidi community in the country. The NSS launched a criminal case based on what civil society organizations called a fake and baseless accusation. While authorities did not charge Sultanyan as a defendant in the case, according to civil society, at year’s end, the NSS continued to investigate him and the Yezidi Center for Human Rights, hindering the organization’s activities and harassing those affiliated with the NGO.

Most public and private schools continued to teach HAC courses throughout the country in grades five through 11.

Yezidi community representatives again reported dissatisfaction with the mandatory HAC course, terming it “religious indoctrination.” While schools with an all-Yezidi student body were able to remove the course from their curriculum, Yezidi children who attended schools with a mixed student body were obliged to take the course, regardless of parental objections. There were anecdotal reports again stating that at least one public school in Yerevan and two public schools in Yezidi villages did not teach the course.

Several non-AAC religious groups again said they did not object to the inclusion of the HAC course in public schools, although some objected to the prayers and making the signs of the cross that reportedly occurred during the classes, and they said they would like to see a more accurate portrayal of religious groups other than the AAC. One Christian group stated that while religious education was important, it should include “all religions that are traditional to Armenia.”

NGOs, other religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC continued to publicly voice concerns about what they stated were elements of religious indoctrination contained in the HAC course as well as material equating AAC affiliation with national identity.

In June, the government’s announced plans to remove HAC courses from the mandatory school curriculum, generating public debate. While many individuals, including parents, teachers, and AAC clergy, said the course helped to develop a value system based on Armenian identity, others said schools should remain secular and moral values could be developed outside the HAC course. At year’s end, sources stated that a major rethinking of the entire school curriculum by the government remained in process.

The NGO Eurasia Partnership Foundation again stated its concerns about the existing HAC course and how its content affected the rights of religious minority groups. The foundation also welcomed the efforts of the Ministry of Education to develop new criteria for public school curriculums, stating that many of the foundation’s suggestions to address existing concerns were taken into consideration in the drafting process.

Although official figures for the 2020-2021 school year were not available, during the 2019-2020 school year, 74 schools included an optional course, entitled “History of the AAC/Christian Education,” in their curriculum for grades two through four.

The chaplaincy program, a joint Ministry of Defense-AAC initiative, continued to allow only AAC clergy to serve in the program.

According to official information from the Ministry of Justice, to satisfy the spiritual needs of detainees and convicts, AAC clergymen regularly visited penitentiaries, organized baptisms, offered liturgies, and celebrated holidays. The state of emergency announced on March 16 due to COVID-19 prohibited the “organization of religious rites and participating therein,” ending clergy visits to penitentiaries until the quarantine was lifted in September and penitentiaries started providing limited religious services that adhered to strict protection measures.

On February 11, a trial court ruled in favor of an appeal filed in 2019 by the Center for Religion and Law on behalf of a teacher in Yelpin Village in Vayots Dzor Region against her school administration. According to the Center for Religion and Law, the teacher became a subject of discrimination based on her religion when her instruction hours were reduced after parents of students accused the teacher of belonging to a “sect” because she was a member of an evangelical Christian church. The center requested rescission of the 2017 decision reducing her classes, restoration of the number of classes she taught, payment of back wages, and acknowledgement of the fact she was subjected to discrimination on religious grounds. According to the court ruling, the teacher was reinstated to her former position and paid back wages, but the court denied that discrimination had taken place.

On February 18, the Constitutional Court ruled that the article of the Law on Police Service that contained a blanket restriction on membership in a religious organization was unconstitutional. In the ruling, the Constitutional Court also stated that membership in religious organizations – as a form of freedom of expression and a way to exercise the right of freedom of association – is a right that may not be denied regardless of service in any militarized body, including police.

On June 4, a trial court ruled in favor of an appeal filed in 2018 by the Center for Religion and Law on behalf of police officer Edgar Karapetyan, who was dismissed from his position on the grounds he was attending an evangelical Christian church and, according to police, was a member of a religious organization, although it was not customary for religious groups to maintain membership records. Karapetyan was reinstated in his position and paid back wages.

Although there was no mechanism for enforcing the legal provision prohibiting funding of religious organizations by spiritual centers located outside the country, several religious organizations said they adhered to the ban and restricted their operations because they did not want to violate the law.

Beginning in August, some foreign citizen volunteers at local churches were denied requests to renew their residence permits as authorities applied a new interpretation of related laws and procedures. Government officials said churches could start paying their volunteers and apply for work papers or the volunteers could leave the country and return, allowing them to remain in the country for an additional 180 days. The provision affected some churches that decided to limit their volunteers’ service to 180 days.

Jehovah’s Witnesses said that the group halted construction of churches due to COVID-19 and therefore did not face difficulties building places of worship, unlike previous years. They largely suspended construction during the COVID-19 pandemic, although some minor renovations were completed. At year’s end, one case dating from 2016 was pending before the European Court of Human Rights regarding the prohibition by the Yerevan City Municipality on building places of worship on land owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Armenian Missionary Association of America continued its construction projects without interference and was planning additional construction the following spring.

At year’s end, 127 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program, compared with 129 in 2019. The alternative service appointments included positions in various hospitals, local utility companies, park maintenance services, boarding schools, eldercare facilities, and orphanages. During the fall conflict, the government allowed men in the alternative civilian service program to continue in that program. Additionally, in nearly all cases, Jehovah’s Witnesses who had served in the military prior to their conversion and were called up for service during the conflict were released from service after stating that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses or providing relevant documentation. According to government sources, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only individuals participating in these programs, and none chose to serve in the alternative military service (military service that does not involve combat duty or the carrying, keeping, maintaining, or using of arms). Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the Armenia-supported de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities allowed them to worship in the region without hindrance but denied them registration as a religious group, as well as the right to conscientious objection to military service. They also reported all Jehovah’s Witnesses living in Nagorno-Karabakh evacuated to Armenia, and none were forced to serve in the military.

According to AAC spokesperson Vahram Melikyan, following its formation, the working group on government-AAC relations held ongoing meetings to discuss issues of mutual concern, including the spiritual health of the country’s citizens.

The government’s National Security Strategy, adopted in July, recognized the importance of the Armenian Catholic Church, Armenian Evangelical Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, and Christianity in the formation of national values. The strategy recognized respect and tolerance toward other peoples, nations, and religions as a national value. It emphasized the important role played by the three churches within the context of Armenia-diaspora relations and the government’s commitment to fully protecting the rights and freedoms of every person residing in the country. The strategy also stressed the importance of fully integrating ethnic minorities and vulnerable groups into every area of public life and the system of state governance. The strategy also stated the country’s commitment to protecting the right to life of ethnic, religious, and racial groups and their members as well as the prevention of genocide.

During 44 days of intensive fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan, as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region.

The Azerbaijani government reported 63 of the 67 mosques in the territories previously controlled by Armenia-supported separatists were completely destroyed. It was unknown how many were damaged during earlier hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a result of neglect, or due to intentional damage. There were also reports of desecration of Muslim religious sites. Videos circulated on social media showed pigs in a mosque in Zangilan with defaced interior religious calligraphy; livestock in the Juma Mosque in Aghdam; and pigs in a mosque in Mamar, in the region of Qubadli. Armenian observers said the videos were staged or stated livestock entered the mosques of their own accord. International journalists visiting the territories following the intensive fighting confirmed the destruction of Muslim graves and graveyards while under Armenia-supported separatist control.

After Azerbaijan reestablished control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani government accused the Armenia-supported de facto authorities who previously controlled the territory of seeking to sever some religious sites’ connections with their Azerbaijani heritage. For example, de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities in Shusha renovated the Yukhari Govhar Aga Mosque with Iranian funding and labeled it a “Persian mosque.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh contributed to a rise in anti-Semitism, according to members of the Jewish community and other observers who largely attributed this to the Azerbaijani use of Israeli-produced weapons. According to observers, anti-Semitic slurs were again posted on social media platforms, in some cases together with cartoons depicting Jews in an offensive manner. The use of offensive slurs was particularly prevalent in posts on Facebook by anonymous antigovernment individuals targeting the Jewish leader of an international foundation. During the intensive fall fighting, the number of anti-Semitic posts increased, according to members of the Jewish community and other observers. Members of the Jewish community also reported anti-Semitic comments directed at them on public transport. The Hebrew and Armenian sides of Yerevan’s Holocaust and Genocide Memorial were defaced on two occasions, first on October 14 with paint, and again on October 22, when a fire was lit with wood around the bronze monument, resulting in discoloration and damage. Members of the Jewish community repaired the damage.

Other religious groups reported incidents of harassment during the year. A religious volunteer reported a car with a passenger drove up next to him when he was returning to his residence in Artashat, showing him what appeared to be a weapon through the window. On several occasions, persons walking past religious volunteers in Gyumri reportedly slapped them. The volunteers did not report the incidents to police.

The NSS continued its 2018 criminal case, on charges of incitement of religious hatred, against the creators of a 2018 Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated both with the Word of Life Church and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party. The case remained pending at year’s end.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, unlike previous years, there were no incidents of verbal harassment toward the group’s members publicly manifesting their religious beliefs during the year. One other minority religious group that preferred not to be identified reported a single incident of harassment during the year.

One Shia mosque, located in Yerevan, served all Islamic groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials, including from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and political party representatives. Embassy officials engaged government officials from the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport and the Office of the Human Rights Defender to discuss the impact of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh on religious groups and religious sites of significance to Armenian communities.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly consulted minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants; Jehovah’s Witnesses; the Church of Jesus Christ; Yezidis; the Jewish community; Apostolic Assyrians; Pentecostals; and Baha’is, as well as individual Muslims, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. On several occasions, the Ambassador publicly underscored the importance of fostering an inclusive society in which a diversity of viewpoints and beliefs is welcomed and encouraged. Embassy officials also discussed religious freedom with civil society, including addressing religious discrimination faced by minority religious groups and the impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on religious groups and religious sites that were significant to Armenian communities.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions. It also protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and to practice religious rituals, provided these do not violate public order or public morality. The law prohibits the government from interfering in religious activities; it also states the government and citizens have a responsibility to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law specifies the government may dissolve religious organizations if they cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; proselytize in a way that “degrades human dignity”; or hinder secular education. In two separate decisions in January and June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government had violated the religious freedom rights of five individuals by subjecting them to excessively long pretrial detention (between five and 10 months) under the European Convention on Human Rights and ordered it to pay compensation. According to Forum 18, an international human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), three of the five were arrested for gathering to study the works of the late Turkish Sunni theologian Said Nursi. One of the men said authorities physically abused him during his detention. In September, the ECHR accepted the government’s admission it had violated the rights of multiple Muslim individuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses to meet for worship or religious study at members’ homes. Throughout the year, courts continued reviewing appeals and sentencing individuals detained after a July 2018 attack on the then-head of the Ganja City Executive Committee and the subsequent killing of two police officers. Authorities alleged those sentenced were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” that sought to undermine the constitutional order. Civil society activists and human rights groups considered the vast majority of the verdicts to be politically motivated and estimated 43 individuals remained in prison at year’s end in connection with the events in Ganja. Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with the unregistered Muslim Unity Movement (MUM), which the government characterized as an extremist group. Civil society activists and human rights advocates considered the incarceration of MUM members to be politically motivated. Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists. According to these groups, the number of religious activists who were political prisoners or detainees ranged from 41 to 48 at the end of the year. Religious communities continued to express frustration that communities with fewer than 50 members were not allowed to legally register. The government stated that reducing the minimum number of members below 50 would promote extremism. The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. In June, amendments to the criminal code entered into force that added “restriction of freedom” (i.e., probation) to preexisting penalties that included fines and imprisonment for publishing or distributing material with religious content without government approval. The government did not exercise control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region or surrounding territories throughout much of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. During the conflict, Human Rights Watch reported two separate attacks on October 8 on the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha by Azerbaijani forces. In connection with attacks on and vandalism of religious sites following the Fall fighting, Armenian officials, religious leaders, and civil society representatives expressed concerns for the protection of Armenian cultural and religious heritage as the sites passed from Armenian to Azerbaijani control.

Civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate and, in some cases, financially support “traditional” minority religious groups (i.e., those historically present in the country), including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics. Groups viewed as “nontraditional,” however, were often viewed with suspicion and mistrust.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate for the release of individuals NGOs stated were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers urged government officials to address longstanding issues with the registration process for smaller religious communities and to implement an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution. The Ambassador advocated at the highest levels of government for the protection of religious and cultural sites in the newly returned territories. The Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with representatives of registered and unregistered religious groups and civil society to discuss religious freedom in the country. Embassy officers also had consultations with theologians.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to 2011 data from the State Committee on Religious Associations in Azerbaijan (SCWRA) (the most recent available), 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni. Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include the Russian Orthodox Church; Georgian Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Seventh-day Adventists; Molokan Church; Roman Catholic Church; other Christians, including evangelical churches, Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jews; and Baha’is. Ethnic Azerbaijanis are mainly Muslims and non-Muslims are mainly Russians, Georgians, Armenians, and other national minorities. Others include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and those professing no religion.

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

According to the code of administrative offenses, an administrative offense is applicable to nonviolent crimes. An administrative arrest may last up to three months.

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

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

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

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

While the law prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, there are exceptions for suspected extremist or other illegal activity. The law states government entities and citizens have rights and responsibilities to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law defines religious extremism as behavior motivated by religious hatred, religious radicalism (described as believing in the exceptionalism of one’s religious beliefs), or religious fanaticism (described as believing no one outside of one’s religious group may criticize that group). According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals. It also includes activities seeking to change by force the constitutional structure of the country’s government, including its secular nature; setting up or participating in illegal armed groups or unions; and engaging in terrorist activities. The law penalizes actions that intend to change the constitutional order or violate the territorial integrity of the country on the grounds of religious hatred, radicalism, or fanaticism, with prison terms ranging from 15 years to life.

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

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

The administrative code prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations from holding special meetings for children and young people as well as the organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies.”

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

According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution. Punishments for “production, sale and distribution of religious literature (on paper and electronic devices), audio and video materials, religious items, and other informational materials of religious nature with the aim of importation, sale and distribution without appropriate authorization” are proscribed by law. Punishments for first-time offenders include a fine of between 5,000 and 7,000 manat ($2,900 and $4,100), up to two years’ restricted freedom, or up to two years’ imprisonment. Violations by a group of people “according to a prior conspiracy,” an organized group, an individual for a second time, or an official carry a fine of between 7,000 and 9,000 manats ($4,100 and $5,300), between two and four years’ restricted freedom, or imprisonment of between two and five years. In June, amendments to the criminal code entered into force that added the alternative punishment of “restriction of freedom” (probation) – two to four years in cases involving an individual first-time offender and two to five years in aggravated cases – to the preexisting punishments.

There is no religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions. Students may study religion at higher educational institutions, such as the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad. The law prohibits individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government from holding official religious positions, preaching, or leading sermons after returning to the country.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists.

On June 4, the ECHR ruled the government had violated the religious freedom rights of four individuals whom it arrested between 2013 and 2015 by subjecting them to excessively long pretrial detention (between five and 10 months) in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. According to Forum 18, authorities arrested the four – Taleh Bagirov (aka Bagirzade), Zakir Mustafayev, Ismayil Mammadov, and Eldaniz Hajiyev – for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. The government acknowledged the length of pretrial detention had been excessive. The ECHR ordered the government to pay each of the men 3,000 euros ($3,700) in compensation. It awarded Mustafayev an additional 500 euros ($610) for costs associated with applying to the court. Representatives of the men said the compensation was too low and wanted the court to continue hearing the case, but it refused. The ECHR ruling in June followed a similar decision by the same court on January 16 concerning the extended detention of Hajiyev, Mammadov, and a third man, Revan Sabzaliyev, arrested in April 2014 when they met to study the works of Nursi. Hajiyev and Mammadov were also among the four men included in ECHR’s June decision. Bagirov said authorities tortured him during his detention. In 2015, authorities arrested Bagirov on charges of extremism following a police raid of a home where he was preaching. Five attendees and two officers died in the raid.

In nine cases concluded in September, the ECHR accepted the government’s admission that it had violated the rights of multiple individuals to freedom of religion or belief. One case involved seven Muslims who were detained when they met at a home in Baku in 2015 to discuss the works of Nursi. In another case, authorities detained four Jehovah’s Witnesses when they met at a member’s home in Ganja in 2010. The government paid 4,400 euros ($5,400) in compensation to the Muslims and 4,000 euros ($4,900) to the Jehovah’s Witnesses following the decisions. In these cases, as well as in earlier cases where the government admitted culpability, the victims said they were concerned by both the low level of compensation the government offered and what they saw as its failure to change the laws to ensure similar violations did not occur again. Forum 18 said there were 34 cases alleging violations of freedom of religion or belief involving 61 individuals and five religious communities that were pending before the ECHR at year’s end.

Throughout the year, courts continued reviewing appeals and sentencing individuals detained after the July 2018 assault on Elmar Valiyev, the then-head of the Ganja City Executive Committee, and the subsequent stabbing to death of two police officers during a related demonstration against local government authorities. In response to the 2018 events, police killed five persons and detained 77 others during special operations in Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku. The government said the convicted individuals were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country, and that those killed had resisted arrest. Civil society activists and family members disputed the government’s account of events and stated the five individuals whom security forces killed hade not resisted arrest. The Ganja Court of Grave Crimes conducted the trials in Baku in what observers said was an effort to avoid causing further social unrest in Ganja. Those convicted received sentences ranging from 18 months to 18 years imprisonment. With the exception of Yunis Safarov, who was accused of trying to shoot Valiyev, civil society activists and human rights advocates considered the vast majority of the verdicts to be politically motivated. They estimated 43 individuals connected to the events in Ganja remained in prison at year’s end.

Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with the unregistered group MUM. Authorities stated the movement mixed religious and political ideology and said they were concerned about its ties to Iran. Charges against MUM members included illegal possession of weapons, violation of the COVID-19 quarantine regime, and “resisting police” (a broad offense that includes not obeying police orders). As in prior years, human rights advocates and other civil society activists characterized the charges as baseless and designed to preclude political activity. According to data collected by human rights advocates, at year’s end, the estimated number of believers who were political prisoners ranged from 41 to 48, compared with 45 to 55 in 2019.

On March 13, police detained MUM member Elvin Muradov. On September 25, the Narimanov District Court sentenced him to two years and three months in prison for illegal possession of a weapon. On June 22, police detained MUM member Shamil Hasanov. On October 27, the Binagadi District Court sentenced him to four years and six months in prison for illegal possession of a weapon. During the year, authorities placed multiple members of MUM under administrative arrest for allegedly violating the COVID-19 quarantine regime and “resisting police.” For example, on March 21, the Sabunchu District Court sentenced Samir Babayev to 30 days of administrative arrest. On April 12, the Khatai District Court sentenced Hikmat Agayev to 25 days of administrative arrest. On June 10, the Imishli District Court sentenced Alik Aslanov to 15 days of administrative arrest.

On April 6, a presidential pardon released a number of individuals over the age of 65 because of concerns over COVID-19-related risks to elderly prisoners. The released individuals included two religious activists whom human rights advocates considered political prisoners, including one person arrested after a large November 2015 police operation targeting members of MUM.

Some minority Christian communities said the SCWRA made efforts to create more favorable conditions for their activities than in prior years, such as by becoming more responsive to their requests and concerns and establishing closer communication with them. The groups said there were fewer instances of officials raiding the premises of religious communities or detaining and fining individuals in connection with peaceful practice of their religion or beliefs than in years past. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated there were no detentions related to practice of their religion during the year, compared with 18 in 2019. They attributed the lack of incidents to improved relations with the SCWRA and their reduced public proselytizing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government did not implement alternative military service for conscientious objectors, despite being required to do so by the constitution, or make any draft law public. According to Forum 18, on March 30, ruling party deputy Siyavush Novruzov recommended parliament adopt an alternative service law. In April 2019, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Jehovah’s Witnesses Emil Mehdiyev and Vahid Abilov of their 2018 convictions and one-year probation sentences for criminal evasion of military service. Mehdiyev and Abilov filed an appeal with the ECHR, on which the court had not ruled as of year’s end.

During the year, the SCWRA registered 14 new religious communities (12 Muslim and two Christian), compared with 34 religious communities registered in 2019 (31 Muslim and three Christian). There were a total 963 registered communities at the end of the year, of which 37 were non-Muslim – 26 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The SCWRA also said 2,250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered. There were 23 Christian prayer houses (worship spaces that did not have the status of a church), one Baha’i house of worship, and one Krishna Consciousness house of worship in the country at year’s end.

The SCWRA said it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registration. While the SCWRA maintained its prohibition on these communities’ religious activities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request.

The government said the inability of some groups to obtain registration stemmed solely from the groups’ inability to meet the law’s requirement of 50 members and that the government did not take administrative action against unregistered religious communities. The government said reducing the minimum number of members below 50 would promote extremism. Religious communities continued to state frustration with government registration requirements, particularly the 50-member minimum. For example, Baptist communities in the towns of Zagatala and Shirvan did not have sufficient members to apply for legal registration. Jehovah’s Witnesses were registered only in Baku. Regional branches of Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses stated they were unable to obtain legal registration, although they stated they were able to worship openly despite being unregistered. Forum 18 reported that in January, the SCWRA told the Baptist community in the village of Aliabad, which has been seeking legal status since 1994, that SCWRA had “no objection” to the group meeting once per week for two hours, despite it not having legal status. Some Protestant and home-based church leaders stated their inability to obtain legal registration forced them to keep their activities quiet for fear of government repercussions.

On September 23, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the Baku Administrative Court, which on January 30, 2019 declined to review the complaint of former parliament employee Rahim Akhundov. Akhundov stated that in December 2018 he was forced to resign from his professional position in the International Relations Department due to his Christian faith. He stated he had been threatened with dismissal if he did not resign voluntarily. According to Akhundov, security services conducted surveillance on him and his home, and informed parliamentary leadership that he held prayer meetings at his house and proselytized.

On August 28, authorities did not permit Shia believers to gather in mosques or mosque courtyards to mark the Ashura religious commemoration because of COVID-19 quarantine restrictions that applied to all public gatherings, regardless of the purpose. Police detained numerous individuals in Shamkir, Yevlakh, Barda, and Lankaran for trying to observe Ashura in spite of the prohibition on gatherings. Judges sentenced at least six individuals to administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days.

Forum 18 said government officials sometimes refused to give birth certificates to Georgian-speaking families for children with Georgian first names or to Baptists wishing to give their children biblical names. According to Forum 18, without a birth certificate, a child may not attend kindergarten or school, be treated in a hospital, or travel abroad. The NGO said that in the early part of the year, following a one-year delay, officials granted a birth certificate to a family in Aliabad who had named their son Daniel. An individual close to the family told Forum 18, “The parents chose the name for religious reasons. But officials refused and insisted they choose an Azeri name.”

The SCWRA stated it prohibited the importation of 52 books out of 3,680 and the publication of six books out of 205. By comparison, in 2019 the SCWRA prohibited the importation of 216 books out of 3,888, and the publication of 14 books out of 239.

On October 22, the ECHR ruled in the case of Jehovah’s Witness Nina Gridneva. The court dismissed the case because the parties had reached a settlement in which the government recognized it had violated her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and committed to pay her 4,500 euros ($5,500) as compensation. In 2010, police stopped Gridneva while she was distributing religious literature on the street and officers seized the materials. A local court subsequently fined her for distributing “illegal” religious literature.

The ECHR ruled on February 20 that the government had violated the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses by banning three of their publications from importation and distribution in 2008. The ECHR ordered the government to pay compensation for the violation and refund court fees Jehovah’s Witnesses incurred trying to challenge the bans in local courts.

According to Shia Rights Watch, in June, officials demolished the Hazrat Zahra Mosque in Baku, saying the building was condemned, and undertook construction of a new mosque on the same site. The government had attempted to demolish the mosque in 2008; however, due to demonstrations, demolition was postponed.

The government continued to allocate funds to “traditional” religious groups. On June 2, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree allocating two million manat ($1.18 million) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities and 350,000 manat ($206,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews, the same amounts as in 2019. The decree also allocated 150,000 manat ($88,200) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku, and 100,000 manat ($58,800) to the Moral Values Promotion Foundation, the same amounts as in 2019. Some observers stated the Moral Values Promotion Foundation’s funding amounted to further government control over the practice of Islam.

The government did not exercise control over Nagorno-Karabakh or the surrounding territories throughout much of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting in the fall in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region.

Human Rights Watch stated Azerbaijani forces attacked and damaged the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha in two separate incidents on October 8. Reporters on-site during the attack reported a drone flying overhead at the time and that the two strikes were made by high-precision missiles. There was reportedly no evidence the site was used for military purposes. In an October 26 interview, President Aliyev denied purposefully bombing the church, saying it was bombed by accident or was done by the Armenians themselves to frame Azerbaijan. Armenian religious officials accused Azerbaijan forces of desecrating the Holy Savior Cathedral after taking control of the city of Shusha on November 14. Photographs circulated on the internet showed graffiti on the outer walls of the cathedral. Azerbaijani media said the graffiti in the online images had been photoshopped.

Numerous videos circulated during and after the fall fighting that showed attacks on and vandalism of cultural and religious sites. These videos prompted Armenian officials, religious leaders, and civil society representatives to express serious concerns regarding the preservation of the sites as they passed from Armenian to Azerbaijani control. Following the ceasefire, leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church requested that Russian peacekeepers protect the medieval Dadivank Monastery in the district of Kalbajar, a territory returned to Azerbaijani control after the fall fighting, fearing its carvings could be destroyed and that without protection the site would become inaccessible. Russian peacekeepers took control of the site immediately following a November 14 call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. President Aliyev’s public claim that “the churches in Kalbajar belong to the ancient Caucasian Albanian state” raised concerns among Armenians that Azerbaijan might seek to sever some religious sites’ connections with their Armenian heritage.

Armenian media reported both during and after the fall fighting that representatives of the Azerbaijani armed forces deliberately targeted monuments of historical, religious, and cultural significance. On November 14, a person whom local media identified as Azerbaijani posted a video on Facebook showing the alleged destruction of the dome and the bell tower of the St. John the Baptist Church (also known as Kanach Zham/Green Church) located in Shusha.

There were also videos of soldiers desecrating and damaging the Church of Zoravor St. Astvatsatsin, located in Mekhakavan settlement, including the breaking of the church’s cross. When the Church of Zoravor St. Astvatsatsin was constructed in 2017 by Armenia-supported de facto authorities as a military chapel, Azerbaijan formally protested the construction on “occupied lands” in a depopulated area as a violation of international humanitarian law.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate and, in some cases, financially support “traditional” minority religious groups, such as Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics, but many persons viewed groups considered “nontraditional,” such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with suspicion and mistrust.

The executive director of the Moral Values Promotion Foundation, Mehman Ismayilov, said that during the year, the foundation provided monthly assistance to 984 Muslim religious figures serving in mosques, including imams and deputy imams, and transferred 100,000 manat ($58,800) to 22 non-Muslim communities.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate for the release of individuals that NGOs stated were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers also pressed the government to implement an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution. They met with senior Cabinet of Ministers, SCWRA, and CMB officials to urge resolution of longstanding issues regarding the registration process for smaller religious communities and other obstacles faced by religious minorities. The Ambassador advocated at the highest levels of government for the protection of religious and cultural sites in the newly returned territories. During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and in the months following the ceasefire arrangement, the Ambassador consistently underscored the importance of granting unimpeded access to religious and cultural sites to UNESCO and international journalists with Azerbaijan’s Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with leaders of registered and unregistered religious communities and with representatives of civil society to discuss issues related to religious freedom, alternative military service, and relations with SCWRA. Officials also consulted with theologians. In a program intended to empower women involved in work with religious organizations, the embassy sponsored the travel of a group of five female employees working for the SCWRA and CMB to the United States from March 4 to March 13. In the United States, the group met with representatives of different interfaith and religious organizations, visited different houses of worship, and learned about the role of women in American religious communities.

Belarus

Executive Summary

The constitution grants individuals freedom to profess and practice any religious belief but prohibits religious activities directed against the sovereignty of the state, its constitutional system, and “civic harmony.” A concordat grants the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) rights and privileges not granted to other religious groups, although the law also acknowledges the historical importance of the “traditional faiths” of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. By law, all registered religious groups must seek permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing activities, and must obtain prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The law prohibits all religious activity by unregistered groups. The country experienced massive peaceful protests met with what most observers considered a brutal government crackdown following the August 9 presidential election, which civil society and human rights groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU, the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others, stated was fraudulent. Demonstrators protested electoral fraud, and authorities responded with widespread violence against peaceful protesters, the opposition, journalists, and ordinary citizens. Most of those detained, jailed, or fined – including clergy – were charged indiscriminately with “organizing or participating in unauthorized mass events.” Authorities continued their surveillance of minority and unregistered religious groups. Religious groups met less frequently at their own discretion due to COVID-19 infection concerns. At the same time, authorities focused less on monitoring religious groups as they were preoccupied with other issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a struggling economy, the presidential campaign, and the election-related protests that followed. Some minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to have difficulty registering, and most said they avoided trying to register during the year because of COVID-19 and the unsettled political situation. Roman Catholic groups again stated the government denied visas and requests to extend the stay of some foreign clergy (notably priests from Poland). On August 31, the government blocked the return of Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz from a visit to Poland, despite his being a Belarusian citizen. Authorities allowed the Archbishop to return on December 23. Throughout the year, authorities continued to support commemoration of victims of the Holocaust and preservation of Jewish cemeteries.

Anti-Semitic comments appeared on social media and in comment sections of local online news articles, although it was not clear that all of the comments could be attributed to Belarusians. Interdenominational Christian groups continued to work together on education and charitable projects.

Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged with the government, including at the highest levels, on religious freedom issues, including registration of religious communities, the return of Archbishop Kondruszewicz, and anti-Semitism. The Secretary of State and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom publicly called on the country’s authorities to allow Archbishop Kondrusiewicz to reenter the country and lead the Roman Catholic Church there. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with Jewish groups to discuss anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage. Embassy officials also met with Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups to learn about their religious activities and discuss government actions affecting the exercise of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2016 survey by the state Information and Analytical Center of the Presidential Administration (the latest such data available), approximately 53 percent of the adult population belongs to the BOC and six percent to the Roman Catholic Church. According to the state survey, eight percent of the adult population is atheist, and 22 percent is “uncertain.” Smaller religious groups together constituting approximately two percent of the population include Jews, Muslims, Greek Catholics (“Uniates” or members of the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church), Old Believers (priestist and priestless), members of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and other Orthodox Christian groups, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Christians, Presbyterians and other Protestant groups, Armenian Apostolics, Latin Catholics, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Buddhists. Jewish groups state there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews. Most ethnic Poles, who constitute approximately 3 percent of the population, are Roman Catholic.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs (OPRRNA) regulates all religious matters. The office takes part in drafting and implementing state policies on religious affairs, enforces and protects religious rights and freedom, monitors activities of religious organizations and compliance with their charters, regulates relations between the state and religious organizations, liaises with state agencies and religious organizations upon their request, promotes tolerance and mutual understanding between religious organizations of various faiths and nationalities, and researches dynamics and trends in interdenominational relations to prevent “religious exclusiveness” and disrespectful treatment of religions and nationalities. OPRRNA has one deputy and the office has two subdivisions, a section for religious affairs and a section for nationalities affairs. The executive committees of the country’s six regions and Minsk city have departments for ideology and youth engagement, which include religious issues. These departments are independent from OPRRNA but share information. The plenipotentiary representative heading OPRRNA is appointed and dismissed by the President, based on a nomination from the Council of Ministers. The plenipotentiary office performs the functions of a government body and is subordinate to the Council of Ministers.

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

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

The concordat serves as the framework for agreements between the BOC and individual state agencies. There are at least a dozen agreements, including with the Ministries of Defense, Health Care, and Information. There is also an agreement with the Ministry of Education through 2020 that provides for joint projects for the “spiritual and moral education” of students based on BOC traditions and history.

The law establishes three tiers of registered religious groups: religious communities, religious associations, and national religious associations. Religious communities must include at least 20 persons older than 18 who live in one or several adjoining areas. Religious associations must include at least 10 religious communities, and one of these communities must have been active in the country for at least 20 years. National-level religious associations have the ability to institute regional and local level religious associations. National religious associations may be formed only when they comprise active religious communities in at least four of the country’s six regions.

According to OPRRNA data, as of January 1, there were 25 religious faiths and denominations registered in the country, encompassing 3,389 religious communities and 174 religious associations, monasteries, missions, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and schools. The BOC has 1,709 religious communities, 15 dioceses, six schools, 35 monasteries, one mission, 15 brotherhoods, and 10 sisterhoods. (The latter two are clergy-led lay organizations.) The Roman Catholic Church has four dioceses, six schools, 11 missions, nine monasteries, and 498 communities. Protestant religious organizations of 13 denominations encompass 1,038 religious communities, 21 associations, 22 missions, and five schools. There are 34 registered religious communities of Old Believers. There are three Jewish religious associations – Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch, and Reform Judaism – comprising 53 communities, including 10 autonomous communities. In addition, 24 Muslim religious communities – 23 Sunni and one Shia – are registered.

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

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

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

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

The law confines the activities of religious communities and associations to the jurisdictional area where they are registered. The law permits state agencies in charge of registration to issue written warnings to a registered religious group for violating any law or undertaking activities outside the scope of responsibilities in the group’s charter. The government may apply to a relevant court, depending upon jurisdiction, to shut down the group if it has not ceased the illegal activity outlined in the written warning within six months or if the activity is repeated within one year of the warning. The government may suspend activities of the religious group pending the court’s decision. The law does not contain a provision for appealing a warning or suspension.

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

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

The law requires organizers to notify authorities of a mass event, including those involving religious groups, planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the event. Authorities must inform organizers of a denial no later than five days before the event. Denials may be issued for one of two reasons: the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group; or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the event.

The government has a system of reimbursements for security, medical, and cleaning services required from organizers of mass events, including religious events held outside of religious premises and sites, rallies, competitions, cultural events, festivals, concerts, and similar occasions. If an application is approved, organizers must sign contracts for such services two days in advance and must reimburse all costs within 10 days.

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

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

The law permits associations and national associations to establish schools to train clergy but does not permit religious communities to do so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

The August 9 presidential election, which civil society and human rights groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others, stated was fraudulent, prompted massive peaceful protests. The government responded with what most observers considered a brutal crackdown against what it deemed to be “unauthorized mass events.” Human rights groups reported more than 33,000 persons were detained and at least four killed by security forces by year’s end. Some of the “unauthorized” gatherings were organized by religious groups in response to violent actions by security forces and widely reported human rights abuses. Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents in which religious communities participated as being solely based on religious identity.

The peaceful public protests generally sought an end to violent action by police and called for the release of political prisoners, investigations into human rights abuses by the authorities, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s peaceful departure from office, and new free and fair elections. Those postelection protests that involved public prayer largely focused on calling for peace and an end to violent actions by authorities. Some clergy were among those detained during the postelection protests. For example, on August 13, Orthodox priest Uladzimir Drabysheuski stood in front of the investigative committee office in Homyel holding a banner that said, “Stop the Violence.” A district court convicted him on charges of participating in an unauthorized mass event and sentenced him to 10 days in jail on September 18. He was additionally convicted on similar charges for a protest on September 6 and given a sentence of 15 additional days of arrest on September 28.

Forum 18, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on international religious freedom, said in October there were “violations of freedom of religion and belief and of the interlinked freedoms of expression, association, and assembly in the country” that “worsened amid widespread continuing protests against falsified results of the August 2020 presidential election and against the regime’s other serious violations of the human rights of the people it rules.” The NGO stated that the government detained and charged individuals with civil penalties for participating in unauthorized mass events when they took part in public prayer events that called for peace and an end to violent actions by security forces in Minsk, Hrodna, Lida, and other cities.

On August 26 and 27, members of religious communities were among the protesters in Minsk’s Freedom Square – also the location of Orthodox and Roman Catholic cathedrals – who intended to march to Independence Square. During the protest events, Uladzimir Vladimir Mayoraurov, a Protestant, was detained and sentenced to eight days in jail after preaching against violence to riot police in Freedom Square. On August 27, a group of Protestants led by Pastor Taras Telkouski of Trinity Church prayed outside the doors of the Holy Spirit Orthodox Cathedral on Freedom Square and then marched to the nearby Roman Catholic Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral. Telkouski was detained, charged with “organizing an unauthorized mass event,” and fined 810 rubles ($310).

According to media reports, on August 16, while security forces indiscriminately detained and beat protesters in Minsk, riot police also detained Aleksandr Fruman. Upon learning that he was an Israeli citizen, police beat him with a rubber truncheon while shouting anti-Semitic insults, according to Fruman, and told him that “it was time to get another circumcision.” He was released a few days later. Jewish community leaders said they observed no increase in anti-Semitism during the postelection protests, and they did not express concerns that their community members who participated were targeted for their ethnicity or religious beliefs by police.

Religious leaders spoke out together against violence and in favor of societal dialogue after the August 9 election, expressing sympathy for those hurt in the violence. On August 14, in his address to Lukashenka and government officials, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said, “In the name of such a necessary peace in our Fatherland and national harmony, I appeal to authorities to start a constructive dialogue with society, end the violence, and immediately release all innocent citizens detained at peaceful rallies.” He condemned “the bloodshed on the streets, the beating of peaceful demonstrators who want to know the truth, the cruel treatment of detainees, and their detention in inhuman conditions in prisons” as “a grave sin on the conscience of those who give criminal orders and commit violence.” On August 17, then Belarusian Orthodox Metropolitan Pavel visited a Minsk hospital, where he stated that the BOC was apolitical, but he spoke out against violence and noted the hospital’s patients included protesters, bystanders, and those injured in police custody. On August 18, the Catholic Church in Belarus – together with the BOC, Protestant denominations, and Jewish and Islamic communities – hosted an interfaith service in Minsk to pray for a peaceful resolution to the postelection crisis and an end to violence and hatred among all sides. In response, authorities said remarks by religious leaders constituted interference in political affairs.

On August 31, border guards denied Archbishop Kondrusiewicz reentry into the country after a trip to Poland. The Archbishop had spoken out against violent actions by security forces and prayed in front of a detention center in Minsk after unsuccessfully trying to visit peaceful protesters arrested following the August election. Kondrusiewicz, a Belarusian citizen, said he was given no explanation at the border for why he was denied his legal right to return. Authorities said they placed him on a no-entry list and revoked his passport while they probed allegations he maintained multiple citizenships. The Archbishop reportedly only maintained Belarusian citizenship. On December 23, Lukashenka allowed Kondrusiewicz to return, following repeated intervention by the United States, EU member states, and the Vatican.

Religious community leaders condemned the authorities’ actions barring Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from the country. Bishop of the Pentecostal communities Leanid Varanenka stated on September 1 that Kondrusiewicz “raised his voice in defense of peace, mercy, and unity and in condemnation of violence, lies, and hatred. This is the spiritual, moral, and ethical duty of any clergy and does not represent political activity.”

On April 7, the Prosecutor General’s Office refused a request from Russia to extradite member of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Russian citizen Nikolai Makhalichev, who was subsequently released after being arrested during an identity check in Haradok, Vitsebsk Oblast, on February 21. Makhalichev applied for asylum on the day of his arrest, and the government later approved his request. He told the press that he was not aware of a criminal case opened against him in Russia in 2019 on charges of “organizing and financing an extremist organization,” allegedly based on his religious practice as a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses are classified as “extremists” under Russian law.

Human rights defenders said they remained concerned about the authorities’ ability to apply charges arbitrarily for organizing, running, or participating in unregistered religious organizations. Authorities did not use this provision of law specifically against religious organizations during the year, but human rights organizations said they continued to view it as a threat against religious freedom.

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

Nontraditional religious groups continued to state the procedure for registering and using residential premises for religious gatherings remained cumbersome and arbitrary. During the year, authorities in Lida and Barysau rejected applications from communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses – two new applications in Lida and an appeal of a denied application in Barysau. In addition, OPRRNA denied two applications from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to register a mission.

Some minority religious groups stated that they did not apply for registration because their members feared harassment by authorities and did not want to submit their names, as required by the application process. Other minority religious groups preferred to negotiate registration and other concerns with local authorities, but few registration attempts were made during the year. Some communities said they decided to postpone their registrations until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic due to health concerns.

As of year’s end, the government had taken no action on a November 2018 UN Human Rights Committee recommendation that the state repeal mandatory state registration of religious communities.

Many unregistered religious groups stated they continued to maintain a low profile because of fear of prosecution and perceived government hostility. Some registered religious communities said they were reluctant to report restrictions because they feared drawing attention to themselves.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities granted permission on a regular basis to clergy who requested access to visit prisoners. Some clergy were denied permission to visit protestors who had been detained after the August 9 election. Many prisons maintained designated Orthodox religious facilities that Belarusian Orthodox clergy were occasionally allowed to visit through the year.

On September 16, a district court in Lida fined local resident Alyaksandr Shor 270 rubles ($100) for praying outside the Catholic Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. He was part of a group of residents who had gathered to pray there for the return of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from Poland.

On October 16, a court in Lida fined Roman Catholic and Polish community activist Irena Bernatskaya 810 rubles ($310) for an “unauthorized mass event” led by a group called “Mothers in Prayer,” in which participants gathered to pray for an end to violent actions by security forces outside the walls of the local Roman Catholic cathedral on August 12.

On October 21, Slutsk police dispersed a flower-laying ceremony by Slutsk residents to commemorate victims of the Holocaust. The traditional red and white carnations used for the commemorations matched the historical Belarusian national colors that the opposition and protestors adopted as their own and authorities opposed. Police arrived after approximately 12 to 14 persons placed the flowers near a Holocaust memorial. The small group left the area after a police detention van arrived. According to the organizer, the group did not plan a large rally and had not applied for permission to gather in advance. On October 26, at least four Slutsk residents were fined or were sentenced to 10 days in jail for participating in an “unauthorized mass event.”

On November 18, the General Prosecutor’s Office issued warnings to BOC spokesperson Father Syarhey Lepin and Catholic Bishop Yury Kasabutski. The two were rebuked for their Facebook criticism of authorities’ decision to destroy an unofficial memorial at the site of the beating of Raman Bandarenka, a Minsk resident who died on November 12 after he had been detained and sustained fatal injuries while in police custody. Lepin wrote, “What was the purpose of this diabolic trampling upon candle lamps and icons?” The General Prosecutor said the clergymen’s “statements were aggressive” and “increased tension in society [and] stirred up hatred against the government and hostility towards these social groups.” The warnings came after Lukashenka’s November 17 remarks that “we can’t tolerate this mockery” and his instructions to law enforcement authorities “to make legal assessments of the church officials’ words,” since “there will be no memorials heralding a civil war, as they say, in Minsk or elsewhere.” Lepin resigned as BOC spokesperson after the warnings.

On November 30, a court in Ivatsevichy in Brest Oblast tried Greek Catholic priest Vitali Bystrou for participating in an alleged “unauthorized mass event” in the city of Brest on October 25 and sentenced him to 10 days in jail. While police claimed Bystrou was among protesters holding red and white flags, the priest explained he was simply walking from the church to a train station in his religious clothing, which “is acceptable for my faith.”

On December 3, a court in Rasony District sentenced local Roman Catholic priest Vyachaslau Barok to 10 days in jail for propagating Nazi symbols. Barok, who is also a well-known blogger, posted a photograph of a red and green swastika (the colors of the official Belarusian flag that Lukashenka introduced in 2012) and an emblem with the slogan “Stop Lukascism” on his Instagram account, referencing Lukashenka.

On December 7, police in Vitsebsk arrested local resident Ala Raschinskaya, who had prayed for victims of political repression outside the Catholic cathedral on November 13, and sentenced her to 10 days in jail.

On December 8, authorities in Vitsebsk detained Greek Catholic priest Alyaksei Varanko, Roman Catholic priest Viktar Zhuk, and layman Alyaksei Karyakau for participating in “unauthorized mass events.” They were released the next day after a court dismissed their cases. In a retrial on December 24, the three were warned not to participate in such events in the future.

According to observers, the government continued surveillance of various Protestant denominations. The sources stated that government “ideology officers” (officials in charge of implementing political and social government policies) continued to monitor the activities of members of unregistered religious groups in their workplaces, although there were no reports of prosecutions. Government officials, including from the security forces, reportedly had occasional “informal” talks with members of religious groups to learn about their activities. According to religious leaders, state security officers also continued to attend religious services of registered Protestant communities to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment.

Religious groups, especially Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to report they remained cautious about proselytizing and distributing religious materials due to their perceptions that they could face intimidation or punishment.

Orthodox literature remained available countrywide. According to media accounts, the BOC was free to proselytize without restrictions on television and in print media as well as in public spaces. Unlike other religious groups, the BOC continued to participate in government-sponsored public events, such as rallies or celebrations, without the need to seek prior approval from authorities. For example, on July 3, the Belarusian Orthodox Metropolitan participated in the annual “Belarus Remembers” Independence Day commemoration along with Lukashenka, veterans, public officials, soldiers, civil society representatives, and Minsk residents. In addition, regional authorities often engaged BOC representatives in their events. On June 5, forestry officials in the town of Slonim and students and faculty of the Minsk Spiritual Seminary planted birch and pine trees, an event which the BOC reported was inspired and organized by Navahrudak Diocese archpriest Dimitri Syemukha.

The national government approved the importation of literature requested by Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year.

After religious leaders called on the security forces to end violent action against peaceful protestors and urged a genuine national dialogue between Lukashenka and the opposition, state-run Radio Belarus One stopped the nationwide broadcast of the 40-minute Roman Catholic Sunday masses from the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Minsk, as well as a brief news summary from Vatican Radio on August 23. Roman Catholic leadership noted the importance of broadcasts during the COVID-19 pandemic, when believers chose not to attend services in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. The state-run Belarusian TV and Radio Company refused to air the annual December 25 Christmas message from the Roman Catholic Church without explanation. The television station did, however, stream the Roman Catholic midnight Mass on December 24.

Authorities continued to deny requests to give the Belarus-based Catholic radio station Radio Mariya a media broadcasting license that would supplement its internet broadcasting. The Ministry of Information denied Radio Mariya’s fifth application in April.

According to local religious groups, communities chose not to pursue many new purchases or rentals of properties as places of worship during the year, partially due to the political situation and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many communities reported that they did not believe that they faced impediments to purchases or rentals of sanctioned places of worship. Some religious communities with outstanding property cases continued to engage with the government and the legal system to resolve them. Converting residential property for religious use remained difficult. Protestant groups stated they continued to be more severely affected than other groups because they were less likely to own religious facilities, and they said they could not apply for permission to conduct religious activities in private homes because residences were too small to accommodate their numbers.

Saint Simon and Helena Roman Catholic Church parish continued to use its existing church building (also known as the “Red Church”), even though it was owned by the government. During the year, Minsk city authorities billed the parish for costs related to 2018-2019 renovation work, in addition to monthly rent, utilities, and real estate and land taxes, which amounted to a total of 160,000 rubles ($61,600) for 2019. The parish continued to refuse to pay for the land tax, property tax, and renovation work. The parish in 2020 was billed 12,000 rubles ($4,600) monthly. On July 21, St. Simon and Helena Church community members launched a petition seeking the return of the building from the government and collected more than 5,000 signatures in support.

Because of its location in one of Minsk’s main protest sites, authorities occasionally restricted access to the Red Church or chased protesters into it. On August 26, riot police pushed peaceful protesters and journalists into the church and stood guard at the doors, effectively locking them in for approximately an hour. Many of those forced inside engaged in prayer until they were allowed to leave. The government changed the locks on the church’s doors the next day, leaving the parish with one set of keys. Authorities also reportedly cut electricity to the building during rallies outside the church on August 23-25. On August 26, the then-vicar general of the Minsk-Mahilyou Archdiocese, Bishop Yury Kasabutski, condemned the “unacceptable and illegal actions” of riot police and the government and called on authorities to investigate incidents and guarantee freedom of conscience and expression. On September 11, riot police blocked entrances into the church to prevent protesters from hiding inside and detained a number of protesters who fled there. Police reportedly did not detain worshippers or individuals in the church who were present to pray.

Representatives of the Roman Catholic, Belarusian Orthodox, and Protestant communities said authorities did not charge them fees for their religious events. In some cases, however, community leaders had to take personal responsibility for maintaining order and safety at such events. Observers stated that the system of reimbursements for security, medical, and cleaning services for organizers of mass events adopted in 2019 was not intended to prohibit regular worship, nor was it doing so in practice. There were fewer religious events in 2020 due in part to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. For the ones that were held, authorities did not charge fees, seek reimbursements, or implement other restrictions that had previously forced organizers to cancel similar events.

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

On January 23, Lukashenka signed a decree allocating 1.2 million rubles ($474,000) from reserve funds to cover salaries of professors and employees, as well as stipends for students, of the Belarusian Orthodox seminaries. Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church said their schools did not receive any financial support from the government.

On March 26, the BOC and the Ministry of Education signed a 2020-2025 program of cooperation, noting the importance of continued engagement between the church and the government. The program included seminars, lectures, tours to BOC sites, and joint commemorations and celebrations.

Religious groups said the government continued to apply visa regulations inconsistently, which affected the ability of foreign missionaries to live and work in the country. On September 2, OPRRNA on short notice canceled permission to work and preach for Father Jerzy Wilk, a Polish citizen and priest of St. Michael the Archangel Church in the village of Varapaeva in the Vitsebsk region. Wilk departed the country shortly afterwards after having served the community since 2003. While OPRRNA gave no explanation for the decision, representatives of religious communities continued to say that unofficially the government wanted local religious communities to train local citizens as clergy rather than rely on foreigners.

On September 29, Bishop Kasabutski denied allegations that the Roman Catholic Church was used by external forces for political purposes. In a sermon, he said the political allegations made by the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Sergei Naryshkin, as reported by the SVR press service on September 29, were “fake.” The bishop added that Naryshkin’s allegations that “the United States of America, the CIA, and other organizations are trying to use the Roman Catholic Church to undermine the state system in [Belarus]” were absurd and were “a lie that has nothing to do with the truth.” He said, “Today the Roman Catholic Church tells the truth about the situation in the country, denounces the violence, and calls for solidarity, unity, concord, peace and forgiveness,” adding, “This is how we probably prevent someone from implementing certain scenarios aimed at causing a split in our society and bloodshed.” The bishop also dismissed speculation about tensions in relations among various religious groups in the country. State media reported only Naryshkin’s allegations against the Catholic Church and not the bishop’s statements.

Roman Catholic bishops continued to state that foreign priests faced multiple challenges, including a lengthy government approval process before obtaining permission to celebrate Mass; visas often issued for only three to six months; and administrative difficulties when trying to renew visas. In August, however, local bishops reported that authorities renewed all requested visa applications that had been submitted or were pending review.

According to Forum 18, the government continued to refuse Klemens Werth, a Catholic priest from Russia, permission to engage in religious work. He was allowed to remain in Vitsebsk to continue building a new church, but since he was a foreigner, he was banned from celebrating Mass or otherwise serving.

During the year, Lukashenka repeatedly stated that the political unrest in the country had been supported and financed by Poland along with the Baltic states and the West more broadly. He said the Roman Catholic Church was involved. After authorities barred Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from reentering the country from Poland, Lukashenka stated on September 1 that the Archbishop, a Belarusian citizen, had received “instructions” while in Poland on how to “destroy” Belarus. On November 2, Lukashenka said, “The BOC is not bringing clergy from abroad, from countries foreign to our country, as it is being done by some other denominations. We cannot accept any clergy from Poland when Catholic Poland has taken such a [hostile] position against us. It is not normal.” He urged the Roman Catholic Church to train “more local clergy.”

During the year, the leaders of New Life Church in Minsk continued discussions with city authorities on its status and operations. The government froze the assets of the Church in 2010. The Church continued to use its building for religious purposes, but there were no developments regarding the asset freeze, which remained in place at year’s end.

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

Speaking at a January 27 event to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Dapkiunas emphasized the importance of commemorating the Holocaust “in reiterating the moral, political, and social meaning of the call ‘Never Again,’” which, he said, was “a challenge that still faces humanity – one that demands continuous work.” The chairman of the House of Representatives, Uladzimir Andreichanka, joined world leaders at the January 23 World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, and the deputy chairman of the Council of the Republic, Anatoly Isachanka, attended the ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.

On October 15, the Vitsebsk Jewish community, private donors from Russia, and local authorities unveiled a memorial honoring the 350-year-long history of the local Jewish population at the site of the Jewish cemetery in the village of Yanavichy in Vitebsk Oblast. Community members and local authorities also cleaned the cemetery and cataloged unearthed gravestones.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

An interreligious working group comprising the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, and Jewish religious communities organized seminars and educational events, some of which were virtual due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. The theme for 2020 was “Religions in Belarus in the Period of Social Transformations.” The group held an in-person seminar on February 12 on spiritual development of the country’s society in the context of social justice. In April, the group held an interreligious youth forum that involved seminars dedicated to the “contribution of different religious communities in resolving environmental issues in the interest of Belarus’s sustainable development.” In June, the group organized a seminar targeting youth and discussing different faiths and new methods for the spiritual and moral upbringing of youth and children. On December 21, the group held an online seminar, “Religions in the Context of Innovations in Society and the Economy.”

Anti-Semitic comments appeared on social media and in comment sections of local online news articles, although it was not clear that all of the comments could be attributed to Belarusians.

The BOC continued its annual commemoration in honor of Hauryil Belastoksky (Gabriel of Bialystok), a child allegedly killed by Jews in Bialystok in 1690. The Russian Orthodox Church considers him one of its saints and martyrs, and the BOC falls under the authority of the Russian Church on traditional practices such as this. Jewish community leaders continued to express concern over the traditional memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Belastoksky’s death on May 3, which states the “martyred and courageous Hauryil exposed Jewish dishonesty” although a trial after the boy’s death acquitted the Jew who was charged with the crime. The BOC in recent years removed some anti-Semitic references about Belastoksky from its online materials and focused more on his role as a regional patron saint of children. Prayers for the commemoration reportedly continued to include anti-Semitic references, however.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with government representatives to discuss religious issues. Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires regularly engaged with officials at the highest levels of government on issues related to religious freedom, registration of religious communities, and anti-Semitism.

The U.S. Secretary of State and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom issued several public statements in support of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, calling for authorities to allow him to return to the country to lead his religious community after being refused reentry from Poland.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials continued to meet regularly with representatives of the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Protestants, and minority religious groups as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups to learn about religious activities and discuss government actions that affected religious freedom. They discussed anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage with Jewish religious groups as well as government restrictions on registration and operations with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups. Embassy officials also continued to hold regular discussions about restrictions on religious freedom with religious freedom activists, religious leaders, lawyers for religious groups, and representatives of the For Freedom of Religion initiative, a group of civil society activists promoting religious tolerance. Embassy officials posted the Secretary of State’s speeches and other materials related to religious freedom on social media.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Executive Summary

The constitutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and each of the country’s two entities – the Federation of BiH (the Federation) and Republika Srpska (RS) – provide for freedom of religious thought and practice, prohibit religious discrimination, and allow registered religious organizations to operate freely. The Federation constitution declares religion to be “a vital national interest” of the constituent peoples. The RS constitution establishes the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the Presidency and one house of parliament and certain other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – who are predominantly SOC, Roman Catholic, and Muslim, respectively. The government again failed to comply with a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision calling on it to open these positions to other minorities. By law, no Muslim group may register or open a mosque without the approval of the Islamic Community (IC). The human rights ministry made little progress implementing instructions making it responsible for coordinating actions to correct religious freedom abuses and to draft proposals to regulate retirement and health insurance benefits of religious workers. The Presidency again failed to approve a previously negotiated agreement that would provide religious accommodations to Muslim workers. Religious groups, in communities where they are a minority, reported authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against them in providing services and granting building permits. UNICEF reported students and teachers continued to experience ethnic and religious discrimination in schools. The Interreligious Council (IRC), comprising representatives of the country’s four major religious communities, again reported inadequate investigation and prosecution of religiously motivated crimes.

The IRC registered 14 reported acts of vandalism against religious sites, including one involving a shooting at a cross, but said the number of actual incidents was likely much higher. In October, vandals damaged the Sultan Sulaiman Atiq Mosque in Bijeljina, a designated national monument. The Saint Sava Orthodox church in Blazuj near Sarajevo was repeatedly vandalized, and several Catholic memorials and chapels were also vandalized. In 2019, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to the country monitored 16 potential bias-motivated incidents targeting Muslims and 15 such incidents targeting Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox), all of which were reported to the police. The incidents ranged from threatening religious leaders and disturbing religious ceremonies with threats to vandalizing cemeteries and other religious sites. In contrast with the previous year, the OSCE did not report any anti-Semitic incidents. Slightly more than two-thirds of respondents in an August survey expressed support for maintaining religious education in schools.

U.S. embassy representatives emphasized the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment for religious minorities to government officials. In May, the Ambassador met with the newly appointed Minister for Human Rights and Refugees and discussed the importance of religious freedom and the government’s financial support to the IRC. In regular meetings with religious groups, embassy officials continued to urge the groups to improve interreligious dialogue to help develop a peaceful and stable society. The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and to fund some of its interfaith and reconciliation-themed activities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2013, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 51 percent of the population, Serbian Orthodox Christians 31 percent, Roman Catholics 15 percent, and others, including Protestants and Jews, 3 percent.

There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: Bosnian Serbs affiliate primarily with the SOC, and Bosnian Croats with the Roman Catholic Church. Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,000 members, with the majority living in Sarajevo. The majority of Serbian Orthodox live in the RS, and most Muslims and Catholics in the Federation. Protestant and most other small religious communities have their largest memberships in Sarajevo and Banja Luka.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which serves as the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It stipulates no one shall be deprived of citizenship on grounds of religion and all persons shall enjoy the same rights and freedoms without discrimination as to religion.

The entity constitution of the Federation states all individuals shall have freedom of religion, including of public and private worship, and freedom from discrimination based on religion or creed. It defines religion as a vital national interest of the constituent peoples.

The entity constitution of the RS establishes the SOC as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” It provides for equal freedoms, rights, and duties for all citizens irrespective of religion and prohibits any incitement to religious hatred or intolerance. It specifies religious communities shall be equal before the law and free to manage their religious affairs and hold religious services, open religious schools and conduct religious education in all schools, engage in commercial activities, receive gifts, and establish and manage legacies in accordance with the law.

The laws of Brcko, a self-governing district, do not encompass freedom of religion. Instead, national laws on religious freedom are applied.

A national law on religion provides for freedom of conscience and grants legal status to “churches and religious communities.” To acquire official status as recognized religious communities, religious groups must register. The constitutions of BiH, the Federation, and RS state that registered religious organizations are allowed to operate freely. Simplified registration procedures applied to religious groups recognized prior to adoption of the law, primarily the Orthodox Church, IC, Jewish Community, Catholic Church, and other Christian groups, including the Evangelical, Baptist, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Unregistered religious groups may assemble to practice their religion, but they have no legal status and may not represent themselves as a religious community.

Registration affords numerous rights to religious communities that are not available to those that do not register, including the right to conduct collaborative actions such as do charity work, raise funds, and construct and occupy places of worship. The law states churches and religious communities serve as representative institutions and organizations of believers, founded in accordance with their own regulations, teachings, beliefs, traditions, and practices. The law recognizes the legal status of four “traditional” religious communities: the IC, SOC, Catholic Church, and Jewish community. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains a unified register of all religious communities, and the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees (MHRR) is responsible for documenting violations of religious freedom.

According to law, any group of 300 or more adult citizens may apply to register a new religious community or church through a written application to the MOJ. Requirements for registration include presenting statutes that define the method of religious practice and a petition for establishment with the signatures of at least 30 founders. The ministry must issue a decision within 30 days of receipt of the application. The law stipulates the ministry may deny the application for registration if it concludes the content and manner of worship may be “contrary to legal order, public morale, or is damaging to the life and health or other rights and freedoms of believers and citizens.” A group may appeal a negative decision to the BiH Council of Ministers. The law allows registered religious communities to establish their own suborganizations, which may operate without restriction.

The law states no new church or religious community may be founded bearing the same or similar name as an existing church or religious community. The law also states no one may use the symbols, insignia, or attributes of a church or a religious community without its consent.

In addition to registered churches and religious communities, there are educational, charitable, and other institutions, known as “legal subjects,” that belong to these communities but are registered as separate legal entities in the MOJ registry. The IC has 120 legal subjects, the Catholic Church 398, the Orthodox Church 526, and other churches and religious communities and alliances (primarily of Protestant groups) of these communities have 47.

A concordat between the BiH government and the Holy See recognizes the public juridical personality of the Catholic Church and grants a number of rights, including to establish educational and charitable institutions and carry out religious education in public or private schools, and it officially recognizes Catholic holidays. The government and the Catholic Church created a commission to implement the concordat. A similar agreement exists between the BiH government and the SOC, and a commission to implement it was created in September.

The state recognizes the IC as the sole supreme institutional religious authority for all Muslims in the country, including immigrants and refugees, as well as for Bosniaks and other Muslim nationals living outside the country who accept the IC’s authority. According to the law, no Islamic group may register with the MOJ or open a mosque without the permission of the IC.

The law on religion states that churches and religious communities are obligated to pay taxes and contributions on earnings of their employees (pension, health, and disability insurance). In the Federation, two of 10 cantons – Western Herzegovina Canton and Herzegovina-Neretva Canton – include religious officials in their health insurance system. Sarajevo Canton does not include religious workers in its health insurance system but offers such insurance to religious officials under more favorable provisions than those available to average citizens. The RS provides pension benefits and disability insurance to religious workers while they have residence in the RS.

All three BiH administrative units have hate crimes regulated within their criminal codes. The provisions in these codes regulate hate crimes as every criminal act committed because of the race, skin color, religious belief, national or ethnic origin, language, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity of the victim. The criminal codes also stipulate that this motivation is to be taken as an aggravating circumstance of any criminal act unless the code itself stipulates harsher punishments for qualified forms of criminal acts.

The laws of the Federation and RS, as well as those of all 10 cantons, affirm the right of every citizen to religious education. The laws allow a representative of each of the officially registered religious communities to assume responsibility for teaching religious studies in public and private preschools, primary and secondary schools, and universities if there is sufficient demand. Children from groups that are a minority in a school are entitled to religious education only when there are 18 or more students from that religious group in one class. Religious communities select and train their respective religious education teachers, who are employees of the schools where they teach, although they receive accreditation from the religious body governing the curriculum.

The IC, SOC, and Catholic Church develop and approve religious curricula across the country. Public schools offer religious education in a school’s majority religion, with some exceptions.

In the Federation’s five Bosniak-majority cantons, primary and secondary schools offer Islamic religious instruction as a twice-weekly course, or students may take a course in ethics. In cantons with Croat majorities, Croat students in primary and secondary schools may attend an elective Catholic religion course twice a week or take a course in ethics. In the five primary and 10 secondary Catholic schools spread throughout the Federation and the RS that do not have Croat majorities, parents may choose either an elective Catholic religion course or a course in ethics. The Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Education offers Orthodox and Protestant religious education in addition to classes offered to the Muslim and Catholic communities. The RS Ministry of Education offers elective religious education in secondary schools.

The BiH constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – in the government and armed forces. The constitution makes no explicit mention of representation for religious groups, although each ethnicity mentioned by the constitution is associated with a particular religion.

The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the House of Peoples (one of two houses of parliament) and apportions other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups according to quotas. Members of religious minorities are constitutionally ineligible to hold a seat in the House of Peoples. The three-member presidency must consist of one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb.

A law against discrimination prohibits exclusion, limitation, or preferential treatment of individuals based specifically on religion in employment and the provision of social services in both the government and private sectors.

The country has no law on restitution that would allow for the return of, or compensation for, property, including property owned by religious groups, nationalized or expropriated under communist rule.

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

Government Practices

The human rights ministry made little progress in implementing 2019 instructions for implementation of the national religious freedom law. In accordance with the instructions, the ministry is responsible for coordinating actions to correct religious freedom abuses and to draft proposals to regulate retirement and health insurance benefits of religious workers. The MHRR took no steps to draft proposals for resolving the issues of rights to pension, disability allowance, and health insurance for religious officials, despite issuing instructions in 2019 stating it would do so and submit the proposals to the government for approval. National, Federation, and RS governments had still not made provisions for religious officials to fully qualify for pensions and health and disability insurance, more than 16 years after the adoption of the law on religious freedom and the 2019 issuance of instructions on implementation of the law stating the MHRR should work with religious group representatives to resolve the issue.

The government again failed to comply with a 2009 decision by the ECHR stating the country should amend its constitution to allow members of minority groups, including Jews, to run for president and the House of Peoples.

The MOJ said it generally processed registration applications by religions groups within a week. There were no reports the ministry denied any registration applications by religious communities.

The Presidency again failed to reach a consensus on the approval of a 2015 agreement between the state and the IC that addressed dietary restrictions in public institutions, employer accommodations for daily prayer, and time off to attend Friday prayers, as well as one-time travel to Mecca for the Hajj. The Presidency did not inform the MHRR what part of the agreement was not acceptable to it.

In September, the IRC reported the government prohibition against employees of judicial institutions wearing any form of “religious insignia,” including headscarves, at work, remained in place. While there were no instances of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council applying the prohibition during the year, an IC representative stated its existence caused uneasiness and uncertainty among Muslims working in or visiting these institutions.

According to officials of religious groups constituting a local minority, authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against those groups with regard to the use of religious property and issuance of permits to build new, or repair existing, religious properties. On March 3, three years after the original application, Drvar municipal authorities issued a location permit to the Catholic Saint Joseph Parish in Drvar for the construction of a pastoral and charity center on property owned by the Catholic Church. In 2019, the Livno Canton Ministry of Construction, Space Planning, and Environment ordered Drvar Municipality to issue a location permit to the Catholic Church in Drvar for the construction of the center, overturning the municipality’s initial rejection of the Church’s request.

As of September, the government of BiH had only partially implemented an ECHR ruling ordering it to remove a Serbian Orthodox church the court found was illegally built on plaintiff Fata Orlovic’s property in Bratunac. The lawyer representing Orlovic confirmed the RS government paid Orlovic and her relatives for financial damages. At the end of February, SOC officials removed all religious items from the church, and, for the first time, there was no church liturgy held on the church’s patron saint’s day on September 11. At year’s end, the church building remained in place on Orlovic’s property.

Leaders of the four traditional religious communities in BiH continued to say the country’s continuing lack of any institution responsible for the rights of religious communities and the lack of a law on restitution – for both religious communities and private citizens – hindered efforts on the part of religious communities to resolve the issue of property confiscated and nationalized under communist rule from 1946 to 1965. Jakob Finci, the president of the country’s Jewish Community, repeatedly said the country was the only one in the region that had done nothing to resolve the restitution problem. He said the lack of resolution posed a burden on religious communities, as disputed properties could be an important and much-needed source of revenue for them.

According to religious community leaders, political disagreement over whether the state or the country’s two entities – the Federation and RS – had competency over restitution, as well as the potential cost, were the main barriers to the country’s adopting a law on restitution. According to a study done by the Economic Institute of the Faculty of Economics, University of Sarajevo, just under 7 percent of the total nationalized property in the country belonged to religious communities, and each major religious group had unresolved restitution claims involving high-profile properties. For example, the SOC sought return of its former seminary building, which housed the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Economics; the Jewish Community was seeking return of its La Benevolencija building in the center of Sarajevo, which housed the Ministry of Interior of Sarajevo Canton; the Catholic Church was seeking return of its Saint Augustine Institute building in Sarajevo, which housed the Music Academy; and the IC had a claim on the Palata Gazihusrevbeg building in downtown Sarajevo. In some cases, municipal, cantonal, and entity governments engaged in “silent restitution,” where they allowed religious communities to use a property but did not transfer legal ownership. All main religious groups expressed concerns regarding discrimination and unequal treatment of religious communities by the Federation and the RS. All major religious groups in the country said they agreed on the urgent need for a restitution law to be adopted.

In welcoming remarks during a Christmas reception on January 16, SOC Metropolitan Hrizostom called on the BiH Presidency to support, and the BiH Parliament to adopt, a law on restitution of property. He stated that, by failing to return seized properties to churches and religious communities, the government continued to violate basic human and religious rights of believers. On September 17, Catholic Cardinal Vinko Puljic, in a meeting with High Representative Valentin Inzko, the official responsible for overseeing implementation of civilian aspects of the Dayton Peace Agreement, said the government should either return all nationalized properties to religious groups or pay them compensation. In its October report, Key Findings of the Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovinas EU Membership Application and Analytical Report, the European Commission criticized BiH authorities for failure to adopt a legislative framework for handling restitution cases.

At the end of 2019, the Municipality of Stari Grad Sarajevo began construction of a 5,800 square-meter (62,000 square-foot) building in the center of Sarajevo on a plot of land, ownership of which was partly claimed by four Jewish families and partly by the IC. The Stari Grad Municipality registered itself as the owner of the land, even though the Jewish Community informed the municipality that one of the four original Jewish owners was still alive and the remaining three had living heirs. The families and Jewish Community submitted an appeal to the municipality in 2018, but the municipality rejected it in 2019 and issued a building permit to itself and private investor Amko Komerc. Unlike the Jewish families, several online media outlets, including tacno.net and klix.ba, reported that the IC was compensated for its share of the property.

According to a UNICEF report issued in March, students and teachers continued to experience ethnic and religious segregation, intolerance, and division in a number of ethnically homogenous schools throughout the country, especially in the “two schools under one roof,” where children were segregated from each other based on ethnicity.

Returnee students (those belonging to a minority ethnic group returning to their homes after being displaced by the war) continued to face barriers in exercising their rights to language education. For the seventh consecutive year, parents of Bosniak children in returnee communities throughout the RS continued to boycott public schools in favor of sending their children to alternative schooling financed and organized by the Federation of BiH Ministry of Education with support from the governments of the Sarajevo and the Zenica-Doboj Cantons and the IC. According to media and international organizations, the boycott was based on the refusal of the RS Ministry of Education and Culture (RS MoEC) to approve a group of national subjects (specific courses to which Bosniak, Serb, and Croat students are entitled and taught in their constituent language according to their ethnicity). Parents of one of these schools in Vrbanjci, Kotor Varos, won a court case in December 2019 in which the RS Supreme Court ruled they were entitled to the national group of subjects in the Bosnian language. The RS MoEC, however, failed to implement the decision by the beginning of the new school year in September. As a result, 60 children continued learning in the Hanifici Islamic Center building, with teachers traveling from Zenica-Doboj Canton, approximately 80 kilometers (48 miles) away. In June, lawyers representing Bosniak parents filed a request for execution of the RS Supreme Court decision at the Kotor Varos Basic Court. By year’s end, that court had not responded. Lawyers representing the parents also reported that they had tried to meet with the RS MoEC officials twice, but without success.

According to nongovernmental organizations and media reports, parents often chose to send their children to public school religious education classes to avoid having their children stand out from other children who attend the classes and be exposed to peer pressure. In August, the PRIME Communications agency asked 1,500 persons whether religious education should remain in schools in the country; 52.8 percent of respondents opposed removing religious education from schools; 16 percent were largely against removal; 11.5 percent favored removal; and the remainder did not answer the question.

According to Bosniak Muslim, Croat Catholic, and Serb Orthodox religious communities, authorities continued to enforce selectively the rights of religious groups regarding access to education, employment, health care, and other social services in areas where those groups constituted religious minorities. They said refugees returning to their original communities pursuant to the Dayton Peace Agreement were particularly subject to discrimination. Bosniak returnees again complained that schools in the RS celebrated Saint Sava Day as an official holiday for their schools; Bosniaks said they considered this discriminatory, since Saint Sava is an Orthodox saint.

Representatives of religious minority communities throughout the country reported that their members had difficulties accessing government services and protections, including access to health care, pensions, other social benefits, and the transfer of student records between districts. For example, in July, Cardinal Puljic told an Italian Catholic media outlet that thousands of Catholics left the country every year because of discrimination.

On several occasions, IRC leaders again said local authorities throughout the country continued to discriminate in providing police protection and investigating threats of violence and harassment, and vandalism. While only a few cases were recorded, the IRC said law enforcement officials treated the cases as simple theft or vandalism, without taking into consideration the acts occurred at religious sites and could be categorized as hate crimes. According to the IRC, the officials rarely investigated the motives of the acts, which would help distinguish cases of theft from hate crimes. In many instances, IRC leaders said they hesitated to report incidents to the police or media, particularly in areas where their religious group is a minority, fearing that public attention could result in retaliation and greater problems for their community in the future.

The Sarajevo Canton Assembly again failed to implement its 2018 decision to change the name of an elementary school and street in the town of Dobrosevici in the canton’s Municipality of Novi Grad named after Mustafa Busuladzic. Busuladzic was a World War II-era Ustasha figure who glorified Hitler and was known for his anti-Semitism. Both the school and street retained the Busuladzic name.

According to representatives of the Catholic Church, the joint commission for the implementation of the concordat with the Holy See had not met since 2016, and the government had not implemented the agreements reached by the commission earlier, such as legislation on observing religious holidays.

In September, the government and the SOC formed a commission to implement the agreement between the government and the SOC. According to the MHRR, the implementation of the agreement with the SOC had likely been stalled for years due to the absence of a similar agreement between the state and the IC.

The MHRR stated in September it had launched a process to unblock the process of adopting an agreement between the IC and the government.

International and local nongovernmental organizations, academics, and government agencies said each of the country’s major political parties continued to align with the religion practiced by the dominant ethnic group among its membership: the largest ethnic Bosniak parties continued to align with the IC, the largest ethnic Croat parties with the Catholic Church, and the two largest ethnic Serb parties with the SOC.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The IRC stated it believed the actual number of incidents was much higher but remained significantly underreported because members of religious groups feared that reporting them could trigger retaliation or further episodes.

In July, unknown persons fired several shots from a small-caliber weapon at a Catholic cross in Bisnje near Derventa. Authorities reported there were no victims; they failed to identify any suspects by year’s end.

On October 11, unknown persons vandalized Sultan Sulaiman’s Atiq Mosque in Bijeljina by breaking glass on two windows. The mosque was a designated national monument previously restored after being destroyed in the 1992-95 war. Mirnes Kovac, a columnist for Al Jazeera Balkans, tweeted: “This is just one more sign of the dramatic rise of ultranationalist forces among the Serb population in the Balkans.” Mayor of Bijeljina Mico Micic condemned the incident and called for tolerance and coexistence in the municipality, as “animosities, mistrust, and instability can bring nothing good.”

In July, unknown persons sprayed insulting graffiti on the Saint Sunday Orthodox Church in the village of Dobric near Siroki Brijeg. According to the IRC, the incident led to a more proactive and constructive attitude towards the SOC by local authorities in Siroki Brijeg, who agreed to help what the IRC described as the small and long-neglected Orthodox returnee community in the village by initiating a project to provide regular water supply to its residences.

In February, vandals damaged the parish house next to the Catholic Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kotor Varos Municipality in the RS in February. Police arrested two suspects and initiated criminal proceedings against them, but further information on the case was unavailable at year’s end.

In January, police arrested two minors after they damaged a window and the facade of the Carsijska Mosque in Kozarska Dubica. The perpetrators later visited the imam, together with their parents, and apologized to him, offering to pay for the damage. The local mayor also offered to cover the cost of repairs.

In August, on the first day of the Islamic New Year, a dead pig was found in the yard of the mosque in Bratunac. The perpetrators were not identified.

In 2019, the OSCE mission to the country monitored 16 potential bias-motivated incidents targeting Muslims and 15 such incidents targeting Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox), all of which were reported to police. Incidents ranged from disturbing religious ceremonies with threats and shootings, to threatening religious leaders, to vandalizing graveyards and religious facilities through property destruction and graffiti.

On February 26, Danijel Rajkovic from Gacko was sentenced to one year in prison for provoking ethnic, racial, and religious hatred. In 2019, Rajkovic defecated in front of the mosque in Gacko and, on several occasions, sent threatening messages to the imam in Bosanski Novi. In addition to his prison sentence, the court ordered Rajkovic to undergo psychiatric treatment.

The Council of Muftis of the IC said it was continuing efforts to persuade unregistered Islamic congregations (or para-jamaats), which gathered predominantly Salafist followers and operated outside the purview of the IC, to cease what they described as “unsanctioned” religious practices and officially unite with the IC. The IC reported 11 active para-jamaats during the year, compared with 21 in 2019 and 64 in 2016.

In May, Cardinal Puljic, the most senior Catholic prelate in the country, held a memorial Mass for the victims of Bleiburg, where Yugoslav partisans killed thousands of Nazi-allied Ustasha fighters who fled the advance of the communist forces, as well as innocent persons, including women and children. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Cardinal Puljic could not travel to Bleiburg, Austria, for the annual commemoration. The Jewish Community, Israeli Embassy in Tirana, Albania, and SOC criticized the Cardinal’s plans to hold the commemorative Mass, which also drew sizeable but peaceful protests in the center of Sarajevo. The press reported that the Mass, which was also broadcast by a regional television station, included a prayer for all victims of World War II, and there was no mention of Ustasha leaders. Online newspaper Crux Now reported that in an interview with local Catholic radio station Marija, Cardinal Pujlic said he had received threats related to the memorial Mass and that his church had prayed “for all the victims, not for Ustashas or criminals.”

The IRC organized six training sessions for youth, religious leaders, and IRC staff on usage of social media in promoting positive narratives (stories designed to promote interreligious and interethnic dialogue). The IRC continued to monitor and condemn attacks on religious leaders and buildings. It also organized “youth corners” – booths in public areas providing pamphlets and other information promoting the work and mission of the IRC – in Tuzla, Trebinje, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Zepce.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In May, the Ambassador met with newly appointed Minister for Human Rights and Refugees Milos Lucic and discussed the importance of religious freedom and the government’s financial support to the IRC. Embassy officials engaged with the Presidency, Ministry of Security, and MHRR and underscored the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment under the law for religious minorities.

Embassy officials had numerous meetings with the Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, and Orthodox communities and community leaders. The Ambassador had individual meetings or calls with the leaders of the traditional religious communities, and embassy officials attended events hosted by the religious communities to commemorate religious holidays. Embassy officials continued to have small in-person meetings and representational events with the representatives of the Islamic, Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish communities. At these events, embassy officials emphasized the importance of interreligious dialogue and respect for religious diversity and urged the religious communities to continue efforts to foster reconciliation and condemn intolerance and hate speech. The embassy reinforced its messages of support following the events and meetings on its social media platforms; the postings, particularly on Twitter, included calls for tolerance and the importance of interreligious dialogue and reconciliation.

The embassy continued supporting the Interreligious Studies and Peacebuilding master’s program, a long-term project in its fourth year of operation, implemented jointly by the Catholic Theological Faculty, Faculty of Islamic Studies (University of Sarajevo), and Orthodox Theological Faculty (University of East Sarajevo). During the year, the embassy supported the program by financing a Fulbright fellow. The program is accredited by the Universities of Sarajevo and East Sarajevo. Its goal is to bring together professionals and students across ethnic and religious backgrounds. Thirty-five students enrolled in the program since its inception; there were 12 enrollees for 2020-21.

The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and supported its activities by providing funding. In January, the embassy approved a one-year project to help the IRC better respond to hate speech and attacks against religious sites and officials. The project involved technical assistance to the IRC to improve its strategic messaging; increase cooperation with authorities, civil society, and the media; and bolster its outreach and networks among youth. Its main objective was to minimize the potential for escalation following negative events and send messages to prevent a cycle of recrimination and violence, while strengthening interreligious dialogue as a tool for promoting empathy and preventing violence. The project focused on five communities where hate-based attacks and speech had been prevalent in recent years (Tuzla, Trebinje, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Zepce).

The Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development visited the country in February and participated in the signing ceremony for the project with the IRC leaders. During her visit, the Deputy Administrator toured holy sites of all four traditional religions with leaders of the IRC. She congratulated the members of the IRC for their efforts to set a positive example of tolerance and collaboration across faiths by engaging citizens of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Bulgaria

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and conscience. Religious groups may worship without registering, but registered groups receive benefits. The constitution recognizes Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s “traditional” religion, and the law exempts the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) from registration. In December, the Plovdiv Appellate Court began hearing an appeal by 14 Romani Muslims convicted in 2019 of spreading Salafi Islam, among other charges. Muslim leaders again said several municipalities denied permission to build new or rehabilitate existing religious facilities. The Evangelical Alliance and some other religious groups stated the government did not apply COVID-19 restrictions on religious groups equally, favoring the BOC. The European Court of Human Rights stopped the deportation of three Uyghur Muslims to China. In February, a Shumen court ruled the municipality’s ordinance restricting proselytizing was unconstitutional. A parliamentarian and member of the governing political coalition criticized the ruling, which was being appealed, calling Jehovah’s Witnesses a “dangerous sect.” In February, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld the Sofia mayor’s ban on the annual march honoring Hristo Lukov, leader of a pro-Nazi organization in the 1940s, restricting the event to laying flowers at Lukov’s plaque. The academy of sciences published a report, backed by several government ministries, denying the World War II-era government had sent Jews to forced labor camps but instead had tried to save them from the Nazis.

The Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO) Shalom reported death threats, increased incidents of anti-Semitic hate speech in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and periodic vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and monuments. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported fewer instances of harassment and threats, attributing the change to COVID-19 restrictions. Jehovah’s Witnesses said some media continued to misrepresent their activities. Protestants stated media published information about members of their community who tested positive for COVID-19, while not doing so for members of any other religious group. An Alpha research survey issued in January of Orthodox Christians and nonbelievers found rates of mistrust of Muslims was 26 percent, of Jews and Protestants 10 percent, and of Catholics 8 percent.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly discussed cases of religious discrimination, harassment of religious minorities, and initiatives supporting interfaith dialogue with government officials, including representatives of the Directorate for Religious Affairs, Office of the Ombudsman, Commission for Protection against Discrimination, and local governments. The Ambassador and embassy officials also met with minority religious groups and supported civil society efforts to encourage tolerance and stimulate interfaith dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 76 percent of the population identifies as Eastern Orthodox Christian, primarily affiliated with the BOC. The census reports Muslims, the second largest religious group, are approximately 10 percent of the population, followed by Protestants at 1.1 percent and Roman Catholics at 0.8 percent. Nearly 95 percent of Muslims reported being Sunni; most of the rest are Shia, and there is a small number of Ahmadis concentrated in Blagoevgrad. Orthodox Christians of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Sri Chinmoy, and other groups together make up 0.2 percent of the population. According to the census, 4.8 percent of respondents have no religion and 7.1 percent did not specify a religion. According to a 2019 report by the think tank Agency for Social Analyses, 74 percent of individuals identify as Orthodox Christians, 10 percent as Muslims, 13 percent as atheists, and 3 percent with other religious traditions.

Some religious minorities are concentrated geographically. Many Muslims, including ethnic Turks, Roma, and Pomaks (descendants of Slavic Bulgarians who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule) live in the Rhodope Mountains along the southern border with Greece and Turkey. Ethnic Turkish and Romani Muslims also live in large numbers in the northeast and along the Black Sea coast. Some recent Romani converts to Islam live in towns in the central region, such as Plovdiv and Pazardjik. According to the census, nearly 40 percent of Catholics live in and around Plovdiv. The majority of the small Jewish community lives in Sofia, Plovdiv, and along the Black Sea coast. Protestants are widely dispersed. Many Roma are Protestant converts, and Protestants are more numerous in areas with large Romani populations. Approximately 80 percent of the urban population and 62 percent of the rural population identifies as Orthodox Christian. Approximately 25 percent of the rural population identifies as Muslim, compared with four percent of the urban population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states freedom of conscience and choice of religion or no religion are inviolable, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the state shall assist in maintaining tolerance and respect among believers of different denominations, as well as between believers and nonbelievers. It states the practice of any religion shall be unrestricted except to the extent its practice would be detrimental to national security, public order, health, and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others. It states no one shall be exempt from obligations established by the constitution or the law on grounds of religious or other convictions. The constitution also stipulates the separation of religious institutions from the state and prohibits the formation of political parties along religious lines or organizations that incite religious animosity, as well as the use of religious beliefs, institutions, and communities for political ends. The law does not allow any privilege based on religious identity.

The constitution names Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s traditional religion. The law establishes the BOC as a legal entity, exempting it from the court registration that is mandatory for all other religious groups seeking legal recognition.

The penal code prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for persons attacking individuals or groups based on their religious affiliation. Instigators and leaders of an attack may receive prison sentences of up to six years. Those who obstruct the ability of individuals to profess their faith, carry out their rituals and services, or compel another to participate in religious rituals and services may receive prison sentences of up to one year. Violating a person’s or group’s freedom to acquire or practice a religious belief is subject to a fine of between 100 and 300 levs ($63-$190). If a legal entity commits the infraction, the fine may range from 500 to 5,000 levs ($310-$3,100).

To receive national legal recognition, religious groups other than the BOC must register with the Sofia City Court. Applications must include: the group’s name and official address; a description of the group’s religious beliefs and service practices, organizational structure and bodies and management procedures, bodies, and mandates; a list of official representatives and the processes for their election; procedures for convening meetings and making decisions; and information on finances and property and processes for termination and liquidation of the group. The Directorate for Religious Affairs under the Council of Ministers provides expert opinions on registration matters upon the court’s request. Applicants must notify the Directorate for Religious Affairs within seven days of receiving a court decision on their registration. Applicants may appeal negative registration decisions to the Sofia Appellate Court and, subsequently, the Supreme Cassation Court. The law does not require the formal registration of local branches of registered groups, only that branches notify local authorities, and local authorities enter them in a register. Local branches are not required to obtain registration from the local court. The law prohibits registration of different groups with the same name in the same location. The Directorate for Religious Affairs and any prosecutor may request that a court revoke a religious group’s registration on the grounds of systematic violations of the law. There are 203 registered religious groups in addition to the BOC.

Registered religious groups must maintain a registry of their clergy and employees, provide the Directorate for Religious Affairs with access to the registry, and issue a certificate to each clerical member, who must carry it as proof of representing the group. Foreign members of registered religious groups may obtain long-term residency permits, but for the foreign member to be allowed to conduct religious services during his or her stay, the group must send advance notice to the Directorate for Religious Affairs.

The law requires the government to provide funding for all registered religious groups based on the number of self-identified followers in the latest census (2011), at a rate of 10 levs ($6) per capita to groups that comprise more than one percent of the population and varying amounts for the rest.

Registered groups have the right to perform religious services; maintain financial accounts; own property such as houses of worship and cemeteries; provide medical, social, and educational services; receive property tax and other exemptions; and participate in commercial ventures.

Unregistered religious groups may engage in religious practice, but they lack privileges granted to registered groups, such as access to government funding and the right to own property, establish financial accounts in their names, operate schools and hospitals, receive property tax exemptions, and sell religious merchandise.

The law restricts the wearing of face-covering garments in public places, imposing a fine of 200 levs ($130) for a first offense and 1,500 levs ($940) for repeat offenses.

The law allows registered groups to publish, import, and distribute religious media. The law does not restrict proselytizing by registered or unregistered groups. Dozens of municipalities, including the regional cities of Kyustendil, Shumen, Stara Zagora, and Sliven, have ordinances prohibiting door-to-door proselytizing and the distribution of religious literature without a permit. The ordinances in Stara Zagora and Kyustendil remained in effect despite a 2018 Supreme Administrative Court ruling that they were unconstitutional. Several municipalities, including Shumen, Kyustendil, and Sliven, prohibit unregistered religious groups from conducting any religious activities. Some municipalities prohibit religious activities inside cultural institutes, schools, and establishments for youth and children.

By law, public schools at all levels may, but are not required, to teach the historical, philosophical, and cultural aspects of religion and introduce students to the moral values of different religious groups as part of the core curriculum. A school may teach any registered religion in a special course as part of the elective curriculum upon request of at least 13 students, subject to the availability of books and teachers. The Ministry of Education and Science approves the content of and provides books for these special religion courses. If a public school is unable to pay for a religion teacher, it may accept financial sponsorship from a private donor or a teacher from a registered denomination. The law also allows registered religious groups to operate schools and universities, provided they meet government standards for secular education.

The Commission for Protection against Discrimination is an independent government body charged with preventing and protecting against discrimination, including religious discrimination, and ensuring equal opportunity. It functions as a civil litigation court adjudicating discrimination complaints and does not charge for its services. The commission’s decisions may be appealed to administrative courts. Upon accepting a case, the commission assigns it to a panel that then reviews it in open session. If the commission makes a finding of discrimination, it may impose a fine of 250 to 2,000 levs ($160-$1,300). The commission may double fines for repeat violations. Regional courts may also try civil cases involving religious discrimination.

The law establishes an independent ombudsman to serve as an advocate for citizens who believe public or municipal administrations or public service providers have violated their rights and freedoms, including those pertaining to religion, through their actions or inaction. The ombudsman may request information from authorities, act as an intermediary in resolving disputes, make proposals for terminating existing practices, refer information to the prosecution service, and request that the Constitutional Court abolish legal provisions as unconstitutional.

The penal code provides up to three years’ imprisonment for forming “a political organization on religious grounds” or using a church or religion to spread propaganda against the authority of the state or its activities.

The penal code prohibits the propagation or incitement of religious or other discrimination, violence, or hatred “by speech, press, or other media, by electronic information systems or in another manner,” as well as religiously motivated assault or property damage. Either offense is punishable by imprisonment for one to four years and a fine of 5,000 to 10,000 levs ($3,100-$6,300), as well as “public censure.” The propagation of “fascism or another antidemocratic ideology” is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years or a fine of up to 5,000 levs ($3,100). Courts have found that Nazism falls within the purview of “antidemocratic ideology.” Desecration of religious symbols or sites, including places of worship or graves, is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 3,000 to 10,000 levs ($1,900-$6,300).

The law provides for restitution of real estate confiscated during the communist era; courts have also applied the law to Holocaust-related claims.

The law allows religious groups to delay until 2029 paying back outstanding revenue obligations incurred before December 31, 2018.

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

Government Practices

On December 10, the Plovdiv Appellate Court began proceedings involving 14 Romani Muslims, 12 of whom appealed their lower-court convictions on charges of supporting ISIS, assisting foreign fighters, and propagating Salafi Islam, characterized by the government as an antidemocratic ideology, and incitement to war. The prosecution appealed the sentences of 13 defendants to seek more severe punishments. In 2019, the Pazardjik District Court sentenced the group’s leader, Islamic preacher Ahmed Mussa, to 8.5 years in prison, while the rest of the men received prison sentences ranging from 12 to 42 months. The only woman in the group received a two-year suspended sentence.

Some religious groups complained of unequal treatment by the authorities during a COVID-19 state of emergency in effect from March 13 to May 13 when all indoor public gatherings were prohibited. Catholic, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and most Protestant churches switched to online services, while Muslims and Jews closed mosques and synagogues. BOC churches remained open, without penalty. In October, authorities initiated prosecution against Church of God-Bulgaria pastor Nikolay Vasilev, accusing him of holding an Easter service in Samokov in breach of the ban on public gatherings. According to press reports, more than 100 of the participants at the outdoor event received administrative fines. In a public declaration in April, the Evangelical Alliance stated the authorities’ actions against the Samokov church interfered in the internal affairs of a Protestant church in an attempt to disrupt its services and persecute its clerics and worshippers. According to Vasilev as well as videos from the event posted online, the organizers observed all required health measures, including maintaining appropriate physical distance and wearing masks. At year’s end, the trial had not been scheduled. The maximum penalty for a conviction is five years’ imprisonment and a 15,000-lev ($9,400) fine.

In February, the European Court of Human Rights ordered interim measures to stop the expulsion of three Uyghur Muslims who had been denied asylum in 2017 and were facing deportation to China. The State Agency for National Security ordered their expulsion in 2018 on national security grounds. NGOs reported the Uyghurs had already fled Bulgaria in 2019 to another European country.

Jehovah’s Witnesses said the legal requirement for reporting to the government the names and contact information of all clerics violated the freedom of nondeclaration of religious affiliation guaranteed by the constitution. The Church of Jesus Christ said the legal requirement for providing the government full access to the records of its clerics and personnel was a violation of privacy. The Papal Nuncio also said the requirement imposed a burden on the local Catholic community, which did not have enough staff.

In February, the Shumen Administrative Court determined that the provision in a Shumen municipality ordinance restricting proselytizing violated the country’s constitution but stated the provisions prohibiting religious activities inside cultural institutes, schools, and establishments for youth and children were an “adequate and proportionate measure to protect children.”

Dean Stanchev, Member of Parliament from the United Patriots coalition and part of the governing coalition, posted on social media his “outrage” at the court’s decision, describing Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “dangerous sect” and stating that the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) political party would continue to “fight against its [Jehovah’s Witnesses’] parasitic activities” in order to “clear them from public spaces and people’s homes.” At year’s end, both the municipality and Jehovah’s Witnesses had appealed the decision to the Supreme Administrative Court.

Contrary to previous years, Jehovah’s Witnesses did not report any acts against their members while engaged in proselytizing. They attributed the change to reduced proselytizing due to COVID-19 restrictions. In February, the mayor of Dobrich and the local chief of police met with representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses to apologize for a December 2019 incident in the city center, when police brought two proselytizing Witnesses to the local precinct and accused them of violating public order. The mayor and the police chief said the officers had acted out of ignorance and inexperience and committed to providing police with the necessary information to avoid further incidents.

In May, June, August, and December, the government allocated 10.2 million levs ($6.4 million) in funding for repair and maintenance of BOC facilities in Sofia, Varna, Krustova Gora, Rila, Shipka, and Koprivets. In June, the Council of Ministers said it would provide an annual subsidy of one million levs ($627,000) to the three monasteries under the BOC Patriarch’s jurisdiction.

In July, the Supreme Administrative Court overturned a lower court’s decision and ruled the Catholic Church did not owe property tax from a 2009 claim by Sofia Municipality, which had not recognized the religious status of two Catholic monasteries located in the municipality.

The Office of the Grand Mufti and regional Muslim leaders said several municipalities, including Sofia, Stara Zagora, and Haskovo, continued to reject, on what they said were nontransparent grounds, their requests to build new, or rehabilitate existing, religious facilities. In October, Grand Mufti Mustafa Hadji raised the issue in a meeting with Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova, but by year’s end, the mayor’s office had not provided any information on the city’s continued rejections of the construction applications.

According to Razgrad Mufti Mehmed Alya, local public perception about restoring the landmark Makbul Ibrahim Pasa Mosque in Razgrad, which had been closed for nearly 50 years, to a functioning mosque shifted from negative to positive due to efforts by Regional Governor Gunai Husmen in the previous three years. In October, local authorities used a 2.3-million-lev ($1.44-million) grant from the national government to start renovating the mosque, which was listed officially as a cultural monument and therefore owned by the national government. New Mayor Dencho Boyadjiev agreed that the mosque could reopen for religious services after restoration, while the Muslim community, in turn, agreed that the mosque would be available for tourist visits when not in religious use.

The Office of the Grand Mufti said it was continuing to search for ways to litigate its recognition as the successor to the pre-1949 Muslim religious communities for the purpose of reclaiming approximately 30 properties, including eight mosques, two schools, two baths, and a cemetery seized by the former communist government. Pending a decision on who was the rightful successor to the Muslim religious communities, the courts continued to suspend action on all restitution claims by the Office of the Grand Mufti.

The national public school elective curriculum continued to provide three sets of classes at various grade levels in religious studies: one for Christianity, one for Islam, and one for all religions as ethical systems. In July, the Ministry of Education approved official school textbooks for students from first to fifth grade in the three programs that schools began using in the academic year. The Office of the Grand Mufti stated that some regional education inspectors attempted to persuade principals of schools offering an Islamic studies program to select members of their faculty to be trained as teachers for the program in order to replace teachers who were alumni of the High Islamic Institute. In November, the High Islamic Institute and the Office of the Grand Mufti commenced a project to retrain members of the Muslim community in pedagogical education as teachers of Islam.

In February, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld Sofia Mayor Fandakova’s ban on an annual march of right-wing extremists from across Europe to honor Hristo Lukov, the 1940s leader of the anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi Union of Bulgarian National Legions. The mayor’s ban cited serious concerns that a torchlight march in downtown Sofia would disrupt public order and restricted the event to laying flowers at Lukov’s plaque in front of his house on February 22. In previous years, the Sofia Administrative Court had overturned the mayor’s banning of the march. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Democratic Bulgarian alliance, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, NGOs, international organizations, and diplomatic missions had denounced the rally. On February 10, a Sofia prosecutor petitioned the Sofia City Court to deregister the rally organizer, Bulgarian National Union-Edelweiss, stating its activity violated individual rights; incited ethnic, racial, and religious hostility and homophobia; spread anti-Semitic propaganda; and undermined national integrity. At year’s end, the case continued in the Sofia City Court.

On January 17, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences organized a roundtable cohosted by the Ministry of Defense to present a report, Jews’ Labor Obligation during World War 2: Rescue Plan or Repressive Measure?, which denied that authorities forced the male Jewish population into labor camps in the early 1940s and stated that instead the Army Labor Corps drafted Jews as part of a government plan to save them from the Nazis. The Ministries of Education and Culture, VMRO, and several NGOs, such as the Bulgarian-Jewish Research Institute and the Independent Historical Society, supported the roundtable. Shalom criticized the event as “an alarming revisionist attempt to distort the history of the Holocaust” at all institutional levels. In a speech on January 30, Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva stated that sending Jews to labor camps during World War II was part of the “anti-Semitic repressive machine” established with anti-Semitic legislation.

In July, the municipal council in Blagoevgrad, at the request of Sunni Muslim community leaders, rejected a 10,000-euro ($12,300) donation from the Ahmadi Muslim Community to the city for general emergency relief assistance “in order not to legitimize the organization and its activity in the region.”

The national budget allocated 33.34 million levs ($20.92 million) to registered religious groups for current expenses, such as remuneration for their employees and clerics, education activities, and cemetery maintenance, as well as capital investments, such as construction and maintenance of religious facilities and related expenses, compared with 31.27 million levs ($19.62 million) in 2019. Of the 33.34 million, 27.2 million levs ($17.06 million) went to the BOC; 5.77 million levs ($3.62 million) to the Muslim community; 160,000 levs ($100,000) to Protestant denominations; and 70,000 levs ($43,900) each to the Catholic Church, AAOC, and the Jewish community. No other registered religious groups received government funding. Evangelical Alliance representatives again said Protestants did not receive their fair share of government funding, possibly because they were not represented by a single organization, even though their numbers exceeded one percent of the population.

According to NGOs, souvenirs exhibiting Nazi insignias and imagery continued to be widely available in tourist areas around the country and local governments lacked political will to deal with the problem. The National Coordinator for Combating Anti-Semitism stated that when alerted to them, the national government took steps to close vendors selling Nazi souvenirs.

In May, during Ramadan, President Rumen Radev met with Grand Mufti Mustafa Hadji. Both stated that government and religious institutions must promote solidarity, charity, and mutual assistance among the people.

In August, Shalom expressed concern regarding a statement by Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, who invoked the name of a Jewish-American financier, saying that NGOs linked to him “want to take the power in order to introduce gay marriage.” Shalom stated that, while such statements did not mention the financier’s Jewish heritage, they “have a strong anti-Semitic character and suggest that Jews interfere in the social and economic affairs of countries in the world.”

In March, the Supreme Cassation Court found Boris Yachev, Member of Parliament from the United Patriots coalition, guilty of slander and ordered him to pay 3,000 levs ($1,900) to Jehovah’s Witnesses for a series of statements about them on his party’s SKAT TV that the court ruled “incite religious hatred and threaten to hinder [the religious group’s] activity.” The court overturned two lower court rulings that had found Jehovah’s Witnesses were not eligible to receive compensation for damages resulting from the statements. In his statements, which he made in 2014, Yachev vowed to use his position in parliament to “restrict the unhindered invasion by [religious] emissaries of Bulgarian cities and villages,” describing Jehovah’s Witnesses as “one of the most dangerous and arrogant sects” that needed to be restricted by legal means.

Deputy Foreign Minister Georg Georgiev served as the national coordinator for combating anti-Semitism, publicly denouncing hate speech and anti-Semitism. On November 9, Georgiev commemorated the Kristallnacht anniversary, saying he is proud to be “part of a common cause for ensuring an environment free of any forms of hate speech” by remembering the lessons of history. On December 23, Georgiev denounced the defacement of Plovdiv Synagogue’s front gate with graffiti reading “Israel=Nazis,” calling it a “repulsive,” “undignified,” and “barbarian” act. He stated, “It is essential for every democracy to allow the free expression of political and civilian views, but not by vandalizing, insulting, and violating others’ rights.”

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In August, Shalom received a threat via email of a bomb at the synagogue in Plovdiv. In November 2019, Shalom received an emailed death threat from Black Front, an organization Shalom described as white supremacist. Authorities were investigating both threats.

Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued to appear regularly on social networking sites, in online media articles, and in the mainstream press, and anti-Semitic graffiti, such as swastikas and offensive inscriptions such as “dirty kikes,” appeared regularly in public places. Jewish community leaders also expressed concern regarding what they said was an increasing trend of anti-Semitic and xenophobic propaganda and graffiti.

On December 16, Sofia University fired Mihail Mirchev, a part-time professor, after its ethics commission found his lectures included negative ethnic stereotypes. The firing came after Shalom and other NGOs protested that Mirchev’s lectures featured racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic content such as, “Is it possible that Bulgaria could turn into a Jewish country if they, being fewer than one percent, own the state, the capital, the media, and the art?” Mirchev said his words had been taken out of context. In November, prior to Mirchev’s dismissal, Shalom’s criticism of him generated numerous anti-Semitic commentaries such as, “Jews can only learn from a heavy hand and a bullet in the back of the head.”

In November, Shalom notified Sofia Municipality about anti-Semitic and racist posters put up all around Sofia by activists of the Nationalist Social Club 131. In June, Shalom stated organizations such as Revived Bulgaria-Bulgarian National Unity and Military Union-Bulgarian National Movement “Shipka” were spreading online propaganda stating Jews were involved with the COVID-19 pandemic in order to provide “a deadly pseudo-antidote” aimed at “mass extermination of people.” After authorities issued a summons to Revived Bulgaria-Bulgarian National Unity leader Lyudmila Kostadinova informing her that she would be held criminally liable if she continued, the messaging stopped.

According to Jewish community leaders, incidents of vandalism continued, including damaging Jewish graves and painting swastikas and offensive graffiti. For example, in January, vandals broke tombstones and damaged fences in the Jewish cemetery in Shumen. In June, vandals defaced a playground and the facades of adjacent houses in Sofia with 56 swastikas. At year’s end, authorities had not identified any suspects in either incident.

On February 26, Sofia University withdrew honorary degrees it had awarded to Hans Frank, Bernhard Rust, Ewald Robert Valentin von Massow, and Eduard Kohlrausch between 1933 and 1940, complying with a petition from the Bulgarian Association of Holocaust Survivors and Their Children indicating the recipients had been members of the German Nazi Party. According to a university statement, its honorary doctors should not be persons “connected with a hateful ideology or involved in crimes.”

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 58 percent of Bulgarian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it seventh of their priorities for democratic principles of the nine tested.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported negative media characterizations of them again declined but that some local online media outlets, such as Konkurent, Blitz, and Utro, continued to misrepresent the group’s activities and beliefs. On April 21, local Ruse media Utro described Jehovah’s Witnesses as “the most dangerous sect in the world” and advised its readers to avoid any contact with the group. Unlike in previous years, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported no cases of hostility or harassment against their members by nongovernment officials, which they attributed to the COVID-19-related restrictions that forced them to switch to online gatherings.

In June, the Evangelical Alliance protested to health authorities that a number of media publications released personal information, such as names and addresses, about members of the Protestant community, including pastors, who tested positive for COVID-19. The alliance stated, “Such information has never been released regarding persons of the Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic, Judaic, Armenian, or any other faith,” and asked health authorities to check whether they had disclosed the information to media. Information as to who released the information was unavailable at year’s end.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ reported three instances of harassment of missionaries in Varna and Sofia in the first 11 months of the year, a number comparable to the previous year. In 2018, there were 13 instances involving physical assault and harassment against members of the Church.

In June, BOC Metropolitan Ioanikiy called for the removal of a plaque from Sozopol’s main street commemorating the Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run. In a letter to the local government, the Metropolitan stated that many countries considered the Sri Chinmoy Center a “totalitarian religious community” that “degrades the family institution, attacks Christians, and undermines the prestige of the Holy Orthodox Church.” Municipal councilors from the ruling GERB political party in Sozopol expressed support for the Metropolitan’s call to remove the plaque. At year’s end, the plaque, inaugurated by the mayor and the chair of the municipal council, remained in place.

In May, the Supreme Cassation Court refused to review the appeal of the Sri Chinmoy Center against the lower-instance Sofia City Court’s decision dismissing the organization’s claim against Desislava Panayotova, Director of the Center for Religious Research and Consultations and Chief Editor of the webpage of the BOC’s Holy Synod, for discrimination. Panayotova described in a 2008 media article the Sri Chinmoy Center as a “dangerous sect” that operates illegally and spreads “unhealthy religious teachings.”

In January, Alpha Research published a survey of Orthodox Christians and nonbelievers/atheists on their attitudes toward religious minority groups which found 3.4 percent of respondents hated, and 5.6 percent feared, Muslims; two percent hated, and 0.4 percent feared, Jews; 1.5 percent hated, and 2.6 percent feared, Protestants; and 0.5 percent hated, and 0.6 percent feared, Catholics. The rates of mistrust of various groups – which the survey’s authors interpreted as reluctance to openly disclose hatred – were: of Muslims, 25.8 percent; Jews, 10.4 percent; Protestants, 10 percent; and Catholics, 7.6 percent. While the average rate of acceptance of a person of a different religion in one’s neighborhood or working environment was approximately 50 percent, only 3.2 percent of respondents would consider marrying a Muslim, 6.3 percent a Jew, 8 percent a Protestant, and 11.7 percent a Catholic.

On February 14, Regional Mufti of Plovdiv Taner Veli hosted the annual Tolerance Coffee, gathering representatives of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities, local government officials, foreign diplomats, and representatives of civil society. According to the press release from the Mufti’s office, the event commemorated a 2014 attack on the local Cumaya Mosque and was intended to improve relations among religious groups and to prevent the future occurrence of such attacks.

The National Council of Religious Communities, whose members include representatives of Bulgarian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities, continued to serve as a platform for the largest religious groups to organize joint events and defend a common position on religious issues, such as legislative proposals, political statements, and actions by others, and religiously motivated vandalism. In February, members of the council participated in working meetings of the Muslim Denomination and the Central Israelite Religious Council, in which the host groups presented their faiths and ongoing projects. On February 10, the council conducted an interfaith discussion in Sofia on each of its member group’s views on divine revelation. The council substantially curtailed activity soon thereafter due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials continued discussions with representatives of the Directorate for Religious Affairs, Office of the Ombudsman, Commission for Protection against Discrimination, and local government administrations about cases of religious discrimination, harassment of religious minorities, and initiatives to support interfaith dialogue. In February, the Ambassador discussed religious tolerance during a visit to Vidin with Mayor Tsvetan Tsenkov.

Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of the BOC, National Council of Religious Communities, Office of the Grand Mufti, Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Catholic, Protestant, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish communities to discuss religious discrimination, restitution of religious properties, and legislative proposals restricting foreign funding. Embassy officials also met with human rights groups, such as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and Inforoma Center, to discuss these issues.

The Ambassador discussed religious tolerance, support for interfaith dialogue, and opposition to persecution with the Grand Mufti in January. In February, the Ambassador visited the mosque in Vidin, which was under renovation with U.S. funding, where she discussed interfaith dialogue and mutual support with Regional Mufti Necati Ali and Orthodox Metropolitan Daniil. In March, the Ambassador discussed with the Papal Nuncio the Catholic community’s concerns regarding the funding of religious groups and new administrative requirements under the law, such as providing the government with contact information on clerics and other staff.

Crimea

Read A Section: Crimea

Ukraine

Executive Summary

In February 2014, armed forces of the Russian Federation seized and occupied Crimea. In March 2014, Russia claimed that Crimea had become part of the Russian Federation. The UN General Assembly’s Resolution 68/262 of March 27, 2014, entitled “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine,” and Resolution 75/192 of December 28, 2020, entitled “Situation of Human Rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol (Ukraine),” declared continued international recognition of Crimea as part of Ukraine. The U.S. government recognizes Crimea is part of Ukraine; it does not and will not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea. Russian occupation authorities continue to impose the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory of Crimea.

According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, one of the country’s oldest human rights groups, following Russia’s occupation of Crimea, many religious communities were essentially driven out of the peninsula through registration requirements under newly imposed Russian laws. Only the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) was exempt from these registration requirements. The Russian government reported there were 907 religious communities registered in Crimea, including in Sevastopol, compared with 891in 2019, representing a drop of more than 1,000 since the occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available. Religious activists, human rights groups, and media reports said Russian authorities in occupied Crimea continued to persecute and intimidate minority religious congregations, including Muslim Crimean Tatars, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) members and clergy. At year’s end, two Jehovah’s Witnesses were serving prison sentences for their faith. According to the NGO Crimea SOS, as of October, 69 Crimean residents remained in prison in connection with their alleged involvement with the Muslim political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia but legal in Ukraine. Russian occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to imprisonment and detention, especially if authorities suspected the individuals of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. In September, Russia’s Southern Area Military Court sentenced seven Crimean Muslim Tatar prisoners arrested in 2017 and 2018 to a maximum-security penal colony. All were initially arrested for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai. According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, Russia continued to prosecute individuals for some types of worship, including imams leading prayers in their own mosques, as “illegal missionary activity.” Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation authorities and that they continued to be required to operate under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Crimean Tatars reported police continued to be slow to investigate attacks on Islamic religious properties or refused to investigate them at all. The OCU reported continued seizures of its churches. According to the OCU, Russian occupation authorities continued to pressure the OCU Crimean diocese in an effort to force it to leave Crimea. Religious and human rights groups continued to report Russian media efforts to create suspicion and fear among certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, whom media repeatedly accused of having links to Islamist groups designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian media also portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.”

According to the Krym Realii news website, on the eve of the 76th anniversary of the Soviet authorities’ forced deportation of the Crimean Tatar people from Crimea, unidentified vandals destroyed several tombstones in an Islamic cemetery in Vladyslavivka Village, Nyzhnyohirsk Region. Local police reportedly refused to investigate the incident, attributing it to a family dispute. In April, on the eve of Ramadan, unidentified vandals threw rotten eggs at a mosque in Cheremyzivka Village.

The U.S. government condemned the continued intimidation of Christian and Muslim religious groups by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea and called international attention to religious abuses committed by Russian forces through public statements by the Secretary of State and other senior officials as well as messaging on social media. In a February press statement, the Secretary stated, “Russian occupation authorities continue their assault on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Russian occupation authorities severely limit religious freedom, target religious believers with bogus terrorism charges, and seized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine cathedral in Simferopol. The United States calls on Russia to free all Ukrainians it has wrongfully imprisoned in retaliation for their peaceful dissent and to end Russian abuses of fundamental freedoms in Crimea.” U.S. government officials remained unable to visit the peninsula following its occupation by the Russian Federation. Embassy officials, however, continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Crimean Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders to discuss their concerns over actions taken against their congregations by the occupation authorities and to demonstrate continued U.S. support for their right to practice their religious beliefs.

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

There are several Jewish congregations, mostly in Sevastopol and Simferopol. Jewish groups estimate between 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish residents lived in Crimea before the 2014 Russian occupation; no updates have been available since the occupation began. The 2001 census, the most recent, records 671 Karaites.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Pursuant to international recognition of the continued inclusion of the ARC within Ukraine’s international borders, Crimea continues to be officially subject to the constitution and laws of Ukraine. In the aftermath of Russia’s occupation, however, Russian occupation authorities continue their implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory. The Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir is considered a terrorist organization under the law of the Russian Federation, but not under Ukrainian law. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian occupation authorities continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea under a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.

According to occupation authorities, fines for individuals conducting illegal missionary activity range from 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($67 to $670); the fine for legal entities is 100,000 to one million rubles ($1,300 to $13,400).

Government Practices

In December, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution urging Russia to end its “temporary occupation” of Crimea. In his February speech at the UN General Assembly plenary meeting, then-Foreign Affairs Minister of Ukraine Vadym Prystaiko told the UN delegates of the continued large-scale abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms by Russian occupiers, spotlighting discrimination against Ukrainians of various ethnic and religious minority groups, including Crimean Tatars, Muslims, and members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

According to the Ukrainian human rights organization Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG), which has offices in Kyiv, 109 individuals were unlawfully incarcerated or imprisoned due to politically or religiously motivated persecution in Crimea during the year, compared with 89 in 2019.

Human rights groups said occupation authorities continued to impede the rights of Crimean Tatars following the 2016 designation of the Mejlis, recognized under Ukrainian law as the democratically elected representative council of Crimean Tatars, as an “extremist organization.” Detentions and forced psychiatric examinations of Crimean Tatar Muslim prisoners continued throughout the year. According to Crimea SOS, as of October, 69 Crimean residents remained in prison in connection with their alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Occupation authorities placed three additional Crimean residents under supervision and two more under house arrest. Russian authorities often accused Muslims of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. In June, OHCHR reported Russian occupation authorities had detained 63 citizens of Ukraine for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir activities, 20 of whom had been convicted, including seven individuals who were sentenced in 2019 to prison terms ranging from seven to 19 years.

On September 21, Russian occupation authorities released Tatar blogger Nariman Memedeminov after he had served nearly one year of his sentence. Occupation authorities had detained Memedeminov on terrorist charges in 2018, citing his involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russia’s North Caucasus Military Court in Rostov-on-Don had sentenced him to two and a half years in prison in October 2019. Human rights activists linked the original verdict to his reporting on the human rights situation in Crimea.

In September, Russia’s Southern Area Military Court sentenced seven Crimean Muslim Tatar prisoners arrested in 2017 and 2018 to a maximum-security penal colony. Marlen Asanov received 19 years, Memet Belialov 18 years, Timur Ibragimov 17 years, Seyran Saliyev 16 years, Server Mustafayev 14 years, and Server Zakiryayev and Edem Smailov both 13 years. The judge found Ernes Ametov not guilty and released him. All were initially arrested for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai.

According to the CHRG, in December, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended into January 2021 the detention of Imam Bilyal Adilov, Erfan Osmanov, Seyran Murtaza, Server Gaziyev, Mejit Abdurakhmanov, Tofik Abdulgaziyev, Rustem Seitkhalilov, Akim Bekirov, Farkhat Bazarov, Seitveli Seitabdiyev, Shaban Umerov, Riza Izetov, Jemil Gafarov, Alim Karimov, Yashar Muyedinov, Izet Abdulayev, Asan Yanikov, Enver Ametov, Raim Aivazov, and Ruslan Suleimanov. Their cases were under judges’ consideration at year’s end. The group was arrested in March 2019 when armed representatives of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Russian National Guard, and police searched 30 Crimean Tatar homes in Simferopol, Volodymyrivka, Strohanivka, Kamyanka, Bile, Akropolis, and Alkavan, detaining 23 individuals for their alleged links to Hizb ut-Tahrir. During the searches, law enforcement representatives reportedly planted and “found” Hizb ut-Tahrir materials. The detainees’ lawyers were not allowed to be present during the searches.

On December 8, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended the detention period to January 14, 2021 for Krymska Solidarnist (Crimean Solidarity) activist Remzi Bekirov. On December 10, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended the detention period to January 14, 2021 for his fellow activists Osman Arifmemetov and Vladlen Abdulkadyrov. The Kyivsky District Court in Simferopol had ordered the arrest of all three men in 2019 on charges related to “terrorism” for their suspected involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir following searches of their homes. Law enforcement officers reportedly beat Abdulkadyrov while he was in detention.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian occupation authorities continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea under a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. According to the OHCHR, all 22 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses registered in Crimea had lost their right to operate since the Russian Supreme Court’s 2017 ban on the religious group. As a result, Jehovah’s Witnesses who practice their faith risked retaliation by law enforcement. According to Forum 18, in 2019, a Russian court charged Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergei Filatov and Artyom Gerasimov with organizing an “extremist” organization following a raid by Russia’s FSB on eight homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Alupka and Yalta. The Russian FSB had arrested Filatov, a former head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Dzhankoy, in 2018. On March 5, the Yalta City Court initially fined Gerasimov 400,00 rubles ($5400); the Dzhankoy District Court sentenced Filatov to six years imprisonment on extremism-related charges. On May 26, Filatov lost his appeal. On June 4, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” revoked Gerasimov’s fine and sentenced him to six years in prison, matching Filatov’s sentence. Forum 18 stated authorities transferred Filatov and Gerasimov to a prison in Russia during the summer and, as of September 30, had not allowed them to receive letters.

Forum 18 reported authorities transferred Muslim prisoner of conscience Renat Suleimanov to Russia in January and did not allow him to receive letters written in his native Tatar language.

According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on May 26, armed FSB, Russian National Guard, and masked riot police raided four homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kerch, arresting Artem Shabliy. Reportedly, Shabliy was accused of having “drawn others into the activities of an extremist organization” by discussing the Bible with them.

According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on October 1, armed searches on nine Jehovah’s Witness homes in Sevastopol led to the arrests of four men: Yevhen Zhukov, Volodymyr Maladyka, Volodymyr Sakada, and Ihor Schmidt. All four remained imprisoned at year’s end. According to Forum 18, in November, Svetlana Sakada, the wife of one of the four detained, said her husband was not guilty of extremism-related charges. Forum 18 reported the four faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted on “extremism”-related charges, and that another Jehovah’s Witness, Viktor Stashevsky, was on trial on the same charges.

OHCHR reports consistently found that a pattern of criminalization of affiliation with or sympathy toward Muslim groups banned in the Russian Federation that continued to disproportionately affect Crimean Tatars. According to the report, these cases raised concerns about the right to a fair trial, as the detainees’ hearings often banned cameras, media, and family members from the courtroom. OHCHR reported that Russian courts in Crimea cited the “need to ensure the safety of the participants in the proceedings,” but that the defendants’ lawyers and family members said Russian occupation authorities excluded the public from court hearings to limit public awareness of trials, restrict public scrutiny, and exert additional pressure on the defendants.

On April 1, “prosecutors” reportedly charged Imam Yusuf Ashirov with conducting “illegal missionary activity” for leading Friday prayers at the Yukhary-Jami Mosque in Alushta. Ashirov denied the charges, explaining to the “deputy prosecutor” that he preached only to other mosque members and that he had “no desire to break the law.” Ashirov stated he suspected the charges against him stemmed from authorities’ attempts to transfer the mosque to the “state.” Similarly, in March, a court in Simferopol reportedly fined Imam Rasim Dervishev for “illegal missionary activity” for leading services. Devishev’s lawyer stated, “It is absurd to require anyone to ask permission to conduct religious rituals,” and he argued that Dervishev had not spoken to anyone outside the mosque about his religious belief. Dervishev paid a fine of between 5,000 and 30,000 rubles ($67 and $400). Reportedly, in April, Imam Dilyaver Khalilov faced similar charges for leading services at a mosque in Zavetnoye. Occupation authorities withdrew charges against Khalilov after the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In August, authorities seized Khalilov’s mosque, stating it was not registered as a mosque but rather as a sports complex. The Muslim community had repaired the dilapidated building and registered it as a mosque with the Ukrainian authorities in 2000.

According to the CHRG, in September, occupation authorities charged members of four churches (Catholic, Baptist, and two evangelical) with “illegal missionary activity.”

Forum 18 reported that occupation authorities brought 20 cases against individuals and religious communities for failing to use the full legal name of a registered religious community on websites or meeting places, compared with 11 such cases the previous year. Sixteen of the cases involved fines of 30,000 rubles ($400, one month’s average local wage), while three defendants received a warning. The remaining case was under review at year’s end. On November 20, a member of one of the fined religious communities told Forum 18, “The prosecutor told us we would get a warning, but when the case came to court, it was a different prosecutor, who demanded that we be fined. We didn’t expect this turn of events.”

According to Krymska Solidarnist and Forum 18, local authorities continued a ban on the Tablighi Jamaat Muslim missionary movement in Crimea under a 2009 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. The movement is legal in Ukraine. A Russian labor camp relocated Tablighi Jamaat Muslim Renat Suleimanov from the camp’s punishment cell to its “strict section.” The camp administration stated he was being punished for a conflict with another prisoner, but Suleimanov’s lawyer stated the accusation was fabricated as an excuse to punish his client. In January 2019, a Simferopol court had jailed Suleimanov for four years on “extremism”-related charges for meeting openly in mosques with three friends to discuss their faith.

The Ministry of Justice of Russia said 907 religious organizations were registered in Crimea, including 108 in Sevastopol, as of year’s end, compared with 891 and 105, respectively, in 2019. The number of religious organizations had dropped by more than 1,000 since the occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available. Registered religious organizations included the two largest – the Christian Orthodox UOC-MP and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea – as well as various Protestant, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Greek Catholic communities, among other religious groups.

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

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

UGCC leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation authorities and continued to have to operate as a part of the pastoral district of the RCC.

According to the OCU, Russian occupation authorities continued to place pressure on the OCU Crimean diocese in an effort to force it to leave Crimea. Only six of the 15 churches, identifying as OCU but required to reregister after the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) joined the unified OCU, were functioning in 2019-2020, compared with five in 2018 and eight in 2017. At year’s end, three of those were “on the verge of closure.” According to RFE/RL, Halya Coynash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group stated the OCU was one of the few remaining symbols in Crimea of “Ukrainian identity,” making it a target for the local Russia-installed leaders. Describing Russia’s treatment of believers in Crimea, OCU Metropolitan Epiphaniy told RFE/RL, “This is reminiscent of the Stalin era of the U.S.S.R., when churches were destroyed.”

In March, Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers placed the Saints Volodymyr and Olha Cathedral, the only OCU church building in Simferopol and the location of the OCU diocesan administration, under state ownership in an attempt to draw international organizations’ support to help defend it from the occupiers. On July 23, Russian occupation authorities ordered Archbishop Klyment, elevated to Metropolitan on August 9, to demolish the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Yevpatoriya or face criminal prosecution. Klyment’s appeal of the order continued through year’s end.

According to Freedom House, the Russian FSB encouraged residents to inform on individuals who expressed opposition to the purported annexation, including support for Crimean Tatars, condemnation of the designation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hizb ut-Tahrir as extremist groups, or the oppression of the OCU.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to Krym Realii, on the eve of the 76th anniversary of the Soviet authorities’ forced deportation of the Crimean Tatar people from Crimea, unidentified vandals destroyed several tombstones in an Islamic cemetery in Vladyslavivka Village, Nyzhnyohirsk Region. Local police reportedly refused to investigate the incident, attributing it to a family dispute. According to the Advet.org news website, in April, on the eve of Ramadan, unidentified vandals threw rotten eggs at a mosque in Cheremysivka Village.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government continued its efforts to focus international attention on the religious freedom-related abuses committed by Russia-led forces and occupation authorities in Crimea, especially on actions taken by those forces and authorities against Muslims and Christians, through public statements by the Secretary of State and other senior officials, as well as messaging on social media. In a statement on February 26, the Secretary said, “Russian occupation authorities continue their assault on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Occupation authorities severely limit religious freedom, target religious believers with bogus terrorism charges, and seized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine cathedral in Simferopol. The United States calls on Russia to free all Ukrainians it has wrongfully imprisoned in retaliation for their peaceful dissent and to end Russian abuses of fundamental freedoms in Crimea.” U.S. government and embassy officials condemned the continuing intimidation of Crimean citizens. The Acting Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs participated in an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe side event on Crimea, stating, “Russian occupation authorities continue to harass, arrest, and prosecute activists, journalists, and members of civil society, simply for their expressing their opposition to the occupation or for being a member of an ethnic or religious minority group on the peninsula. They sustained a brutal campaign of repression against Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Crimea, raiding mosques, homes, and workplaces without justification or process and leaving these communities in a state of constant fear.”

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

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Ukraine

Georgia

Executive Summary

The constitution recognizes equality for all regardless of religion, subject to considerations of public safety or health or the rights of others, and it stipulates the independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) from the state. The constitution recognizes the “outstanding role” of the GOC in the history of the country. It prohibits persecution based on religion. Laws and policies continue to grant the GOC unique privileges. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Tolerance and Diversity Institute (Tolerance Institute) stated that prosecutors continued to fail to indict individuals for religiously motivated crimes. NGOs criticized the government during the COVID-19 state of emergency between March 22 and May 22 for allowing the GOC exceptions from restrictions on in-person religious services while not responding to minority religious groups’ requests for clarification on applying restrictions. The government did not approve the registration application of any new religious group. It rejected the application of the Christian Church for All Nations for the second year in a row. Parliament again failed to pass legislation to comply with a court order to amend the law under which the GOC received exclusive tax and property privileges. Some religious groups advocated legislation that would address a broader range of religious issues, while others expressed concerns about the potential impact of such a law on smaller groups. Religious leaders criticized parliament for passing amendments in May that grant only the GOC ownership rights to state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries. Some Muslim community leaders said the government continued to influence and favor the state-funded religious group All Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG). Following the December 2019 election of Mufti Adam Shantadze as the new AMAG leader, AMAG education department head Rezo Mikeladze, AMAG press center head Otar Nadiradze, and two other leaders within the organization resigned, and Mikeladze made a televised statement saying Shantadze was the candidate of the State Security Service and his appointment would not benefit the interests of Muslims. Mikeladze and Nadiradze subsequently rejoined AMAG. The Armenian Apostolic, Evangelical Lutheran, and Roman Catholic Churches and some Muslim groups reported continued difficulties in obtaining government recognition of their ownership claims of religious properties. Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions on mosques and their construction. NGOs continued to state there was bias in public schools favoring Georgian Orthodox religious teachings, although the government took some steps to involve human rights groups in the textbook selection process. NGOs and some religious groups continued to criticize legislation that excluded some religious groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, from receiving compensation for damages suffered during the Soviet era.

According to religious leaders, de facto authorities in the Russia-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which remained outside the administrative control of the central government, continued to restrict or prohibit the activities of some religious groups. De facto authorities in both areas continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to anecdotal reports, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses could continue to rent space for Kingdom Halls in Abkhazia. Both the GOC and the Russian Orthodox Church formally recognized Orthodox churches in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as belonging to the GOC, but GOC representatives said de facto authorities in South Ossetia pressured Orthodox churches to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church. Sources stated that the Russian Orthodox Church tacitly and unofficially supported breakaway churches that did not have official autocephaly from the GOC. De facto South Ossetian authorities permitted GOC religious services but said they were illegal. De facto Abkhaz authorities prohibited Georgian Orthodox clergy from entering the occupied territory. Some religious figures in Abkhazia reportedly continued to advocate the establishment of an autocephalous Orthodox Church in the territory or a merger with the Russian Orthodox Church.

According to NGOs and minority religious groups, religiously motivated crimes declined compared to 2019 due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public activity. During the year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MOIA) investigated 22 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, compared with 44 cases in 2019. The Public Defender’s Office received seven complaints of religiously based crimes or discrimination during the year, compared with 19 complaints in 2019. Two of these complaints involved violence. The Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) obtained convictions for two individuals for crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses motivated by religious intolerance, and a case against a third was pending at year’s end. Jehovah’s Witnesses said attacks against members declined because the group, in response to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, shifted to online activities and ceased conducting public outreach or door-to-door evangelism. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported eight incidents against the group, its members, or Kingdom Halls, including one involving violence, compared with 20 in 2019. According to the Public Defender’s Office, the PGO made improvements compared to prior years in classifying crimes targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses as motivated by religious intolerance. The Public Defender’s Office and religious minorities continued to state there was widespread societal perception that religious minorities posed a threat to the GOC and the country’s values. The NGO Media Development Foundation documented 20 instances of religiously intolerant remarks in national media by media figures, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared with 55 in 2019. In May, Georgian Orthodox clergyman Basil Mkalavishvili said the prayers of the Roman Catholic Church “have no merit.” In April, Sandro Bregadze, leader of the nativist movement Georgian March, told a news outlet that Jehovah’s Witnesses were the main source of COVID-19 in the city of Zugdidi. In December, the Tolerance Institute condemned as anti-Semitic a sermon by Georgian Orthodox Metropolitan Ioane Gamrekeli in which he referred to nonbelievers as “a lineage of infidels.” The Georgian ambassador to Israel said Gamrekeli’s words had been misinterpreted, and the GOC subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism.

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials, including the leadership of the State Agency for Religious Affairs (SARI), the public defender, the Prime Minister’s adviser on human rights, and officials at various ministries to encourage dialogue and tolerance between the government and minority religious groups. The Ambassador met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II and other senior Church leaders to stress the importance of the GOC in promoting religious diversity and tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with minority religious groups throughout the country, and the embassy and its regional information offices sponsored events in Tbilisi and elsewhere in the country to encourage religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. In November, the Secretary of State met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi to discuss the promotion and protection of religious freedom. The embassy continued to support long-term programming to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and promote greater integration.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2014 census, GOC members constitute 83.4 percent of the population, followed by Muslims at 10.7 percent and members of the Armenian Apostolic Church at 2.9 percent. The remaining 3 percent includes Roman Catholics, Yezidis, Greek Orthodox, Jews, growing numbers of “nontraditional” religious groups, such as Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and individuals who profess no religious preference.

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

Reliable information from the Russia-occupied regions in Georgia continued to be difficult to obtain. According to a census conducted in 2016 by the de facto Abkhaz authorities, there were 243,000 residents of Russia-occupied Abkhazia. A survey conducted in 2003 by the de facto government listed 60 percent of respondents as Christian, 16 percent as Muslim, 8 percent as atheists or nonbelievers, 8 percent as followers of the pre-Christian Abkhazian religion, and 1 percent as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, or adherents of other religions. The remaining 7 percent listed no preference.

According to a 2015 census conducted by de facto South Ossetian authorities, there were 53,000 residents of Russia-occupied South Ossetia. The majority of the population practices Orthodox Christianity; other minority groups include Muslims and the Right Faith, a revival of the pre-Christian ethnic Ossetian religion.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religion, subject to considerations of public safety and the health and rights of others, and equality for all regardless of religion. It prohibits persecution based on religion and prohibits compelling anyone to express his or her opinion about religion. It also prohibits political parties that incite religious strife. The law provides for freedom of religious belief, denomination, and conscience, including the right to choose and change religious affiliation.

The constitution recognizes the GOC’s special role in the country’s history but stipulates the Church shall be independent from the state and that relations between the GOC and the state shall be governed by a constitutional agreement (concordat). The concordat grants rights not given to other religious groups, including legal immunity for the Georgian Orthodox patriarch, exemption of Church clergy from military service (although by law, clergy from all religious groups are exempted), and a consultative role in government, especially in state education policies. The concordat states that some of its provisions require additional legislation before they may be implemented, including the GOC’s right to a consultative role in state education policies. There is currently no implementing legislation for the concordat.

A religious group may register with the National Agency of the Public Registry (NAPR) as a legal entity of public law (legal entity) or as a nonprofit organization, both of which offer benefits, including legal recognition, tax exemptions for donations and other “religious activities” (a term not clearly defined by law), and the right to own property and open bank accounts. The civil code defines the activities and rights of denominations registered for legal entity status. Unregistered religious groups may conduct religious activities but do not receive the legal status or benefits conferred on registered groups.

To register as a legal entity, the law specifies a religious group must have a historic link with the country or be recognized as a religion “by the legislation of the member states of the Council of Europe.” A religious group must also submit to the NAPR information regarding its objectives and procedures and a list of its founders and members of its governing body. Groups registering as nonprofit religious organizations do not have to demonstrate historic ties to the country or recognition by Council of Europe members but must submit to the NAPR similar information on their objectives, governing procedures, and names of founders and members of their governing body.

The law grants the GOC exceptions from several requirements applicable to other religious groups, including payment of taxes on the construction, restoration, and maintenance of religious buildings and the payment of taxes on property. It exempts the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate, but not other religious groups, from taxes on “profit from the sale of crosses, candles, icons, books, and calendars used…for religious purposes.” In addition, the law states only the GOC may acquire nonagricultural state property through a direct sale by the government. Should other religious groups wish to acquire this type of property, they must participate in public tenders. Only the GOC has the right to acquire agricultural state property free of charge; all others must pay a fee. On May 22, parliament passed amendments to the forest code granting the Church ownership over state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries.

The criminal code prohibits interference with worship services, persecution of a person based on religious faith or belief, and interference with the establishment of a religious organization; the code does not define “establishment.” Interference with the establishment of a religious organization is punishable by a fine, correctional work (community service) for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to two years. Violations committed by public officials are considered abuses of power and are punishable by larger fines or longer terms of imprisonment if committed by force of arms or by insulting the dignity of a victim, although the law does not define “insult” and does not specify an amount or time limit for punishment under those circumstances. In cases of religious persecution, the perpetrator may face imprisonment for up to three years, depending on the use or threat of violence, his or her official position, and the damages caused. In cases of unlawful interference with the right to perform religious rituals involving the use or threat of violence, offenders may face imprisonment for up to two years; in cases where the offender holds an official position, the offender may face up to five years in prison.

According to a 2010 Ministry of Justice decree, accused and convicted individuals may meet only with spiritual representatives of the GOC and registered religious organizations. Prison regulations state prisoners have the right to possess and use religious literature and objects of worship.

Although the law states that public schools may not be used for religious indoctrination, proselytizing, or forcible assimilation, the concordat accords the GOC the right to teach religious studies in public educational institutions, pending additional legislation, and authorizes the state to pay for Georgian Orthodox religious schools. The law states that students may pursue religious study and practice religious rituals on school grounds “of their own accord,” but only after school hours. Outside instructors, including clergy of any denomination, may only attend or direct students’ religious education or activities if students invite them to do so; school administration and teachers may not be involved in this process. The law includes no specific regulations for private religious schools. Private schools must follow the national curriculum, although they are free to add subjects, including religious studies, if they wish.

The MOIA’s Department of Human Rights is responsible for assessing whether crimes are motivated by religious hatred and for monitoring the quality of investigations into hate crimes.

By law, the PGO, which is separate from the MOIA, prosecutes human rights violations involving religious intolerance, while the Public Defender’s Office serves as the country’s human rights ombudsman and monitors complaints of restrictions on religious freedom. The Public Defender’s Office’s Tolerance Center carries out educational activities and monitors and analyzes cases of religious and ethnic discrimination. It also coordinates the Public Defender’s Office-affiliated Council of Religions and Council of Ethnic Minorities. The Council of Religions has a mandate to protect religious freedom; facilitate a constructive multilateral dialogue among various religious groups; promote a tolerant, fair, and peaceful environment for religious groups; and engage religious minorities in the process of civic integration. It produces an annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country that includes policy recommendations.

The State Inspector Service, a separate investigative body from the PGO, investigates crimes such as torture, degrading treatment, and abuse of power and abuse of office perpetrated by representatives of law enforcement and public officials if they are committed by use of force or violate the personal dignity of a person and involve discriminatory elements or features, including religious motives. Following the investigation, the service refers these cases to the PGO for prosecution. Since its creation in May 2019, the service has not received any information on a religiously motivated crime.

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

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

Government Practices

The Tolerance Institute again stated that the MOIA generally correctly applied the appropriate articles of the criminal code in most cases and the quality of investigations of crimes motivated by religious hatred continued to improve. The institute stated, however, that the PGO continued to fail to determine whether an individual was a “victim” of a crime under law (i.e., a person who has incurred moral, physical, or material damage as a result of a crime) and to indict individuals for religiously motivated crimes.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government declared a state of emergency from March 21 through May 22. According to religious organizations and NGOs, due to the public’s and religious groups’ adherence to government-imposed restrictions, public religious activity declined. NGOs said SARI was unresponsive to minority religious groups’ requests for clarification on restrictions relating to in-person religious services, while it granted the GOC exceptions to or not did not enforce restrictions, thereby enabling the Church to continue hosting in-person religious services, including Orthodox Easter services on April 19.

The NAPR did not register any new religious organization as a legal entity during the year. It rejected the registration application of the Christian Church for All Nations for the second year in a row. The NAPR found the group’s legal documentation was insufficient and requested additional documentation. As of year’s end, the group’s registration process remained suspended pending presentation of additional materials.

Most prisons continued to have Georgian Orthodox chapels and areas for prayer. Muslims were allowed to pray in their cells or prayer areas and to possess Qurans and prayer rugs. According to SARI and Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Muslim, and Jewish groups, prisoners had access to counseling and services for their religion upon request. The government provided accommodation for the dietary restrictions of Muslim and Jewish prisoners. During religious holidays, prisoners were exempt from fulfilling their regular duties.

According to NGOs and minority religious groups, many religious issues, such as tax exemptions and restitution issues, continued to lack a clear legislative framework. SARI and some religious groups’ representatives, including members of the Jewish community and the Armenian Apostolic Church, said they remained in favor of drafting a new, broader “law on religion” to define which groups would be eligible for these and other benefits and to address issues pertaining to the registration and legal status of religious groups and the teaching of religion in public schools. Many civil society representatives and members of other religious groups, including some individuals from the Muslim community, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Baptist Church, however, remained opposed, arguing such legislation would allow the government to discriminate against smaller religious communities and increase its leverage over them. They advocated instead making benefits available to all religious groups or to none.

Parliament failed to take action during the year to amend the law granting the GOC tax and property privileges not available to other religious groups, despite a 2018 Constitutional Court ruling that the law was unconstitutional and mandating parliament make legislative changes to either abolish the privileges or grant them to all religious organizations no later than December 31, 2018.

On May 13, the Constitutional Court announced its decision that the case brought by nine religious organizations claiming the GOC’s exclusive property tax exemption on land used for noneconomic purpose violated the constitutional provision guaranteeing equality before the law had merit and would be admitted for substantive consideration. The court had not started this review at year’s end.

On February 20, the Constitutional Court heard arguments on whether to accept for substantive consideration a case brought by nine religious organizations challenging restrictions on the rights of religious organizations other than the GOC to purchase or exchange state-owned property. As of year’s end, the court had not reached a decision.

The Tolerance Institute and other NGOs criticized as unconstitutional and discriminatory amendments passed in May to the Forest Code that granted only the GOC ownership over state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries.

NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to favor and influence the state-funded AMAG, including by influencing the selection of AMAG’s religious leader and selectively transferring land to AMAG. The groups said AMAG was a “Soviet-style” organization that served as a tool of the state to monitor and control religious groups. A number of Muslim groups remained critical of AMAG for insisting it represented all Muslim communities in the country within one organization. Following the December 25, 2019, election of Mufti Shantadze as the new AMAG leader, head of the AMAG education department Mikeladze resigned and made a televised statement saying Shantadze was the candidate of the state security service and his appointment would not benefit the interests of Muslims. Three other leaders – press center head Nadiradze, advisor to the mufti Temur Gorgadze, and publishing house head Gela Gogitidza – also resigned. During the year, Mikeladze and Nadiradze returned to AMAG, and Mikeladze continued to hold senior offices in the education department. Mikeladze and Nadiradze made no statements addressing their departure or return.

At year’s end, the Tbilisi City Court had not ruled on the Armenia Apostolic Church’s January 2018 appeal of the NAPR’s decision to register as the GOC’s property a church that the Armenian Apolstolic Church claimed to own since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Armenian Apostolic Church continued to petition SARI for restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which the GOC also claimed and authorities registered as state property. As of year’s end, SARI had not officially responded to any of the Armenian Church’s 57 petitions, 20 of which it filed in 2015 and 37 in 2018, for ownership or right-of-usage status. The Armenian Apostolic Church said the only communication from SARI during the year was SARI chairman Zaza Vashakmadze telling the group the issue was “under consideration.” The Church reported it operated all 57 churches in the country but did not own any of them. The Church also stated it had not petitioned NAPR during the year to register them as Church-owned property. SARI said the Armenian Apostolic Church had not provided sufficient evidence of ownership but that it was in communication with the Church and expressed willingness to cooperate in the future.

Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions regarding construction of mosques. The Muslim community continued to dispute the government’s ownership of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara. The government owned the land as a legacy from the Soviet period and, in some cases, said the existing mosques were former Georgian Orthodox houses of worship that had been converted during the Ottoman and Persian empires or were constructed during those periods on land where Georgian Orthodox houses of worship had once stood. AMAG reported that when the government transferred state-owned mosques, it only did so for AMAG to use for a 49-year or unlimited period; the government did not transfer full ownership of the property or land.

The Kutaisi Court of Appeal held hearings in February and July on the Batumi city government’s appeal connected to its 2017 decision to deny the local Muslim community a permit to build a mosque but did not reach a decision by year’s end. In 2019, the Batumi City Court ruled that the Batumi city government had discriminated against the New Mosque Construction Fund (an entity representing members of the Batumi Muslim community seeking to establish a new mosque) by denying the permits necessary to build a new mosque on land the fund owned. The lower court ordered the mayor’s office to reconsider its decision. The Batumi city government rescinded the 3,000 lari ($920) fine it had imposed in 2017 for the construction of a temporary wooden structure built on the fund’s land, pending the outcome of the appeal. The NGO Human Rights Education Monitoring Center (EMC) described the status of the case as “frozen.”

The government continued to pay subsidies for the restoration of religious properties it considered national cultural heritage sites. The National Agency for Cultural Heritage, housed within the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport, allocated 1.91 million lari ($584,000) during the year for the restoration of religious monuments, compared with 2.3 million lari ($703,000) in 2019.

As of year’s end, the Supreme Court failed to act on a 2018 EMC appeal of a lower court ruling that the MOIA had not discriminated against Muslims when it failed to prevent vandalism against an Islamic boarding school that was under construction in Kobuleti, near Batumi, in 2014. The vandalism followed anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim protests concerning the school. As a result of the protests, the local municipality refused to connect sewage and water systems. In 2018, a lower court ruled the municipality had to connect the school to utility services, but the municipality took no action, and the boarding school remained incomplete as of year’s end, without water and sewage services.

Tolerance Institute representatives continued to state that religious education in public schools persisted, although the law provided for religious neutrality and nondiscrimination. The GOC did not offer any formal religious studies classes in public institutions. Although the GOC had the right to have direct involvement in public institutions, such as schools, under the concordat, the government did not define clear legal structures for it to do so. Prior to schools being closed in February due to COVID-19 restrictions, NGOs and non-Georgian Orthodox organizations, such as the EMC, reported Georgian Orthodox clergy often visited classes during the regular school day, sometimes at the initiative of teachers or school administrators, despite the law restricting such visits to after hours.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government shifted the majority of schools to online instruction, and there were no reports of religious discrimination in schools during the year. The Tolerance Institute stated that students were also hesitant to report cases of religious discrimination in schools for fear of reprisal from fellow students, teachers, or school officials. The institute also reported the process for selecting textbooks became more inclusive, with the Ministry of Education inviting human rights experts to review the content for discriminatory or biased language that favored the GOC.

During the year, the Tolerance Institute represented two Seventh-day Adventist university applicants who, due to their religious beliefs, could not take entrance examinations on Saturday and were denied a date change by the government. The institute filed suit with the Tbilisi City Court, and the court ruled that the government was obligated to reschedule the examination to accommodate the applicants’ religious beliefs. The court stressed the importance of freedom of religion and respecting the needs of religious minorities in the context of the right to equality. The Equality Department of the Public Defender’s Office issued a general proposal to the Ministry of Education, based on information provided by the Tolerance Institute, recommending the ministry take into account the needs of religious minorities. Although the applicants successfully passed the examinations and enrolled in university, the case remained pending at year’s end, as the Tolerance Institute asked the court to find that the ministry had discriminated against the applicants because of their religion and to award “symbolic compensation” of one lari (22 cents) for “moral damage.”

During the year, the government through SARI allocated 25 million lari ($7.65 million) to the GOC and 3.5 million lari ($1.07 million) to approved non-Georgian Orthodox religious communities to provide partial compensation for damage caused during the totalitarian Soviet regime. The 3.5 million lari ($1.07 million) was distributed as follows: 2.20 million lari ($673,000) to the Muslim community, represented by AMAG; 400,000 lari ($122,000) to the Roman Catholic Church; 600,000 lari ($183,000) to the Armenian Apostolic Church; and 300,000 lari ($91,700) to the Jewish community. SARI said the remaining one million lari ($306,000) would be distributed among the religious communities “later.” This was a decrease from the 2019 amounts: 25 million lari ($7.65 million) to the GOC; 2.75 million lari ($841,000) to the Muslim community, represented by AMAG; 550,000 lari ($168,000) to the Roman Catholic Church; 800,000 lari ($245,000) to the Armenian Apostolic Church; and 400,000 lari ($122,000) to the Jewish community. SARI’s position was that the payments were of “partial and of symbolic character,” and that the government continued to take into account levels of damage and “present day negative conditions” of religious groups in determining compensation. NGOs and religious groups continued to criticize the exclusion of other religious groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, from the legislation designating the five groups eligible to receive compensation, and they questioned the criteria the government used to select which groups received compensation.

The MOIA Department of Human Rights conducted eight training sessions during the year – five total in Tbilisi and Batumi and three online. At these events, it trained 139 MOIA employees on aspects of religious discrimination and hate crimes. Fifteen employees completed the ministry’s remote learning course on hate crimes investigation.

In October, the Public Defender’s Office-affiliated Council of Religions produced its annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country. The report identified areas needing improvement and made specific recommendations in the following categories: legislative regulation of freedom of religion; crimes motivated by intolerance; state policy on freedom of religion; property issues; border crossing by religious groups; the import of religious literature; police conduct in areas with ethnic and religious minorities; education; reflecting diversity; confronting hate speech and anti-Western propaganda; and the role of the media. During the October conference to discuss the report’s recommendations, many NGO and religious leaders said they were disappointed that the council’s recommendations were similar or identical to those it had made in past years, with no improvement or progress on the issues identified.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to religious organizations and NGOs, due to government-imposed COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public activity, crimes committed against religious groups declined compared with 2019. The MOIA investigated 22 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, compared to 44 cases in 2019. These included three cases of unlawful interference with the performance of religious rites (compared with 10 in 2019), four cases of persecution (compared with 10 in 2019), and five cases of damage or destruction of property (compared with eight in 2019).

The Public Defender’s Office reported it received seven complaints of discrimination or hate crimes based on religion during the year, compared with 19 in 2019. Two of the complaints involved violence; the office did not give further details on these cases. The office stated that cases from previous years remained largely unresolved, partly because of a lack of urgency and resources from the government.

The PGO reported it prosecuted three individuals for crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses motivated by religious intolerance. Two of these individuals were convicted of domestic violence committed due to religious intolerance, and the third case remained pending at year’s end. The PGO reported that in one case, a man slapped his wife during an argument on March 8 because she refused to visit her son’s gravesite due to her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. On April 23, the Samtredia District Court found the man guilty of domestic violence committed in the presence of a minor and due to religious intolerance, and sentenced him to an 18-month conditional prison sentence. On June 19, on appeal, the Kutaisi Appellate Court increased the man’s conditional prison sentence to two years. On March 1, a man threatened to shoot two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were proselytizing in his apartment building if they did not stop their religious activity and leave the building. The PGO charged the man with persecuting an individual for engaging in religious activity with the aggravated circumstance of threat of violence, and the case was pending trial at the Tbilisi City Court at year’s end.

Jehovah’s Witnesses said there were fewer attacks against members compared to prior years because the group, in response to COVID-19 restrictions, shifted to online activities and ceased conducting public outreach, including door-to-door evangelism. At year’s end, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported eight religiously motivated incidents to the government, compared with 20 in 2019. Of the reported incidents, one involved physical violence, four involved vandalism or other damage against Kingdom Halls, and three involved interference with religious services or damage of other property or literature. Jehovah’s Witnesses said police sent one of the cases to the PGO for prosecution. Police were still investigating the seven others at year’s end. According to the Public Defender’s Office, the PGO made improvements compared with prior years in classifying crimes as being motivated by religious intolerance, especially in cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses.

As of year’s end, the Tbilisi City Court had not ruled on a 2019 case in which an individual verbally insulted, then physically attacked, a Jehovah’s Witness who had just left a religious service at a Kingdom Hall in Tbilisi. The victim required medical treatment for injuries to his eye and lip, and officials charged the attacker with “purposeful, less grave damage to health.”

Authorities reported no arrests or other progress in open investigations of incidents from past years against Jehovah’s Witnesses or their property.

Representatives of the Public Defender’s Office’s Tolerance Center and minority religious groups continued to report what they termed a widespread societal belief that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and to the country’s cultural values.

Minority religious communities, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and Protestants, continued to report resistance from local communities to their establishment of places of worship and religious schools.

The Media Development Foundation documented 30 instances during the year of religiously intolerant statements on television, online, and in printed media by media representatives, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared with 55 such incidents in 2019.

In May, Georgian Orthodox clergyman Basil Mkalavishvili told the news website Georgia and the World, “As soon as this terrible epidemic [of COVID-19] has spread to all continents, all countries should have started intensified praying, but unfortunately, the reverse has happened. The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church closed their churches, prohibited praying; although their prayers have no merit anyway, as in the 11th century they swerved from Orthodoxy and embarked on the road of sacrilege.”

There were instances, particularly in Western Georgia, of anti-Islamic rhetoric that took the form of anti-Turkish rhetoric and opposition to perceived “foreign influence.” On February 16, Alliance of Patriots party member Giorgi Kasradze criticized the perceived foreign influence of Turkish Muslims on the country, saying on TV Obiektivi, “They [Turkish Muslims] have tried many times to stage various provocations in this region, including building an Azizie Mosque in the center of Batumi, but 15,000 [Georgian] Muslims, altogether 70,000 people, of whom 15,000 were Muslims, resisted construction of a mosque by Turkish money.”

In April, Sandro Bregadze, leader of the nativist movement Georgian March, told the news outlet Sakinpormi, “In Zugdidi [City] the main source of coronavirus is the sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Have you noticed how they are concealing this information? Can you imagine the fuss if this disease were spread from the Church congregation? That is the problem – 90 percent of Georgian television networks are belligerent enemies of the Georgian nation, Orthodoxy, and the Georgian state! A national boycott to this offspring of Satan.”

On December 20, Georgian Orthodox Metropolitan Gamrekeli delivered a sermon that included a story about the fourth-century saint Ambrose of Milan. In the story, Saint Ambrose argued against punishing those responsible for a pogrom against the Jewish community on the grounds that Jews had not been held fully responsible for killing Christ, desecrating the Holy Land, or blasphemy. In the sermon, Gamrekeli referred to modern-day Jews as individuals who, under the guise of free speech, defamed the Church, and said, “This is not defined by ethnicity – this is a battle of the lineage of infidels against the Church.” On December 28, the Tolerance Institute issued a statement saying, “Despite the fact that the Bishop refers to the story of Ambrose of Mediolanum, in this context he repeats the narratives of the ‘generation/lineage of infidels’ and ‘fighters against the Church’ in reference to the Jewish people. We consider that citing this particular example and calling Jewish people these derogatory terms (even though attributing them to the life of the saint) reinforces anti-Semitic sentiments and stereotypes today.” In response to the Tolerance Institute’s statement, the Georgian ambassador to Israel defended the Metropolitan’s statement, saying his words had been misinterpreted, as the story was simply the retelling of a historical parable, and the Metropolitan said in the sermon the lessons from the parable should not apply to one ethnicity. The GOC subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with officials from the government, including SARI, the Prime Minister’s adviser on human rights and gender equality, and the President’s adviser on national minorities, to encourage dialogue between the government and minority religious groups. They also continued to meet with the Public Defender’s Office and officials in its Tolerance Center to discuss discrimination against religious groups and stress the importance of interfaith dialogue.

Embassy staff continued to meet with NGOs involved with religious freedom issues, including the Center for Development and Democracy, the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center, the Tolerance Institute, and the 21st Century Union, to discuss interfaith relations, the integration of religious minorities into society, and the promotion of religious freedom for all.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials visited the Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli, and Adjara regions on several occasions to meet with local religious leaders, including from the Sunni and Shia Muslim and Armenian Apostolic Orthodox communities. In these meetings, embassy officials advocated interfaith understanding, dialogue, and the peaceful coexistence of all religions. The Ambassador met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II and other senior GOC members on multiple occasions. In her meetings, she stressed the importance of the Church’s role in promoting religious diversity and tolerance.

In November, the Secretary of State met with Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi and discussed promoting and protecting religious freedom.

The embassy conducted a virtual program for a multiethnic group of young professionals under an exchange program focusing on inclusion, diversity, and equality. The program highlighted, among other things, the importance of freedom of religion. The embassy supported a number of religious freedom projects, including a discussion on human dignity and the GOC that brought together clergy and staff of the Georgian Orthodox patriarchate and public figures, nongovernmental human rights organizations, and scholars studying theology and religion with the goal of increasing awareness of human rights within the Church community. Another project aimed to encourage religious leaders of all faiths to promote democracy and foster civic engagement in their communities. The embassy’s English language programs in Marneuli, Akhalkalaki, and Ninotsminda targeted 25 socially disadvantaged students from religious minority groups.

The embassy continued to support the Tolerance Center and the Council of Religions programs that brought together leaders from different faith communities to monitor and advocate for religious freedom and raise public awareness about discrimination faced by religious and ethnic minorities. The embassy supported the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center’s “Improving Human Rights Conditions for Marginalized Groups through Strategic Litigation” project to protect the rights of minority religious groups through strategic litigation, field work, advocacy, and awareness-raising with regard to problems such as discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds in relations with state and private persons, unequal treatment in the recognition of property and construction rights, and hate crimes.

In September, the embassy announced a cultural preservation award to restore the Jvari Monastery, a Georgian Orthodox monastery near Mtskheta (the former capital of the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Iberia) and one of the country’s most iconic cultural sites.

The embassy regularly used social media to highlight meetings with government officials, religious groups, and civil society and events promoting religious tolerance.

Hungary

Executive Summary

The Fundamental Law (constitution) provides for freedom of religion, including freedom to choose, change, or manifest religion or belief, cites “the role of Christianity” in “preserving nationhood,” and values “various religious traditions.” It prohibits religious discrimination and speech violating the dignity of any religious community and stipulates the autonomy of religious communities. On December 15, parliament amended the constitution, adding language stating that children must be guaranteed an “upbringing based on values stemming from our country’s constitutional identity and Christian culture.” The amendment became effective on December 23. There are four tiers of religious groups, all of which may receive state funding and income-tax allocations from members. The Budapest-Capital Regional Court registered seven religious groups and rejected one, while four applications remained pending. The Constitutional Court rejected a challenge to the religion law, which some religious and civil society groups considered discriminatory. The Muslim community said authorities continued to refuse to issue permits for cemeteries. Jewish organizations condemned the appointment of a new director of a state-run radio station whom they said had a long record of making anti-Semitic statements; the government’s inclusion of anti-Semitic writers and removal of a Nobel laureate Holocaust survivor from a mandatory school reading list; and the bestowal of a high state award to a historian widely viewed as anti-Semitic. They also continued to criticize the proposed House of Fates Holocaust museum as an attempt to obscure the country’s role in the Holocaust. Senior government officials continued to make statements in defense of what they called a “Christian Europe.”

The Action and Protection Foundation, which monitored anti-Semitism, reported 16 anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of the year, one of discrimination, 11 of hate speech, and four of vandalism. Muslim leaders said that while physical assaults were rare, verbal insults were frequent, and there were cases of anti-Muslim discrimination. Members of radical right-wing and neo-Nazi groups again commemorated the attempted “breakout” by German and Hungarian troops in February 1945 during the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army. They laid wreaths to honor Nazis and their collaborators, and some wore historical uniforms and insignias. The commemoration received favorable coverage from some government-aligned media. A European Union (EU)-funded survey of residents in the country found 41 percent did not sympathize with Muslims and 15 percent did not sympathize with Jews; 49 percent agreed that Jews had substantial influence on world developments and the economy, and 34 percent believed the Holocaust received too much attention. Ten and nine percent, respectively, thought Jews and Muslims were frequent targets of hate speech.

The U.S. Ambassador, other embassy officials and visiting U.S. Department of State representatives held meetings with officials from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and other government agencies, as well as with local Jewish groups and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, to discuss restitution of heirless Jewish property seized during the Holocaust, historical commemoration of the Holocaust, and the House of Fates Museum concept. In other meetings with the government and with religious leaders, embassy representatives advocated religious freedom and tolerance and discussed provisions of the religion law, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. In January, the embassy highlighted on its website and on social media the anniversaries of the liberation of Auschwitz and the Budapest Ghetto, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the attendance by the Charge d’Affaires at three commemoration events hosted by the Holocaust Memorial Center and Jewish groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, which included an optional question on religious affiliation, of the 73 percent of the population that responded, 51 percent identified as Roman Catholic, 16 percent as Hungarian Reformed Church (Calvinist), 3 percent as Lutheran, 2 percent as Greek Catholic, and less than 1 percent as Jewish; 23 percent reported no religious affiliation, and 2 percent said they were atheists. Other religious groups together constituting less than 5 percent of the population include Greek Orthodox, the Faith Congregation (a Pentecostal group), the Church of Scientology (COS), Russian and other Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations, Buddhists, Muslims, and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness. The Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood (MET) has approximately 8,500 members, according to a 2013 news report, and the Hungarian Pentecostal Church approximately 9,300 members, according to the 2011 census. The World Jewish Congress estimates the Jewish population to be between 35,000 and 120,000 persons. Local Jewish organizations estimate approximately 100,000 citizens with Jewish heritage live in the country, primarily in Budapest. Other religious groups are distributed throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Fundamental Law, the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of conscience and religion, including freedom to choose or change religion or belief, and freedom – alone or in community with others and in public or in private – to manifest religion or belief through religious acts or ceremonies, or in any other way, in worship, practice, and observance. It prohibits religious discrimination, as well as speech “aimed at violating the dignity” of any religious community. On December 15, parliament approved a constitutional amendment, which became effective on December 23, stating that children must be guaranteed an “upbringing based on values stemming from our country’s constitutional identity and Christian culture.”

The constitution’s preamble states, “We recognize the role of Christianity” in preserving the nation and “value the various religious traditions” in the country. The constitution stipulates separation between religious communities and the state, as well as the autonomy of religious communities. According to the constitution, the state may, at the request of religious communities, cooperate with them on community goals.

A 2018 parliamentary amendment to the 2011 religion law entered into force in 2019. The purpose of the amendment was to implement judgments of the country’s Constitutional Court and the European Court on Human Rights. The law establishes a four-tier system of, in descending order, “established (or incorporated) churches,” “registered churches” (also called “registered II”), “listed churches” (also called “registered I”), and “religious associations.” The term “church” in the law refers to any religious community, not just Christian ones, and religious groups in any category may use “church” in their official names. All previously incorporated religious groups retained their status in the first tier of the new system as established churches. To become an established church requires approval by parliament; the Budapest-Capital Regional Court has jurisdiction to rule on applications for registration within the other three categories. Religious groups in all four tiers have “legal personality,” which grants them legal rights, such as the right to own property.

Religious entities that do not apply for legal status in one of the four categories are still able to function and conduct worship. The law states constitutional protection of freedom of religion also applies to unregistered groups.

To qualify for established church status, a religious group must first have registered status and then conclude a comprehensive cooperation agreement with the state for the purpose of accomplishing community goals. The government submits the comprehensive agreement to parliament, which must approve it by a two-thirds majority vote. A registered church becomes an established church from the day parliament approves the comprehensive agreement. Established churches are eligible to benefit from significant state subsidies for the performance of public service activities.

To qualify for registered church status, a religious group must have received tax allocations from an average of 4,000 persons per year in the five-year period prior to the application. This status also requires that the group either have operated as a religious association for at least 20 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally, or have operated as a listed church for at least 15 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally.

To qualify for listed church status, a religious group must receive tax allocations from an average of 1,000 persons per year in the three-year period prior to the application for status and have operated as a religious association for at least five years in the country or for at least 100 years internationally.

To qualify for religious association status, a religious group must have at least 10 members.

The law allows the government to negotiate individual cooperation agreements with all four tiers of religious groups for the performance of public service activities and support of faith-based activities. The agreements’ duration depends on the status of the religious community, ranging from a five-year maximum for religious associations to 10 and 15 years for listed and registered churches, respectively, and unlimited duration for established churches. These agreements may be prolonged.

Religious groups that agree not to seek state or EU funding (including personal income tax allocations) for their religious activities may qualify as registered or listed churches without fulfilling the requirement regarding the number of personal income tax allocations. The applicant religious community must perform primarily religious activities and may not be a criminal defendant or have been convicted of a crime during the previous five years, under sanction for “repeated violation of accounting and management rules,” or considered a national security threat. The court decides whether to grant status as a registered or listed church based on an examination of the criteria above. In reviewing these applications, the court may consult church law, church history, or ecclesiastical or academic experts, and may also seek the opinion of the national security services.

Religious groups that agree not to seek government or EU funding but accept financial support at a later stage must report it to the court within 15 days of the disbursement of the aid. To avoid losing its status or a reclassification to the lower association tier, the religious group has eight days to declare to the court that it has returned the funds, requested cancellation of its religious registration status, or complied with the individual tax allocation requirement to become a registered or listed organization. The religious group or prosecutor’s office may appeal the court’s decision on the status of the group to the Budapest-Capital Court of Appeal.

The law stipulates the minister responsible for church issues, based on information received from the court, shall manage an electronic database of religious groups with legal status, accessible to the public free of charge. The database is publicly accessible at the government’s central webpage, kormany.hu.

The law allows taxpayers to allocate 1 percent of their income taxes to any religious community in any of the four categories, starting with the 2020 tax year. Religious groups may use these funds as they wish. Only established and registered churches (the two highest tiers) are eligible to receive a state subsidy supplementing the 1 percent tax allocations.

According to the law, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court may dissolve a religious community with legal status – with the exception of established churches – if its activities conflict with the constitution or law or if the court rules its registration should have been denied. Parliament may dissolve an incorporated church if the Constitutional Court finds it is operating in violation of the constitution. If a religious community is dissolved without a legal successor, its assets, after satisfying creditors, become the property of the state and shall be used for public interest activities.

Thirty-two churches have established (previously known as “incorporated”) status. These include the Roman Catholic Church; a range of Protestant denominations; a range of Orthodox Christian groups; other Christian denominations, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Salvation Army; three Jewish groups (Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, Hungarian Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community); and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sole Hindu group registered as a church. The list also includes Buddhist and Muslim umbrella organizations, each encompassing a few individual groups.

By law, the state may neither operate nor establish any body for controlling or monitoring religious groups. Their doctrines, internal regulations, and statutes are not subject to state review, modification, or enforcement. Copyright law protects their names, symbols, and rites, while criminal law protects buildings and cemeteries.

The constitution establishes a unified system for the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (ombudsperson). The ombudsperson investigates cases related to violations of fundamental rights – including religious freedom – and initiates general or specific measures for their remedy. These measures do not have the force of law.

Treaties with the Holy See regulate relations between the state and the Catholic Church, including financing of public services and religious activities and settling claims for property seized by the state during the Communist era. These treaties serve as a model for regulating state relations with other religious groups, although there are some differences in the rights and privileges the state accords to each of the religious groups with which it has agreements. The state has also concluded formal agreements with the Hungarian Reformed Church, Hungarian Lutheran Church, Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), and four Orthodox churches.

According to the law, established, registered, and listed churches may perform pastoral services in prisons and hospitals. Other laws indicate religious associations may also have the right to provide services at these facilities.

Military and law enforcement personnel may freely practice their religion in private and also at their workplaces if their religious practice does not violate their mandatory service duties. The Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran Churches, and Jewish congregations (which the government generally calls “historical churches”) may provide chaplain services to the military without seeking permission. Other religious groups must seek permission to offer such services.

Penitentiaries generally allow inmates free practice of religion and provide them with special diets, such as kosher, vegetarian, and pork-free meals. Historical churches may provide pastoral services in prisons without special permission, but other religious groups may do so only within official visiting hours as outlined in individual agreements and with permission from the penitentiary. Similarly, historical churches receive automatic access to patients in hospitals to provide pastoral services, while other groups may do so only under certain conditions, such as providing services only during visiting hours.

One hour per week of education in faith and ethics or general ethics is mandatory through the first eight grades of public school. Parents and students choose between the faith and ethics class offered by an established church of their choosing or a secular ethics course taught by public school teachers. Other religious groups are not entitled to provide religious education as part of the mandatory curricula in public schools but may offer extracurricular, optional religious education in public schools at the request of parents or students. Private schools are not required to offer faith and ethics or general ethics classes.

All religious groups registered in one of the four categories have the right to open their own schools. The state provides a subsidy, based on the number of students enrolled, for employee salaries at all such schools. Only established churches automatically receive a supplementary subsidy for the schools’ operating expenses. Other religious groups may apply for a supplementary operational subsidy, and the Ministry of Human Capacities (MHC) may sign an individualized contract with them to cover these costs.

The law also affords all religious groups with legal status the right to assume operation of public schools if more than 50 percent of the parents and adult students enrolled at the school sign a petition to do so and the MHC approves the change. In these cases, the state may continue to fund the schools. Whether newly established or converted from public status, religious schools are free to conduct their own religious teaching without government input and to make faith education mandatory and not substitutable with an ethics class. The state inspects both religious and public schools every two years to ensure they conform to legal standards.

The constitution prohibits speech that violates the dignity of any religious community. The law prohibits “calling for violence” – or inciting hatred – against a religious community or its members, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The law provides a maximum punishment of three years in prison for impeding someone else through violence or threats from freely exercising his or her religion or abusing an individual because of his or her religious affiliation.

Assault motivated by the victim’s actual or presumed religious affiliation is a felony punishable by one to five years in prison. Violence against a member of the clergy is classified as violence against an “individual providing public service” and is also punishable with a prison sentence of one to five years. Any person who engages in preparation for the use of force against any member of a religious community is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

The law prohibits public denial, expression of doubt, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes against humanity committed by the National Socialist or Communist regimes, punishing such offenses with a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The criminal code makes wearing, exhibiting, or promoting in public the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, or the symbol of the Arrow Cross – a fascist, anti-Semitic party that allied with Nazi Germany – in a way that harms the human dignity or the memory of victims a misdemeanor, punishable by five to 90 days’ detention.

The law provides for the lifting of official immunity of a member of parliament (MP) who incites hatred against religious groups or publicly denies crimes of the Communist or National Socialist regimes. No MP has been the subject of such a proceeding.

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

Government Practices

Religious groups with pending applications for incorporated (changed to “established”) church status prior to the entry into force of a 2019 amendment to the religion law had the possibility to apply under a simplified registration process until January 6. According to the PMO, there were 16 such groups with pending applications, of which 11 reapplied under the simplified process. Of these 11 groups, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court rejected the application of the Church of the Nazarene and registered six groups as listed churches: the Hungarian Baha’i Community, Sim Shalom Progressive Jewish Association, Bet Orim Reform Jewish Community Association, Shalom Church of Biblical Congregations, Church of Evangelical Friendship, and the Hungarian Drukpa Kagyu Buddhist Community. Four other applications remained pending at year’s end. The court also registered the Hungarian Daoist Church as a listed church in a regular procedure based on the number of its members.

Some religious groups stated that while the new registration process constituted progress, it did not restore their full status from before the adoption of the 2011 religion law and the new framework for church recognition by the state. Court decisions regarding the registration process for registered churches, listed churches, and religious associations were available at the central website of the courts, birosag.hu. According to the PMO, no religious groups qualified under registered church status; in order to become a registered church, a group must comply with the requirement of receiving income tax allocations from an average of at least 4,000 persons per year in the previous five years, a period which could only begin in 2019 (the year the current law came into force) or later. The number of established churches remained unchanged.

The tax authority expanded the list of religious groups (including all four tiers) eligible to receive a 1 percent personal income tax allocation from members and stated that those wishing to become eligible in 2021 should request a technical tax identification number by December 31.

The HCLU, an NGO representing some religious groups deregistered in 2011, reported that their clients did not apply for registration because they believed the amended version of the law was still discriminatory. In May, the Constitutional Court rejected HCLU’s petition, filed in 2019, challenging the amended law. The HCLU argued the amended law did not guarantee equal treatment of churches by the state and was therefore unconstitutional. According to the Constitutional Court, state cooperation to achieve community goals and state support for religious activity, although related to the exercise of the freedom of religion, was not a fundamental right under the constitution, and constitutional protection of religious communities was equal, regardless of the legal evaluation of the religious community, the number of its members, or its participation in community activities. The HCLU, which already had a legal case ongoing regarding the previous law at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), argued there that the amended law did not remedy the violations of the prior law. The ECHR case continued at year’s end.

The MHC halved operational state subsidies for the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood’s (MET) educational institutions. MET’s leader Pastor Gabor Ivanyi said the MHC also informed him it would not extend its educational agreement for the next academic year, which endangered the sustainability of MET’s schools, attended by approximately 2,200 mostly Roma children. MHC attributed the funding cuts to budgetary restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and what it said was the lack of concrete results achieved by these schools. In December 2019, Ivanyi published an open letter in which he rejected Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s statements that his was a Christian government.

The COS reported that appeals procedures against the Data Protection Authority’s (DPA) seizure of its documents in Budapest and Nyiregyhaza remained pending at various stages at different courts. The DPA investigated the COS for alleged criminal abuse of personal data and fined it and its central organization a total of 40 million forints ($135,000) in 2017. The Church also reported state authorities revoked a Russian-Ukrainian missionary couple’s residence permit in 2019 and expelled a Kazakh missionary from the country in January. The COS appealed both decisions, in which the authorities justified the expulsion of missionaries they deemed a “real, direct, and serious threat to national security.”

The COS stated that the certificate of occupancy for its headquarters in Budapest remained pending at the Csongrad County Government Office, while a court order allowed the COS to continue using the building.

The Organization of Muslims in Hungary (OMH) said the problem of insufficient cemetery space for Muslims remained unresolved. OMH also reported the government had not completed its restoration of the state-owned Yakovali Hasan Mosque in Pecs, ongoing since 2018, which prevented the local Muslim community from using the mosque as a place of worship.

In September, MET said the state-owned utility company attempted to disconnect MET’s institutions from the gas network due to nonpayment, endangering the operation of its nursery, college, homeless shelter, and hospital. Pastor Ivanyi stated MET would be able to pay its outstanding bills if the state would compensate it for damages sustained in 2016-2019 stemming from the group’s loss of church status.

According to the PMO, during the 2019-2020 school year, churches or church-run higher educational institutions operated 17.1 percent of elementary and secondary schools (compared with 16.7 percent in 2018-19), and religious associations operated 0.2 percent. Churches or church-run higher educational institutions operated 10 percent of preschools (with students aged three to seven), compared with 9.7 percent run by incorporated churches in the previous year, and religious associations operated 0.2 percent. There were 222,944 students – 49.3 percent of whom were in Catholic schools – studying at preschools and elementary and secondary schools operated by churches and religious organizations, compared with 217,204 in the previous year.

At a school opening ceremony on August 31, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen stated that church-run schools were instrumental in preserving a Christian identity through raising “professionals whose skills are in harmony with faith.” Semjen cited Eurostat figures showing that Hungary’s GDP-to-church-support ratio was the highest in the EU, adding that the number of church-run schools in the country had doubled since 2010. The PMO State Secretary in charge of church issues, Miklos Soltesz, stated on September 4 that the government had allocated 106 billion forints ($357.2 million) to three main churches for kindergarten development projects, with the Catholic Church receiving 67 billion forints ($225.8 million), the Reformed Church 30 billion forints ($101.1 million), and the Evangelical Church 9 billion forints ($30.3 million).

A cartoon by Gabor Papai published by the daily independent Nepszava on April 28 showed the chief medical officer who oversaw the government’s COVID-19 pandemic response looking at Jesus on the cross and saying, “his underlying conditions caused” his death. According to media commenters, the cartoon was intended to criticize the government’s response to the pandemic and, in the critics’ view, the chief medical officer’s attempt to minimize the number of deaths in the country attributable to COVID-19. The cartoon sparked outcry from the Christian Democratic People’s Party and State Secretary for the Aid of Persecuted Christians Tristan Azbej, who accused Papai of blasphemy and sued the outlet. Government-aligned media launched what was characterized as a campaign of intimidation against Papai; for example, Szent Korona (Holy Crown) Radio station asked its followers to share his home address, because “there are many who would pay him a visit.”

According to OMH, Muslims serving prison sentences regularly received meals with pork meat or pork fat, despite complaints.

On January 6, state-run Kossuth Radio announced the appointment of Beatrix Siklosi as its new director. Citing what they described as Siklosi’s long record of making and sharing anti-Semitic and racist statements – including posting racist jokes and linking to the anti-Semitic website kuruc.info on social media as well as hosting Holocaust denier David Irving on one of her previous shows – 21 Jewish organizations published a joint open letter on January 27 to the public media organization MTVA’s Chief Executive Officer, Daniel Papp, asking him to terminate Siklosi’s appointment. Papp rejected the accusations of anti-Semitism against Siklosi as unfounded. Chief Rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) Slomo Koves stated that Siklosi’s appointment was “unacceptable,” and Mazsihisz referred to its statement from 2014 condemning Siklosi’s appointment to another position, adding that it maintained its concerns regarding her.

On August 20, the government awarded the Hungarian Order of Merit to historian Erno Raffay, whom media and other historians have criticized for disseminating anti-Semitic views. At a public forum in 2015, Raffay complained about the number of Jews in the country before the Holocaust, stating, they “pushed us out from our positions in science, schools, academy, university, banking, estates, and professions.” European Commission Coordinator on Combatting Anti-Semitism Katharina von Schnurbein criticized Raffay in a tweet on August 25 for openly spreading “anti-Semitic speech and conspiracy myths.”

Jewish groups Mazsihisz and EMIH expressed concern about the government’s decision to include writers widely viewed as anti-Semitic, including member of the Arrow Cross Party Jozsef Nyiro and convicted war criminal Albert Wass, while removing Nobel laureate for literature and Hungarian Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz as mandatory reading material in the new national curriculum, which became effective on September 1 in elementary and secondary public schools.

Several Jewish leaders criticized Laszlo Biro, a Jobbik Party member and the opposition parties’ unsuccessful joint candidate in the October 11 by-election in Borsod County, for anti-Semitic and racist statements. Biro’s previous social media comments included referring to Budapest as “Judapest” and complaining about the number of foreign Jews staying at hotels in his district. EMIH Chief Rabbi Koves said that it was worrying that “the parties that support him [Biro] indirectly legitimize anti-Semitism.” Earlier in August, referring to Biro’s comments, Mazsihisz president Andras Heisler said his organization condemned “acts of incitement against any ethnic, religious, or sexual minority.”

During a local council meeting on June 25, Imre Lazlo, mayor of a Budapest district and member of the opposition Democratic Coalition Party, said that “The work [Hitler] had accomplished” prior to becoming Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938 “practically brought advancement for Germany, in a spectacular way, after the global recession. What happened afterwards does not really fit into this picture.” On June 26, Laszlo issued a statement to apologize for his remarks, highlighting his Jewish roots and that many of his family members were killed in Nazi death camps.

The opening of the House of Fates, a proposed new Holocaust museum and education center in Budapest, remained pending. The museum concept, which leading Jewish groups and Holocaust scholars criticized as an attempt to obscure the role of the World War II-era Hungarian state and its leader, Miklos Horthy, in the Holocaust, continued to generate criticism. Horthy allied the country with Nazi Germany and deported more than 400,000 Jews to Nazi death camps. Chief Rabbi Koves of EMIH, which owned the museum, stated in November that he was working with design firms and historians and predicted the potential opening on or before the 80th anniversary of the 1944 deportation of Hungarian Jews in 2024.

At year’s end, the government had not shared its final research assessment into heirless and unclaimed property, nor had it yet agreed to requests by the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) for further discussions on a roadmap to begin negotiations. In April 2019, the WJRO presented the government with its assessment of the government’s second set of research on heirless property.

When speaking about a proposal from a Jewish, Hungarian-born, U.S. citizen investor on how the EU should finance the COVID-19 recovery fund, Prime Minister Orban said in an interview in April that “they really love interest,” which some observers described as a veiled anti-Semitic message. In April, some government-aligned media said that the same investor was “probably” betting against the nation’s currency and responsible for its weakening in the spring.

In a November opinion piece published by progovernment media outlet Origo.hu, Ministerial Commissioner and director of the Petofi Literary Museum Szilard Demeter called the same American financier the “liberal Fuhrer” and wrote that Europe was his “gas chamber,” with “poisonous gas” flowing from the capsule of a “multicultural open society.” Referring to the debate over the EU’s proposed mechanism that conditioned payments from the EU budget on respect for the rule of law, Demeter described Poles and Hungarians as “the new Jews” targeted by “liber-Aryans” who are told they “have a big nose (sic)…stink…and are full of lice.” Mazsihisz, EMIH, the American Jewish Committee Central Europe office, and the International Auschwitz Committee, among others, condemned Demeter’s comments, and all major opposition parties called for his resignation. On November 29, Demeter stated he would retract his article and delete his Facebook page “independently of what I think.” He added, “Those criticizing me are correct in saying that to call someone a Nazi is to relativize, and that making parallels with Nazis can inadvertently cause harm to the memory of the victims.” As of December, government officials continued to defend Demeter’s continued tenure as a ministerial commissioner, stating that he had retracted the piece and apologized.

Government officials continued to make statements in defense of a “Christian Europe.” In an essay published on the occasion of the start of the fall parliamentary session, Prime Minister Orban wrote in the daily Magyar Nemzet on September 21 that while Central European countries were choosing a migration-free future, the majority population in large Western European cities and 20 percent of the European population would be Muslim by 2050. On August 31, Deputy Prime Minister Semjen stated the government had built or refurbished approximately 3,000 churches in the Carpathian basin since 2010, and he pledged that “none of those churches will be turned into mosques or shopping malls.”

In January, Prime Minister Orban and his wife attended the International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps to mark the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. Orban posted a photo on Facebook of a guard’s tower with the barbed wire fence in the background and a quote from the Old Testament, “Tell it to your children,” and media published a photo of Orban lighting a candle at the Hungarian memorial to the victims of the Birkenau camp. In a speech at the European Jewish Organization Symposium commemorating the same anniversary, Justice Minister Judit Varga stated that the country had “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism,” adding, “Manifestations of anti-Semitism are met with a determined response by the state leadership,” and that Hungary was “the most secure country for Jews in Europe.”

At year’s end, the government had provided 216.4 billion forints ($729.2 million) to established churches (compared with 64.8 billion forints – $218.4 million – during 2019), of which 96 percent – 209 billion ($704.3 million) – went to the four historical churches. The Roman Catholic Church received 161.7 billion forints ($554.9 million), the Reformed Church 37.7 billion forints ($127 million), the Evangelical Church 6.8 billion forints ($22.9 million), Mazsihisz two billion forints ($6.7 million), EMIH 534 million forints ($1.8 million), and the Jewish Orthodox community 281 million forints ($947,000). The religious groups that received the bulk of the government’s financial support used the funds for such activities as building maintenance; public educational and social services; religious instruction and cultural activities; community programs and investments; employee wages, and faith-based activities for citizens living abroad. The government provided an additional 211.3 million forints ($712,000) to other religious groups.

Jewish groups inaugurated synagogues that had been renovated with state funding. In September, the Lakitelek People’s College, established by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Sandor Lezsak, transferred the ownership of a wellness resort called “Hungarikum Liget,” consisting among other things of a hotel, winery, a riding house, and a footgolf course, to the Szeged-Csanad Catholic archdiocese. The government provided 30 billion forints ($101.1 million) in state support for the project, according to press reports.

In November, the Hungarian Reformed Church elected former Minister of Human Capacities Zoltan Balog as Bishop of the Dunamellek Diocese.

According to statistics the tax authority published on September 9, 114 churches and religious groups received 1 percent personal income tax allocations. In 2019, only the 32 established – or in the previous terminology “incorporated” – churches were eligible for this tax allocation. As in previous years, the churches receiving the most allocations were the Catholic Church, with 708,237 persons contributing 3.9 billion forints ($13.1 million); Hungarian Reformed Church, with 292,768 persons contributing 1.6 billion forints ($5.4 million); and Lutheran Church, with 80,237 persons contributing 478 million forints ($1.6 million). The Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness ranked fourth, with 71,470 persons contributing 448 million forints ($1.5 million). Both reform Jewish groups (Sim Shalom and Bet Orim) became eligible to receive 1 percent personal income tax allocations, in addition to the other three established Jewish groups of Mazsihisz, EMIH, and Orthodox. Among the Jewish groups, Mazsihisz received the largest allocation.

In March, the Lutheran Church signed a cooperation agreement with the government to carry out social and educational activities. In July, the Faith Church (a Christian church that belongs to the Pentecostal movement) concluded a comprehensive cooperation agreement with the government. Building on a previous agreement from 2006, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen and church leader Reverend Sandor Nemeth stated at the signing ceremony that the agreement provided legal and financial guarantees for the operation of the church’s institutions.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The NGO Action and Protection Foundation, which monitors anti-Semitism, reported 16 anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of the year, including one case of discrimination, 11 of hate speech, and four of vandalism. Muslim organizations did not collect statistical data; however, OMH reported that while physical assaults were rare, verbal insults were frequent, in particular against persons wearing headscarves or who had darker skin and spoke a foreign language. According to OMH, the majority of the population regarded Muslims with suspicion.

An estimated 500 to 600 members of what were widely described as radical right-wing and neo-Nazi groups from Hungary and other European countries gathered on February 8 for the “Day of Honor” in Budapest that commemorated the attempted “breakout” of German and Hungarian troops in February 1945 during the siege of the city by the Soviet Red Army. Dressed in black and carrying flags of their respective far-right movements, they laid wreaths to honor Nazis and their collaborators. While police initially banned the event, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court subsequently overturned the ban. Separated by a line of police, some 300 to 500 counterdemonstrators chanted and drummed during the event. According to media, “There were no major conflicts – while there were smaller hassles.” The commemoration was followed by a march along the route of the attempted siege-breakers in which some participants wore historical uniforms and insignias. The commemoration received favorable coverage in some government-aligned media. No government officials condemned the event and no charges were brought against the participants.

On March 1, approximately 1,000 people took part in a march in Budapest, organized by the far-right party Mi Hazank and the Betyarsereg and 64 Counties extremist groups, honoring the centennial of World War II-era Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy’s coming to power.

According to OMH, a job interviewer, commenting on a Muslim interviewee whose mother tongue was Hungarian, said he wanted a “Hungarian person,” but instead an “Ali” showed up. The Muslim applicant did not receive a job offer and did not take legal action.

According to an EU-funded survey of Hungarian residents, Combating Anti-Semitism in Central Europe, conducted in December 2019 in local partnership with the Republikon research institute, 10 percent of respondents believed Jews were frequent victims of hate speech, followed by Muslims (9 percent); 41 percent said they did “not sympathize” with Muslims, while 15 percent did not sympathize with Jews. Regarding attitudes and types of hate speech towards Jews, 45 percent of respondents had encountered anti-Semitic stereotypes, 41 percent insults, 35 percent grotesque depictions of Jews, and 27 percent had not encountered any type of hate speech. Forty-nine percent agreed with the statement that Jews had substantial influence on world developments and the economy, while 38 percent agreed that, for Jews in the country, Israel was more important than Hungary; 34 percent believed the Holocaust received too much attention in public debates.

An analysis by online research group SentiOne of Hungarian comments on social media between January 1 and April 15 found the second highest share of negative comments (24 percent) were directed against Jews, and 43 percent of those who commented on Jews blamed them for the COVID-19 pandemic.

In February, the Pew Research Center published a survey on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 70 percent of Hungarian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among their lowest priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.

In March, Mazsihisz reported that vandals severely damaged gravestones in the Jewish cemetery of Kiskunfelegyhaza, southeast of Budapest. Repair costs were estimated at between 300,000 and 2.5 million forints ($1,000-$8,400). Mazsihisz filed a criminal complaint with the police.

Mazsihisz reported that on November 1, vandals smashed three headstones and left human feces on another at a Jewish graveyard in Kecel, south of Budapest.

In June, there were two vandalism cases, one of which concerned a swastika drawn on a poster of a Jewish high school in Budapest, and the other a swastika painted on a public wall in Debrecen, in eastern Hungary.

In October, NGOs reported authorities closed the investigation, without filing charges, into an October 2019 attack in Budapest on the Aurora NGO center – run by a Jewish youth organization – by approximately 50 members from Legio Hungaria, a group widely described as neo-Nazi.

On February 2, the general assembly of Mazsihisz adopted a proposal to include Sim Shalom and Bet Orim, the country’s two reform Jewish groups, as associate members.

The Christian-Jewish Council, an informal platform for discussion for Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist Churches and Jewish groups, held events such as joint prayers on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the council organized fewer events than in previous years.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings and discussions with the government, including officials from the PMO in charge of church and Jewish issues, the Ambassador and embassy representatives advocated restitution of heirless Jewish property seized during the Holocaust, historical commemoration of the Holocaust, and religious freedom, and discussed provisions of the religion law.

The Ambassador and embassy officials also discussed heirless property restitution with the WJRO.

Embassy and Department of State officials, including the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, held discussions with representatives of the Jewish community on anti-Semitism; challenges in promoting tolerance and historical truth in education; the community’s relationship with the government; the House of Fates museum concept; restitution issues; activities of the Budapest-based Holocaust Memorial Center; and Holocaust commemoration. The embassy issued a statement in August that said, “Neo-Nazi or other hate groups should not be tolerated in any society,” which also referenced Legio Hungaria’s October 2019 vandalizing of the Aurora NGO center. In November, the embassy issued a statement condemning an opinion piece that equated debate over EU policy to the Holocaust, noting that there should be no tolerance for Holocaust relativization or minimization.

In January, in remembrance of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the Budapest Ghetto as well as Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Charge d’Affaires participated in three commemoration events hosted by the Holocaust Memorial Center and Jewish groups. On each occasion, the Charge emphasized the importance of religious freedom with a diverse group of religious leaders, and the embassy amplified that message for a broader audience through its website and social media accounts. Embassy officials also visited the Holocaust Memorial Center to remember those who lost their lives and demonstrate the United States’ commitment to “never again,” and posted about the visit on social media. The embassy maintained regular contact with leaders of various religious communities, including the four historical groups, as well as Baptists, Muslims, the COS, and religious groups that lost incorporated church status in 2011, such as MET, Bet Orim, and Sim Shalom, to understand their concerns, encourage religious freedom and tolerance, and discuss the effects of the religion law, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

On October 13, the Ambassador gave remarks at an event commemorating Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty – who was imprisoned for opposing both fascism and communism in the country and took refuge in the embassy for 15 years – in which he emphasized U.S. support for religious freedom for all.

The Ambassador and embassy officials participated in events organized by various Jewish organizations, such as visits to newly inaugurated synagogues in Budapest, to highlight support for the Jewish community and to promote religious tolerance. At all these events, embassy representatives reiterated U.S. support for religious freedom and discussed issues of concern to the Jewish community.

Iran

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet or Islam”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, excluding converts from Islam, are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” According to the online news service Iran Focus, on September 10, the Supreme Court, for the third time, upheld the death sentence against seven Sunni Muslim prisoners who were charged with “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “moharebeh.” On October 4, according to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish nongovernment organization (NGO), security forces arrested a prominent Kurdish Sunni imam, Mamousta Rasoul Hamzehpour, in his home in the city of Piranshahr. As of year’s end, his whereabouts and the status of his case remained unknown. The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC), a U.S.-based human rights NGO, said that from January 2000 to November 2020, the government sentenced at least 237 persons to amputation and carried out the sentence in at least 129 cases. On October 8, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a report on the country’s use of capital punishment, stating, “The death penalty…has often been used against members of Iran’s ethnic communities and religious minorities, especially in political cases based on moharebeh, ‘spreading corruption on Earth,’ insurrection, and other vaguely worded crimes.” According to the ABC, on October 14, authorities in the Office of the Borazjan City Prosecutor flogged a Christian convert, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 80 times for drinking communion wine. On November 22, NGOs and several media outlets reported that authorities raided the homes of dozens of Baha’is across the country in “simultaneous operations.” On May 28, Radio Farda reported that police in Khuzestan Province said they arrested “14 agents of takfiri (an umbrella term to refer to Sunni dissident groups and Sunni individuals) and separatist groups.” The opposition website Iran Focus stated human rights groups reported that authorities summoned, interrogated, and arrested several religious Sunni teachers, students, and civil activists during the month of Ramadan (which began in late April). NGOs reported that as of October 27, there were 38 Baha’is – 16 men and 22 women – in prison. Twenty-six of them were placed there during the year. In July, a court sentenced seven of eight Christian converts who were arrested in Bushehr in 2019 for spreading “propaganda against the regime.” After sentencing a married couple among the group, the court ruled that, as Christians, the couple were not fit to raise their adopted daughter, who has heart and other health conditions, whom the court viewed as a Muslim. In May, the parliament passed amendments to the Islamic Penal Code, including language that those found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam” could be labeled as members of a “sect” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or the death penalty. On November 9, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by women’s right activist Saba Kord-Afshari of her prison sentence for protesting the compulsory hijab. On November 1, Iran International and the international human rights news agency HRANA reported that authorities barred from higher education at least 17 Baha’is who participated in the year’s nationwide university entrance examinations, despite their being academically qualified. In January, NGOs and press reported that the application form for the state-issued national identity card, required for almost all government and other transactions, would only allow citizens to register as one of the country’s recognized religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism; previously application forms for the identity card had an option for “other religions.” According to a December 4 report by the news website IranWire, the government issued a memorandum to provincial judiciary heads establishing a new General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers to receive any reports of transgressions by members of the legal profession, including women lawyers not wearing the mandatory hijab at work or on social media or doubts about a lawyer’s commitment to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or the principle of Supreme Leader.

According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, while employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private-sector jobs. Baha’is reported there was continued destruction and vandalism of their cemeteries. According to IranWire, during Friday prayers in early November in Kermanshah, Sunni cleric Mullahamid Faraji called Yarsanis infidels, Satanists, and enemies of Muslims. Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the most senior Sunni cleric in the country, circulated a video on social media charging that Chinese Shia students studying at al-Mustafa International University in Qom had infected the country with the COVID-19 virus. According to press and NGO reports, on May 14, following threats on Twitter, a man broke into the shrine of Esther and Mordechai, a Jewish holy site in Hamadan, in an attempt to set fire to the tomb. In June, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran, a Netherlands-based NGO focusing on research on Iran, conducted an online survey with the collaboration of the ABC that found dramatic changes in Iranian society’s religiosity, especially an increase in secularization and a diversity of faiths and beliefs. The survey found that only 40 percent of respondents identified as Muslim.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran. The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. On September 24, the United States sanctioned several officials and entities for gross violations of human rights and denials to the right of liberty of those seeking only to practice their religion, including Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and the Adel Abad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad prisons. The statement read, in part, “Judge Soltani is responsible for sentencing Baha’is in Iran on dubious charges related to their exercise of freedom of expression or belief” and “Orumiyeh Prison has subjected members of ethnic and religious minority groups and political prisoners to abuse, including beatings and floggings.”

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on in section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA) for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 85.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to Iranian government estimates, Muslims constitute 99.4 percent of the population, of whom 90-95 percent are Shia, and 5-10 percent are Sunni, mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds, living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest provinces, respectively. Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population, but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable. There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.

According to U.S. government estimates, groups constituting the remaining less than 1 percent of the population include Baha’is, Christians, Yarsanis, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians. The three largest non-Muslim minorities are Baha’is, Christians, and Yarsanis.

According to Human Rights Watch data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.

The government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians in the country. Some estimates, however, suggest there may be many more than actually reported. According to World Christian Database statistics, there are approximately 547,000 Christians. Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates there could be between 300,000 and one million.

Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000. There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers. Christian groups outside the country disagree on the size of the Protestant community, with some estimates citing figures lower than 10,000, and others, such as Open Doors USA, citing numbers greater than 800,000. Many Protestants and converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but HRANA and the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) estimate there are up to two million. Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.

According to recent estimates from Armenian Christians who maintain contact with the Iranian Christian community in the country, their current numbers are approximately 40,000 to 50,000, significantly lower than the peak of 300,000 estimated prior to 1979. The number of Roman Catholics in the country is estimated to be 21,000.

According to Zoroastrian groups and the government-run Statistical Center of Iran, the population includes approximately 25,000 Zoroastrians.

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while representatives from the Jewish community in the country estimated their number at 15,000 during a 2018 PBS News Hour interview.

The population, according to government media, includes 14,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.

According to the 2011 census, the number of individuals who are nonreligious rose by 20 percent between 2006 and 2011, which supports observations by academics and others that the number of atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, and religiously unaffiliated living in the country is growing. Often these groups, however, do not publicly identify, as documented by Amnesty International’s report on the country, because those who profess atheism are at risk of arbitrary detention, torture, and the death penalty for “apostasy.”

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. The constitution stipulates all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”

The constitution prohibits the investigation of an individual’s ideas and states no one may be “subjected to questioning and aggression for merely holding an opinion.” The law prohibits Muslims from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The only recognized conversions are from another religion to Islam. Conversion from Islam may be considered apostasy under sharia, a crime punishable by death. Under the law, a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim.

By law, non-Muslims may not engage in public persuasion or attempted conversion of Muslims. The law considers these activities proselytizing and punishable by death. In addition, citizens who are not recognized as Christians, Zoroastrians, or Jews may not engage in public religious expression, such as worshiping in a church or wearing religious symbols such as a cross. The government makes some exceptions for foreigners belonging to unrecognized religious groups.

The penal code specifies the death sentence for moharebeh (“enmity against God,” which according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, means in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions caused by unbelievers or unjust people that threaten social and political wellbeing”), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet” or “insulting the sanctities [Islam]”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.

The constitution states the four Sunni schools (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) and the Shia Zaydi school of Islam are “deserving of total respect,” and their followers are free to perform religious practices. It states these schools may follow their own jurisprudence in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities. “Within the limits of the law,” they have permission to perform religious rites and ceremonies and to form religious societies. They are also free to address personal affairs and religious education according to their own religious canon. The government considers any citizen who is not a registered member of one of these three groups or who cannot prove his or her family was Christian prior to 1979, to be Muslim.

Since the law prohibits citizens from converting from Islam to another religion, the government only recognizes the Christianity of citizens who are Armenian or Assyrian Christians, because the presence of these groups in the country predates Islam, or of citizens who can prove they or their families were Christian prior to the 1979 revolution. The government also recognizes Sabean-Mandaeans as Christian, even though they state they do not consider themselves as such. The government often considers Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, but Yarsanis identify Yarsan as a distinct faith (known as Ahl-e-Haq or Kakai). Yarsanis may also self-register as Shia to obtain government services. The government does not recognize evangelical Protestants as Christian.

Citizens who are members of one of the recognized religious minorities must register with authorities. Registration conveys certain rights, including the use of alcohol for religious purposes. Authorities may close a church and arrest its leaders if churchgoers do not register or unregistered individuals attend services. The law does not recognize individuals who convert to Christianity as Christian. They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.

The Supreme Leader (the Velayat-e Faqih, the Guardian of the Islamic Jurist), the country’s head of state, oversees extrajudicial special clerical courts, which are not provided for by the constitution. The courts, each headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, operate outside the judiciary’s purview and investigate offenses committed by clerics, including political statements inconsistent with government policy and nonreligious activities. The courts also issue rulings based on independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources. The constitution provides that the judiciary be “an independent power” that is “free from every kind of unhealthy relation and connection.” The government appoints judges “in accordance with religious criteria.”

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) monitor religious activity. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also monitors churches.

The constitution provides for freedom of the press, except when it is “harmful to the principles of Islam or the rights of the public.”

The Ministry of Education determines the religious curricula of public schools. All school curricula, public and private, must include a course on Shia Islamic teachings, and all pupils must pass this course to advance to the next educational level, through university. Sunni students and students from recognized minority religious groups must take and pass the courses on Shia Islam, although they may also take separate courses on their own religious beliefs. To pass the university entrance examination, applicants must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology based on their official religious affiliation.

Recognized minority religious groups, except for Sunni Muslims, may operate private schools. The Ministry of Education supervises the private schools operated by recognized minority religious groups and imposes certain curriculum requirements. The ministry must approve all textbooks used in coursework, including religious texts. These schools may provide their own religious instruction and in languages other than Farsi, but authorities must approve those texts as well. Minority communities must bear the cost of translating the texts into Farsi for official review. Directors of such private schools must demonstrate loyalty to the official state religion. This requirement, known as gozinesh review, is an evaluation to determine adherence to the government ideology and system as well as knowledge of the official interpretation of Shia Islam.

The law bars Baha’is from founding or operating their own educational institutions. A Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology order requires universities to exclude Baha’is from access to higher education, or to expel them if their religious affiliation becomes known. Government regulations state Baha’is are only permitted to enroll in universities if they do not identify themselves as Baha’is. To register for the university entrance examination, Baha’i students must answer a basic multiple-choice question and identify themselves as followers of a religion other than the Baha’i Faith (e.g., Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism).

According to the constitution, Islamic scholars in the Assembly of Experts, an assembly of 86 popularly elected and Supreme Leader-approved clerics whose qualifications include piety and religious scholarship, elect the Supreme Leader. To “safeguard” Islamic ordinances and to ensure legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (i.e., the parliament or Majles) is compatible with Islam, a Guardian Council, composed of six Shia clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and six Shia legal scholars nominated by the judiciary, must review and approve all legislation. The Guardian Council also vets all candidates for the Assembly of Experts, President, and parliament, and supervises elections for those bodies. Individuals who are not Shia Muslims are barred from serving as Supreme Leader or President, as well as from being a member in the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council, or Expediency Council (the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council over legislation).

The constitution bans parliament from passing laws contrary to Islam and states there may be no amendment to its provisions related to the “Islamic character” of the political or legal system, or to the specification that Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam is the official religion.

Non-Muslims may not be elected to a representative body or hold senior government, intelligence, or military positions, with the exception of five of the 290 parliament seats reserved by the constitution for recognized religious minorities. There are two seats reserved for Armenian Christians, one for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians together, one for Jews, and one for Zoroastrians.

The constitution states that in regions where followers of one of the recognized schools of Sunni Islam constitute the majority, local regulations are to be in accordance with that school within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils and without infringing upon the rights of the followers of other schools.

According to the constitution, a judge should rule on a case on the basis of codified law, but in a situation where such law is absent, he should deliver his judgment on the basis of “authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwas.”

The constitution specifies the government must “treat non-Muslims in conformity with the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights, as long as those non-Muslims have not conspired or acted against Islam and the Islamic Republic.”

The law authorizes collection of “blood money,” or diyeh, as restitution to families for Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities who are victims of murder, bodily harm, or property damage. Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive “blood money.” This law also reduces the “blood money” for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man. Women are entitled to equal “blood money” as men, but only for insurance claims where loss of life occurred in automobile accidents and not for other categories of death, such as murder. In cases of bodily harm, according to the law, certain male organs (for example, the testicles) are worth more than the entire body of a woman.

The criminal code provides for hadud punishments (those mandated by sharia) for theft, including amputation of the fingers of the right hand, amputation of the left foot, life imprisonment, and death, as well as flogging of up to 99 lashes or stoning for other crimes.

By law, non-Muslims may not serve in the judiciary, the security services (which are separate from the regular armed forces), or as public school principals. Officials screen candidates for elected offices and applicants for public-sector employment based on their adherence to and knowledge of Islam and loyalty to the Islamic Republic (gozinesh review requirements), although members of recognized religious minorities may serve in the lower ranks of government if they meet these loyalty requirements. Government workers who do not observe Islamic principles and rules are subject to penalties and may be fired or barred from work in a particular sector.

The government bars Baha’is from all government employment and forbids Baha’i participation in the governmental social pension system. Baha’is may not receive compensation for injury or crimes committed against them and may not inherit property. A religious fatwa from the Supreme Leader encourages citizens to avoid all dealings with Baha’is.

The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage. The attestation serves as a marriage certificate and allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.

Recognized religious groups issue marriage contracts in accordance with their religious laws.

The constitution permits the formation of political parties based on Islam or on one of the recognized religious minorities, provided the parties do not violate the “criteria of Islam,” among other stipulations.

The constitution states the military must be Islamic, must be committed to Islamic ideals, and must recruit individuals who are committed to the objectives of the Islamic revolution. In addition to the regular military, the IRGC is charged with upholding the Islamic nature of the revolution at home and abroad. The law does not provide for exemptions from military service based on religious affiliation. The law forbids non-Muslims from holding positions of authority over Muslims in the armed forces. Members of recognized religious minorities with a college education may serve as officers during their mandatory military service, but they may not continue to serve beyond the mandatory service period to become career military officers.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but at ratification, it entered a general reservation “not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the international legislation in effect.”

Government Practices

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to numerous international human rights NGOs, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and anti-Islamic propaganda. According to Amnesty International and Voice of America (VOA), on June 10, an official told the family of Hedayat Abdollahpour, a Sunni Kurdish activist, they executed him on or about May 21 in the town of Oshnavieh. Authorities subsequently gave the family a death certificate stating he died on May 11 as a result of “being hit by hard or sharp objects,” a phrase Amnesty International had previously documented was used on certificates of deaths from gunshot wounds. Authorities had arrested Abdollahpour in 2016 in connection with an armed fight between the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran and the IRGC. The government charged him with “taking up arms [against the government]” and “supporting a dissident group,” charges he denied. The NGO Justice4Iran reported that authorities did not notify Abdollahpour’s family members at the time of his execution, and for many months before his death, his whereabouts were unknown, which led international observers to press authorities for information on his case. At year’s end, the government still refused to disclose what it did with Abdollahpour’s remains. According to Kurdistan Human Rights-Geneva, out of the nine political prisoners executed in 2020 in addition to Abdollahpour, there were three other Sunni Kurd political prisoners charged with “enmity against God” and other vague national security charges – Mustafa Salimi, Saber Shehkh Abdullah, and Diako Rasulzadeh – and two Sunni Baluchis – Abdulbaset Dehani and Abdulhameed Baluchzahi.

According to Radio Farda and IranWire, on July 9, authorities executed in Central Mashad Prison a man social media users helped identify as Morteza Jamali, who was arrested and charged with “consumption of alcohol.” IranWire reported that Jamali’s lawyer said that he was arrested in 2017 or 2018 and had been charged with consuming alcohol on several occasions. Under the country’s Islamic penal code, consuming alcohol is a “crime against God” and the initial punishment is usually flogging. Article 179 of the code states, however, that the accused may face the death penalty after being arrested three times.

According to the U.S. Institute of Peace and multiple media reports, on February 22, a Revolutionary Court sentenced to death three young men who had participated in November 2019 antigovernment protests, which began in reaction to a government increase in fuel prices. The government charged the men with “participating in vandalism and arson with the intent to confront and engage in war with the Islamic Republic of Iran” and “enmity against God.” The reports identified the three men as Amir Hossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi, and Mohammad Rajabi. Amnesty International said their trial was unfair and that security forces “tortured [them] with beatings, electric shocks, and being hung upside down.” Gholam-Hossein Esmaeili, a spokesman for the country’s judiciary, confirmed the three protesters’ death sentences on July 14 and accused them of “having links with certain groups abroad.” Citizens posted items on social media using the hashtag “DoNotExecute.” On July 19, the country’s judiciary said it would suspend the executions.

CHRI reported that the government announced the execution of two Sunni Baluch prisoners, Behnam Rigi and Shoaib Rigi, in the central prison in Zahedan, in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, on December 19. On December 20, the government executed a third Baluch prisoner, Abdolbaset Khesht, who was arrested in 2012, in the central prison of Dozap, in the same province. Authorities accused the men of membership in militant Sunni Muslim groups. NGOs and press reported that three other Sunni prisoners held in Zahedan were in imminent danger of execution.

According to Iran Focus, on September 10, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against seven Sunni prisoners for the third time. Authorities imprisoned the inmates, Farhad Salimi, Qassem Absteh, Davood Abdollahi, Ayub Karimi, Anwar Khezri, Khosrow Besharat, and Kamran Sheikha, in the Urmia, Evin, and Rajai Shahr prisons for 11 years after arresting them in 2009. The government charged the men with “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “moharebeh.”

According to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish NGO, security forces arrested a Kurdish Sunni imam, Mamousta Rasoul Hamzehpour, in the city of Piranshahr on October 4. Authorities arrested Hamzehpour in his home, which they searched. The news report’s source stated that the government arrested Hamzehpur, whom the source said was regarded as one of the prominent clerics in the province, several times in the past. As of year’s end, his whereabouts and the status of his case remained unknown.

The ABC said that from January 2000 to November 2020, the government sentenced at least 237 persons to amputation and carried out the sentence in at least 129 cases. Commenting on the report, Amnesty International stated, “The real number of victims is likely to be higher as many cases are believed to go unreported.” During this period, the ABC said the government flogged at least 2,134 individuals, including at least 17 children. According to the ABC, these numbers meant that, on average, for the past 20 years authorities have amputated the fingers of at least one person every two months and flogged at least two persons every week.

According to Amnesty International, members of the intelligence unit of the IRGC arrested Yarsani Kurdish activist and documentary filmmaker Mozhgan Kavousi at her home in Noshahr, Mazandran Province, primarily in connection to her writings on social media about the November 2019 protests. IGRC intelligence officers held Kavousi in a Mazandran detention center, where she was kept in prolonged solitary confinement. Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Noshahr convicted her of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “inciting people to disrupt the country’s order and security” in connection with two posts on her Instagram account about the protests and sentenced her to five years and nine months in prison. Starting in May, she was serving her sentence in Evin Prison along with 35 other women prisoners of conscience as of year’s end.

According to Amnesty International, in March and April, thousands of prisoners in at least eight prisons across the country, many in provinces containing Sunni Ahwazi Arab, Kurdish, and Azerbaijani Turkish ethnic minorities, staged protests over fears of contracting the COVID-19 virus. Prison authorities and security forces reportedly responded by using live ammunition and tear gas to suppress the protests, killing approximately 35 inmates in two prisons and injuring hundreds of others. According to reports from families of prisoners, journalists, and Ahwazi Arab human rights activists and organizations, on March 30 and 31, security forces used excessive force to quell protests, causing up to 15 deaths in Sepidar Prison and 20 in Sheiban Prison, both located in the city of Ahvaz in Khuzestan Province. Amnesty International reported that numerous videos taken from outside both prisons and shared on social media sites showed smoke rising from the buildings, while gunfire can be heard. Authorities transferred Arab minority rights activist Mohammad Ali Amourinejad and several other inmates, including prisoners of conscience serving life sentences for “enmity against God” due to having promoted educational and cultural rights for Ahwazi Arabs, out of Sheiban Prison following the unrest. At year’s end, the government continued to hold these prisoners incommunicado in an unknown location.

On October 8, ahead of the World Day against the Death Penalty, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a report on the country’s use of capital punishment, saying it was “an indelible stain on the country’s human rights record.” According to the report’s language, “The death penalty…has often been used against members of Iran’s ethnic communities and religious minorities, especially in political cases based on moharebeh, ‘spreading corruption on Earth,’ insurrection, and other vaguely worded crimes.” According to the FIDH report, “These ethnic and religious groups have been subjected to extensive and protracted discrimination with regard to their political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights, which has led to resentment towards the central government. Various groups have engaged in opposition activities and occasionally taken up arms in ethnic-populated regions in the past four decades. Rather than addressing their grievances, the Iranian authorities have responded with heavy-handed measures, including the implementation of the death penalty on a large scale.…Members of religious minorities [who have been targeted by executions] include some groups of Sunni Muslims in West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Sistan and Baluchistan Provinces; followers of the Shia Ahl-e-Haq sect [Yarsan] in West Azerbaijan Province; and Baha’is.”

Residents of provinces containing large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported continued repression by judicial authorities and members of the security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention. They also reported discrimination (including suppression of religious rights), denial of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects. Iran Human Rights and other human rights activists continued to report a disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs.

On May 6, IranWire and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) reported security forces shot and killed two Sunni Baluchi brothers, 18-year-old Mohammad and 20-year-old Mehdi Pourian, in their home in Iranshahr, the capital city of Sistan and Baluchistan Province. Security forces also reportedly killed a 17-year-old, Daniel Brahovi, in the incident. The Iranshahr prosecutor told local media that the three were “famous and well-known miscreants” and that “weapons and ammunition were seized from them.” The families of the three deceased filed charges against the security forces involved but did not receive a response. According to one report, the local police and prosecutor threatened to kill the Pourian family if they continued to press the case.

According to the ABC, on October 14, authorities of the Office of the Borazjan City Prosecutor flogged a Christian convert, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 80 times for drinking communion wine. Authorities released Omidi from Evin Prison in August after he served two years on charges of “establishing home churches” and “promoting Zionist Christianity.” In September, he moved to Borazjan in Bushehr Province to serve a two-year term of internal exile. The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Omidi and fellow members of the Church of Iran denomination Yussef Nadarkhani, Zaman (Saheb) Fadai, and Mohammad Ali (Yasser) Mosayebzadeh to 10 years in prison each in 2017. At a retrial in June, a court reduced Nadarkhani and Fadai’s sentences to six years each and Omidi’s sentence to two years. On November 15, according to UK-based Article 18, an NGO focused on religious freedom in Iran, authorities summoned Fadai to the Shahid Moghadas Revolutionary Court, where he received 80 lashes for drinking communion wine.

Human rights NGOs, including CHRI, HRANA, and the official website of Gonabadi Sufi dervishes, Majzooban Noor, reported throughout the year on extremely poor conditions inside Qarchak Prison for Women, including reports of Shia guards requiring all inmates, regardless of their faith, to use a chador as their head-to-toe covering.

According to human rights activists, the government continued to target Christians who converted from Islam, using arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and other forms of harsh treatment. Article 18 reported that on January 12, authorities arrested Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi during protests in central Tehran and took her to Vozara detention center, where male and female prison guards beat her so badly that she carried visible bruises for three weeks. Detention center staff forced her to sit outside in extremely cold temperatures, withheld food until 24 hours after her arrest, and strip-searched her. They transferred Mohammadi to Qarchak Prison, where her bail was set at approximately 95 million rials ($2,300), equivalent to more than the annual salary of the average Iranian. Mohammadi had already served six months in prison for her Christian activities on charges of “action against national security” and “propaganda against the system.” According to VOA, on April 21, Mohammadi told her Instagram followers that she spent 46 days in “terrible conditions” during her detention. She said authorities sentenced her to three months in prison and 10 lashes for participating in the January protests but suspended punishment for one year, allowing her to remain free.

In a July report, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, expressed concern at the reported high number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience from the Azerbaijani-Turk, Kurdish, and Ahwazi Arab communities, many of whom were from religious minorities.

On May 6, Amnesty International reported that Hossein Sepanta, a prisoner in Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, was critically ill because authorities denied him proper treatment for a spinal-cord disorder. CHRI had reported in 2019 that in response to his hunger strike, prison authorities had transferred Sepanta, a convert from Islam to Zoroastrianism, to the “punishment unit” of Adel Abad Prison. According to a source inside the prison, an interrogator severely beat Sepanta, after which he had problems keeping his balance when walking. Sepanta began serving a 14-year sentence in 2013 on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”

According to human rights activists, Baluchis faced government discrimination both as Sunni religious practitioners and as an ethnic minority group. Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists. They reported authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Amnesty International called on authorities to suspend the execution of a Baluchi man, Javid Dehghan, who had been forced to confess under torture that he was a member of a Salafi terrorist group called Jaish ul-Adl and fatally shot two IRGC agents in an ambush in 2015. According to OHCHR, there was a series of “at least 28” executions in December in the country. An OHCHR spokesperson said, “This has included a series of executions of members of ethnic and religious minority groups – in particular, Kurdish, Ahwazi Arabi, and Baluchi communities.”

According to IranWire, on December 15, Ayatollah Mahmoud Amjad, who criticized the government many times in the past, released a video protesting the government’s execution of a dissident journalist and blaming Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the bloodshed in the country since 2009. He also called on fellow clerics and religious scholars not to remain silent about the violence.

The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 60 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being “religious minority practitioners.” Of the prisoners in the Atlas database, the government sentenced at least 25 to long-term imprisonment or executed them on charges of “enmity against God” or a charge referring to groups taking arms against the government (baghi), which officials sometimes used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.” Authorities sentenced at least 43 persons to prison for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” and at least 13 for “insulting the Prophet or Islam.”

On May 28, Radio Farda reported police in Khuzestan Province said they arrested “14 agents of takfiri and separatist groups.” The report said that authorities used takfiri as an umbrella term to refer to Sunni dissident groups and Sunni individuals. Police accused those arrested of shooting at government buildings and raising the flag of dissident groups around the city.

On November 22, NGOs and several media outlets reported that authorities raided the homes of dozens of Baha’i’s across the country in “simultaneous operations.” Security agents possessing vaguely worded search warrants confiscated personal effects, mobile telephones, computers, laptops, and religious books and pictures. In some cases, agents also reportedly confiscated cash and national identity cards. Some of the Baha’is whose homes were searched had previously served prison sentences, including Afif Naeimi, a member of the former leadership body of the country’s Baha’i community, who was freed in 2018 after serving a 10-year sentence, and Riaz Sobhani and Shahrokh Taef, who each had served four-year sentences in Rajaei Shahr Prison.

Human rights NGOs reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minorities held in government prisons. On September 26, VOA reported that since August, authorities denied a Gonabadi Sufi dervish, Benham Mahjoubi, medical treatment, including medication provided by his family, for a panic disorder, and forcibly transferred him from Evin Prison to the Razi Aminabad psychiatric hospital in Tehran. Amnesty International stated that authorities subjected Mahjoubi to torture and gave him injections of an unknown substance on multiple occasions against his will. Mahjoubi’s wife posted on social media that authorities transferred him to the facility after he was paralyzed in a fall. According to VOA, the government had arrested Mahjoubi for taking part in street protests in Tehran in 2018, along with 300 other Gonabadi Sufi dervishes who had been demanding the release from house arrest of their leader, Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh (who subsequently died on December 24, 2019).

In May, Gonabadi dervish Reza Yavari told VOA that authorities forced him to relocate to the northeastern town of Taybad, in Razavi Khorasan Province, to start a two-year sentence of internal exile following his April 1 pardon and release from a prison in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, capital of Khuzestan Province. Yavari, a native of Khuzestan who was studying at a Tehran university prior to his 2018 detention, accused authorities of acting illegally by forcing him into internal exile after granting him a pardon. Yavari told VOA that 38 other dervishes had also been forced into internal exile and expressed concern about the government’s ongoing imprisonment of eight other dervish activists who were among more than 300 dervish community members arrested for involvement in antigovernment protests in Tehran in 2018. In August, four dervishes whom the government sentenced to internal exile told VOA that they rejected the claim made by a government representative in a press briefing that the government did not maintain a predetermined list of destinations for internal banishment. The four men said that the government sends released prisoners to live in poor towns, with harsh climates, far from the country’s population centers and their homes.

According to the human rights NGO Hengaw, in late September, government security services arrested three Kurdish religious activists, Syawash (Forat), Behzad Talayi, and Farshad Fatahi in Urmia, West Azerbaijan Province. The government transferred the men to Urmia Central Prison on October 14. According to the NGO, the government arrested the three individuals because of religious activities and “propaganda” on behalf of “Islamic extremist groups.”

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. According to a June report by the online news source Balochwarna News, Sunni cleric Molavi Fazl al-Rahman Kouhi remained in prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad on the orders of a special clerical court that summoned and jailed him in November 2019 following nationwide antigovernment protests after a sharp increase in gasoline prices. Kouhi served as the Friday prayer leader for the town of Pashamagh, inhabited mostly by Baluchi Sunnis. The court summoned and jailed him days after he gave a sermon criticizing the country’s Shia-dominated government for violently suppressing the protests. According to the report, Kouhi’s sermon described the crackdown as un-Iranian, un-Islamic, and inhumane. Abdol Sattar Doshoki, an exiled Sunni rights activist, said that the government’s apparent arbitrary detention of an outspoken Sunni cleric was the latest sign of a bleak future for the country’s Sunni Muslim minority.

Balochwarna News reported that security forces arrested Molawi Mohammad Qalandarzai, a Sunni imam, on February 27 at his home in Zahedan.

Iran Focus stated that during the year, the government increased its persecution of Sunnis in the parts of the country that have large Sunni populations. The website stated that human rights groups reported that authorities summoned, interrogated, and arrested several Sunni religious teachers, students, and civil activists during the month of Ramadan, which began in late April. Authorities detained at least 10 Sunnis in Sanandaj in Kurdistan Province. According to other reports, the Sanandaj Intelligence Agency summoned Ali Moradi, a Sunni cleric, and his son Mohammad at the beginning of Ramadan. On April 22, the IRGC summoned and interrogated Maktoom Askani, a Sunni activist in Zahedan in Sistan and Baluchistan Province. The Zahedan Revolutionary Guards Corps summoned and arrested Abdul Rauf Dashti, another Sunni activist. In late April, the Human Rights News Agency reported that MOIS summoned and interrogated Shahdad Zehi, a Sunni cleric in Sarbaz in Sistan and Baluchestan Province. On May 21, the Baluch Activists Campaign said that the Zahedan Revolutionary Guards Corps summoned and interrogated Akram Kuhi, the temporary head of Friday prayers in Peshamag village. The reports said that after the IRGC officials asked Kuhi about the employees, teachers, and students at a local religious school, they summoned and interrogated four other Sunnis from the school in September.

NGOs reported that as of October 27, there were 38 Baha’is – 16 men and 22 women – in prison. Twenty-six of them – 19 women and seven men – were placed there in 2020. NGOs reported that it was not clear whether holding twice as many women as men was accidental or whether it marked the beginning of a trend designed to apply additional pressure on the Baha’i community. In Shiraz, authorities summoned 26 Baha’is for a criminal hearing on October 5.

According to Iran Press Watch (IPW), on December 24, Branch 2 of the Bandar Abbas Revolutionary Court sentenced eight Baha’is for “gathering and colluding with the intent to disrupt the security of the country.” Six Baha’is received two-year prison sentences and two received one-year prison sentences. The court banned them from membership in political and social parties and groups, including Baha’i banquets and gatherings, for a period of two years and sentenced them to five sessions of “counseling on sectarian issues.”

According to press reporting, on September 7, a court in southern Khorasan Province sentenced eight Baha’is – six women and two men – to prison for “membership in the illegal Baha’i organization, which is a threat to national security.” Authorities arrested the eight during a celebration of a Baha’i holiday. The court gave the defendants – Ataollah Melaki, Attiyeh Salehi, Saeed Melaki, Roya Melaki, Nasrin Ghadiri, Arezou Mohammadi, Farzaneh Dimi, and Banafshe Mokhatari – sentences ranging from 15 months to two years’ imprisonment. Some of these individuals wrote letters to Birjand judicial authorities requesting a delay in starting their sentences due to the rampant spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Authorities denied their requests, however, and the group began serving their sentences on October 20.

On June 8, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported that in the weeks leading up to that date, authorities summoned 55 Baha’is to court in Shiraz, Birjand, Karaj, and Kermanshah, trying and sentencing 26 of them; summoned 11 Baha’is to prison in Shiraz, Ghaemshahr, and Birjand; arrested three Baha’is in Yazd; and arrested two Baha’is in Isfahan, releasing them shortly thereafter. In a court hearing in Shiraz, a court official threatened to “uproot” the Baha’is in the city.

The Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported that on September 17, security forces arrested brothers Salar Ghazali and Saman Ghazali, holding them in a MOIS detention center for 75 days before transferring them to Mahabad Prison. In mid-December, Branch 1 of the Mahabad Revolutionary Court tried them for “acting against national security through membership in a Kurdish opposition party” and “propaganda against the state.”

Activists and NGOs reported that Yarsani activists and community leaders continued to be subjected to detention or disappearance for engaging in awareness-raising regarding government practices or discrimination against the Yarsani community.

IPW and IranWire reported that on May 2, IRGC agents raided the Isfahan homes of three Baha’is, Shahzad Hosseini, his son Shayan Hosseini, and Shahzad’s mother. Security personnel then arrested Shayan Hosseini and transferred him to an unknown location. According to a close relative of Shayan, during the raids, agents searched for small wooden boxes that the families used to store prayer books.

Non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detentions and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGOs. Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians, including members of unrecognized churches, for their religious affiliation or activities, and charged them with “operating” illegally in private homes or supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries. Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscation of religious property. News reports stated authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement. According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition against proselytizing.

On May 28, authorities summoned Hossein Kadivar, Khalil Dehghanpour, Kamal Naamanian, and Mohammed Vafadar to begin serving five-year prison sentences. The government arrested the men in early 2019 before releasing them on bail. The four men were among nine Christian converts belonging to the Church of Iran denomination arrested over a four-week period, accused of endangering state security and promoting Zionism. The government transferred the other five converts, who were unable to afford bail, to Evin Prison shortly after their 2019 arrests. In late 2019, a court convicted all nine of “acting against national security” and sentenced them to five years’ imprisonment. A court upheld the sentences on appeal in February.

In July, a court convicted seven of eight Christian converts arrested in Bushehr in 2019 of “propaganda against the regime.” One of the Christians, Sam Khosravi, received a one-year prison term followed by two years of internal exile. The court fined Maryam Falahi, his wife, who worked as a nurse, 80 million rials ($1,900) and banned her from working in a public institution. After their sentencing, a court ruled that as Christians, the couple were not fit to raise their daughter, whom they adopted as an infant in early 2019 and whom the court viewed as a Muslim. In September, an appeals court upheld that decision, despite the daughter’s physical disabilities, which, according to the judge, made her chances at another family adopting her “zero.”

On January 11, a court sentenced Anglican convert Ismaeli Maghrebinejad to three years’ imprisonment for “insulting sacred Islamic beliefs” after he responded with a smiley emoji to a joke seen as critical of ruling clerics that had been texted to him on his cell phone. On February 27, a court sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment on a separate charge of “membership in a group hostile to the regime” (“evangelical Zionism,” according to court documents) for receiving a Bible verse sent over a cell phone app. In May, a court upheld the February verdict and added a one-year prison sentence for “propaganda against the regime.” In July, a court overturned on appeal his three-year sentence for “insulting sacred Islamic beliefs,” but upheld the other two sentences. Authorities arrested Maghrebinejad in early 2019 in Shiraz. In late 2019, authorities dropped a charge of apostasy that they brought against Maghrebinejad at the time of his arrest.

In February, authorities in Rasht arrested four Christian converts, Ramin Hassanpour, his wife Saeede (Kathrin) Sajadpour, Hadi (Moslem) Rahimi, and Sakine (Mehri) Behjati, for being members of a house church belonging to the Church of Iran. On May 14, the Revolutionary Court in Rasht initially set bail at five billion rials each ($119,000). The government transferred the four to Lakan Prison, near Rasht, when they were unable to post bail. A week later, the court reduced the bail to two billion rials each ($47,600) and released Sajadpour, Rahimi, and Behjati on May 20 and Hassanpour on May 21. On August 1, a court handed down prison sentences to the four for “acting against national security” by belonging to a house church and “spreading Zionist Christianity.” Hassanpour received a five-year sentence, Rahimi four years, and Behjati and Sajadpour two years each.

After the cancellation of several court sessions connected with appeals of their 2017 and 2018 convictions and respective 10- and five-year sentences relating to “illegal church activity,” Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church, and his wife, Shamiram Isavi, learned in early August that their appeals had been denied and that authorities would schedule no further hearings. On August 11, Isavi received a summons to report to Evin Prison to begin her prison sentence. On August 15, the couple fled the country. In September, Article 18 reported that Christian converts Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi, Hadi Asgari, and Amin Afshar-Naderi, who had received prison sentences in 2017 alongside Bet Tamraz, also fled the country after their appeals were rejected. In January, authorities summoned Ramiel Bet Tamraz, the son of Victor Bet Tamraz and Shamiram Isavi, to Evin Prison to serve his four-month sentence from 2018 for “propaganda against the system” through membership in a house church. Authorities released him from prison on February 26.

According to Article 18, authorities extended the two-year internal exile of Ebrahim Firouzi by 11 months. The government released Firouzi, a Christian convert, from Rajai Shahr Prison in 2019 after he served six years in prison for “collusion against national security” for converting to and practicing Christianity and related missionary activities. After he reported to the city of Sarbaz for the two years of internal exile included in his sentence, authorities extended his exile, saying that Firouzi did not have proper permission for a brief trip home to attend to some family business involving the death of his mother. After Firouzi’s exile was extended, a local prosecutor summoned him on new charges of “insulting the sacred,” which carries a maximum five-year sentence, and “propaganda against the state through promoting the Christian faith,” which may be punished with up to a year in prison. After meeting Firouzi, the prosecutor dismissed the case.

On November 18, at a virtual conference hosted by the International Organization to Preserve Human Rights regarding the “attitude of the Islamic Republic of Iran towards the different religious groups,” an Article 18 representative said that 17 Christian prisoners of conscience, all converts, were incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

In April, authorities arrested Masoud Heydari and Hamid Haghjoo, the managing director and the Telegram channel administrator at the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), following the posting of a cartoon mocking COVID-19 remedies prescribed by religious leaders. ILNA officials denied publishing the cartoon and said they were falsely accused. Police released Heydari on bail while detaining Haghjoo pending an investigation into the case. There were no updates as of year’s end.

The government continued to permit Armenian Christians to have what sources stated were perhaps the greatest leeway among religious minorities in the country. It extended preservation efforts to Armenian holy sites and allowed nationals of Armenian descent and Armenian visitors to observe religious and cultural traditions within their churches and dedicated clubs.

According to the BBC Persian service, on October 29, the Qom Seminary Teachers Association labeled Grand Ayatollah Kamal Heidari a “liar,” “sinner,” and “foreign agent,” and decreed that any dealings with him would be considered a “sin.” The association excommunicated Heidari and labeled him a “seditionist” for his modernist and rationalist views.

In a January 28 report to the UN Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran said he was “deeply concerned” about a bill adopted by the Committee for Judicial and Legal Affairs of parliament in 2019 on “misguided sects” that would criminalize membership in religious groups that the government considered to be “misguided.” The special rapporteur stated, “According to a member of the Committee, the bill was proposed because of concerns about sects that have no jurisprudential or religious status but attribute their belief to Islam and about the cults that have emerged recently. Members of nonrecognized religious minorities have expressed concern that passage of the bill would make it a criminal offence to follow certain religions and could be used to increase discrimination against them.”

In May, parliament passed the legislation on “misguided sects” in the form of amendments to articles 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code. The legislation stated that those found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam” could be labeled as members of a “sect” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or the death penalty. A human rights lawyer living in Europe stated, “The law should protect citizens, including Christian converts and Baha’is, against the government, but in Iran the law has become a tool to justify the government’s violent treatment of converts and other unrecognized minorities.” The NGO Article 18 reported that the Guardian Council, which must approve all parliamentary bills, returned the bill to parliament in July, seeking eight clarifications, the majority of which related to “ambiguous” language. An Article 18 official cautioned that the legislation would still likely to return in a “different, perhaps more minimal, form.” ARTICLE 19, another human rights NGO based in the UK, reported that in November, it was believed that parliament addressed issues raised by the Guardian Council, but the specific changes were not publicly released. The NGO said the proposed amendments, regardless of any changes, would “further erode the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief.”

According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, the government continued to monitor statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views. According to international media, authorities continued to target Shia clerics with arrest, detention, funding cuts, loss of clerical credentials, and confiscation of property. On September 5, IranWire reported that in late 2019, authorities arrested Einollah Rezazadeh Juibari, a Shia cleric, at his home as preparations began for the 40th day commemorations of the deaths of protestors killed by government forces in the November 2019 protests. Authorities first detained Juibari, a critic of the government who was repeatedly arrested in the past, at a detention center in Urmia before taking him to a prison in Miandoab, where he undertook a 13-day hunger strike before being released. IranWire reported that Juibari, whose case remained open at year’s end, had written a letter stating that he would remove his clerical garments and clerical turban for good, because such clerical attire needed to be “excised from politics.” His letter also said that the government had “used Islamic jurisprudence as a pretext for a power grab” and that it had “sacrificed the truth and authority of the Shia faith with [its] greed.”

Critics stated the government continued to use extrajudicial special clerical courts to control non-Shia Muslim clerics as well as to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas and participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.

The BBC Persian service and the Times of Israel reported authorities confirmed to local media that a California-based Zoroastrian priest, Arash Kasravi, was killed on July 25 while attending his father’s funeral in Kerman. BBC Persian reported on August 2 that the Kerman Province prosecutor told local media that the killer’s body was one of two others found with Kasravi and that he had committed suicide after the killings. The prosecutor said the judiciary believed the killings were financially motivated, since $10,000 was found in one of the victims’ vehicles. A social media post said that, following the 1979 revolution, many Zoroastrians have been targeted in these types of “mysterious homicides.”

Sources said that even when arrested, perpetrators of crimes against Baha’is faced reduced punishment if they stated that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.

There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays, or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though by law, businesses may close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year. NGOs also reported the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials.

The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it had seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers. It also continued to prevent Baha’is from performing burials in accordance with their religious tradition. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), authorities routinely prevented the burial of deceased Baha’is from Tabriz at the local Vadi-i-Rahmat Cemetery. Instead, they often sent the remains for burial in Miandoab, 100 miles away, where authorities did not permit the families to wash the bodies and perform Baha’i burial rites. The IHRDC noted that Baha’i religious practice requires the deceased be buried at a location within an hour’s travel time from the place of death; however, the travel time between Tabriz and Miandoab is approximately 2.5 hours. According to the report, authorities at the cemetery, the Tabriz City Council, and the Eastern Azerbaijan provincial government said they were executing orders prohibiting the burial of Baha’is in Tabriz, but none of those offices claimed responsibility for issuing the order.

BIC reported that it learned in July that the Baha’i cemetery in Taft, Yazd Province, which the government had confiscated shortly after the 1979 revolution, was being divided and sold. According to BIC, the judiciary endorsed the confiscation of all property owned by Baha’i residents in the village of Ivel, Mazandaran Province, on the grounds that Baha’is have “a perverse ideology” and therefore have no “legitimacy in their ownership” of any property.

According to BIC, the government’s anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years.

According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices. Official reports and media continued to characterize Christian private churches in homes as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.” Christian community leaders stated that when authorities learned Assyrian church leaders were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches. NGOs report that virtually all Farsi-language churches in Iran were closed between 2009 and 2012. In 2019, Radio Farda reported, “Christians from Iran’s historic Assyrian and Armenian communities are a recognized minority who are usually able to freely practice their faith, providing they don’t open their doors to Muslim-born Iranians by holding services in Persian.” Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed the latter to enter.

Christian advocacy groups continued to state the government, through pressure and church closures, eliminated all but a handful of Farsi-language church services, thus restricting services almost entirely to the Armenian and Assyrian languages. Security officials monitored registered congregation centers to perform identity checks on worshippers to confirm non-Christians or converts did not participate in services. In response, many Christian converts reportedly practiced their religion in secret. Other unrecognized religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Yarsanis, were also forced to assemble in private homes to practice their faith in secret.

The government continued to require all women to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – an overcoat and a hijab or, alternatively, a chador (full body length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes). Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment. The government continued to crack down on public protests against the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women.

On November 9, Branch 28 of the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by women’s right activist Saba Kord-Afshari of her 24-year prison sentence, which she received in August 2019, on a set of charges relating to her protesting the compulsory hijab. As a result, she faced a minimum of 15 years in prison, the sentence associated with the most serious charge against her, “spreading corruption.” In July, Amnesty International said authorities forced Kord-Afshari to wait a year following her 2019 arrest before allowing her to make her first hospital visit on June 29 for pre-existing gastrointestinal problems that were exacerbated in prison. Amnesty International also said the doctor failed to conduct a comprehensive examination of Kord-Afshari and referred her for future colonoscopy, endoscopy, and ultrasound procedures. VOA reported that Kord-Afshari was told that she could not have the procedures because of her late hospital arrival and her lack of funds for payment. As a result, Kord-Afshari’s health problems worsened since the government transferred her to Evin Prison in August 2019, the source added.

In December, authorities summoned Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent female human rights lawyer and 2012 winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, back to prison one month after her release due to health complications she manifested in prison. The government arrested Sotoudeh multiple times since 2009 because of her work as a rights defender. Most recently, authorities arrested her in 2018 as a result of what Amnesty International described as her “peaceful human rights works, including her defense of women protesting against Iran’s forced-hijab laws.” A court sentenced her to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes in 2019. At year’s end, she remained confined to Qarchak Prison.

The government continued to suppress public behavior it deemed counter to Islamic law, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsani religious communities, as well as other unrecognized religious minorities, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known. On November 1, Iran International and HRANA reported that authorities barred from higher education at least 17 Baha’is who participated in the year’s nationwide university entrance examinations, despite their being academically qualified. As in previous years, the government organization responsible for holding university entrance exams and for placing students, the Sazeman-e Sanjesh, used pretexts such as “incomplete information” and “further investigation required” to reject Baha’i applicants. A November 2 Radio Farda report stated, “The real number of Baha’i students unable to access… degrees is likely much higher,” noting that officials rejected 70 Baha’i students in 2017. IranWire said that the banning of Baha’is from entering higher education began in 1980 and that this was the 40th consecutive year the government denied its own citizens access to higher education because of their religious beliefs.

In January, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran reported to the UN Human Rights Council that he remained “highly concerned about the denials of the right to education for religious minorities, with continuing reports of Baha’i students being rejected from entering university despite passing the required examinations.”

On September 11, Radio Farda reported that new Minister of Education Mohsen Haji Mirzaei, apparently in response to an account published two days earlier by a human rights organization, said, “It is forbidden for them [Baha’is] to study in schools.” Mirzaei was referring to the organization’s claim that authorities had ordered Saadet High School in the city of Semnan to refuse enrollment to student Borna Pirasteh in the third year of high school because of her Baha’i faith.

A Sabean-Mandaean resident of Bandar-e Mahshahr, Khuzestan Province told IranWire in October that law enforcement personnel regularly harassed his community. The man said that authorities regularly demanded bribes from Sabean-Mandaean goldsmiths. Another Sabean-Mandaean goldsmith stated that police worked with known thieves to victimize Sabean-Mandaean-owned jewelry shops.

In January, NGOs and press reported that the state-issued national identity card required for almost all government and other transactions would henceforward only allow citizens to register as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions. According to CHRI, “anyone applying for the card who is not of the official Muslim faith or one of three religious minorities recognized in the…constitution (Christianity, Judaism or Zoroastrianism) will have to either lie and check the required box on the application for one of those religions, or not receive the card.” Previously, application forms for the ID card had an option for “other religions.” The card is used for all government services, banking activities, and the vast majority of other transactions. CHRI stated the policy “will blatantly discriminate against Baha’is as well as members of the Mandaean, Yarsani, and other unrecognized minority faiths in the country.” A report by Deutsche Welle stated that since Baha’is were forbidden by their faith to lie about their religion, they were unable to apply for new identity cards and obtain official identification.

In a July 21 report to the UN General Assembly, the special rapporteur stated that he “remains deeply concerned at the continued discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. Changes to the national identity card application process reportedly hinder minority religious groups from gaining access to several essential services. The application form had previously listed ‘other’ as a religious option. In January, the National Organization for Civil Registration reported that this option had been removed, meaning individuals could only choose from the four officially recognized religions. The removal of ‘other’ raised fears that nonrecognized religious groups, such as Baha’is, Christian converts, Yarsanis, Sabean-Mandaeans and nonbelievers, would be unable to obtain a national identity card, which is necessary to gain access to government and banking services.”

According to a December 4 report by IranWire, the government issued a memorandum to the country’s provincial judiciary heads regarding the supervision of lawyers. Describing the expansion of a “security umbrella” over practicing attorneys, the government letter said it had established a new General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers to receive any reports of transgressions by members of the legal profession, in addition to the work already carried out by the Bar Association. Possible issues cited in the memorandum included non-observation of the mandatory hijab by female lawyers at work or on social media, or doubts about a given lawyer’s commitment to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or the principle of Supreme Leader. According to IranWire, this new office “will intimidate, silence, and push some lawyers out of the profession, while forcing others to align with the state’s principles, leading to an atrophy of justice.”

According to BIC, the government continued to ban Baha’is from participating in more than 25 types of work, many related to food industries, because the government deemed Baha’is “unclean.”

Members of the Sunni community continued to dispute statistics published in 2015 on the website of the Mosques Affairs Regulating Authority that stated there were nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran and 15,000 across the country. Community members said the vast majority of these were simply prayer rooms or rented prayer spaces. International media and the Sunni community continued to report authorities prevented the building of any new Sunni mosques in Tehran. Sunnis said there were not enough mosques in the country to meet the needs of the population. Three news sources opposed to the government stated that Sunnis were not allowed to have a mosque in Tehran.

On May 25, the Deutsche Welle Persian service reported that Mohammad Baqer Tabatabai, an advisor to the Razavi Khorasan Guidance Office, referred to the Maki Mosque in Zahedan, the country’s largest and most culturally significant Sunni mosque, as a “house of corruption” on his Twitter account and called for its destruction. He deleted his tweet after public protest. Maki Mosque was built in 1353 in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan Province. It is religiously and culturally significant to the Sunni Baluch minority, which reportedly contributed to the upkeep of the building independently from the central government.

Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, the same term used by Christian converts for informal chapels or prayers rooms in underground churches, to practice their religion. Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.

MOIS and law enforcement officials reportedly continued to harass Sufis and Sufi leaders. Media and human rights organizations reported continued censorship of the Gonabadi order’s Mazar Soltani websites, which contained speeches by the order’s leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh, and articles on mysticism.

International media and NGOs reported continued government-sponsored propaganda aimed at deterring the practice of or conversion to Christianity. According to Mohabat News, the government routinely propagated anti-Christian publications and online materials, such as the 2017 book Christian Zionism in the Geography of Christianity.

According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship. A member of the Sabean-Mandaean community in Ahvaz, whom IranWire identified as “Selim,” said, “The Mandaeans of Ahvaz are not allowed to be buried in the public cemetery.” On December 31, Radio Farda reported, “destroying graves and tombstones of minorities and dissidents, including Baha’is and Yarsanis, [has] formed a part of the daily life of the supporters of the Islamic Republic.” According to the report, security forces warned Baha’is that they no longer had the right to bury their dead in many cities, including Gilavand, Tabriz, Kerman, and Ahvaz.

Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and in school systems. They also continued to report the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names. According to a February article in U.S. Institute of Peace’s Iran Primer, “The regime has discriminated against the group by cracking down on Yarsani places of worship, religious monuments, religious speech, publications, education and communication in Kurdish. Yarsanis have also had difficulty finding employment and faced arrest and interrogation by Iranian intelligence.”

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two preschools continued to operate in Tehran, but authorities required their principals be Muslim. The government reportedly continued to allow Hebrew language instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language, according to the Jewish community.

According to Christian NGOs, government restrictions on published religious material continued, including confiscations of previously available books about Christianity, although government-sanctioned translations of the Bible reportedly remained available. Government officials frequently confiscated Bibles and related non-Shia religious literature and pressured publishing houses printing unsanctioned non-Muslim religious materials to cease operations. Books about the Yarsani religion remained banned. Books published by religious minorities, regardless of topic, were required to carry labels on the cover denoting their non-Shia Muslim authorship.

Sunni leaders continued to report authorities banned Sunni religious literature and teachings from religion courses in some public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas. Other schools, notably in the Kurdish regions, included specialized Sunni religious courses. Assyrian Christians reported the government continued to permit their community to use its own religious textbooks in schools, but only after the government authorized their content. Armenian Christians were also permitted to teach their practices to Armenian students as an elective at select schools. Unrecognized religious minorities, such as Yarsanis and Baha’is, continued to report they were unable to legally produce or distribute religious literature.

Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions. Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Moharam, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

Baluch sources reported that throughout the year, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

According to media reports from 2018, the most recent reporting available, there were 13 synagogues in Tehran and approximately 35 throughout the country. Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens.

Government officials continued to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric in official statements and to sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books. According to the Anti-Defamation League, following a March speech by the Supreme Leader on the COVID-19 pandemic, his office’s website posted remarks by a cleric who said “there is no doubt that the Jews and especially the Zionists previously have a long history of supernatural affairs and matters such as a relationship with the devil and genies.” The Anti-Defamation League report stated that most of the COVID-19 conspiracy theories spread by the government imagined the United States as leading “a biological attack, either with the help of Jewish capitalists or Israel, or to benefit Israel or at the behest of Jewish puppet masters.” According to the Anti-Defamation League, another central theme of the government’s propaganda regarding the global health crisis was the conspiracy theory that Jews are all-powerful or seek world domination.

In September, Masud Shojaei-Tabatabai, the head of a government arts agency, announced a plan to organize another exhibition of Holocaust-denial cartoons, which the government also held in 2006 and 2016. Following the beheading in France of a teacher who had shown students the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, Shojaei-Tabatabai told the Tehran Times, that “our [exhibition] program [will] publish serious artworks challenging the Holocaust; for one insulting cartoon, we will publish 10 cartoons in social media and other virtual spaces.” After French President Macron defended the slain teacher’s presentation of secularism and individual freedom, the Supreme Leader asked on Twitter, “Why is it a crime to raise doubts about the Holocaust? Why should anyone who writes about such doubts be imprisoned while insulting the Prophet (pbuh [Peace be upon him]) is allowed?”

The government continued to allow recognized minority religious groups to establish community centers and some self-financed cultural, social, athletic, and charitable associations.

On December 16, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The General Assembly passed the measure by a vote of 82 states in favor, 30 against, and 64 abstentions. The resolution, which was cosponsored by 45 member states, expressed concern about “ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, restrictions on the establishment of places of worship, undue restrictions on burials carried out in accordance with religious tenets, attacks against places of worship and burial, and other human rights violations….” These violations included “harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention, and incitement to hatred that leads to violence against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities, including Christians, Gonabadi dervishes, Jews, Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Yarsanis, Zoroastrians and members of the Baha’i faith, who have faced increasing restrictions from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran on account of their faith and have been reportedly subjected to mass arrests and lengthy prison sentences.” The resolution called upon the government “to cease monitoring individuals on account of their religious identity, to release all religious practitioners imprisoned for their membership in or activities on behalf of a recognized or unrecognized minority religious group, and to ensure that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, in accordance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ….”

Endowed religious charitable foundations, or bonyads, accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the country’s economy, according to some experts. According to NGOs, government insiders, including members of the military and clergy, ran these tax-exempt organizations, which the law defines as charities. Members of the political opposition and international corruption watchdog organizations frequently accused bonyads of corruption. Bonyads received benefits from the government, but there was no requirement for a government agency to approve their budgets publicly.

According to Radio Farda, religious leaders in Qom warned shops not to sell gifts associated with Valentine’s Day because of its roots in Christian tradition. Radio Farda stated that the country’s law enforcement agencies issue warnings to stores every year against selling such items, threatening to close the businesses from one to six months for noncompliance. The report also stated that some secular citizens have tried to promote the February 19 celebration of the day of Sepandarmaz, the goddess of fertility from the country’s pre-Islamic past. The country’s religious leaders opposed Sepandarmaz because of its roots in Zoroastrianism, which was replaced by Islam as the country’s predominant religion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to IranWire, during Friday prayers in early November in Kermanshah, Sunni cleric Mullahamid Faraji called Yarsanis infidels, Satanists, and enemies of Muslims. “Yarsanis are not our brothers,” he told the congregation, adding, “Brotherhood is only possible in Islam.” According to IranWire, protests by members of the Yarsan community followed, gaining momentum over the days that followed, prompting Faraji to issue a retraction on social media in which he said enemies of the Islamic Republic had distorted and misrepresented his statements in an attempt to sow division between Muslims and Yarsanis in the area. He defined these “enemies” as Jews, Christians, and Zionists.

According to Radio Farda, Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the most senior Sunni cleric in the country, circulated a video on social media charging that Chinese Shia students studying at al-Mustafa International University had infected Iran with the novel coronavirus. The university said in a statement that the Sunni leader had no evidence to back up his accusation and that top religious clerics should be more cautious in public remarks. According to Iran News, the university also “deplored Abdolhamid for accusing al-Mustafa International University of brainwashing its non-Iranian students.”

A member of the Sabean-Mandaean community in Ahvaz said that he had witnessed the destruction of a temple and 12 other buildings belonging to the community in recent years. Another Sabean-Mandaean said, “Since 2015, the destruction of the Mandaean tombs has occurred many times in different parts of the country. But have our protests ever been heeded?”

According to a Radio Farda report, Yarsani graves were neither safe from attacks nor from disrespect, and Yarsani cemeteries and mausoleums were repeatedly damaged and destroyed in the city of Kermanshah and elsewhere in the country.

According to press and NGO reports, on May 14, following threats on Twitter, a man broke into the shrine of Esther and Mordechai, a Jewish holy site in Hamadan, in an attempt to set fire to the tomb. IRNA, the country’s official press agency, which first confirmed the attack but later removed the report from its website, said there was no major damage to the shrine. The attack followed reports in February that the government was considering razing the shrine as an act of revenge aimed at the United States and Israel. Hamedan’s prosecutor, Hassan Khanjani, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency that police had not reached a conclusion on the cause of the fire and that no arrests had been made.

Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights reported that Baha’is continued to be major targets of social stigma and violence and that perpetrators reportedly continued to act with impunity.

There continued to be reports of non-Baha’is dismissing or refusing employment to Baha’is, sometimes in response to government pressure, according to BIC and other organizations monitoring the situation of Baha’is. BIC continued to report instances of physical violence committed against Baha’is based on their faith. Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.

Yarsanis outside the country reported that widespread discrimination against Yarsanis continued. They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and in shared community facilities. Yarsani men, recognizable by their particular mustaches, continued to face employment discrimination. According to reports, Shia preachers continued to encourage social discrimination against Yarsanis.

According to human rights NGOs, including CSW, Open Doors USA, and others, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members.

Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements.

Sunni students reported professors continued to routinely insult Sunni religious figures in class.

In June, the Netherlands-based NGO Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran conducted an online survey with the collaboration of the ABC that showed Iranian society’s unprecedented secularization. According to its authors, the result of the poll of 40,000 individuals revealed dramatic changes in the country’s religiosity, with an increase in secularization and a diversity of faiths and beliefs. The survey found that only 40 percent of respondents identified as Muslim, contrasting with government data that states 99.5 percent of the country is Muslim. The survey found 32 percent of respondents explicitly identified as Shia, while 5 percent said they were Sunni Muslim and 3 percent Sufi Muslim. Another 9 percent said they were atheists, along with 7 percent who preferred the label of “spirituality” as describing their religion. Among the other selected religions, 8 percent said they were Zoroastrians, which the pollsters interpreted as a reflection of Persian nationalism and a desire for an alternative to Islam, rather than strict adherence to the Zoroastrian faith, while 1.5 percent said they were Christian (which Christian groups state translates into between 750,000 and one million Christians in the country). Of those polled, 78 percent said they believed in God, while only 37 percent believed in life after death and only 30 percent believed in heaven and hell. Approximately 25 percent said they believed in jinns (demons).

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran and therefore did not have opportunities to raise concerns in a bilateral setting with the government about its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.

In a speech to the National Prayer Breakfast on February 6, the President expressed concern about the arrest of Mary Mohammadi, a Christian convert, at an antigovernment protest in January, which the President said was due to her conversion to Christianity. The Secretary of State later told an interviewer that he was deeply disturbed by the arrest.

The U.S. government continued to call publicly and in multilateral forums for the government to respect religious freedom and continued to condemn its abuses of religious minorities in a variety of ways and in different international forums. These included public statements by senior U.S. government officials, use of social media, reports issued by U.S. government agencies, support for relevant UN and NGO efforts, diplomatic initiatives, and sanctions. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on grounds related to their religious beliefs.

On January 15, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom tweeted, “Following the tragic death of Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh [on December 24, 2019], we are closely watching how the Iranian government treats Gonabadi Sufis. Authorities should release those unjustly detained and allow the community to select their religious leaders without government interference.”

On October 16, the Department of State spokesperson tweeted, “Deeply disturbed by reports Iran lashed Mohammad Reza Omidi 80 times for drinking communion wine. He already served two years in prison for belonging to a house church. We condemn these unjust punishments and urge Iran to allow all Iranians the freedom to practice their beliefs.”

On September 24, the United States sanctioned several Iranian officials and entities, including Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and the Adel Abad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad Prisons, for gross violations of human rights and denials to the right of liberty of those seeking to practice their religion. The statement read, “Judge Soltani is responsible for sentencing Baha’is in Iran on dubious charges related to their exercise of freedom of expression or belief” and “Orumiyeh Prison has subjected members of ethnic and religious minority groups and political prisoners to abuse, including beatings and floggings.” The statement added, “The actions taken today by the United States expose Iran’s revolutionary courts and their judges for what they really are: tools designed to enforce the Iranian regime’s brutal ideology and suppress dissent. They do not fairly administer justice, but rather seek to deprive the Iranian people of due process as well as their human rights and fundamental freedoms. The United States will continue to stand with the Iranian people and demand the regime treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

Following the attempted arson in May at the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism called on the government in a tweet “to stop incitement and protect its Jewish and other minorities.” He said that the United States strongly condemned the attack and that the Iranian government is “the world’s chief state sponsor of anti-Semitism.”

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA), for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Kazakhstan

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion. The Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), part of the Ministry of Information and Social Development (MISD), is responsible for religious issues. According to local and international observers, authorities continued to impose restrictions and additional scrutiny on what the government considered “nontraditional” religious groups, including Muslims who practice a version of Islam other than the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and Protestant Christians. Authorities continued to arrest, detain, and imprison individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation; restrict religious expression; prevent unregistered groups from practicing their faith; restrict assembly for peaceful religious activities; restrict public manifestation of religious belief; restrict religious expression and customs, including religious clothing; criminalize speech “inciting religious discord”; restrict proselytism; restrict the publication and distribution of religious literature; censor religious content; and restrict acquisition or use of buildings used for religious ceremonies and purposes. The government again raided religious services, prosecuted individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and refused to register certain religious groups. In January, an Almaty court sentenced two Muslims to five years of restriction of freedom (probation) for incitement of religious discord and participation in the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization via online chats. In October, a Muslim was retried and sentenced to eight years in prison for supporting terrorism through online posts in 2015, despite an earlier Supreme Court ruling annulling his original sentence. Religious minority groups stated that the authorities used COVID-19 pandemic restrictions to discriminate against them. Five pastors and two church workers were detained, tried, jailed, fined, or warned for reportedly violating pandemic restrictions. The CRA reported 552 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2019, the latest data available. Some religious minority groups faced attempts by local governments to seize their property. In October, four ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens who had crossed the border earlier from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region were granted asylum on the grounds of credible fear of persecution if they returned to China.

Media outlets continued to release articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional.” Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a number of defamatory articles and broadcasts. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and academics said members of some religious groups, including Muslims who wear headscarves or other identifying attire as well as some Christian groups, including evangelicals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.

Despite limitations on in-person meetings and visits during the global pandemic, the Secretary of State, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Ambassador, and other U.S. officials engaged in person and via virtual platforms with the government to urge respect for religious freedom, both in general and with regard to specific cases, including a regular and recurring dialogue with the MISD and CRA. This included raising concerns regarding the restrictive effects on religious freedom of the government’s implementation of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes, especially concerning criminal penalties for peaceful religious speech, praying without registration, and censorship of religious literature. The country’s bilateral Religious Freedom Working Group with the United States met in person in February and virtually in October to discuss cooperation to allow all persons to practice their faiths freely in the country. U.S. officials visited various houses of worship and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities and religious freedom advocates. The embassy also engaged in social media outreach to urge respect for religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

Other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the religious population include Jews, Buddhists, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, and Scientologists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion and belief as well as for the freedom to decline religious affiliation. These rights may be limited only by laws and only to the extent necessary for protection of the constitutional system, public order, human rights and freedoms, and the health and morality of the population. Under the constitution, all persons have the right to follow their religious or other convictions, take part in religious activities, and disseminate their beliefs. These rights, however, are in practice limited to registered or “traditional” religious groups. “Traditional” is not defined by law, but it typically refers to Hanafi Sunni Islam, the Russian Orthodox Church, Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism, and other major or historic religions.

The MISD and its component, the CRA, regulate the practice of religion in the country. By law, the MISD is responsible for the formulation and implementation of state policy on religion as well as facilitating government and civil society engagement. It also considers potential violations of the laws on religious activity and extremism. The MISD drafts legislation and regulations, conducts analysis of religious materials, and makes decisions on censorship. All religious groups are required to submit all religious materials for approval before dissemination. The MISD cooperates with law enforcement bodies to ban religious groups and sanction individuals who violate the religion law, coordinates actions of local government to regulate religious practices, and provides the official interpretation of the religion law.

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

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

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

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

Under the law on countering terrorism, the Ministry of Finance may freeze the financial accounts of persons convicted of terrorism or extremism crimes.

The administrative code prohibits “spreading the creed of religious groups (that are) unregistered” in the country, an offense punishable by a fine of 252,500 tenge ($600). A foreigner or stateless person found guilty may also be deported.

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

The law allows the government to deny registration to a religious group based on an insufficient number of adherents or on inconsistencies between the religious group’s charter and any national law, as determined by an analysis conducted by the CRA. According to the administrative code, individuals participating in leading or financing an unregistered, suspended, or banned religious group may be fined between 126,250 tenge ($300) and 505,000 tenge ($1,200).

The administrative code mandates a 505,000 tenge ($1,200) fine and a three-month suspension from conducting any religious activities for registered groups holding religious gatherings in buildings that are not approved for that purpose; importing, producing, or disseminating religious materials not approved by the CRA; systematically pursuing activities that contradict the charter and bylaws of the group as registered; constructing religious facilities without a permit; holding gatherings or conducting charity events in violation of the law; or otherwise defying the constitution or laws. Private persons engaged in these activities are subject to a fine of 126,250 tenge ($300). Police may impose these fines without first going to court. The fines may be appealed to a court.

If an organization, its leaders, or members engage in activities not specified in its charter, it is subject to a warning, a fine of 252,500 tenge ($600), or both. Under the administrative code, if the same violation is repeated within a year, the legal entity is subject to a fine of 378,750 tenge ($900) and a three- to six-month suspension of activities.

According to the administrative code, if a religious group engages in a prohibited activity or does not rectify violations resulting in a suspension, an official or the organization’s leader is subject to a fine of 505,000 tenge ($1,200), the entity is also subject to a fine of 1,262,500 tenge ($3,000), and its activities are banned.

The law authorizes local authorities to “coordinate” the location of premises for religious events outside religious buildings. By law, religious activities may be held in residences, provided that organizers take into account the “rights and interests of neighbors.” Authorities sometimes interpret this as a requirement to receive permission from the neighbors.

The government prohibits individuals who do not pay their fines from traveling outside the country.

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

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

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

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

The law states production, publication, and dissemination of religious literature and information materials of religious content are allowed only after receiving a positive expert opinion from the CRA. The law allows one copy of published religious materials to be imported for personal use without review by a CRA religious expert.

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

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

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

The election law prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation.

The criminal code prohibits creating, leading, or actively participating in a religious or public association whose activities involve committing acts of “violence against citizens or the causing of other harm to their health or the incitement of citizens to refuse to carry out their civil obligations as well as the creation or leadership of parties on a religious basis.” The code punishes such acts with a fine of up to 15.2 million tenge ($36,100) or up to six years’ imprisonment. To perform missionary or other religious activity in the country, a foreigner must obtain a missionary or religious visa. These visas allow a person to stay for a maximum of six months, with the possibility to apply to extend the stay for another six months. To obtain missionary visas, applicants must be invited by a religious group formally registered in the country. The CRA must approve the letter of invitation. Applicants must obtain consent from the CRA each time they apply. The CRA may reject missionary visa applications based on a negative assessment from CRA religious experts, or if it deems the missionaries represent a danger to the country’s constitutional framework, citizens’ rights and freedoms, or any person’s health or morals. The constitution requires foreign religious groups to conduct their activities, including appointing the heads of local congregations, “in coordination with appropriate state institutions,” notably the CRA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Foreigners may not register religious groups.

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

The law does not provide for conscientious objection to mandatory military service on religious grounds, but the government has exempted Jehovah’s Witnesses from mandatory service.

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

Government Practices

According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, 24 Sunni Muslims were serving sentences connected to their religious activities or beliefs. Three Protestant Christians were given prison terms in absentia. Six individuals were serving “restricted freedom” sentences that consist of probation plus compulsory community service; such sentences could also include court-imposed restrictions on their freedom of movement. Sixteen individuals who had completed their prison terms were banned from religious activities.

Media reported that on January 27, the Almaly district court found Karlygash Adasbekova and Daria Nyshanova guilty of incitement of religious discord and supporting Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization banned by the government as extremist, through online posts to a WhatsApp chat group. During the trial, two witnesses withdrew their earlier testimony against the accused, and the witness who made the initial report that led to the Committee of National Security (KNB) investigation could not remember which WhatsApp posts he had cited in his report. Despite these discrepancies, the judge found the defendants guilty and sentenced each of them to five years of restricted freedom.

On January 21, the Supreme Court reviewed the Prosecutor General’s petition challenging the 2018 verdict in the case of Dadash Mazhenov and sent the case back to the appellate court for a new trial on the grounds that the expert who had analyzed Mazhenov’s online posts lacked the appropriate license and that the defense’s statements were not sufficiently verified. Mazhenov, a Sunni Muslim, was sentenced to seven years and eight months imprisonment in 2015 for supporting terrorism in online posts. On October 13, the appeals panel of the Akmola provincial court upheld the 2018 verdict against Mazhenov. In March, Mazhenov filed a complaint stating he was tortured for praying while held in a labor camp in the city of Shymkent in the summer of 2019. In May, the Coalition against Torture, a local NGO that monitors prisons and detention facilities, appointed a lawyer to advocate on Mazhenov’s behalf. The NGO noted that few prison torture cases ever reached court, with few officials found guilty.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that 23 Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors encountered difficulties in obtaining exemption from military service, although all cases were eventually resolved through dialogue with the authorities. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said that local enlistment officers initially considered the certificates issued by the recruits’ local religious communities to be insufficient evidence to exempt the young men. The communities then provided clarification of the applicants’ eligibility for exemption, as well as letters from the conscientious objectors formally asking to be released from military service.

Religious freedom observers consistently reported that authorities continued to use the religion law to harass and restrict minority religious groups with fines and limitations on their activities. Violations included attending worship meetings not approved by the state; offering, importing, or selling religious literature and pictures, including on the internet; sharing or teaching faith; and violating procedures for praying in mosques. The CRA reported 552 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2019, the latest data available.

During the year, authorities dropped the 2019 charges against the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) for conducting a religious event without prior permission from the local government. ISKCON had been charged after a 2019 police raid on an apartment in Atyrau.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, 63 members of the community were detained on charges of illegal missionary activity between January and October. Of these, 38 were given oral warnings, 14 were given written warnings, and 11 were taken to court for alleged violation of the religion law. Of those 11, nine were acquitted and two were found guilty and fined 277,800 tenge each ($660).

On March 15, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued a decree declaring a state of emergency to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of wide-ranging emergency restrictions, religious ceremonies were prohibited and the operations of mosques, churches, and other religious centers were temporarily suspended. On May 11, the state of emergency ended. Beginning May 18, mosques, churches, and other houses of worship were able to operate at 30 percent capacity and with other region-specific public health-related restrictions. Throughout the year, region-specific restrictions changed frequently in efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. At year end, large religious services (i.e., weddings and funerals) were still prohibited on public health grounds.

Religious minority groups stated that authorities used COVID-19 pandemic restrictions to discriminate against them. In April, courts in Karaganda Province found the pastors of three local evangelical Baptist communities liable for violation of the COVID-19 quarantine rules because they allowed parishioners to gather for Sunday services on March 29. The pastors were jailed for three days, and Pastor Dmitry Iantsen in Termirtau was fined 26,510 tenge ($63). The church leaders said the incidents were a result of the lack of clear rules on the allowed size of gatherings. The chief health inspector’s decrees prohibited mass gatherings, but without specifying how many participants constituted such a gathering. The churches said some lawyers and government officials defined 50 to 200 participants as a mass gathering. The pastors said they had taken precautions to prevent the spread of disease, including restricting the number of worshippers present.

On April 22, an evangelical Christian pastor from Shymkent affiliated with the New Life Church received a 10-day prison sentence for conducting missionary activity during the state of emergency. Church representatives said Pastor Zhetis Rauilov was called to a meeting at the mayor’s office by an employee of the local branch of the CRA on April 21 but went home when the official was not in the office, stopping at a supermarket on the way. Police then stopped him, searched his car, and detained him on suspicion of moving through the city to provide groceries to parishioners without permission. (Local restrictions required permission for delivering groceries, but not for simple grocery shopping close to home.) Rauilov said he believed his arrest was orchestrated by local authorities because it took place immediately following the aborted meeting at the mayor’s office. Rauilov served the sentence and was released.

On May 15, according to Forum 18, police raided a shopping center in Aktobe to enforce COVID-19-related restrictions on public gatherings four days after the national pandemic state of emergency had been lifted. The administrator of the shopping center, Gulnar Kurmangaliyeva, was fined 132,550 tenge ($310) for permitting an Islamic prayer room to operate in the shopping center, and authorities closed the prayer room for three months.

Authorities continued to charge individuals under the administrative code for holding unsanctioned religious meetings, offering religious literature for sale, and for other violations of the religion law.

On February 29, police detained Oleg Stepanenko and Nadezhda Smirnova, members of a Christian Evangelical Baptist church in Pavlodar Province, for unsanctioned distribution of religious literature. Local media described them as adherents of a “harmful” religious group. On March 2, the local court found them guilty of breaking the religion law and imposed administrative fines. Authorities also seized and destroyed approximately 200 religious books in their possession.

In September, media reported that the Kokshetau administrative court found an individual guilty of disseminating religious literature, for writing a social media advertisement for books CRA theologians deemed to contain banned extremist content. Government experts found the advertisement while monitoring social media. Police located and charged the author, who was fined 100,000 tenge ($240).

On March 29, Pavlodar police raided the house of worship of the Pavlodar Council of Evangelical Christians and charged a 66-year-old pastor with leading an unregistered religious group. On April 20, the Pavlodar administrative court found the pastor guilty and fined him 194,460 tenge ($460).

The international Christian NGO Open Doors cited the country on its World Watch List for the government’s control over religious expression in the country, including surveillance, raids on church meetings, and arrests. The NGO said Christians from a Muslim background bore the worst persecution.

The government maintained its policy of banning religious clothing in schools. The Ministry of Education and Science continued to prohibit headscarves in schools throughout the country during in-person instruction, but media reported the ban was not strictly enforced during online instruction necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Media reported on September 29 that according to the Aktobe Region Education Department, 11 students chose to study online at their own expense due to the government’s ban on wearing headscarves in schools.

According to Forum 18, some Muslims faced repeated questioning from law enforcement authorities about their faith.

According to CRA statistics for the first nine months of the year, there were 3,818 registered religious associations or branches thereof in the country, compared with 3,770 in 2019.

The government did not approve the registration of Muslim groups apart from those observing the Sunni Hanafi school, which the SAMK oversaw. All other schools of Islam remained unregistered and were officially unable to practice in the country, although religious leaders reported some Muslim communities continued to worship informally without government interference.

The MISD and the SAMK maintained an official agreement on cooperation, and NGOs continued to state this led to the government effectively exercising control over the nominally independent SAMK. By joining the SAMK, Muslim communities relinquished the right to appoint their own imams, subjected themselves to SAMK approval regarding any property actions (such as sales, transfers, or improvements), and were required to pay 30 percent of the mosque’s income to the SAMK. The SAMK also set the curriculum for religious education across the country and provided guidelines and sample texts for sermons during Friday prayers.

The SAMK continued to oversee the opening of new and restored mosques. According to the CRA, there were 2,684 mosques in the country, 46 more than reported in 2019, but the government and news media offered varying and occasionally inconsistent statistics about the number of mosques nationwide.

The SAMK continued to control the activities of all 2,684 formally registered Muslim groups affiliated with the Sunni Hanafi school and had authority over appointment of imams as well as over the administration of examinations and background checks for aspiring imams. The MISD continued to work closely with the SAMK on the training of imams, upgrading madrassahs to the status of degree-granting colleges, and controlling Hajj pilgrimages. The SAMK permitted imams to enroll in baccalaureate, masters, or doctoral programs offered at Nur Mubarak University’s Islamic Studies and Religious Studies departments based on their prior education levels. There were 11 schools for religious training of Sunni Hanafi imams, one for Roman Catholic clergy, and one for Russian Orthodox clergy.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community remained unregistered during the year; authorities denied the group reregistration for the sixth time in 2016. Government experts had previously concluded the community’s teachings were not Islamic and that it must remove the word “Muslim” from its registration materials. Community members reported that since they were not registered, they did not engage in any religious activity.

The Council of Baptist Churches stated it continued to refuse on principle to register under the law, in keeping with its policy of maintaining a distance from the government. Community representatives reported that authorities continued to closely monitor their meetings and travels and that police followed and surveilled them, as in prior years.

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

Some religious minority groups faced attempts by local governments to seize their property. On September 17, the Almaty City Court upheld an earlier court decision to seize buildings of the New Life Church in Almaty. In 2019, the Almaty Specialized Interdistrict Court had convicted the Church’s three pastors, who fled the country, of using hypnotism and psychological manipulation to harm and defraud former parishioners, and it ordered the seizure of the Church’s property, including buildings, money, and computers. Neither the New Life Church leaders nor their attorney were present at the court hearing, which was held without their knowledge after the court agreed initially to postpone it. The Church immediately filed an appeal. Church representatives said they were particularly concerned about the seizure of two buildings used to support vulnerable individuals, and they expressed fears that some who lived in the buildings would have no place to go if the buildings were confiscated. At year’s end, the seizure of the buildings had been delayed, pending an appeal hearing.

On February 14, the Mayor of Nur-Sultan issued a decree confiscating land shared by the Presbyterian Grace Church and Pentecostal Agape Church in order to build a government-run kindergarten. The Churches lodged a lawsuit against the mayor’s office, but a city court ruled against the Churches on September 7, accepting the mayor’s countersuit that the seizure decree should be enforced. The judge also ordered the Churches to pay for a panel of experts – mostly officials from the mayor’s office – to assess the value of the property. The Churches appealed the decision, but their appeal was denied on December 12. At year’s end, the land had not been confiscated and the Churches were fighting the decree.

On January 21, two ethnic Kazakh Muslims, citizens of China, were convicted of illegally crossing the border from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China and sentenced to a year in prison. They served shorter sentences and were released. In October, these and another two previously convicted ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens were granted asylum on the grounds of credible fear of persecution if they returned to China.

In August, the government granted an exception to COVID-19 restrictions on public ceremonies to allow a Jewish group to travel to Almaty to mark the 76th anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Scheerson. The government designated the resting place a National Heritage Site.

The Church of Scientology reported that during the year, its members experienced harassment and intimidation by the authorities, including frivolous lawsuits and smear campaigns on national television, harassment, extrajudicial searches, destructive raids of their premises, and seizure of literature.

According to the Penitentiary Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all prisons continued to have dedicated specialists charged with creating programs to counter religious extremism, in accordance with a 2017 order issued by the Minister of Internal Affairs adding the position of “religious specialist” to prison staff as part of the State Program for Counteraction against Terrorism and Religious Extremism. Lawyers familiar with the program said most of the specialists lacked education or specialized training.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Observers and minority Christian religious communities again expressed concerns regarding negative articles and broadcasts about minority religious groups that the media regarded as “nontraditional.”

NGOs continued to report individuals were wary of “nontraditional” religious groups, particularly those that proselytized or whose dress or grooming, including Islamic headscarves and beards, indicated “nontraditional” beliefs. According to a survey by CRA conducted in 2019 and published in 2020, however, Kazakhstani society was increasingly receptive to those wearing religious clothes, particularly hijabs. In the survey, more than half of respondents (38.4 percent) approved of or were neutral (26.6 percent) to people wearing religious clothes, compared to 31.4 percent of respondents who had negative opinions of those wearing religious clothes.

According to NGO Open Doors, Christians from a Muslim background were persecuted by family, friends and their community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Secretary of State, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, other senior U.S. government officials, and embassy officers met with senior government officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MISD, and CRA and advocated for the importance of respecting religious freedom. In January, the Secretary of State met with ethnic Kazakh Muslims whose family members had been detained in internment camps or prisons in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. The Secretary called for the release of all those arbitrarily detained and the end of the program of systematic surveillance and repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, bilateral discussions also took place on virtual platforms. As in previous years, U.S. officials raised concerns over the restrictive effects of the government’s implementation of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes on religious freedom. They also raised concerns about the inconsistent application of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes with regard to “nontraditional” versus “traditional” religious groups.

U.S. officials continued to encourage the government to respect individuals’ rights to peaceful expression of religious belief and free practice of religion in bilateral meetings and at meetings of the U.S-Kazakhstan International Religious Freedom Working Group in person in February and virtually in October. U.S. officials expressed concern about vaguely written laws that were broad in scope and lacked specific definition of legal terms that enabled authorities, particularly at the local level, to apply them in an arbitrary manner. They encouraged the government to eliminate burdensome registration requirements for religious communities and to take other steps to amend the religion law to increase the ability of believers to practice their faith. U.S. officials also raised concerns over anti-Semitic content in local media and encouraged fair and equal treatment for faith organizations in land disputes with the government. On social media, the embassy also engaged in outreach to urge respect for religious freedom.

Embassy officials visited houses of worship in several regions of the country and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities, their leaders, and religious freedom advocates in-person and online. They underscored the importance freedom of religion played in countering violent extremism, expressed concern about further restrictions on religious freedom, and encouraged reform of relevant laws and guidelines so all citizens could conduct peaceful religious activities freely, whether or not they were part of a registered religious group.

Kosovo

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion, subject to limitations to ensure public order, health, and safety or to protect the rights of others. The law does not provide a means for religious groups to acquire legal status. In September, the cabinet approved amendments that would provide religious groups with such status and enable them to conduct business in their name and gain certain tax benefits, but parliament did not act on these due to an unrelated lack of a quorum required to pass legislation. According to the Islamic Community of Kosovo (BIK), in multiple cases, public elementary schools denied female Muslim students in religious attire permission to attend classes. On September 4, the Kosovo and Serbian governments signed a list of commitments in Washington, D.C., brokered at the White House, that included a pledge to domestically protect and promote freedom of religion, renew interfaith communication, protect religious sites, implement judicial decisions pertaining to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), and continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property. The SOC said a lack of constructive communication with some municipal governments prevented Serbian Orthodox pilgrims from having free access to some SOC temples and graveyards. The SOC said the government failed to fully enforce the Law on Special Protective Zones (SPZs) by failing to prevent road construction in the Visoki Decani Monastery SPZ. The government halted the work in the SPZ in August following objections by the international community. Kosovo’s Implementation and Monitoring Committee (IMC), which includes the SOC, decided in November on the rehabilitation of the road in accordance with the law. Local and central authorities continued to ignore a 2016 court decision on SOC ownership of several land parcels next to the Decani monastery. Following a review, the government stated in August that, in many cemeteries managed by BIK under municipal contracts, a lack of municipal oversight enabled BIK to prevent other religious/nonreligious groups from conducting burial services according to their beliefs and to discriminate against religious minority groups. Kosovo Serb and Jewish communities said some municipalities did not properly maintain these communities’ cemeteries.

National police said they received reports of 57 incidents against religious sites or cemeteries during the year, compared with 61 in 2019. Police classified most of the incidents as theft, although some involved damage to cemeteries or other property. The majority of incidents targeted Muslim community sites, although a few involved SOC and Catholic Church properties. According to the SOC, many incidents involving SOC religious sites were linked to Serb ethnicity as well as religion, and there were incidents not reported to police. In August, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that vandals damaged an SOC church in the Srecke/Sredska village in Prizren. In September, according to media and police, an SOC church was robbed in Babimoc/Babin Most in Obiliq/Obilic. On January 6 in Gjakova/Djakovica, local Kosovo Albanians, including families of persons missing from the 1998-1999 conflict, staged a protest, as they had since 2015, in front of the local SOC church, leading displaced Kosovo Serb SOC members to again cancel a pilgrimage there. SOC officials again complained about negative media reporting and criticism of Visoki Decani Monastery Abbot Sava Janjic, such as claims the abbot was blocking local development by denying Decan/Decani municipality use of its property and resources.

U.S. embassy officials continued to encourage the government to enact amendments permitting religious groups to acquire legal status, enforce mechanisms to protect freedom of religion, implement legislation and judicial decisions pertaining to SOC religious sites, and resolve SOC property disputes. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues, including equal protection and property rights concerns, with religious and civil society leaders and encouraged religious tolerance and improved interfaith dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 95.6 percent of the population is Muslim, 2.2 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.4 percent Serbian Orthodox, with Protestants, Jews, and persons not answering or responding “other” or “none” together constituting less than 1 percent. According to the SOC and international observers, lack of financial support for the census and a boycott of it by most ethnic Serbs resulted in a significant undercounting of ethnic minorities of all religious backgrounds, including SOC members, Tarikat Muslims, and Protestants. Other religious communities, including Tarikat Muslims and Protestants, also contested the registration data, stating they distrusted the census methodology and believed it resulted in undercounts of their communities’ members.

The majority of Kosovo Albanians are Muslim, although some are Christian (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant). Almost all Kosovo Serbs belong to the SOC. The majority of ethnic Ashkali, Bosniaks, Egyptians, Gorani, Roma, and Turks are also Muslim, while most ethnic Montenegrins and some Roma are Christian Orthodox. Nearly all ethnic Croats are Catholic.

According to BIK, most Muslims belong to the Hanafi Sunni School, although some are part of the Sufi Tarikat community. There is also a Sufi Bektashi religious community; no official estimate exists for the number of its adherents. Kosovo Albanians represent the majority in 28 of the country’s 38 municipalities, and Kosovo Serbs make up the majority in the remaining 10. Most SOC members reside in the 10 Serb-majority municipalities. The largest Catholic communities are in Gjakove/Djakovica, Janjeve/Janjevo, Kline/Klina, Pristina, and Prizren. Evangelical Protestant populations are located throughout the country, concentrated in Pristina and Gjakove/Djakovica. There are small Jewish communities in Prizren and Pristina.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion for all residents, including the right to change, express, or not express religious belief; practice or abstain from practicing religion; and join or refuse to join a religious community. These rights are subject to limitations for reasons of public safety and order or for the protection of the health or rights of others. The constitution provides for the separation of religious communities from public institutions, including the right of religious groups to regulate independently their own organizations, activities, and ceremonies, and the right to establish religious schools and charities. It provides for equal rights for all religious communities, stipulates the country is secular and neutral regarding religion, declares the state shall ensure the protection and preservation of the country’s religious heritage, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution states the law may limit freedom of expression to prevent violent and hostile provocations on racial, national, ethnic, or religious grounds. It allows courts to ban organizations or activities that encourage racial, national, ethnic, or religious hatred.

The law on religious freedom states, “All religions and their communes in Kosovo, including the Kosovo Islamic Community, Serbian Orthodox Church, Catholic Church, Hebrew Belief Community, and Evangelical Church (the five “traditional” religious communities), shall be offered any kind of protection and opportunity in order to have rights and freedom foreseen by this law.” The constitution provides for rights and protection for all citizens, including maintaining, developing, and preserving their religion using their own language. The constitution also states religious communities have the right to establish religious schools and charitable institutions with the possibility of being funded with government financial assistance “in accordance with the law and international standards.” The constitution provides guarantees of freedom and pluralism of media. It guarantees all ethnic communities access to public media. Additional rights for religious groups include establishing and using their own media, maintaining unhindered peaceful contacts with persons outside the country with whom they share a religious identity, and having equitable access to public employment.

The constitution guarantees 20 of 120 seats in parliament to representatives from ethnic minority communities, which are often associated with a single majority religious group, such as Muslims or Orthodox Christians. It also stipulates the adoption, amendment, or repeal of all laws pertaining to religious freedom or cultural heritage requires approval by a majority of the parliamentarians representing minority communities, as well as by a majority of all parliamentarians.

The constitution provides for the Ombudsperson’s Institution, which is responsible for monitoring religious freedom, among other human rights, and recommending actions to correct violations. It stipulates the state shall take all necessary measures to protect individuals who may be subject to threats, hostility, discrimination, or violence because of their religious identity.

The law stipulates there is no official state religion, but it lists the five “traditional” religious communities that receive extra protections and benefits, including reduced taxes.

The law does not require registration of religious groups, but it also does not provide a legal mechanism or specific guidance for religious groups to obtain legal status through registration or other means. Without legal status, religious communities may not own property, open bank accounts, employ staff, or access the courts as a collective entity. Individual congregations or individuals, however, may do so and perform other administrative tasks in their own name. Local communities often recognize religious groups’ possession of buildings; however, the law generally does not protect these buildings as property of a religious community, but rather as the private property of citizens or nongovernmental organizations. SOC property is an exception; the law on SPZs acknowledges and protects the integrity of SOC property ownership and stewardship over designated areas within the SPZs.

The law stipulates freedom of religious or nonreligious practice and the rights to establish humanitarian/charity organizations, accept voluntary financial contributions from individuals and institutions, and engage in national and international communication for religious purposes.

The law provides safeguards for sites of religious and cultural significance and prohibits or restricts nearby activities that could damage the surrounding historical, cultural, or natural environment. According to the law, the IMC is responsible for arbitrating disputes between the government and the SOC concerning SPZs and other matters related to protecting the SOC’s religious and cultural heritage. The IMC is a special body originating from the 2007 Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement (also known as the Ahtisaari Plan) and established by law. IMC members include the Ministry of Economy and Environment (cochair); Special Representative of the European Union (cochair); Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport; SOC; and OSCE.

Municipalities are legally responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of all public cemeteries, including those designated for specific religious communities.

According to the law, “Public educational institutions shall refrain from teaching religion or other activities that propagate a specific religion.” This law is unenforceable in schools operated under Serbian government-run parallel structures, over which the Kosovo government has no control.

A Ministry of Education and Science (MES) administrative circular on the code of conduct and disciplinary measures for elementary and high school students, which carries the force of law, prohibits students from wearing religious “uniforms” on elementary and secondary school premises.

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

Government Practices

In September, the cabinet approved and sent to parliament amendments to the law on religious freedom that would permit religious groups to acquire legal status, conduct business and acquire real and personal property in their name, open bank accounts, and gain import tax benefits. At year’s end, parliament had not voted on the amendments; there was a persistent lack of a quorum due to the COVID-19 pandemic and boycotts by Kosovo Serb parliamentarians. Absent enactment of the legislation, all religious communities said they continued to operate bank accounts registered to individuals instead of communities. In addition, communities such as the Kosovo Protestant Evangelical Church (KPEC) said they continued to be taxed as for-profit businesses.

According to BIK, there were multiple cases in which elementary schools denied access to female Muslim students as a result of the enforcement of the MES administrative circular prohibiting “religious attire” on school property. Imam Labinot Maliqi, head of the nongovernmental organization Kosovo Center for Peace, reported that two female elementary school students, one in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje and the other in Gjakova/Djakovica, were denied entrance to school for wearing a hijab. School officials reversed their decision after the Kosovo Center for Peace inquired into the situation. In July, according to Maliqi, MES officials told him the MES was committed to reviewing the religious attire prohibition. The ban remained in place at year’s end.

Muslim community representatives said there were cases of hiring discrimination against Muslim women who wore religious attire during the year, but they did not cite any examples.

On September 4, Kosovo and Serbia signed lists of commitments in Washington, D.C., in which the government of Kosovo pledged to protect and promote freedom of religion, including renewed interfaith communication, protection of religious sites, and implementation of judicial decisions pertaining to the SOC, and continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property.

Decan/Decani municipal officials continued to refuse to implement a 2016 Constitutional Court decision upholding the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that recognized the SOC’s Visoki Decani Monastery’s ownership of approximately 24 hectares (59 acres) of land in the monastery’s vicinity. In November, the SOC appealed to the Kosovo Cadastral Agency; its decision was pending at year’s end. NATO troops in the country continued to provide security at the Decani Monastery.

In August, the Decan/Decani municipality began road work within the Visoki Decani Monastery SPZ in violation of the law. The government halted the work following international criticism. In November, the IMC and the Decan/Decani municipal government endorsed an Italian-brokered arrangement that adhered to the law for the rehabilitation of the road. The arrangement included the development of both a bypass road external to the SPZ boundaries, which would connect Decan/Decani to Montenegro, and a separate local road within the SPZ. The proposed road work had not begun by year’s end.

In July, Pristina Municipality issued a construction permit for, and construction began on, a Grand Mosque in Pristina, funded by the Turkish government. Some citizens opposed construction of the mosque, saying its design was based on an archaic Ottoman style rather than traditional Kosovo mosque architecture. Some local imams continued to state existing downtown mosques fulfilled the needs of their constituency and there was no demand for such a large mosque in the area.

Jewish community representatives again said local governments did not properly maintain Jewish cemeteries outside Pristina, including in Novo Brdo/Novoberde, Lipjan/Lipljan, Kamenice/Kamenica, Prizren, Mitrovice/Mitrovica, and Gjilan/Gnjilane, notwithstanding their legal obligation to do so.

With the government’s assent, the OSCE continued to monitor the implementation of legislation on protection of SPZs around SOC religious and heritage sites. The Police Unit for the Security of Religious and Cultural Heritage Buildings continued to provide 24-hour security to 24 SPZs countrywide.

At year’s end, Pristina Municipality and the Jewish community continued to disagree on a suitable location for a synagogue for which the municipality had issued a construction permit in 2016.

The SOC said the Kosovo Anti-Corruption Agency continued to dispute SOC ownership of the property the agency has used since 2001. The SOC stated the agency owed rent for use of the property. The SOC received partial payment for the rent in 2018 but received no further compensation. At year’s end, neither the SOC nor the agency had initiated legal action over the dispute.

According to BIK, the central government continued to provide some funding for Islamic education in the BIK madrassah in Pristina and its branches in Prizren and Gjilan/Gnjilane. Some University of Pristina law faculty members said they believed this funding was discriminatory because the government did not provide funding for religious education to any other religious group.

KPEC stated the Kosovo Immigration Office continued to deny recognition of non-Kosovo missionaries engaged by the Church. KPEC said the Customs Service sought payment of 3,393 euros ($4,200) in taxes for humanitarian aid KPEC received from abroad during the year, while some other religious communities, such as BIK, were exempt from the taxation. KPEC said the Customs Service continued to insist on the tax payment despite intervention by then-Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in 2019. In addition, according to KPEC, some businesses did not respect the value-added tax exemption for goods purchased by their churches due to religious prejudices.

The SOC continued to complain about public statements made by Decan/Decani municipal leadership against Visoki Decani Monastery Abbot Sava for his opposition to illegal road construction within the Decan/Decani SPZ.

The Water Services Regulatory Authority stated it waived water utility fees during the year for religious buildings belonging to all religious communities, in contrast with the previous year, when it billed some religious communities, such as Protestants and Tarikats.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

National police said they received reports of 57 incidents targeting religious sites during the year, compared with 61 incidents in 2019. All the incidents were against property. Of the 57 incidents, 45 took place at Muslim, eight at SOC, and three at Catholic sites, while one targeted property not belonging to a specific religious group. Police classified most of the other 56 incidents as theft, although some involved damage to cemeteries or other property. There were also incidents involving religious sites that were not reported to police. Police did not classify any of the 57 incidents reported as religiously motivated. The SOC, however, stated that some of the incidents involving its property in Kosovo were religiously and ethnically motivated. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as solely based on religious identity.

The SOC again stated media reporting contributed to a climate of interethnic and interreligious intolerance during the year. For example, in September, the SOC Archdiocese of Raska-Prizren issued a press release condemning an article in the newspaper Koha Ditore by history professor Bedri Muhadri that, the press release stated, claimed without evidence that SOC holy sites in Kosovo were actually medieval Albanian and usurped Roman Catholic churches.

BIK again stated there were media reports and statements on social media that portrayed Muslims negatively. In July, a newspaper columnist condemned strong public support for construction of the Grand Mosque in Pristina, writing that Muslims in the country “no longer have any connection with Illyrians,” and adding that “investment in mosques is taking Kosovo away from its European path.”

BIK reported one case of a Muslim woman denied an employment contract in the private sector but did not provide details. According to BIK, devout Muslim women were reluctant to report cases of religious discrimination.

On January 6 in Gjakova/Djakovica, local Kosovo Albanians, including families of persons missing from the 1998-99 conflict, staged a protest in front of the local SOC church, where displaced Kosovo Serb SOC members had planned a pilgrimage on Orthodox Christmas. Media reported that organizers again cancelled the pilgrimage, citing security reasons. Such protests have taken place since 2015.

In August, vandals damaged an SOC church in Srecke/Sredska village in Prizren. In September, media reported an SOC church was desecrated and burglarized in Babimoc/Babin Most in Obiliq/Obilic.

There were reports of incidents of vandalism throughout the year at Serb cemeteries. Serbian-language media reported that on January 10, an unknown individual placed an Albanian flag on the fence surrounding a Serb cemetery in Gornji Livoc, near Gjilan/Gnjilane Municipality. In February, Serbian-language media reported unknown individuals vandalized a Serb cemetery in the village of Zac in Istog/Istok Municipality on the eve of a memorial service. According to media, the vandals knocked over and broke monuments, cut down centuries-old trees that then fell on gravesites, and removed the fence. The church in the cemetery was reportedly also damaged. In November, Serbian-language media reported that several monuments were demolished at a Serb cemetery in the village of Frasher/Svinjare, near Mitrovice/Mitrovica South, prior to a memorial service. According to media reports, in June, a group of Kosovo Serbs visited a cemetery in Mitrovice/Mitrovica South where more than 80 percent of the tombstones had been destroyed. Some media also published pictures of the cemetery, showing broken tombstones and overgrown foliage.

In April, tombstones on graves of members of the Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian ethnic communities were broken in Rahovec/Orahovac Municipality. Mayor Smajl Latifi publicly condemned the incident and called for immediate police intervention in finding the perpetrators. Then-Minister for Communities and Returns Dalibor Jevtic referenced previous instances in the municipality and pledged to support families affected by the incident. The OSCE also issued a statement of condemnation.

In December, Skenderaj municipal officials reported that vandals destroyed a plaque inscribed with the words “Our Church” in the town of Gjytet in Syrigana. The site is a state-protected cultural heritage site. No specific religious group claimed ownership of the plaque.

According to Catholic Church officials, reports in 2019 of the destruction of religious symbols at a Catholic church in Janjevo village proved to be inaccurate.

BIK leadership stated a group of Mitrovice/a citizens lobbied for reconstruction of a mosque in Mitrovice/a North that Federal Republic of Yugoslavia forces destroyed in 1999, but that opposition from local Kosovo Serbs continued to stymie reconstruction plans.

Religious group leaders continued interfaith discussions on property rights, legislative priorities, and local community issues. The OSCE continued to coordinate some activities among religious groups, including meetings with central and local authorities, to discuss issues such as cemetery maintenance, tax and custom duties exemptions for humanitarian activities by religious communities, and amendments to the law on religious freedom. One outcome of this engagement was improved maintenance of cemeteries by some municipal governments. The OSCE also advocated for inclusion of representatives of all major religious communities in municipal community safety councils, which meet to discuss security issues.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed and advocated with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, officials from the MES, the Ministry of Youth, Culture, and Sports, and political party leaders from the Democratic Party of Kosovo, Self-Determination Movement, Democratic League of Kosovo, and Srpska List for enactment of amendments to the law on religious freedom that would allow religious groups to acquire legal status. They also urged government officials to respect religious freedom and pluralism and increase their communication with religious groups. The Ambassador and other embassy officials urged central and local government officials, including the Prime Minister, to respect the law on SPZs, particularly in the case of the road near Visoki Decani Monastery. Embassy officials advocated with all levels of government for implementation of the 2016 Constitutional Court decision ordering the registration of ownership of 24 hectares (59 acres) of land to the Visoki Decani Monastery, urging the government and the judiciary to hold local officials accountable.

Embassy officials met with all major religious communities and discussed the amendments to the law on religious freedom, social issues of common concern, religious freedom issues, and governmental relations with religious communities. The embassy also funded interreligious dialogue among youth of all major religious groups and nonreligious organizations in the country.

The embassy frequently posted messages on social media in support of religious freedom, for example, marking International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, calling on the government to implement the Constitutional Court’s decision on the case involving the Visoki Decani Monastery land dispute, and urging all parties to adhere to the law on SPZs.

Kyrgyzstan

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion and bans religious groups from undertaking actions inciting religious hatred. It establishes the separation of religion and state and prohibits pursuit of political goals by religious groups. The law requires all religious groups to register with the government and prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups. Authorities maintained bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups they considered extremist. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents of Tengrism, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continued to face difficulties registering as official religious groups. By year’s end, parliament did not take up amendments proposed to the religion law in 2019 by the State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA), which include a ban on door-to-door proselytizing. The SCRA continued to refuse to register local Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in the south of the country, despite a UN Human Rights Committee finding in 2019 that the law’s requirement that religious groups register with local councils in order to establish new places of worship was in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the constitution and despite an earlier Supreme Court decision finding the practice unconstitutional. The government did not always provide religious materials to prisoners convicted of affiliation with banned religious groups, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

According to Christian activists, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries. The SCRA-proposed solution, which would divide public cemeteries by religion so that all faith groups would have burial space, remained pending as of year’s end. There continued to be reports of threats of violence and other harassment of Christian minorities, including threats against family members in the case of Eldos Sattar uulu, who was attacked by his neighbors because of his Protestant beliefs.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers held mostly virtual meetings with government officials to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups, proposed revisions to the religion law, and violence against religious minorities. Embassy officers regularly met virtually with religious leaders, including representatives of the Grand Muftiate, and with representatives of NGOs to discuss tolerance and respect for religious groups, the law on terrorism and extremism, the ability of independent religious groups to register, and the rights of religious minorities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to government estimates, approximately 90 percent of the population is Muslim, the vast majority of whom are Sunni. The government estimates Shia make up less than 1 percent of the Muslim population. There is also a small Ahmadi Muslim community not reflected in government figures and estimated by an international organization at 1,000 individuals. According to government estimates, approximately 7 percent of the population is Christian, of which an estimated 40 percent is Russian Orthodox. Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, and unaffiliated groups together constitute approximately 3 percent of the population. Adherents of Tengrism, an indigenous religion, estimate there are 50,000 followers in the country.

According to the National Statistics Committee, in 2019 (most recent data available) ethnic Kyrgyz make up approximately 73 percent of the population, ethnic Uzbeks approximately 15 percent, and ethnic Russians approximately 6 percent. Both ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks are primarily Muslim. Ethnic Russians are primarily adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church or one of several Protestant denominations. Members of the Russian Orthodox Church and other non-Muslim religious groups live mainly in major cities.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

The law states all religions and religious groups are equal. It prohibits “insistent attempts to convert followers of one religion to another” and “illegal missionary activity,” defined as missionary activity of groups not registered with the SCRA, a government organization composed of presidential appointees, which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the law’s provisions on religion. The law also prohibits the involvement of minors in organized, proselytizing religious groups unless a parent grants written consent.

The law requires all religious groups and religiously affiliated schools to register with the SCRA. The law prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups. Groups applying for registration must submit an application form, organizational charter, minutes of the organizing meeting, and a list of founding members. Each congregation of a religious group must register separately and must have at least 200 resident founding citizens. Foreign religious organizations are required to renew their registrations with the SCRA annually. The law also requires that religious groups register with local councils to establish new places of worship, despite a 2016 Supreme Court decision that nullified this section of the law.

The SCRA is legally authorized to deny the registration of a religious group if it does not comply with the law or is considered a threat to national security, social stability, interethnic and interdenominational harmony, public order, health, or morality. The SCRA may also deny or postpone the registration of a particular religious group if it deems the proposed activities of the group are not religious in character. Denied applicants may reapply at any time or may appeal to the courts. The law prohibits unregistered religious groups from actions such as renting space and holding religious services. Violations may result in an administrative fine of 500 som ($6).

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

The law gives the SCRA authority to ban a religious group in cases where courts concur that a religious organization has undermined the security of the state; undertaken actions aimed at forcibly changing the foundations of the constitutional system; created armed forces or propaganda advocating war or terrorism; engaged in the encroachment on the rights of citizens or obstruction of compulsory education of children; coerced members to remit their property to the religious group; or encouraged citizens to refuse to fulfil their civil obligations and break the law. The group may appeal the decision in the courts.

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

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

According to the law, only individuals representing registered religious organizations may conduct missionary activity. If a foreign missionary represents an organization approved by the SCRA, the individual must apply for a visa with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Visas are valid for up to one year, and a missionary is allowed to work three consecutive years in the country. All foreign religious entities, including missionaries, must operate within these restrictions and must reregister annually. Representatives of religious groups acting inconsistently with the law may be fined or deported. Violations of the law may result in fines of 1,000 som ($12), and deportation in the case of foreign missionaries.

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

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

According to the law, religion is grounds for conscientious objection to and exemption from military service. Conscientious objectors must pay a fee of 18,000 som ($220) to opt out of military service. Draft-eligible males must pay the fee before turning 27 years of age. Failure to pay by the age limit requires the person to perform 108 hours of community service or pay a fine of 25,000 som ($300). If males are unable to serve due to family circumstances and have not paid by the age limit, they must pay 18,000 som ($220). Draft-eligible men who evade military service and do not fall under an exemption are subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to two years. It is obligatory to serve in the military for 12 months, although the law provides for alternative forms of community service. Religious groups are not exempt from this law, and members must pay to opt out of military service.

The country is a party to the ICCPR.

Government Practices

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

During the year, the government continued to arrest members of the pan-Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir on extremism charges. According to local press, the government arrested 13 alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir during the first six months of the year. In most cases, the arrestees were detained in the State Committee for National Security’s (GKNB) pretrial detention center that housed violent extremists.

According to human rights NGOs, religious extremism arrests dropped significantly after the change to extremism laws in 2019 that removed provisions allowing the arrest of individuals for possessing materials deemed extremist. Official government statistics to corroborate this were not available. According to a human rights NGO that tracks these cases, in eight of 12 confirmed arrests on extremism charges during the year, charges were dropped after courts found there was insufficient evidence under the revised law. Extremist incidents were defined as membership in a banned “religiously oriented” organization, distribution of literature associated with a banned organization, and proselytizing on behalf of or financing a banned organization. Despite the change in the extremism laws, NGOs reported that the government arrested social media users who shared or liked digital content that the government considered extremist, especially religious literature connected to banned groups, in a shift away from arrests for possessing physical media. The NGOs noted that arrests were centered on ethnic Uzbek communities in the south.

Leadership of the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that on September 3, the leadership of the SCRA hosted a local television program with members of the Russian Orthodox Church and a local Muslim cleric in which the SCRA participant repeatedly said that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were extremists.

Ethnic Uzbeks said that police continued to target and harass them, usually in connection with the possession of banned religious literature or support of banned organizations, which they said was based on false testimony or planted evidence. Unlike in 2019, there were no reports of government officials visiting Christian churches to demand to see their financial records.

There were reports that police and prosecutors continued to threaten members of Eldos Sattar uulu’s family with violence or arrest. Sattar uulu, a Protestant, returned to the country during the year after fleeing in 2018 due to being threatened because of his faith.

Parliament continued to consider draft amendments to the religion law submitted by the SCRA in 2019 but did not take action before year’s end. The amendments would ban on door-to-door proselytizing, require notification to the government prior to undertaking religious education abroad, and maintain the 200-member minimum for registration as a religious organization, which would restrict registered organizations from creating smaller filial branches across the country.

As of September, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that the SCRA continued to refuse to register local houses of worship, based on a provision of law requiring religious groups to register with local councils to establish new places of worship. The requirement remained in effect despite a finding by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2019 that it was in violation of Article 18 of the ICCPR and the constitution, and a Supreme Court ruling in 2016 that the requirement was unconstitutional.

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ representatives stated that the SCRA and other government organizations continued to use spurious applications of the law to prevent them from establishing new congregations. On January 20, the Jehovah’s Witnesses community reapplied for registration of their local houses of worship. Their 2019 request had been denied by the SCRA. The SCRA rejected the January application, “in order to avoid a threat to social stability, interfaith harmony, and public order.” On May 28, the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a lawsuit with the Bishkek administrative court, citing the SCRA’s insistence on using a provision of the law that had been deemed unconstitutional. On June 24, the court returned the claim without consideration, accepting the SCRA’s argument that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had not exhausted the administrative appeal process. On July 14, the community filed an appeal of the initial decision with the SCRA. The SCRA rejected this appeal, stating that it was not submitted in a timely manner. On July 24, the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a second suit against the SCRA in the Bishek administrative court, after which the SCRA announced that it was suspending consideration of the registration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregations due to the lawsuit. On November 12, the Supreme Court upheld the Bishkek court ruling, accepting the SCRA argument that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had not exhausted the administrative process and thus could not appeal the SCRA decision in court. With the court’s ruling, the SCRA’s rejection of the Jehovah’s Witnesses application became final.

Religious groups continued to report the SCRA registration process was cumbersome, taking anywhere from one month to several years to complete, even when successful. One group reported that the SCRA had not registered it after five years of attempts. Some unregistered groups continued to report they were able to hold regular religious services without government interference, especially foreign religious organizations that had been registered in the past and had an annual application for reregistration pending. The SCRA reported it registered 112 mosques, 11 Christian churches (no information provided on denominations), 38 religious schools, and 28 religious organizations through October. The SCRA also reported that there were 2,662 registered mosques, two registered Islamic universities, 141 registered madrassas, and 77 registered Islamic foundations in the country.

Although the government continued not to list the Ahmadi Muslim Community as a banned organization, a representative of the group again stated it still had not obtained registration. The community initially registered in 2002, but the SCRA declined to approve its reregistration every year since 2012, including again in 2020. The SCRA has also refused to register Tengrism as a religion since 2013, declaring that government theologians said Tengrism is a philosophical movement and not a religion.

While the law does not require examination of all religious literature and materials, religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated the SCRA required that they submit 100 percent of their imported religious material for review. According to Jehovah’s Witness representatives, the SCRA continued its practice of having individuals designated by the SCRA as experts examine imported religious materials submitted for review by religious organizations, although the law did not mandate such a review. There continued to be no specific procedure for hiring or evaluating the experts who examined the religious literature that groups wished to distribute within their places of worship. According to religious studies academics, the SCRA continued to choose its own employees or religious scholars whom the agency contracted to serve as the experts. Attorneys for religious groups continued to say the experts chosen by the SCRA were biased in favor of prosecutors and were not formal experts under the criminal procedure code. The State Forensic Service, with support from SCRA on religious matters, screened the content of websites, printed material, and other forms of media for extremist content.

NGOs working in prison reform and countering violent extremism continued to report that laws mandating separate facilities for prisoners convicted of terrorism and extremism were often poorly implemented. NGOs reported that violent extremists were not separated from inmates who were incarcerated for lesser crimes, including simple possession of extremist materials, which they said could lead to radicalization of other populations in the prisons. The government announced that it would review old convictions for possession of such materials, but there were no reports it had actually done so. NGOs reported that prison authorities required religious literature other than the Quran or hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammed) to be approved by the Muftiate.

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

According to Christian activists, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries. A government policy announced in 2017 to address this problem by dividing public cemeteries by religion so that all faith groups would have burial space had not been implemented as of year’s end. According to the SCRA, the draft policy was approved by relevant government agencies and was undergoing revisions before implementation.

The SCRA held an interfaith dialogue forum in January, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented subsequent forums during the year. The event included Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Baha’i participants as well as civil society representatives, local authorities, and officials from the Ministry of Interior and the GKNB. As in previous years, the forum focused on religious tolerance, cooperation, and mutual understanding among representatives of religious communities as well as between the state and religious organizations, including a specific focus on religious communities outside of the capital.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to civil society activists, incidents of harassment of minority religious groups continued to occur in small towns and villages with majority Kyrgyz populations. In January, Eldos Sattar uulu, who fled to Ukraine in 2018 because of attacks against his Protestant faith, returned to the country, but not to his village of Tamchi, out of fear of reprisal from community members due to his decision to go to the media after the attacks against him. Sattar uulu returned after a reported settlement between his attackers and his family in which he agreed to not prosecute his attackers in exchange for his family’s safety. According to observers from the area, the settlement was likely due to continuing threats against Sattar uulu’s parents.

On March 18, the Muftiate suspended Friday prayers and Islamic proselytization (dawah) due to COVID-19. The Grand Mufti, Maksat Azi Toktomushev, encouraged Muslims to pray at home and maintain social distancing. On August 26, the Muftiate lifted those restrictions as long as mosques followed anti-COVID-19 protocols.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Before pandemic restrictions were imposed, the Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials, including the SCRA deputy chief and high-ranking officials in the Grand Muftiate, to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups, proposed revisions to the religion law, and violence against religious minorities. In November, an embassy officer met with SCRA officials to discuss plans for legislation in 2021, including proposed amendments to the Law on Religion, as well as how the new government planned to approach longstanding issues, including religious intolerance.

Embassy officers continued to engage with representatives of the Muftiate, leaders of minority religions, NGOs, and civil society representatives to discuss the law on terrorism and extremism, the ability of independent religious groups to register, and the rights of religious minorities. Throughout the year, these interactions were significantly reduced due to the pandemic, although embassy staff continued to interact with contacts virtually. The Ambassador also met virtually with members of religious communities, including representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Baptist and Evangelical Unions of Kyrgyzstan, and discussed religious registration, interreligious relations, and religious extremism.

Moldova

Executive Summary

The constitution protects the right of individuals to practice their religion and states religious groups are autonomous. The law cites the “exceptional importance” of Orthodox Christianity. Minority religious groups and civil society said authorities continued to favor the Moldovan Orthodox Church (MOC). On multiple occasions, particularly during the presidential election campaign, President Igor Dodon expressed his support for Orthodox Christianity. The Union of Pentecostal Churches said it remained unable to obtain a zoning permit from local government officials for a building it used for religious services in Copceac village but was able to obtain a permit for a newly built church in Scoreni village. At least 285 of 1,441 Orthodox churches continued to hold services in contravention of a government public health decree in March banning all public gatherings from March to May. In March, the Supreme Court of Justice reversed a government decision to dissolve the Falun Dafa and Falun Gong Associations. The two groups reregistered, but the Ministry of Justice retained the Falun symbol on its register of extremist material, in contravention of a 2019 court decision. Religious minorities reported no progress in obtaining government restitution or compensation for property confiscated prior to the country’s independence in 1992. The Bessarabian Orthodox Church (BOC) said the Public Services Agency (PSA) illegally registered an MOC religious community in a BOC-owned church. In December, the Chisinau Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the BOC and annulled agreements by which the government had transferred more than 800 monasteries and churches to the MOC for indefinite “protection and use.” The Islamic League said law enforcement was conducting an “unprecedented” investigation of its finances.

In the separatist Transnistria Region, Jehovah’s Witnesses said they remained unable to reregister as a religious organization, but, unlike in past years, there were no reports de facto authorities conscripted Jehovah’s Witnesses or forced them to engage in defense-related civilian service contrary to their beliefs. The Muslim community was unable to secure a site for a mosque after receiving a permit for one in 2019.

There were instances of vandalism and online hate speech against minority religious groups. In July, an unidentified person tried to set fire to a Pentecostal church by throwing a Molotov cocktail through a window. The Jewish Community of Moldova (JCM) reported anti-Semitic rhetoric on the internet, the hijacking of a Jewish religious website, and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries in Chisinau, Orhei, and Balti. The BOC reported frequent harassment by the MOC as well as local officials in several communities. Unlike in previous years, other minority religious groups did not cite specific instances of discrimination or harassment, a change they attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and their reduced communal activities.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials urged the government and parliament to advance initiatives to establish a Jewish heritage museum. The Ambassador spoke at a government-hosted commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in January, noting the importance of ensuring such an atrocity is never repeated. The Ambassador welcomed progress on the national action plan for implementing the Wiesel Commission Report’s recommendations and voiced support for further progress on Holocaust education. The Ambassador and other senior embassy staff urged the de facto authorities in Transnistria to respect the rights of religious minorities. The Ambassador held virtual meetings with religious leaders to encourage respect and tolerance for all religious groups, including during the fall presidential election. Embassy officials also discussed respect for religious freedom and enhanced interfaith cooperation with representatives of various religious groups throughout the year.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 3.4 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2014 census, which does not include Transnistria, the predominant religion is Orthodox Christianity, with 90 percent of the population belonging to one of two Orthodox Christian Churches. Of Orthodox adherents, approximately 90 percent belong to the MOC, which is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church, and the remaining 10 percent belong to the BOC, which falls under the Romanian Orthodox Church. Nearly 7 percent of the population did not identify a religious affiliation. The largest non-Orthodox religious groups, accounting for 15,000 to 30,000 adherents each, are Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostals. Estimates of the Jewish population vary widely, ranging from 1,600 to 30,000 persons. According to the JCM, there are approximately 20,000 Jews in the country. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Seventh-day Adventists, evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Muslims, and atheists.

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the state shall recognize and guarantee all citizens the right to preserve, develop, and express their religious identity. It provides for equal treatment for all citizens regardless of religion and guarantees freedom of conscience, manifested in “a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect,” and of religious worship. It stipulates religious groups are independent from the state and free to organize and operate according to their own statutes. The constitution prohibits all religious groups, in their mutual relationships, from using, expressing, or inciting hatred or enmity. The constitution stipulates the state shall support religious worship, including facilitating religious assistance in the army, hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, and orphanages.

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

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

The law does not require religious groups to register, and members of unregistered groups may worship freely. However, only registered religious groups possess status as legal entities, allowing them to build houses of worship, own land for cemeteries or other property, publish or import religious literature, open bank accounts, or employ staff. Registration also exempts registered religious groups from land taxes and property taxes and allows them to establish associations and foundations. The law permits local, registered religious groups to change their denominational affiliation or dissolve themselves.

The law allows individuals to redirect 2 percent of their income tax to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or religious groups. Religious groups wanting to benefit from the provision must be officially registered and active for a minimum of one year before applying for the income tax benefit; register with the government’s PSA; use the funds received only for social, moral, cultural, and/or charitable activities and certain administrative costs; and present reports on the use of the funds. The law exempts religious organizations from registration fees and from paying tax on the income received as donations under the 2 percent law.

Under the law, a religious group wishing to register must present to the PSA a declaration including its exact name, fundamental principles of belief, organizational structure, scope of activities, financing sources, and rights and obligations of membership. The law also requires a group to show it has at least 100 founding members. A religious group must present proof it has access to premises where it can conduct religious activities, but it does not need to own this property. The PSA is required by law to register a religious group within 15 days if the registration request is made according to law. The applicant may request an extension if the government determines the documentation submitted is insufficient.

Under the law, the Ministry of Justice has the right to request a suspension of the registered status of a religious group if it “carries out activities that harm the constitution or laws” or “affects state security, public order, [or] the life and security of the people.” The law also provides for suspension or revocation of a religious group’s registration in case of violation of international agreements or for political activity.

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

The constitution provides for freedom of religious education and stipulates the state educational system should be secular. According to the law, religion classes in state educational institutions are optional. Students may submit a written request to a school’s administration to enroll in a religion class. Religion classes are offered in grades one through nine. The religious curriculum offers two types of courses: one for Orthodox denominations and Roman Catholics, and the second for evangelical Christians and Seventh-day Adventists. The religious curriculum for Orthodox and Catholic groups derives from instructional manuals developed by the Ministry of Education with input from the MOC and includes teaching guidelines developed with the support of the BOC. Regular teachers and MOC and BOC priests teach these optional courses, which focus on Orthodox Christianity. Regular teachers and representatives of the Evangelical Christian Church teach the second course, which is based on religious manuals and literature from Romania, the United States, and Germany.

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

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

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

The law mandates restoration of rights and compensation for material damages for victims of the totalitarian regimes that controlled Moldovan territory between 1917 and 1992 and for citizens who were subject to reprisals based on political, national, religious, or social grounds. The law specifically refers to private property restoration for victims of the Soviet regime but makes no mention of Holocaust-era property confiscations. The law does not apply to communal property confiscated from religious groups.

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

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

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

Transnistrian “law” prohibits proselytizing in private homes and limits distribution of religious literature to houses of worship and special premises designated by the authorities. It requires the reregistration of religious groups to operate legally in the region and stipulates groups that failed to reregister by the end of 2010 are “subject to liquidation.” The region’s registration body registers religious groups and monitors their adherence to the goals and activities set forth in their statutes. Registration provides several advantages to religious groups, including the ability to own and build places of worship, open religious schools, conduct religious services in penitentiary institutions, and publish literature.

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

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

According to the “law,” foreign religious groups may not register or undertake religious activities. Foreigners may only worship individually; they may not be founders or members of religious groups.

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

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

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

According to the “law,” citizens have the right to choose alternative civilian service over military service if the latter contradicts an individual’s religion and beliefs. The government prioritizes alternative civilian service in armed forces units, so it may assign conscientious objectors to perform their civilian service in military units. Another alternative is service at institutions subordinate to the “executive bodies of the state or local administration.”

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

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

Government Practices

During the year, the PSA registered all 29 religious entities – all that applied – consisting of new religious subgroups belonging to existing religious denominations, including the Baptist Church, MOC, BOC, Evangelical Church, and Union of Pentecostal Churches.

On March 25, the Supreme Court of Justice reversed the government’s decision to dissolve the Falun Gong and Falun Dafa Associations. The two associations shared the same founders and members. The government’s decision was based on first instance (trial) and appellate courts’ findings, the first from 2013, that the associations violated the law against extremism by using the swastika – based on Buddhist and Chinese tradition – as symbols. In September, the Falun Gong and Falun Dafa Associations were able to reregister with the PSA.

On September 17 and December 10, Falun Dafa members protested in front of the Ministry of Justice, requesting the enforcement of the 2019 Supreme Court of Justice ruling to remove the Falun symbol from the register of materials of extremist nature. At year’s end, the government had not removed the symbol from the register. Two cases filed by the Falun Dafa Association before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) remained pending at year’s end. One sought compensation for the government’s prior decision to dissolve the two associations, and the other sought compensation for the authorities’ 2010 cancelation of a performance by Shen Yun Performing Arts, a Falun Gong-affiliated performance group from New York, reportedly because of pressure from the Chinese government. In 2019, the ECHR asked the government and Falun Dafa to try to reach an agreement on compensation in the two cases, but the two parties had not agreed to a settlement by year’s end. In December, Falun Dafa submitted a new case to the ECHR, alleging a violation of the right to peaceful assembly after the Chisinau mayor’s office denied the group members permission to hold a rally during the visit of a Chinese delegation in 2017. Falun Dafa had exhausted all legal remedies pertaining to the case in local courts.

In October, BOC representatives accused the PSA of illegally registering a church belonging to the BOC in Dereneu village, Calarasi Region, under the MOC’s authority. BOC officials stated the church in Dereneu had been a subject of dispute between the MOC and BOC since 2017, when the parish and parishioners decided to switch legally and canonically from the MOC to the BOC. According to BOC Secretary Andrei Buclis, upon a request submitted by Dereneu Mayor Vasile Revenco and several MOC parish councilors in August, the PSA reregistered the church in the absence of a protocol signed by the community members in violation of the law, which made possible the transfer of the Dereneu church to the MOC’s authority. The BOC also stated the PSA made the change upon consulting with the MOC several days after it had agreed to reactivate the Dereneu church under the BOC.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Chisinau said it had sent a number of letters to the government complaining that the registration law provisions pertaining to the organization of religious groups was incompatible with Catholic canon law. The rector of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Chisinau, Father Petru Ciobanu, stated that canon law grants bishops the authority to organize new parishes and appoint priests, while Moldovan law requires that newly registered religious communities be created through the initiative of community members, with leadership chosen by the members. The diocese said the issue remained unresolved at year’s end.

The JCM said the government did not properly maintain most Jewish cemeteries across the country or protect them from acts of vandalism. The community also stated that some of the government work conducted in 2018-19 to rehabilitate the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau, one of the largest in Europe with more than 40,000 graves, significantly damaged the tombstones and the cemetery’s fence. In August, the JCM sent a request to the Office of the Prosecutor General to investigate work that it said “caused large-scale damages, including the destruction and vandalism of tombstones, which are monuments of cultural and religious value” and how more than 13 million lei ($761,000) in public funds for the cemetery renovation were spent. On November 27, the Office of the Prosecutor General decided not to open a criminal case regarding the cemetery renovation spending, citing a lack of elements constituting a crime, a decision the JCM said it planned to challenge.

The project announced by the government in 2018 to open a Jewish museum that would include the Jewish cemetery and a Yad Vashem-style Jewish historical and cultural center in Chisinau remained on hold at year’s end following disagreement between the JCM, the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research, and the Chisinau mayor’s office over the museum location and concept. According to the JCM, work on the cemetery stopped in January 2019 and work on the museum had not yet started at year’s end.

In reaction to vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in Chisinau, Orhei, and Balti, the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research, which oversees the Jewish museum and cultural center project, announced the installation of video surveillance equipment at the cemetery in Chisinau to prevent similar incidents in the future. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration condemned the vandalism at the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau, stating “the destruction of Jewish gravestones and monuments is a barbaric attack not only on the memory of the Jews… but is also challenging the entire Moldovan society.” On December 4, parliament enacted amendments to the criminal code, increasing penalties for “acts of vandalism and desecration of tombs, monuments or places revered by persons belonging to various religious groups” to up to two years’ imprisonment or 180-240 hours of community service and a maximum fine of 47,500 lei ($2,800).

On July 21, JCM President Alexandr Bilinkis, Cahul Regional Council President Marcel Cenusa, Cahul mayor Nicolae Dandis, and State Secretary for Culture Andrei Chistol officiated at the opening of a memorial to Holocaust victims in Cahul. The memorial was erected on the site of a former ghetto where the Nazis detained more than 1,000 Jews and carried out killings in 1941-44. In a message sent on the occasion, Prime Minister Ion Chicu encouraged authorities to include a chapter about the Holocaust in the school curriculum so that “children could learn about the horrors of this unjust war.”

Leaders of the Islamic League stated that, starting in August, the Police National Investigations Inspectorate conducted “unprecedented” investigations of the league’s finances and assets. Law enforcement officers interviewed and requested documents from the Islamic League’s president, Imam Sergiu Sochira, and were reportedly investigating the source of funds the league used for the 2010 purchase of the building that houses the Chisinau Mosque. Law enforcement requested the names and contact information for all the persons who donated money to buy the building. The investigations were underway at year’s end.

Unlike previous years, minority religious groups did not report obstacles obtaining construction permits for houses of worship from local authorities, as most construction was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government again rejected the Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran communities’ attempts to regain title to property confiscated during the Soviet era or to obtain similar properties. In contrast, the MOC continued to have use of and exercise control over most confiscated “historic” religious properties under an agreement with the Ministry of Culture, but the government retained title to the properties. On December 30, after more than 10 years of litigation, the Chisinau Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the BOC’s suit challenging the 2003 agreement, annulling it and the 2008 lease agreement between the Ministry of Culture and MOC that transferred more than 800 monasteries and churches held as national heritage monuments from the state to the MOC for “indefinite use and protection.” The decision was subject to appeal within 30 days. According to the BOC’s lawyer, if the decision stood, the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research would be obliged to sign separate agreements with individual religious communities for the use of each property.

A property dispute case the Roman Catholic Church filed against the government before the ECHR in 2012 remained pending. The property, currently part of the Presidency building complex, was a Catholic school nationalized by the Soviet regime. The ECHR’s requests for information on the government’s position on the case or the possibility of reaching an amicable settlement remained unanswered.

Jehovah’s Witness leaders reported that several cases related to obtaining zoning permits for Kingdom Halls remained underway. On June 26, the Vulcanesti City Court dismissed a fine that the chief architect (urban planner) of Ceadir-Lunga had issued in 2018 against Jehovah’s Witnesses for unauthorized construction (building without a permit). The Supreme Court had already ruled in 2018 that the group had a valid permit, allowing it to complete the construction and use the building as a place of worship.

The Union of Pentecostal Churches successfully obtained a zoning permit from local authorities for its newly built church in Scoreni village, Straseni Region. New local council members elected in October 2019 issued a permit in 2020, reversing a 2019 local council rejection of the Church’s initial request.

The Union of Pentecostal Churches stated that it remained unable to obtain a zoning permit for a building in Copceac village it bought in 2006 and used for religious services. While the Comrat Court ruled in favor of granting a zoning permit for the building in March, local authorities did not comply with the ruling and insisted that the church be moved to a different location in the village. The Pentecostal Church sued the local authorities, but in August the Comrat Court dismissed the case. In September, the Church appealed the dismissal to the Comrat Court of Appeals. At year’s end, the case was pending. The Church continued to use the building for religious services.

Local authorities continued to refuse to carry out a 2010 court ruling that ordered the issuance of a zoning permit for a Pentecostal Church prayer house built in Pirlita village, Falesti Region. In February, in a secret vote that the Church said violated the law, village councilors again rejected the enforcement of the 2010 court ruling. On October 6, the Pentecostal Church filed an appeal requesting the Falesti court to provide the reasons for its failure to enforce the ruling for more than 10 years. On November 13, the court dismissed the case, stating that the 2010 court ruling was clear and it was the bailiff’s duty to ensure its enforcement. In December, the bailiff sent a request to the local authorities in Pirlita to enforce the 2010 decision. Local authorities postponed examination of the request to 2021. The Church continued to use the prayer house for worship despite the lack of a permit.

The MOC continued to maintain a network of social assistance sites, including day-care centers and temporary shelters within churches and monasteries, and provide spiritual guidance and services to police officers, state workers, and prison inmates. Other registered religious groups had access to state facilities upon request.

According to minority religious groups, including the JCM, the Islamic League, the Baptist and Pentecostal Churches, and civil society groups such as the Promo-LEX Association, authorities continued to exhibit preferential treatment toward the MOC compared with other religious groups. The government invited MOC priests to officiate at state-sponsored events and major holidays. For example, on Chisinau City Day in October, MOC Metropolitan Vladimir officiated at the ceremonies along with President Dodon and Mayor Ion Ceban. On a few occasions, the government also invited BOC leaders to official events, such as ceremonies at schools marking the opening of the academic year. The new presidential administration invited the MOC, BOC, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, and other religious leaders to the swearing-in ceremony of President Maia Sandu on December 24.

In December 2019 and January 2020, the Hincesti City Court dismissed two fines of 750 lei ($44) each that authorities had levied on a Jehovah’s Witness couple on charges of obstructing religious freedom by insulting religious feelings. Authorities had issued the fine after a complaint by a local Orthodox priest who, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, repeatedly harassed and, on one occasion in 2018, attacked the Jehovah’s Witness couple; the couple had appealed the fine.

On multiple occasions during the year, particularly during the electoral campaign for the November 1 presidential election, President Dodon voiced support for the Orthodox faith and the MOC. For example, on October 20, Dodon started his electoral campaign agenda in Balti with a visit to the Cathedral of Saints Constantine and Helena stating, “We must preserve our national values, Moldovan traditions and Christian faith – which is the basis of Moldovan statehood.”

According to the PSA, 111 religious groups (versus 97 in 2019), received funds from income tax payments voluntarily directed to religious groups.

A March 17 government-issued state of emergency decree in response to COVID-19 included a ban on all public gatherings, including religious services, until May 15. The Public Health Agency warned that the high proportion of elderly persons in enclosed spaces and certain church customs, including kissing the priest’s hand and sharing the communion spoon, posed a risk for COVID-19 transmission. Clerics, parishioners, and several political leaders, including President Dodon, criticized the ban on religious gatherings, especially during Lent and the Easter holiday. MOC leaders openly lobbied the government to lift what it called “drastic measures.” MOC Metropolitan Vladimir stated that the Church was being “subjected to political intrigues.” On March 24, some national and local authorities began levying fines of 22,500-25,000 lei ($1,300-$1,500) on priests who continued holding religious services. On March 29, Prime Minister Ion Chicu, who described churches as among the locations with the highest risk of infections, expressed concern that traditional services continued in at least 285 of the country’s 1,441 Orthodox churches.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The JCM reported instances of anti-Semitic hate speech and multiple incidents of vandalism. Pentecostals reported an instance of attempted arson and the obstruction of religious services by a local mayor and an Orthodox priest during the year, and the BOC reported harassment by the MOC. Unlike in previous years, most other religious minorities, including the Muslim community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baptist Church, did not report religiously motivated incidents against their members, attributing their absence to COVID-19 restrictions that shifted attention away from religious minorities and made them less visible.

Numerous property disputes from prior years between the MOC and BOC remained unresolved in the courts. According to BOC Secretary Andrei Buclis, MOC priests, local authorities, and MOC followers continued to exert pressure and impede the activity of the church in Dereneu village, which in 2017 switched from the MOC to the BOC. Upon the registration of a new “St. Nicholas” BOC community in Ocnita on January 3, MOC Edinet and Briceni Bishop Nicodim publicly called BOC priest Sergiu Grosu “uncanonical,” banning MOC priests from engaging in any communication with him. The local and regional public administration also criticized the activity of the new BOC church in Ocnita. According to the BOC lawyer, Father Archimandrite Vartolomeu Puitirziu, priest and senior abbot of a new BOC monastery registered in May in Marandeni village, Falesti Region, received two visits from unknown individuals in the summer with warnings “not to serve in Marandeni and find a job elsewhere.” The lawyer also stated the local MOC priest from Marandeni, which is part of MOC’s Balti and Falesti Bishopric, and local elected officials also exhibited hostility towards the BOC priest. The lawyer said that, on several occasions, the local MOC priest called on the parishioners to avoid going “to a monastery that is schismatic and not canonical.” Several cases submitted by the BOC in previous years were still pending before the ECHR.

The Union of Pentecostal Churches reported one attempted arson case during the year. On July 23, an unknown individual tried to set fire to the prayer house in Pirlita village, Falesti Region. A masked individual threw a Molotov cocktail through the church window and ran away. The church watchman quickly extinguished the fire and alerted a church representative, who called the police. Citing a heavy workload, police did not arrive on the scene until almost 11 hours after the incident was reported. The officer refused to take one of the Molotov cocktail bottles found on the scene as evidence, citing a lack of necessary biometric identification equipment at the Falesti Police Inspectorate. At year’s end, police had not identified any suspects. Authorities also never identified arsonists who set fire to the same church in 2018. The Union of Pentecostal Churches sent complaints to the Falesti prosecutor’s office and the Office of the Prosecutor General’s requesting an investigation and prosecution of the arsonists. The prosecutor’s office said it had not found the perpetrators and suspended the cases.

According to the lawyer of the Union of Pentecostal Churches in Moldova, on March 8, International Women’s Day, the Pentecostal church in Petresti village, Ungheni Region, organized a social, cultural, and religious program for local women. During the event, a group of 10 local residents led by the local mayor and an Orthodox priest disrupted the program, entered the church, and began removing the chairs where churchgoers were seated. The mayor said he was “the master” in the locality and promised to “destroy the building.” Meanwhile, the Orthodox priest with a group of Orthodox adherents impeded persons from entering the church premises to attend the festivities. The Pentecostal church filed a complaint with police, but it did not receive a response.

The Jewish community reported several acts of vandalism during the year. In July, unknown individuals wrote the inscription “Read the Bible to see who the Yid is” at an exhibit dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the Chisinau-Tel Aviv Sister Cities Agreement. The JCM filed a complaint with police. The case was pending at year’s end. Between October 30 and November 1, unknown individuals vandalized and drew Nazi symbols on more than 82 tombs at the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau. The Chisinau police department opened a criminal case. The JCM reported similar grave desecration incidents in Orhei and Balti during the year.

On December 8, the JCM issued a public statement expressing its concern regarding an increase in hate speech directed against the community and its members by opinion leaders, politicians, news portals, and journalists and the growth of anti-Jewish statements that contribute to the incitement of interethnic hatred and anti-Semitism in public discourse. Examples the JCM cited included comments responding positively to the desecration of Jewish tombs and negatively to the inauguration of the memorial in Cahul to Jews killed in the Holocaust and chartering of flights to Israel during the COVID-19 pandemic. The JCM called on television channels and other media, online portals, human rights organizations, and law enforcement to uphold standards protecting human rights and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. The Equality Council said it would examine the matter, while the Audiovisual Council found no violations of the Audiovisual Code – a decision the JCM said it would challenge. According to the JCM, no media reacted to its statement.

The JCM reported reconstruction of the Rabbi Tsirelson Synagogue and Yeshiva in Chisinau continued but faced delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapse of one of the walls, which required a redesign of the project. In November, authorities issued a new construction permit based on the updated blueprint.

According to the Islamic League, biased and at times discriminatory societal attitudes toward Muslims remained unchanged. The league did not report any religiously motivated incidents against Muslims, unlike in previous years.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials raised religious freedom issues, including freedom of worship for religious minorities in the Transnistria region, the protection and preservation of Jewish heritage sites, and the need to advance religious and communal property restitution, as well as initiatives to establish a Jewish heritage museum, in meetings with Prime Minister Chicu, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and the de facto authorities in Transnistria.

In August and September, the Ambassador met with Minister of Education, Culture, and Research Igor Sarov to discuss issues of religious freedom and the U.S. Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act report to Congress on actions taken to provide restitution for property confiscated during the Holocaust and the Communist era. The Ambassador encouraged the government to take action to advance the restitution of seized communal and religious property. He offered U.S. expertise and assistance with this process and agreed to continue discussions on the issue. In September, the embassy held an additional meeting with State Secretary for Culture Andrei Chistol to further advance restitution efforts.

In November, the Ambassador raised the subject of Jewish cemetery desecration with Prime Minister Chicu, Minister of Foreign Affairs Aureliu Ciocoi, Minister of Interior Pavel Voicu, and Minister of Education, Culture, and Research Igor Sarov, encouraging them to act swiftly to bring the perpetrators to justice and to ensure that religious monuments are adequately protected.

In September, a senior embassy representative sent a letter to the Transnistrian chief negotiator and de facto foreign minister Vitaly Ignatiev urging Tiraspol authorities to respect fundamental human rights, including those of religious minorities.

In January, the Ambassador spoke at an event marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and noted “the importance of considering the lessons of the past and ensuring that the world never witnesses again such an atrocity.” The Ambassador welcomed the country’s progress on the National Action Plan for the implementation of the Elie Wiesel Commission Report’s recommendations and voiced his hope for further progress on Holocaust education and the creation of a museum of Jewish history. The Ambassador noted the U.S. government’s readiness to provide assistance to teach young people about the Holocaust, combat anti-Semitism, and preserve the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau as a properly maintained and respected place of reflection. As part of the Holocaust remembrance week in January, a senior embassy officer gave remarks at an event honoring the “Righteous Among the Nations” held at the Jewish cultural center KEDEM and welcomed “the chance to pay tribute to the memory of those non-Jewish heroes who saved countless lives – those we call the ‘righteous among the nations.’”

In January, the acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor met with Jewish community representatives in Transnistria to discuss challenges facing the community and opportunities for enhanced cooperation with the United States and institutions in the rest of the country.

Embassy officials met with leaders and representatives of the MOC, BOC, JCM, Roman Catholic Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ, Islamic League, Falun Gong Association, Baptist Church, Lutheran Church, and Pentecostal Church to discuss the state of religious freedom and ways to enhance interfaith cooperation.

In January and February, the embassy hosted showings of a documentary on Holocaust remembrance and displays about Righteous Among the Nations in Chisinau. The embassy also amplified messages related to religious freedom via social media platforms.

Montenegro

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion as well as the right to change one’s religion. It specifies there is no state religion and stipulates equality and freedom for all religious communities. The law prohibits religious discrimination and hate speech. Religious groups, particularly the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), continued to state that the laws governing their legal status were inadequate. The SOC organized massive nationwide protests and prayer marches against a religion law – and particularly its property provisions – that went into effect in January. The new law requires religious groups to provide proof of ownership of certain religious property or lose title to it. Religious communities are not required to register but must do so to own property and hold bank accounts. The SOC refused to register. On December 29, the newly elected parliament passed amendments to the law that would remove the proof of property ownership provisions and alter the requirement that existing religious groups register to acquire legal status. The amendments had not become law by year’s end. Authorities arrested and detained SOC clergy on multiple occasions for what they said were violations of COVID-19 public health restrictions. Religious groups continued to dispute government ownership of religious properties and the transfer of cemetery ownership to municipalities or other entities. The SOC challenged transfers of properties that it said it owned by municipal authorities to the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC) and private individuals. The SOC and MOC continued to dispute ownership of 750 Orthodox sites. A public school teacher in Bar was widely condemned and dismissed for inviting her students to participate in a prayer service at an SOC church. The SOC said the Ministry of Interior continued to deny visas to its clergy.

Following August parliamentary elections, there were reported acts of violence against religious groups and their members, including the shooting of an Islamic Community of Montenegro (ICM) member’s home, the smashing of windows of ICM facilities, and threatening messages and acts of intimidation targeting Bosniaks and other Muslims in Pljevlja and other cities with religiously diverse populations. Religious and political leaders across the spectrum condemned the attacks and issued statements of support. After being criticized for slow progress in investigating the cases, police arrested three suspects for writing anti-Bosniak graffiti in the Pljevlja attacks on October 30.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed the law on religion and relations between religious groups and the government and advocated religious tolerance with the President and other government officials, including officials in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, the Ministry of Justice, Human, and Minority Rights (MHMR), until December known as the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights, and mayoral and municipal offices throughout the country, and with religious representatives. After the attacks on the Muslim community following the parliamentary elections in August, the Ambassador met with the head of the ICM to express her concern and support.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 610,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 72 percent of the population is Orthodox, generally belonging to either the SOC or MOC, although the census does not differentiate between Orthodox groups. According to 2020 data from the nongovernmental organization (NGO) the Center for Democracy and Human Rights (CEDEM), the SOC is estimated to account for approximately 90 percent of the Orthodox population, while the MOC makes up the remaining 10 percent. The 2011 census reports 19.1 percent of the population is Muslim, 3.4 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.2 percent atheist. In addition, 2.6 percent of respondents did not indicate a religion, and several other groups, including Seventh-day Adventists (registered locally as the Christian Adventist Church), Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, other Christians, and agnostics, together account for less than 1 percent of the population. According to the World Jewish Congress, approximately 400 to 500 Jews live in the country. The next census is scheduled for 2021.

There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: ethnic Montenegrins and ethnic Serbs are predominantly associated with Orthodoxy, ethnic Albanians with Islam or Catholicism, and ethnic Croats with the Catholic Church. Many Bosniaks (ethnic Bosnians who are Muslim) and other Muslims live in the northern towns of Rozaje, Pljevlja, Bijelo Polje, Petnjica, Plav, and Gusinje near the border with Serbia and along the eastern and southern borders with Kosovo and Albania.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion as well as the right to change religion. It guarantees the freedom of all individuals to express their religion in public and private, alone or collectively, through prayer, preaching, custom, or rites, and states individuals shall not be obliged to declare their religious beliefs. The constitution states the freedom to express religious beliefs may be restricted only if required to protect the life and health of the public, peace and order, or other rights guaranteed by the constitution. It specifies there is no state religion and guarantees equality and freedom for all religious communities in religious activities and affairs. The constitution permits courts to prevent propagation of religious hatred or discrimination and prohibits political and other organizations from instigating religious hatred and intolerance.

By law, it is a crime to cause and spread religious hatred, which includes publication of information inciting hatred or violence against persons based on religion, the mockery of religious symbols, or the desecration of monuments, memorial tablets, or tombs. Violators may receive prison sentences ranging from six months to 10 years. If a violation is committed through the misuse of an official position or authority or leads to violence, or if the courts determine the consequences are detrimental to the coexistence of peoples, national minorities, or ethnic groups, the prison sentence ranges from two to 10 years.

The criminal code prescribes a fine of between 200 and 16,000 euros ($250-$19,600) or up to two years’ imprisonment for restricting an individual’s freedom to exercise a religious belief or membership in a religious group or for preventing or obstructing the performance of religious rites. The code also provides for a fine of 600 to 8,000 euros ($740-$9,800) or a maximum of one year in prison for coercing another person to declare his or her religious beliefs. Any government official found guilty of these crimes may receive a sentence of up to three years in prison.

The law on Freedom of Religion or Beliefs and Legal Status of Religious Communities (religious freedom law) went into effect on January 8, replacing a law from 1977. The new law removed previous exemptions for unregistered religious groups to maintain status as legal entities. It also added provisions requiring religious communities to prove ownership of certain religious buildings and properties built or acquired prior to December 1, 1918, or risk their loss to the state.

Under the 1977 law, religious groups formed after 1977 were obligated to register, although there was no penalty specified for failing to do so. Groups formed prior to 1977 were exempted from registration. Under the new law, religious groups are not required to register, but all must do so to acquire legal status. Only groups with legal entity status have the right to own or rent property; hold bank accounts in their own name; hire employees; receive a tax exemption for donations and sales of goods or services directly related to their religious activities; and receive judicial protection of their community, members, and assets. The new law states that unregistered religious groups may operate freely with the right to practice their faith, including proselytizing and receive donations. Unregistered groups remain eligible to receive financial or other assistance from the state through the MHMR.

To register under the new law, a religious group must have at least three adult members who are citizens or have legal status in the country, provide its name and organizing documents, the names of its officials, address of the group’s headquarters, and location(s) where religious services will be performed. The group must have a headquarters in the country and a name that differs from groups already registered.

The new law provides two different registration procedures. Religious communities registered with local and federal authorities under the 1977 religion law and active in the country on January 8 were entered into the inventory of existing religious communities by submitting an application to the MHMR within nine months of enactment of the law (i.e., by October 8, 2020). For those religious groups not registered under the previous law, a designated representative must submit an application for registration containing the prerequisites specified by the MHMR.

The new law also requires religious entities to prove ownership of religious buildings and land they use that were built or acquired with public revenues or were owned by the state prior to December 1, 1918. It also requires evidence of ownership for religious buildings constructed through the “joint investment” of citizens (i.e., funded in part through private citizen contributions) prior to December 1, 1918. In instances where religious entities cannot provide evidence of ownership, the law stipulates the property or land in question becomes the property of the state as part of the country’s cultural heritage. The new law does not define what constitutes “proof of ownership” and leaves the question of adjudicating ownership within the existing framework of laws on administrative and civil procedures.

Under the new law, the government institutions responsible for property affairs are obliged to create, by January 8, 2021, a list of religious buildings and land deemed to be owned by the state and to submit a request for registration of ownership rights in the real estate registry, after which the real estate registry will inform the religious communities. The law does not establish processes for redress or compensation in instances where the state reclaims a religious property or land.

There are 16 religious groups registered or enrolled (the latter term applies to groups that originally registered under the 1977 law) within the register of religious groups overseen by the MHMR: the MOC; the ICM; the Roman Catholic Church (Archdioceses of Bar and Kotor, registered as two groups); the Jewish Community of Montenegro (JCM); the Christian Adventist Church; Jehovah’s Witnesses; the Diocese of Podgorica-Duklja of the Orthodox Church of Montenegro; the Church of Christ’s Gospel; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Montenegro; the Evangelical Church of the Word of God; the Christian Lighthouse Center; the Mosaic Christian Community; the Biblical Christian Community; the Community of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and the Baha’i Community in Montenegro. The SOC has not applied for registration.

The government has agreements with the ICM, JCM, and Holy See that further define the legal status of the respective groups and regulate their relationship with the state. The agreement with the Holy See recognizes Catholic canon law as the Church’s legal framework and outlines the Church’s property rights. The agreements with the ICM and JCM have similar provisions. The agreements establish commissions between each of the three religious communities and the government. The government has no such agreements with the SOC, MOC, or the other recognized religious groups.

The law allows all religious groups, including unrecognized ones, to conduct religious services and rites in churches, shrines, and other premises designated by local governments, but it requires approval from municipal police for such activities at any other public locations.

The law does not provide for religious groups to file for restitution of, or compensation for, property confiscated during the communist era. Individuals and private entities may file such claims.

The Directorate for Relations with Religious Communities within the MHMR regulates relations between state agencies and religious groups and is charged with protecting the free exercise of religion and advancing interfaith cooperation and understanding. The MHMR provides some funds to religious communities and oversees communication between the government and religious communities. The ministry is also in charge of drafting new legislation defining the status and rights of religious organizations.

The law forbids “the abuse of religious communities or their religious sites for political purposes.”

The law provides prisoners the right to engage in religious practice and have contact with clergy. Prisoners may request a diet conforming to their religious customs.

The constitution recognizes the right of members of minority national communities, individually or collectively, to exercise, protect, develop, and express “religious particularities” (i.e., religious customs unique to their minority community); to establish religious associations with the support of the state; and to establish and maintain contacts with persons and organizations outside the country who share the same religious beliefs.

By law, religion may not be taught in public primary or secondary schools. The Islamic Community operates one private madrassah at the secondary school level, and the SOC operates one secondary school, both of which offer religious instruction and follow the state curriculum in nonreligious matters.

The law prohibits discrimination, including on religious grounds. Offenses are punishable by a prison term of six months to five years. The Office of the Protector of Human Rights (ombudsman) is responsible for combating discrimination and human rights violations, including those against religious freedom, by government agencies, including public schools. Allegations of such violations in the private sector are outside of the jurisdiction of the ombudsman and must be litigated in court. The ombudsman may investigate complaints of religious discrimination and, if it finds a violation, may request remedial measures. Failure to comply with the ombudsman’s request for corrective action within a defined period is punishable by fines of 500 to 2,500 euros ($610-$3,100). Government agencies generally implement the ombudsman’s recommendations, although often with delays. If necessary, the courts may enforce such recommendations.

The constitution exempts conscientious objectors, including those objecting for religious reasons, from military service. Alternative service is not required.

The constitution states that foreign nationals fearing persecution in their home countries on the grounds of religion have the right to request asylum.

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

Government Practices

Demonstrations against the new religion law, which began before parliament approved it in late December 2019, continued almost daily through January 14 (Orthodox New Year’s Day). The SOC stated that the new requirement for evidence of property ownership would unfairly allow the state to assert ownership of certain SOC religious buildings and land, resulting in “confiscation and nationalization of religious facilities.” SOC officials said the law did not specify what constituted acceptable “evidence of ownership” and expressed concern the state would deem the SOC’s existent property ownership documents as insufficient.

The SOC also protested the new registration procedures, arguing that by registering, the SOC would be legally recognized as a newly established religious group rather than one that existed before the new law. The SOC organized protest marches on January 10. At that time, the SOC organized a new form of peaceful protest: the litije, or manifestations of piety in the form of prayer marches or gatherings. Litije were most commonly held in places with large populations, such as Podgorica, Niksic, Berane, and Bar, as well as in communities with strong ties to opposition parties, including the coastal city of Budva, and with majority ethnic Serb populations, including the northern cities of Bijelo Polje, Zabljak, and Pluzine. Initial SOC estimates placed the total number of persons in simultaneous, countrywide protests on certain days at 50,000, later increasing to 100,000 to 200,000 participants; government sources put the number at 27,000 to 63,000. Officials from the then-ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) stated that many participants were foreigners, particularly Serbs from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The SOC committed to organizing litije every Thursday and Sunday following Orthodox New Year’s Day until the religious freedom law was repealed. According to media reports, SOC leaders decried the religious freedom law as a “blatant confiscation and nationalization of religious facilities,” with “Save Our Shrines!” becoming the rallying cry among their supporters.

In response to anonymous calls for violence on social media sites such as Facebook, the SOC, police, and government officials coordinated efforts to prevent the protests against the new law from devolving into violence, according to published statements from these officials. The Metropolitan of the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral, Amfilohije Radovic, and the SOC Episcopal Council in Montenegro issued repeated calls to keep litije peaceful and apolitical. On January 24, the SOC Episcopal Council issued a statement reasserting the importance of the peaceful nature of the protests. The statement asked protesters to behave with dignity and peace, in opposition to calls among some protesters on social media for escalatory violence. Prior to each litija, SOC clergy repeated these calls. SOC officials also asked Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to cancel a visit on Orthodox Christmas Eve to avoid the risk of violence. Vucic cancelled the visit. On January 7, National Police chief Veselin Veljovic praised SOC actions in keeping the peace and appealed to the public for calm, warning against what he called potentially malign influence.

On February 14, then-Prime Minister Dusko Markovic and several ministers met for five hours with Metropolitan Amfilohije and other SOC officials on the religion law but failed to reach agreement. Government and SOC representatives met again on March 11 but again failed to agree on the issue of property ownership. Both sides called the talks “respectful and open” but suspended further dialogue because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also in March, the SOC suspended the litije in accordance with government COVID-19 public health measures prohibiting public gatherings, including for religious purposes. Instead, the SOC hosted “virtual litije” on Facebook, where each week 22,000-66,000 participants participated and asked questions of Metropolitan Amfilohije and other SOC clergy. After a brief suspension of the public health restrictions, the government reinstituted them in June, again barring religious gatherings in public places but permitting them on the property of a group’s religious facilities.

On April 12, police detained Metropolitan Amfilohije along with several other high ranking SOC priests for violating mandatory COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings during a Palm Sunday liturgy at a Podgorica monastery. Police questioned the SOC officials and released them without charge. The SOC and several pro-SOC opposition political parties criticized the detention; Dragan Krapovic, a leader of the then-opposition party Democrats Montenegro, described it as the “instrumentalization of police for the purpose of achieving political goals.” The SOC also criticized police for singling out an SOC priest and publicly identifying him by his occupation and nationality after police detained him on April 9 for violating the ban on intercity transit. In July, the priest was forced to leave the country after authorities rescinded his temporary residence permit.

On May 12, police detained Joanikije Micovic, the SOC Bishop of Budimlje and Niksic, and eight other SOC priests for violating COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings following a procession marking the feast of Saint Vasilije of Ostrog, the patron saint of their municipality, Niksic. The SOC had cancelled the traditionally large procession in accordance with public health restrictions, but several thousand SOC believers, whom Andrija Mandic, one of the leaders of the then-opposition alliance Democratic Front (DF), encouraged to attend in a speech in parliament, gathered at the Church of St. Basil and called for a litija. Church officials said they subsequently supported the litija because they feared “what might happen” if the parishioners marched alone. After hours of questioning, prosecutors ordered that Bishop Joanikije and the eight other priests be held in detention up to 72 hours, the maximum duration permitted by law before charges must be filed, for violation of public health measures against public gatherings.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the police station where the bishop was held and shouted insults at police. SOC protesters also gathered in Bijelo Polje, Pljevlja, and Berane, and on the road between Tivat and Budva. Police briefly detained two priests for questioning in Bijelo Polje and one in Tivat.

Between May 13 and 15, thousands of SOC supporters organized protests, calling on authorities to release Bishop Joanikije and the priests. In Niksic, Pljevlja, and Andrijevica, protesters threw stones and shouted “Ustashe” (a reference to World War II fascists) at the police officers, who in some cases used tear gas to disperse the protests. Police arrested and detained, and prosecutors filed charges against, several dozen individuals responsible for the protests, in which more than 30 police officers and dozens of citizens were injured. Protests without major incidents also took place in Berane, Bijelo Polje, Budva, and Podgorica, although police also arrested or charged with misdemeanors dozens of persons in those cities.

On May 14, then-Prime Minister Markovic addressed the public, stating the mass gatherings and protests were brutal attacks on the country and carried unforeseeable consequences; he also said the SOC was working for foreign interests and endangering public heath under the guise of religious rights and freedoms. Metropolitan Amfilohije urged the government not to create divisions and called on the people to refrain from provoking authorities, while calling for the immediate release of Bishop Joanikije and the SOC priests and for police and judicial authorities to end “violent behavior towards peaceful and nonviolent protesters.”

On May 15, the Basic Prosecutor’s Office in Niksic released Bishop Joanikije and the eight other priests. The head of the Basic Prosecutor’s Office, Stevo Sekaric, said he was seeking to indict the bishop and eight priests for violating the government’s COVID-19 preventive measures. The clerics’ defense lawyers told media that the government’s preventive measures were unconstitutional and that the priests did not commit any crimes.

Upon his release, Bishop Joanikije was greeted by several thousand SOC supporters and said, “The fight will continue, as we want freedom of religion, rule of law, and the constitution and laws to be observed.” On May 16, the Basic Prosecutor’s Office in Niksic proposed an indictment against the clergymen, which the Basic Court in Niksic accepted, but the subsequent preliminary hearing was postponed three times. The court had not rescheduled a new hearing by year’s end.

On June 12, then-Prime Minister Markovic announced that he and President Milo Djukanovic had spoken with Metropolitan Amfilohije and Bishop Joanikije on June 4 and proposed suspending implementation of the religious freedom law until the Supreme Court and European Court of Human Rights issued opinions on it. Markovic also offered to revive expert talks immediately. Amfilohije, Joanikije, and the SOC Episcopal Council rejected the offer, stating that it was part of political campaign which sought to enlist the SOC in the creation of the “party church.” Later, the SOC’s legal expert team characterized the offer as illegal, stating the government had no mandate to suspend the implementation of any law. In the end, the government did not ask the Supreme Court or the European Court of Human Rights to review the law.

On June 14, the SOC resumed the litije, the first of which had an estimated 5,000 participants nationwide. Many of the gatherings surpassed the 200-person limit that the government had set for public gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As many as 2,000 persons protested in Podgorica alone. Police made no arrests or attempts to disband the gatherings but called in 14 SOC priests from across the country for questioning and later detained Father Mirceta Sljivancanin, head priest of the Podgorica Cathedral, and Father Zeljko Calic of the Danilovgrad parish. Both priests had signed the request to hold a protest as its organizers. The prosecutor’s offices in Podgorica and Danilovgrad ordered 72-hour detentions for violating COVID-19 restrictions. The priests were released after approximately 22 hours, after the investigative judges revoked the detention orders and permitted the priests to defend themselves outside of police custody.

Metropolitan Amfilohije accused the DPS of taking the two priests into custody for political reasons and said he personally would sign the registration for the June 21 litija. According to unofficial sources, an estimated 23,000 SOC supporters across the country participated in that litija. At the litija in Podgorica, Amfilohije called on government supporters to reconsider whether to vote for those who insist on “a lawless law.” The SOC issued a press statement denying it was interfering in politics, but the DPS dismissed its denial as “ridiculous.” On June 22, the Basic Prosecutor’s Office in Podgorica filed criminal charges against Amfilohije, as a formal organizer of a gathering of more than 8,000 persons in Podgorica, for violating COVID-19 preventive measures. No hearing was subsequently scheduled, however. After six hours of questioning – the maximum duration permitted by law – at the police station in Podgorica, police released Amfilohije, who expressed “disgust” that authorities were treating the SOC and its priests like “criminals.” The SOC’s defense lawyer filed a complaint against the prosecutor, Nikola Boricic. Boricic stated that he had requested Amfilohije’s release after approximately three hours of questioning, but police had held him longer.

On June 25, Amfilohije led several thousand SOC supporters in a litija in the coastal town of Tivat in contravention of the government’s preventive measures regarding public gatherings. He again urged the government to withdraw the religious freedom law, asserting that “only insane people” would vote again for the ruling parties in upcoming national parliamentary elections on August 30. Relatedly, in an interview with Croatian public broadcaster HRT, President Djukanovic said the SOC was “an instrument in the hands of Greater Serbia nationalism” that wished to put Montenegro “under Russia’s security and interest umbrella.”

In July, the SOC again suspended the litije due to a resurgence of COVID-19. Metropolitan Amfilohije and other SOC leaders, however, continued to criticize the DPS, while members of the DPS stated the SOC had revealed itself to be a political, rather than a religious, institution. On July 14, Amfilohije called on citizens to vote for those who did not “legitimize lawlessness” or support the “antichurch legislation.” In August, Amfilohije again invited all citizens to vote in the upcoming elections. At the same time, he repeated that the SOC neither belonged to any political coalition nor desired to interfere in the August 30 elections. Government officials accused SOC priests, the vast majority of whom were Serbian citizens, of religious coercion and of conducting a nationwide door-to-door campaign encouraging citizens to vote against the DPS.

On August 26, then-Prime Minister Markovic stated in an election campaign speech that after an expected electoral victory, he would respond “fiercely” to the SOC. In referring to the SOC demonstrations, Markovic stated they would be “endured” until August 30, after which they would no longer be “tolerated.” Markovic further stated that he would “open the borders” to those who “curse Montenegro,” saying that they had “no foundations here” and would be returned to their homes “where they came from.”

After the electoral victory of the opposition parties Za buducnost Crne Gore (For Montenegro’s Future), Mir je nasa nacija (Peace Is Our Nation), and Crno na bijelo (Black on White), mostly pro-DPS media stated there was a close relationship between then-Prime Minister-designate Zdravko Krivokapic and the SOC. According to the reports, there were rumors that Metropolitan Amfilohije had handpicked Krivokapic, a professor with no political background, who came to prominence only weeks before the election as the head of an NGO opposing the religious freedom law, to head the Za buducnost list. Krivokapic denied a special relationship with the Metropolitan and said he saw the country as a secular state.

While Amfilohije and Bishop Joanikije acted as mediators during an early discussion among members of the new majority coalition on the formation of a government, SOC officials stated that, except for the removal of the articles on property ownership from the religious freedom law, the Church had no interest in politics.

Other religious groups, including the Catholic Church and the ICM, said the issue of religious properties outside of the scope of the religious freedom law was a critical issue for them. Those religious communities stated they agreed on the need for religious property ownership to be regulated by clearly written laws, but they stated that those laws should be separate from the religious freedom law. The Catholic Church and ICM said that of particular importance was the issue of restitution of, or compensation for, property wrongfully seized by the current and previous governments from religious groups or their members. This issue was particularly common with respect to places of worship and cemeteries.

On December 29, parliament passed a revised bill on religious freedom (“revised bill”) that required the signature of the President and publication in the official gazette before entering into force. At year’s end, President Djukanovic had not signed the bill, and it had not become law. The revised bill would remove the requirement for religious communities to provide proof of ownership for religious land or properties held prior to 1918 and remove the stipulation that the government must generate a list of religious property that it believed to be of disputed ownership, stipulating that property disputes would be settled in accordance with the existing legal code.

The bill would also alter the provision that existing unregistered religious communities must register to obtain legal status. Instead, existing religious communities that had been operating in country as legal entities would be entered into either a registration book for existing religious communities or another registration book for new religious communities. Both books would exist within one “unified register” to be established three months after the law entered into force. All religious groups registered or enrolled under the existing 2020 law would be recorded in the book of existing religious communities. The criteria for registration would remain largely unchanged from the existing 2020 law.

In addition, the revised bill would, for the first time, legally recognize waqf, endowments made within the Islamic community, as a source of revenue for religious communities.

The MHMR stated the Ministry of Finance and the Property Administration had started the process of creating a list of all properties which might fall under the cultural heritage of the state. The requirement that the government compile this list and complete it by January 8, 2021, would be eliminated if the revised religious freedom bill became law.

The new government established after the August parliamentary elections cited the forthcoming January 8 2021 deadline as one of the reasons for the expedited approval process for the December revisions, which did not include a public comment period. Prior to parliament’s vote approving the revision of the law, the government stated it had invited members of the Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, SOC, and MOC communities for consultations, asking them to share ideas or concerns. According to the government, all communities except the MOC accepted the invitation for consultations. Several religious groups said that, while the amendments in the December bill were an improvement over the existing law, they failed to address longstanding issues of property restitution and taxation. The ICM, Catholic Church, and JCM released a joint statement calling the comment period too short but citing their appreciation for the government’s efforts. SOC Bishop Joanikije in a December 22 interview stated that, under the new law, “no one is privileged, but all faiths are equal,” but added that under different circumstances, the SOC would “demand the complete overhaul of the discriminatory law.” The MOC condemned the revised bill, calling it “treasonous” and stating that it allowed “50 square kilometers of church land, 60 monasteries, and 650 churches to be registered as property of Serbia.”

On December 28, the day before the vote on the amendments to the religion law, thousands of protesters demonstrated against the bill in Podgorica, calling on parliamentarians to vote against the bill. According to press reports, one protest organizer, Nemanja Braticevic, was quoted as saying the new government “is handing Montenegrin cultural treasure to the Serbian Orthodox Church and to Serbia.” The protesters had the support of members of several opposition parties, including the former ruling party, the DPS, and the Social Democratic and Liberal Parties. Dragutin Papovic, a DPS parliamentarian, said the amendments discriminated against two-thirds of the country’s citizens and that “This government gives a monopoly to only one religious community and only one nation.”

Catholic Church officials stated that, as one of the largest property owners in the country, the Church was and continued to be engaged in numerous property disputes with the government and the SOC. The communist Yugoslav government confiscated many of the Catholic Church’s properties in Bar and Ulcinj, and the government had not restituted the properties or compensated the Church. Instead, according to Church officials, during the 1990s, the government registered some properties previously held by the Catholic Church as belonging to the SOC. Catholic Church officials also expressed concern about what it said was the SOC’s preoccupation with property acquisition. Church officials stated the SOC had designs on Catholic Church properties in Bar and Ulcinj. They added that after the SOC took over ownership and management in the 1990s of a cemetery in Ulcinj that had previously been divided into areas for Catholic parishioners, SOC believers, and nonbelievers, Catholics could continue to bury their dead there, but the SOC no longer permitted nonbelievers to do so.

The longstanding controversy between the SOC and the government over the “metal church” at the top of Mt. Rumija, which the SOC built without state approval on a site that observers said was of importance to Orthodox, Catholics, and Muslims, and the SOC’s reconstruction, also without state approval, of the baptistry in the Monastery of Holy Archangel Michael on Prevlaka Island outside Tivat remain unresolved. On June 6, local media reported that the municipal council in Pljevlja, with government approval, had decided to sell property that included a mill the SOC said belonged to the Monastery of the Holy Trinity. Opposition political parties challenged the sale, and SOC Bishop Atanasije of Milesevo threatened legal action if the sale went forward, stating that registration of the mill as a property of the municipality was illegal. The property continued to be available for purchase to the highest bidder but had not yet sold at year’s end. The SOC said it was gathering documentation attesting to its ownership of the mill. The SOC and opposition parties called the attempted sale a pilot project for the confiscation of SOC property under the religious freedom law.

On June 10, officials from the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Tourism demolished what they said was an illegally constructed SOC dormitory at the Monastery of St. Basil in Briska Gora near Ulcinj. The ministry said that the SOC had not applied for a building permit and that “the building disturbed the ambient completeness” of an 18th century church. Authorities also filed criminal charges against Metropolitan Amfilohije and the SOC for the construction. The SOC questioned why the government deployed an antiterrorism unit to a site staffed by three nuns and stated that it had been in the process of addressing the building permit issue.

The local newspaper Dan reported that, on September 8, the Administrative Court of Montenegro declared the municipality of Cetinje would assume control of the SOC cemetery in Ceklici. The ruling confirmed a previous decision by the Ministry of Finance and the Property Administration authorizing the transfer of ownership. The SOC called the Administrative Court’s decision illegal, adding that the president of the Administrative Court was a DPS member who came from the Ministry of Justice.

The ICM continued to raise concerns about the past transfer of two Islamic cemeteries in Podgorica and Berane from the ICM to, respectively, the municipality of Tuzi and a local utility company. The ICM said it received a significant share of its revenue from funeral services it provided for worshippers, but with cemeteries under the control of municipal authorities, local governments were able to exert significant influence over the revenue stream of the ICM.

Because of COVID-19 health concerns, the government refused to grant permission for religious groups’ clerics to preside over burial services, limiting attendance to close family members. Both ICM and SOC officials expressed dissatisfaction with these restrictions.

On October 18, then-Prime Minister Markovic announced the government provided funding for the purchase of land to expand a municipally owned cemetery in Bijelo Polje dedicated to the ICM. The government paid 165,200 euros ($203,000) to the municipality of Bijelo Polje to expand the existing cemetery by 10,600 square meters (114,000 square feet).

On October 15, the then-national government approved a proposal by the municipality of Podgorica to transfer a parcel of land near the city center free of charge to the MOC to build a religious facility. According to the proposal, the value of the land was estimated at 658,920 euros ($808,000), and the MOC planned to construct a 4,848 square meter (52,200 square foot) facility. The SOC contested the proposal, stating it had evidence proving its prior ownership of the property, confiscated during the communist era. The municipality temporarily withdrew its proposal after the Basic Court in Podgorica, responding to a lawsuit filed by the SOC, ruled that the proposal should not be discussed until the legal status of the property was resolved. On December 17, the local council, consisting of representatives from the DPS, its coalition members, and the United Reform Action Party, voted to transfer the land to the MOC. On the same day, the new national government overrode the local council and reversed the previous government’s approval of the transfer, citing the parcel’s disputed legal status. Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic asked municipal authorities to cede a different parcel to the MOC. The basic court had not yet made a final ruling on the matter at year’s end.

On October 6, local media reported that Rada Visnjic, a teacher at the Jugoslavija primary school in Bar, contacted students from her class via social media and asked them to join her in a service at the SOC Church of St. Jovan Vladimir to pray for a good school year. The incident, which was contrary to a prohibition on religious activity in public schools, led to significant public discussion. The MHMR stated the teacher had deepened societal divisions by imposing her personal religious views on the children, and the Ministry of Education called on school authorities to sanction the teacher. School officials suspended Visnjic before making a final decision about the case. The school had previously suspended her in February for asking students to draw the tricolor flag that was the symbol of litije opposing the religious freedom law.

The NGOs Juventas and the Center for Civic Education called on authorities to take quick action against Visjnic, calling manipulation of children for religious purposes by teachers one of the most severe of abuses. Various political parties across the political spectrum, including the DPS, the Bosniak Party, and members of the new majority coalition, condemned her. The ICM stated it found Visnjic’s actions especially troubling, as she was in a position of authority over the students, and she didn’t give any thought about the effect her call would have on children who were of a faith other than Orthodox Christianity. The ombudsman’s office initiated an investigation of what it described as the violation of children’s rights and called on the public and the media “not to fuel the abuse of these or any other children.” On November 25, the school management informed the public that it had found Visnjic to be in breach of duty and had terminated her employment.

In February, the Army chief of staff, General Dragutin Dakic, issued an order specifying that, while soldiers were free to practice their faith, they could not participate in the litije, characterizing them as political protests. In May, the ombudsman issued an opinion that the order banning participation in the litije violated soldiers’ rights. In March, the army suspended soldier Darko Mrvaljevic and initiated disciplinary proceedings against him for participating in the litije. Mrvaljevic appealed to the ombudsman, who in September issued an opinion that the army violated Mraljevic’s right to freedom of assembly and association. The army subsequently allowed Mrvaljevic to return to duty while disciplinary proceedings continued.

Government officials continued to express public support for the Jewish community with messages expressing good wishes for Jewish holidays Passover and Yom Kippur. On September 27, President Djukanovic stated that members of the Jewish community were an inseparable part of all of the country’s common achievements and offered his firm support for building peace and fostering interfaith and interethnic dialogue. On December 11, the Minister of Justice, Human, and Minority Rights, Vladimir Leposavic, joined the President of the JCM for a Menorah lighting.

The SOC said the Ministry of Interior continued to deny visas to its foreign clergy based on discriminatory procedures that required work documentation from a registered employer, although the SOC was not legally required to register and was fully recognized. The SOC stated it had 158 legal cases open of priests who could not obtain public documents, identification cards, driver’s licenses, or work permits or could not access public health services or schooling.

On April 18, authorities ordered the expulsion of Pluzine parish priest Miroslav Mihailovic once COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted on grounds that he was a Serbian citizen who was not properly registered, despite having been in the country for nine years. Mihailovic had called on believers to come to the local church the day after the Orthodox Easter service to light candles, despite calls from SOC leaders to stay home. Media reported that police brought Mihailovic in for questioning for violating restrictive COVID-19 measures. Instead of pressing charges against him, prosecutors notified the parish that Mihailovic would need to leave the country after COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted, since he was a Serbian citizen living in the country without proper registration. In another case, priest Konstantin Dojic and his minor child were detained for seven days at the Ilino Brdo border crossing with Bosnia and Herzegovina after being denied permission to enter the country. According to the SOC, the priest, who along with his son, were Canadian citizens, had served in Niksic for eight years. Police denied them access because Canada was not on the list of countries from which citizens could enter the country under COVID-19 restrictions. The ombudsman asked police authorities to allow entry of the minor child on humanitarian grounds and allow the father to enter on the basis of family reunification. After the seven days at the border, the authorities allowed them entry.

Several religious groups continued to express a desire for broader or clearer tax exemption rules and said they hoped to raise the matter with the new government. SOC officials often stated that religious communities did not truly benefit from a tax-free status, as they generally paid value-added tax (VAT) on all their purchases, and private individuals could not deduct donations they made to religious organizations from their taxes. The JCM also raised the issue of VAT payments on their purchases and said it had asked the government to include a provision in the revised bill on religious freedom exempting the construction of religious shrines from VAT. The ICM said it had had to pay a sizeable VAT on imported funeral vehicles it had received as a donation.

In February, the Tax Administration published a multimillion-euro (multimillion-dollar) tax bill, including bank account information, that it had issued to the SOC, an act the SOC, economic analysts, and civic activists criticized as a breach of privacy. In July, the Tax Administration published only the total tax liabilities of the ICM, the SOC, and Catholic Church. All three religious communities contested the accuracy of the data. In response, the MHMR stated in October it had received inquiries from the religious groups regarding their outstanding tax bills and would seek to find a suitable tax payment model in the ensuing months.

The Catholic Church and ICM reported that banks had frozen their bank accounts as a result of the religious freedom law, which required religious groups to register to obtain legal status. According to the ICM, banks asked for its registration documentation, including its founding act, which the ICM was not required to provide, as it was already entered into the registry of existing religious communities. The affected religious communities stated that these issues lasted for six months, until the government had compiled a register of religious communities. The SOC stated its accounts were not frozen.

The MHMR continued to provide funding to some religious groups, which they could use for maintenance of religious shrines, educational or cultural projects, or social and medical insurance for clergy. Groups apply for funding to the MHMR Minister, who makes decisions based on the recommendations of a three-person commission that he appoints and that evaluates all funding requests. The MOC received 57,586 euros ($70,700), the ICM 49,493 euros ($60,700), the SOC 38,095 euros ($46,700), the JCM 18,500 euros ($22,700), the Catholic Church 25,000 euros ($30,700), and the Diocese of Podgorica-Duklja of the Orthodox Church of Montenegro 9,180 euros ($11,300). Recognized religious communities also continued to receive in-kind assistance from other government ministries and from local governments.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During celebrations on August 30 marking the victory of opposition parties in parliamentary elections, there were reports of separate attacks on Bosniaks and their property in Podgorica, Niksic, and Pljevlja. On the morning of September 2, former Chief Imam of Pljevlja Samir Kadribasic announced that unknown assailants smashed windows at the office of the ICM in Pljevlja. Kadribasic told media that someone threw a message through a broken window warning that “The black bird will fly; Pljevlja will be Srebrenica.” Kadribasic raised concerns about future attacks on Muslims, particularly Bosniaks, and that the incident would prompt a negative response by Bosniaks both in Montenegro and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Kadribasic asked that Minister of Interior Mevludin Nuhodzic and police take immediate action to investigate the attacks, stating the ICM would hold them directly responsible if they failed to bring the perpetrators to justice. The ICM in Pljevlja said unknown persons shot at the residence of an ICM member. No one was injured.

On September 2, Reis Rifat Fejzic, leader of the ICM, visited the sites of the attacks in Pljevlja. He called on the Muslims of Pljevlja to deal with the difficult political and security situation in a civilized way and not to fall prey to provocations by political factions. He also declared that the state must act to protect the Muslims of Pljevlja from acts of ethnic cleansing reminiscent of those in the 1990s.

The SOC and the JCM both issued statements calling the attacks on Muslims in Pljevlja an attack on all citizens of the country. Metropolitan Amfilohije added that the violence was “a great human shame” and appeared to be a deliberate provocation intended to disrupt relations among residents of Pljevlja based on religious affiliation. MHMR representatives also visited Pljevlja and met with residents and local officials. Political parties, the SOC, and the international community all condemned the attacks. Head of the Za buducnost Crne Gore electoral list and later Prime Minister-elect Krivokapic blamed the DPS for inciting the attacks, while the DPS blamed Krivokapic and Metropolitan Amfilohije.

The MHMR praised all the religious communities for coming together and calling for peace after the disturbing incidents. It also said that many members of Islamic community decided not to report incidents to police, as they feared that it would aggravate their situation.

As a result of a request from the NGOs Human Rights Action and Institute Alternative, police reported that, during the unrest between August 31 and September 9, authorities had only filed a total of two criminal charges against two persons for inciting national, racial, and religious hatred and aggravated bodily harm, and three misdemeanor charges against two persons for gross insult and especially insolent behavior and physical assault or physical confrontation. The NGOs made an appeal to police to find and identify the perpetrators of the reported incidents.

On September 29, the Basic State Prosecutor’s office in Pljevlja reported that an investigation of an assault on Muslim politician Sanin Rascic on the night of August 30 found that the assault was neither at the hands of those celebrating the election result nor motivated by ethnic hatred. The Basic State Prosecutor filed criminal charges against Rascic for causing panic among citizens by his statements. According to media reports, Rascic stated that on the night of the election, he felt great fear for himself and his family due to convoys of trucks with ship’s sirens circling the city and shouts of “Move out Bosniaks” being heard. Rascic identified his attacker, whom he said insulted and threatened him and attempted to remove him from his car. Rascic stated that, although he was uninjured, his car was damaged.

On December 17, at the trial in the basic court in Pljevlja, the prosecution cited what it said were discrepancies in Rascic’s account, including his identifying one attacker to police but later telling the media there were more. Police stated during the trial that Rascic appeared visibly frightened when identifying his attacker. Rascic pled not guilty and said media incorrectly reported his statement. The ICM stated that Rascic said he had previously experienced similar assaults and was considering seeking asylum in another country. The trial was scheduled to resume on December 25 but was postponed until February 2021.

On October 30, prosecutors announced the arrests of three members of an organized crime group on charges of inciting the attacks in Pljevlja and posting graffiti constituting hate speech against Muslims. In November, media reported that the high state prosecutor in Bijelo Polje brought charges in five cases. Four of the cases involved charges against a group of five individuals, while the fifth was against one or more unknown perpetrators. According to High State Prosecutor Husan Lukac, all five cases were in the investigative phase. In all cases perpetrators were charged with the criminal offense of inciting racial, religious, and national hatred.

The SOC reported that religiously motivated incidents in the village of Martinici in Gusinje, a municipality that is 94 percent Muslim, continued through the year. The SOC reported that on July 12, the gate of the ruins of the Church of St. Basil of Ostrog was destroyed. Vandals had previously destroyed a cross placed on the ruins in 2019. The SOC restored the gate and the cross, but on September 22, unidentified vandals again tore down the cross. Police did not identify the perpetrators. According to an SOC report, a local priest in Gusinje also received death threats on June 24 due to his religion and ethnicity. The case was reported to police and the perpetrator was known, but no criminal charges were filed.

There was no progress in resolving disputes between the SOC and the MOC regarding the ownership of 750 Orthodox sites, most of which are held by the SOC. The two groups continued to celebrate religious holidays at separate locations under police protection.

On September 8, Metropolitan Amfilohije announced building or renovation plans for SOC shrines, including restoration of the Church of St. Peter of Cetinje at the top of Lovcen Mountain and construction of the Church of the Holy Trinity in an area between the Biljarda, a museum, and the government house in Cetinje. The SOC also posted plans on its website to rebuild the monastery on Briska Gora and to build a church in honor of Patriarch Gavrilo in his home village of Vrujci. Following those announcements, members of Patriotsko komitski savez (Patriotic Alliance of Komitas) put up a banner in Cetinje stating they would stop the Church’s renovation plans.

In September, the JCM elected a new president, Nina Ofner Bokan, to replace Djordje Raicevic. Ofner Bokan stated she would focus her efforts on strengthening the Jewish community, preserving the Jewish cultural and national identity, and promoting multiculturalism and social harmony.

On October 30, after the death of Metropolitan Amfilohije, the Holy Synod of the SOC appointed Bishop of Budimlje and Niksic Joanikije Micovic as the Administrator of the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and Littoral. Following Amfilohije’s death, then-Prime Minister-elect Krivokapic called for a public day of mourning, stating that the country had lost “one of the greatest among us in this century.” Speaker of Parliament Aleksa Becic noted he hoped Amfilohije’s successor would not “walk the thorny paths that the Metropolitan, with his people, walked with dignity and pastoral care.” President Milo Djukanovic and then-Prime Minister Markovic both extended their condolences, with the former stating that the “overall activity of Metropolitan Amfilohije in Montenegro will be appreciated by history.” Thousands of persons attended Amfilohije’s funeral. On December 30, a mural of Amfilohije in Kolasin was vandalized. The new Metropolitan was expected to be elected in May 2021 by the Council of Bishops.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers regularly met with government officials responsible for religious issues at the MHMR and at local mayoral and municipal offices throughout the country, with officials in other ministries, including the Prime Minister’s cabinet, and with President Djukanovic to discuss relations between the government and religious groups, the new religious freedom law, and property restitution of religious groups.

On May 14, the Ambassador held an online Ramadan conversation with the leader of the ICM, Reis Fejzic, in lieu of the traditional iftar due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the topics discussed were the difficulties religious communities and the ICM faced due to COVID-19 restrictions. The Ambassador also met with the Reis on September 4 at the ICM madrassah in Tuzi to discuss the attacks on members of the Muslim community following national elections on August 30 and to express U.S. support for the community.

On December 10, the Ambassador participated in two Hannukah celebrations, lighting the menorah together with JCM President Bokan, and joining permanent Chief Rabbi of Montenegro Ari Edelkopf for an online celebration. At the former ceremony, the Ambassador discussed with President Bokan her views on the status of the Jewish community in the country.

Other embassy officials had regular contact with representatives of all major religious communities in the country, such as the SOC, MOC, Jewish community, ICM, and Catholic Church, to discuss their concerns, particularly in light of the new religious freedom law and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as well as their aspirations for the new coalition government elected on August 30.

North Macedonia

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion and religious expression. It grants equality before the law for all individuals regardless of religious belief. An amendment to the constitution cites five religious groups that automatically receive tax exemptions and other benefits: the Macedonian Orthodox Church, Islamic Religious Community in North Macedonia (IRC), Catholic Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, and the Jewish Community. Other religious groups must register to receive the same benefits. Registration applications by the Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid (OAO), affiliated with the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community, a Sufi group, remained pending with Skopje Basic Court II, following a May 2019 European Commission (EC) report calling on the government to comply with previous European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings that the government should reconsider its earlier rejections of these groups’ applications. The Bektashi (Tetovo) again reported harassment of its members by the government and the IRC. The IRC said the government continued to show favoritism toward the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Ohrid Archbishopric (MOC-OA), and smaller religious groups continued to report unequal government treatment compared with the five constitutionally named groups. In September, President Stevo Pendarovski and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev sent public letters asking Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople to bestow autocephaly on the MOC-OA, actions the OAO characterized as government meddling in religious affairs. On March 10, the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) 2013 working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion. On February 7, the governing political party Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), in response to anti-Semitic statements on social media, condemned “all forms of hate speech, anti-Semitism, or any other direct or indirect humiliation or discrimination of individuals and groups.”

The Bektashi (Tetovo) Community continued to dispute the IRC’s claims to full ownership of, and plans to renovate, the Harabati Baba Teqe, a complex the Bektashi (Tetovo) used as its headquarters. Media reported several incidents of theft, and the government reported one incident of vandalism against Orthodox cemeteries, compared with 12 acts of theft or vandalism of Orthodox sites in 2019. The government also reported one theft at a mosque. In January, the Jewish Community and the Holocaust Fund posted on social media their joint condemnation of hate speech and anti-Semitic comments. In May, the Jewish Community reported to authorities multiple anti-Semitic and hate speech postings by a Facebook group called “Ninurta Macedonia.” The investigation was pending at year’s end.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials met with representatives from the government to discuss religious freedom issues, including improved interfaith cooperation and governmental respect for and equal treatment of faith groups. Embassy officials met with representatives of religious minority groups, including Bektashis (Tetovo), Jews, and Evangelical Methodists.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent national census, in 2002, an estimated 65 percent of the population is Orthodox Christian and 33 percent Muslim. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni. There are a small number of Sufi groups, including several Bektashi orders. Also according to the national census, other religious groups that together constitute less than 2 percent of the population includes Catholics, various Protestant denominations, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Jewish Community estimates it has approximately 200 members.

The majority of Orthodox Christians live in the central and southeastern regions. Most Muslims live in the northern and western parts of the country. There is a correlation between ethnicity and religious affiliation: the majority of Orthodox Christians are ethnic Macedonian, and most Muslims are ethnic Albanian. Most Roma and virtually all ethnic Turks and ethnic Bosniaks are Muslim, and most ethnic Serbs and Vlachs are Orthodox Christian. There is also a correlation between religious and political affiliation, as political parties are largely divided along ethnic lines.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality of rights for all citizens regardless of religious belief. It grants freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their faith freely and in public, individually, or with others. The constitution also protects the religious identity of all communities. The constitution states restriction of freedoms and rights may not be applied to personal conviction, conscience, thought, or religious confession. An amendment to the constitution cites five religious groups that automatically receive tax exemptions and other benefits: the Macedonian Orthodox Church, IRC, Catholic Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, and Jewish Community. It stipulates these five groups, as well as other registered groups, are separate from the state, equal before the law, and free to establish schools, charities, and other social institutions. The law allows other religious groups to obtain the same legal rights and status as these five groups by applying for government recognition and registration through the courts. The constitution bars political parties or other associations from inciting religious hatred or intolerance.

The law defines hate crimes as criminal offenses against a person, legal entity, or related persons or property committed because of a real or assumed characteristic, including nationality, ethnic origin, and religion or belief, of the victim. Hate speech and hate crimes are punishable criminal acts and may result in harsher sentences for other crimes when hate crime elements are involved. Penalties range from one to 10 years in prison and a minimum of 10 years’ imprisonment for hate crimes leading to death.

Religious organizations may apply to register as a “church,” a “religious community,” or a “religious group.” These classifications are based on group size, internal organization, and internal hierarchy. The law treats these three categories equally, bestowing the same legal rights, benefits, and obligations on all of them. The government recognizes 38 religious organizations, including the five named in the constitution. The total consists of 18 churches, 10 religious communities, and 12 religious groups. Once registered, a church, religious community, or religious group is exempt from taxes and is eligible to apply for restitution of properties nationalized during the Communist era (provided the group or community existed during that era), government-funded projects, and construction permits for preservation of shrines and cultural sites. It may also establish schools. Unregistered groups may hold religious services or other meetings and proselytize, but they may not engage in certain activities such as establishing schools or receiving donations that are tax deductible for the donor, and they are not tax-exempt.

Skopje Basic Court II accepts registration applications and has 15 business days to determine whether a religious organization’s application meets the legal registration criteria. The criteria are a physical administrative presence within the country, an explanation of its beliefs and practices that distinguishes it from other religious organizations, and a unique name and official insignia. An applicant organization must also identify a supervisory body in charge of managing its finances and submit a breakdown of its financial assets and funding sources, as well as minutes from its founding meeting. The law allows multiple groups of a single faith to register. Leaders or legal representatives of registered religious groups must be citizens of the country.

The court sends approved applications to the Committee on Relations between Religious Communities and Groups (CRRCG), a government body responsible for fostering cooperation and communication between the government and registered religious groups, which adds the organization to its registry. The CRRCG has no oversight or ability to influence the registration process. If the court denies the application, the organization may appeal the decision to the State Appellate Court. If the appellate court denies the application, the organization may file a human rights petition with the Constitutional Court, the highest human rights court in the country. If the Constitutional Court denies the petition, the organization may appeal the case to the ECHR.

The law does not permit religious organizations to operate primary schools but allows them to operate schools at the secondary level and above. Religious high schools use their own curricula and are not subject to the Ministry of Education’s certification. Students in religious high schools are not permitted to take the required national matriculation examination (baccalaureate) and therefore are unable to enroll in universities. The ministry requires sixth-grade students and above to take one of three elective courses, two of which have religious content: Introduction to Religions and Ethics in Religion. According to the ministry’s description, these courses teach religion in an academic, nondevotional manner. Orthodox priests or imams, depending on demand from parents and students, usually teach the courses, with ministry consent, and the state pays their salaries. The Ministry of Education mandates that all teachers of these subjects receive training from accredited higher education institutions taught by professors of philosophy or sociology. If students do not wish to take a course on religion, they may take the third option, Classical Culture in European Civilization.

All foreigners who seek to enter the country to carry out religious work or perform religious rites must obtain a work visa before arrival, a process that normally takes approximately four months. The CRRCG maintains a register of all foreign religious workers, and various government offices may approve or deny them the right to conduct religious work within the country. The CRRCG issues the approvals for temporary residence permits and/or working visa requests for missionaries and religious workers on behalf of registered churches, religious communities, and religious groups; the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy verifies they do not violate the country’s labor laws; and the Ministry of Interior looks at security aspects. Unregistered groups may seek work permits and visas according to the normal procedure. Work visas are valid for six months, with the option to renew for an additional six months. Subsequent visa renewals are valid for one year. There is no limit to the number of visa renewals for which a religious worker may apply. Clergy and religious workers from unregistered groups are eligible for visas.

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

Government Practices

At year’s end, Skopje Basic Court II had not taken action to comply with the May 2019 EC full country report, which called on the government to implement earlier ECHR rulings to respect the rights of the OAO and the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community. In 2017, the ECHR ruled the government violated the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the Convention) by rejecting the OAO’s earlier application for religious-group status. In 2018, the ECHR made a similar ruling regarding the Bektashi (Tetovo). The 2020 European Commission Progress Report, published in October, stated North Macedonia needed to implement the 2018 ECHR ruling.

Although the government compensated the OAO 9,500 euros ($11,700) for damages and court fees as required by the 2017 ECHR ruling in 2019, OAO authorities continued to state the government refused to register the group, interfered in the work of the judiciary in cases involving the OAO, and exerted pressure on the OAO to reapply for registration under a new name. The OAO cited a letter from Skopje Basic Court II in February requesting the OAO change its name because the court could not differentiate it from the MOC-OA. At year’s end, the OAO’s 2009 registration application, without a name change, remained pending with Skopje Basic Court II.

The government paid the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community compensation in June 2019 for damages and court fees as required by the 2018 ECHR ruling, but it took no further action in 2020. The group’s 2010 registration application remained pending with Skopje Basic Court II at year’s end.

According to government officials, the ECHR rulings did not change the country’s legal requirement that an applicant’s name be different from an already registered religious group; hence both the Bektashi (Tetovo) and the OAO needed to change or modify their names to register in court. According to these officials, the Bektashi (Tetovo) remained unregistered, mainly due to its unresolved property disputes with the IRC, the IRC’s interference with the courts, and because two other Bektashi communities were already registered, both in Kichevo. The officials said in the case of the OAO, registration had not been possible because it preferred to operate under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Church and would not accept the removal of “AO” from its name, which the OAO considered historically important.

Skopje Basic Court II offered the OAO the opportunity to reapply with a new name in February, and the Bektashi (Tetovo) in March. Both applicants declined to consider a new name and asked the court to implement the respective ECHR rulings. There were no further developments in either case at year’s end.

In March, Skopje Basic Court II rejected the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community’s request to reexamine its registration application, based on the April 2018 ECHR ruling. The court’s October 2018 verdict stated it gave the Bektashi (Tetovo) a 30-day deadline to submit a new registration application under a name different from that of the two already registered Bektashi groups (in Kichevo). The Bektashi (Tetovo) refused and asked the court to instead implement the ECHR verdict. The court also gave the Bektashi (Tetovo) until December 15, 2019, to submit the necessary documentation and inform the court of its negotiations with the government regarding implementation of the ECHR’s ruling, which the Bektashi (Tetovo) declined to do.

The OAO and the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community said that, as unregistered communities, they continued to face discrimination and intimidation, such as lack of tax-exempt status, the inability to organize their own schools, and disparaging comments about them on social media. The OAO continued to accuse the government of bias against it and of failure to respect domestic and international law.

In June, the World Leader of the Bektashi Community, Baba Dede Edmond Brahimai, called on the government to immediately act to mend the infringement on the Bektashi’s (Tetovo) right to religious belief and property, urging then interim Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski’s government to implement (or comply with) the April 2018 ECHR ruling requiring the registration of the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community.

In January, the OAO called the Supreme Court’s December 2019 decision rejecting its request for an extraordinary review of the February 2017 Criminal Court ruling against defrocked Bishop Jovan Vraniskovski and two others for money laundering “inadmissible and unfounded.” The Supreme Court determined that Vraniskovski laundered and spent 8.6 million denars ($172,000) and that the property purchased with that money remained in the MOC-OA’s possession because Vraniskovski was an MOC-OA member at the time of purchase. In February 2017, the Criminal Court in Skopje sentenced Vraniskovski to 13 months in prison and two others to two-year suspended sentences. The appellate court upheld the criminal court’s ruling. The OAO stated the ruling was the result of government bias.

In March, the OAO said media had subjected its representatives to censorship for saying the government’s advocacy for MOC-OA autocephaly, which it began requesting in 2018, represented political interference in religious matters in violation of the country’s secular character. Additionally, OAO officials said their family members were unduly discriminated against in bureaucratic procedures for issuing certificates and travel documents.

During the year, Skopje Basic Court II received and approved three new registration applications. In June, it registered the “Bashkesia e Ehli Sunetit dhe Xhematit,” headquartered in Kumanovo and run by Sadulla Bajrami, a preacher many Sunnis said they considered controversial because they said he supported ISIS, which the CRRCG added to its registry. In December, the same court registered two groups: the Qadiriyya Badawi Group “Zakaria,” with headquarters in Kumanovo, and the “Dar al-Hadith” Islamic Salafi Community, headquartered in Skopje.

For the ninth year, the Bektashi (Tetovo) reported to police acts of harassment by individuals occupying the Harabati Baba Teqe compound in Tetovo as part of a property dispute with the IRC. Police were still investigating at year’s end. The Bektashi (Tetovo) stated these individuals stole equipment and kitchen utensils from the Bektashi (Tetovo) headquarters in Tetovo on the eve of the Sultan Nevruz spring holiday on March 22.

On May 19, Mayor of Gostivar Arben Taravari provided the IRC Mufti of Gostivar, Shaqir Fetahu, with property legalization acts for 28 Islamic religious buildings within the municipality, including for two Bektashi (Tetovo) teqes (shrines), both in the village of Vrutok. The Bektashi (Tetovo) Community said handing the property acts for teqes to the IRC, instead of the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community, was “unjust.”

The IRC stated the government treated the IRC as “its enemy,” showed favoritism toward the MOC-OA, and used a “selective justice” approach. The IRC said the government had restored less than 30 percent of property the state seized before gaining independence in 1991. Among the disputed properties was the Husamedin Pasha Mosque in Shtip, nationalized in 1955.

The IRC stated the government continued to deny a construction permit for a mosque in the ethnically and religiously mixed village of Lazhec, and that it continued to deny a permit to reconstruct a mosque in Strumica and the central mosque in Prilep, on the grounds they were cultural monuments under government, not IRC, jurisdiction.

In July, the IRC stated the government had favored the MOC-OA by granting it unique privileges, such as providing it with public properties free of charge and funding for the construction of new Orthodox churches.

The MOC-OA stated the municipality of Struga had still not ruled on an application, pending since 2013, for construction of an Orthodox church in the village of Oktisi.

Smaller religious groups continued to state the government treated them unequally and favored the religious groups listed in the constitution over others. They said Prime Minister Zaev, President Pendarovski, and other government officials often met only with the five constitutionally recognized groups.

On September 24, Prime Minister Zaev met with Archbishop Stefan and an MOC-OA delegation to discuss continued efforts to secure the MOC-OA’s autocephaly, a request Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I began reviewing in 2018. Zaev expressed support and readiness to encourage government institutions to complete denationalizing the Church’s property and protect its cultural heritage. The delegation thanked Zaev for his letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch, sent in September, and for advocating for the MOC-OA’s autocephaly. In January, former interim Prime Minister Spasovski and then former Prime Minister Zaev met with the Ecumenical Patriarch and in September, both President Pendarovski and Prime Minister Zaev sent public letters asking him to bestow autocephaly on the MOC-OA. The OAO characterized this as government meddling in religious affairs.

On September 21, parliament amended the Law on High School Education; however, issues related to certifying religious high schools, final exams, and the ability of students graduating from these schools to enroll in the country’s universities remained unaddressed through year’s end.

Some religious groups, parents, and Ministry of Education officials stated Orthodox priests and imams hired to teach the required nondenominational introductory courses on religion and ethics often emphasized the practice of their own religions instead of presenting a neutral overview of different faiths.

On March 10, the government adopted the IHRA 2013 working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion. The government tasked the Ministry of Education and Science, Bureau for the Development of Education, and Institute of Spiritual and Cultural Heritage of the Albanians (ITSH) to translate, within three months, the December 2019 IHRA Recommendations for Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust into the Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, and Serbian languages to disseminate to schools across the country.

In June, the ITSH launched a four-day online training course on Holocaust education for 45 elementary and high school teachers from around the country, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Science, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. Minister of Education and Science Arber Ademi emphasized the importance of partnership and Holocaust education in the Balkans and noted this event was part of the strategy to incorporate Holocaust education within the formal state education system and to secure tools to implement it.

On January 6, political party leaders condemned anti-Semitic comments made on social media by Vidana Boskova Micevska, affiliated with the governing SDSM political party, against the then interim Minister of Labor and Social Policy and Jewish Community member Rashela Mizrahi. Micevska wrote on Facebook, “I don’t mind that Rashela joined a fascist party. I’m sure the Nazis also had Jews who fought for better welfare rights for the Jews.” On January 7, then former Prime Minister Zaev responded on Facebook, stating the heightened use of insults on social media was “unacceptable in any democratic society.” He called on SDSM members and supporters to “be responsible and refrain from hate speech, racism, and xenophobia, as well as any speech that may be perceived as anti-Semitic.”

Media widely publicized journalist Branko Trichkovski’s February 6 anti-Semitic tweet about Mizrahi, in which Trichkovski said Mizrahi “eats hummus made of dead Jews.” On February 7, the Ministry of Interior reported it notified the Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office in Skopje of the incident. In a February 7 Facebook post, SDSM condemned “all forms of hate speech, anti-Semitism, or any other direct or indirect humiliation or discrimination of individuals and groups.” The government made no charges regarding the incident.

On March 18, the government declared a 30-day state of emergency, and on March 21, it implemented a nationwide curfew to contain the spread of COVID-19. Authorities took a series of measures to limit mass gatherings, which impacted religious groups. Some religious groups objected to the government restrictions. On April 18, a group of approximately 100 Orthodox followers ignored the restrictions and gathered in the Bigorski Monastery to celebrate Easter.

On May 7, the IRC announced its plans to reopen mosques for prayer beginning on May 12 due to the decreased number of COVID-19 cases. On May 10, the IRC issued preventive measures for worshippers, including disinfecting mosques, limiting sermons to 10 minutes, and banning gatherings before or after prayers. On May 9, the government appealed to the IRC to reconsider its decision to reopen mosques, and a government press release urged religious communities to refrain from organizing any gatherings. On May 7, hundreds of Orthodox worshippers joined a procession in Struga to celebrate St. George’s Day, in contravention of measures prohibiting gatherings.

The government called on MOC-OA Archbishop Stefan and IRC Reis Rexhepi to express concerns regarding the May 7 religious procession in Struga and the IRC’s announcement to reopen mosques, and urged them to call for worshippers to act responsibly as well as to condemn any behavior contravening government measures. The IRC, however, reopened mosques on May 12. Reportedly, the government avoided confronting the IRC regarding noncompliance with COVID-19 restrictions because police had not taken any action to prevent the Struga procession and the government did not want to be perceived as favoring one religious group over another. Sources stated that the government was reluctant to take any action after police did not prevent the litany in Struga, and that this was probably to avoid being perceived as biased toward the MOC-OA.

On June 4, the Public Prosecutor’s Office told the press it had opened a case based on public information against Povardarie Eparchy Bishop Agatangel for publicly calling on Orthodox believers from the cities and municipalities of Veles, Kavadarci, Negotino, and Gevgelija to visit churches and cemeteries for Pentecost, despite government COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

OAO officials said they and their family members were often targets of insults in media and victims of physical attacks by individuals considered close to MOC-OA. According to media, in October, cemetery personnel in Skopje-Gjorche Petrov denied a family’s request that an OAO priest perform funeral services and instead sent an MOC-OA priest. When a journalist asked why the request was denied, the MOC-OA priest verbally abused him.

The Bektashi (Tetovo) Community continued to dispute the IRC’s claims to full ownership of, and plans to renovate with Turkish assistance, the Harabati Baba Teqe complex that the Bektashi (Tetovo) used as its headquarters, including in a letter written to then interim Prime Minister Spasovski in May. Bektashi (Tetovo) representatives continued to express concern the renovation of the complex would displace them from the compound entirely. The Bektashi (Tetovo) could not assert a claim of ownership to the compound because the group remained unregistered. At year’s end, the renovation project remained pending until completion of feasibility studies.

Media reported several incidents of theft from, and the government reported one incident of vandalism against, Orthodox cemeteries, compared with 12 acts of theft or vandalism of Orthodox sites in 2019. In January, police reported that unknown individuals disassembled and stole copper gutters from a mosque in downtown Gostivar City, in the western part of the country. In April, the CRRCG condemned the desecration of the Orthodox cemetery in the Kamnik section of Skopje and urged authorities to find and prosecute the perpetrators. An investigation of the incident continued through year’s end.

In February, the MOC-OA sent a letter to the leader of the Integra political party protesting the appearance of an MOC-OA church in the background of a political ad. In July, the Jewish Community issued a press release requesting political parties not use Jewish cemeteries and insignia in political campaign ads.

In December, the Helsinki Committee in the country registered 38 incidents of hate speech with a religious component during the year, compared with eight in 2019.

In January, the Jewish Community and the Holocaust Fund posted on social media their joint condemnation of hate speech and anti-Semitic comments. They called on citizens, political parties, and institutions to reject such rhetoric and to instead embrace a culture of respect by participating in Holocaust remembrance and education. In May, the Jewish Community reported to authorities multiple anti-Semitic and hate speech postings by a Facebook group called Ninurta Macedonia. A May 12 post from this group read, “Jews’ souls are the demons’ homes” and asked that persons avoid them because they were “a universal plague,” and further calling them “dirty, cruel, and inhumane.” The investigation was pending at year’s end.

The Holocaust Fund, an NGO, continued to work with the Ministry of Education and Science on a project to train educators to teach secondary school students about the Holocaust and Jewish history. The Holocaust Fund held four webinars for that purpose during the year.

In March, the Holocaust Memorial Center opened a multimillion-dollar permanent exhibition commemorating the country’s Jewish population and the 7,148 Jews sent to the Treblinka death camp during World War II; however, the exhibit remained closed to the public for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions. As in previous years, the center conducted Holocaust education programs in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Science, until the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials held meetings with government representatives, including Minister of Interior Oliver Spasovski, Minister of Justice Renata Deskoska, and Deputy Prime Minister for European Union Affairs Bujar Osmani, to discuss issues of religious freedom and tolerance, such as improved interfaith cooperation and governmental respect for and equal treatment of faith groups.

The Ambassador discussed interfaith tolerance and cooperation with religious leaders and the importance of open dialogue with faith groups during formal and informal meetings. In February, the Ambassador engaged with a group of religious and civil society leaders from the MOC-OA, IRC, Jewish Community, Bektashi (Tetovo), Evangelical Methodists, and civil society leaders who had participated in a U.S. exchange program to discuss religious freedom, respect for diversity, the protection of cultural heritage, and the importance of respect for religious diversity.

Embassy officials met with IRC leader Fetahu and MOC-OA Archbishop Stefan to discuss religious freedom issues, including perceived government favoritism toward certain religious groups.

The embassy posted 12 messages on social media regarding religious freedom, reaching more than 62,000 followers. Topics included the annual U.S. Prayer Breakfast, the President’s proclamation on Religious Freedom Day, and a message about the important roles religious communities play in helping their congregations and their most vulnerable members confront the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pakistan

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” It also states, “A person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis) is a non-Muslim.” The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, punishment for which ranges up to the death penalty. According to civil society reports, there were many individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 35 of whom had received death sentences, as compared with 82 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges and 29 who received death sentences in 2019. According to the Center for Social Justice, a national nongovernmental organization (NGO), at least 199 individuals were accused of blasphemy offenses, a significant increase over 2019 and the highest number of blasphemy cases in a single year in the country’s history. The accused were mostly Shia (70 percent of cases) and Ahmadi Muslims (20 percent of cases). Other NGOs corroborated that 2020 had seen an increase in blasphemy cases. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a national NGO, expressed concern over a surge in blasphemy cases against religious minorities, particularly the Shia community, and the continued potential for sectarian violence. It stated that more than 40 cases against religious minorities were registered under the blasphemy laws in August alone. In October, the Lahore High Court acquitted a Christian of blasphemy, the first such ruling since 2018. The court acquitted a second Christian in December. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders continued to report they were affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation and court judgments that denied them basic rights, including a 2018 Islamabad High Court judgment that some government agencies continued to use to deny national identification cards to Ahmadi Muslims. In May, the Cabinet approved a proposal creating a National Commission for Minorities within the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Religious freedom activists and civil society groups said the proposal was “toothless” and raised concerns regarding the ministry’s lack of public consultation, the limited powers of the proposed body, and the fact that Ahmadi Muslims were excluded. The government of Punjab, the country’s largest province, passed a series of measures against Ahmadi Muslim beliefs. Throughout the year, some government officials and politicians engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. Following the July killing of U.S. citizen and self-identified Ahmadi Muslim Tahir Naseem, who was standing trial for blasphemy charges, some political party leaders celebrated the killer’s actions. In December, using expanded authorities granted by the government in November, the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority publicly demanded the removal of “sacrilegious” content from the Google Play Store and Wikipedia. NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities due to fear of retaliation, inadequate staff, or apathy. Perpetrators of societal violence and abuses against religious minorities often faced no legal consequences due to a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases. The government took some measures to protect religious minorities. On January 26, for example, a local court sentenced four boys for vandalizing a Hindu temple in Sindh’s Tharparkar District, the first attack on a Hindu temple in that area in more than 30 years; minority lawmakers and civil society activists reacted strongly to the attack. In July, religious and right-wing parties criticized the government’s plan to permit construction of a new Hindu temple in Islamabad.

Armed sectarian groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the once-banned anti-Shia group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), which is connected to other organizations banned by the government as extremist, and groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, continued to stage attacks targeting Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), however, the number of sectarian attacks and killings by armed groups decreased compared with previous years, corresponding with a continued overall decline in terrorist attacks. The government continued to implement the National Action Plan against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism as well as conducting military and law enforcement operations against violent groups. Multiple civil society groups and faith community leaders stated the government had increased efforts to provide enhanced security at religious minority places of worship, which had been frequent targets of attack in past years. Police and security forces throughout the country enhanced security measures during religious holidays in consultation with religious leaders.

Throughout the year, unidentified individuals targeted and killed Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazaras, and Ahmadi Muslims in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. There were a series of additional violent incidents targeting Ahmadis following the Tahir Naseem killing in a Peshawar courtroom. An Ahmadi trader in Peshawar was shot near his business on August 12. On October 5, also in Peshawar, Ahmadi professor Naeemuddin Khattak was shot and killed while driving home from work. On November 9, also in Peshawar, unknown gunmen killed an 82-year-old retired government worker who was a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community while he was waiting for a bus. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities. Sunni groups held three large rallies in Karachi in September, with speakers warning Shia Muslims of dire consequences, including beheadings, if they continued to blaspheme against the Prophet Mohammed’s companions. NGOs expressed concern about what they stated was the increasing frequency of attempts to kidnap, forcibly convert, and forcibly marry young women from religious minority communities, especially young Hindu and Christian women. There continued to be reports of attacks on holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of Hindu, Christian, and Ahmadiyya minorities. According to Ahmadi Muslim civil society organizations, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, as provided for in the National Action Plan. Civil society groups continued to express concerns about the safety of religious minorities.

Senior Department of State officials, including the Office of International Religious Freedom’s Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, the Charge d’Affaires, consuls general, and other embassy officers met with government officials and senior advisors to the Prime Minister, including the Minister for Human Rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect. Embassy officers continued to engage civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts in discussing ways to combat intolerance and promote interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom. Visiting U.S. government officials met with religious minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of religious minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion. The embassy highlighted the principles of religious freedom and examples of interfaith dialogue in the United States on its social media platforms throughout the year. U.S. government cultural centers in Khairpur, Hyderabad, and Karachi held events to promote religious freedom. Following the killing of Tahir Naseem, the Department of State issued a statement expressing outrage over the killing and noting that Naseem had been lured from his home in the United States by individuals who used blasphemy laws to entrap him. The statement also called on the government to reform its blasphemy laws and court system and to ensure that the suspect in Naseem’s killing be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Following the killing of Ahmadi physician Tahir Ahmad in November, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom posted an official tweet calling upon authorities to ensure the safety of all Pakistanis.

On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 234.4 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the provisional results of a national census conducted in 2017 (the most recent), 96 percent of the population is Sunni or Shia Muslim. According to government figures, the remaining 4 percent includes Ahmadi Muslims (whom national law does not recognize as Muslim); Hindus; Christians, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants, among others; Parsis/Zoroastrians; Baha’is; Sikhs; Buddhists; Kalash; and Kihals and Jains.

Sources vary on the precise breakdown of the Muslim population between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunnis are generally believed to be 80-85 percent of the Muslim population, and Shia Muslims, including Hazara, Ismaili, and Bohra (a branch of Ismaili), are generally believed to make up 15-20 percent. Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups. Religious community representatives estimate religious groups not identifying as Sunni, Shia, or Ahmadi Muslim constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population.

According to the 2017 census results, the population is 1.6 percent Hindu, 1.6 percent Christian, 0.2 percent Ahmadi Muslim, and 0.3 percent others, to include Baha’is, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Taking into account the Ahmadi boycott of the official census, however, community sources put the number of Ahmadi Muslims at approximately 500,000 to 600,000. Estimates of the Zikri Muslim community, located in Balochistan, range between 500,000 and 800,000 individuals. Several minority rights advocacy groups dispute the provisional results of the 2017 census and state the numbers underrepresent their true population and their political influence, because minority seats in the national and provincial parliaments are allocated based on census figures.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” According to the constitution, every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, subject to “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the glory of Islam,” as stipulated in the penal code. According to the penal code, the punishments for persons convicted of blasphemy include the death penalty for “defiling the Prophet Mohammed,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” Speech or action intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. Under the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for reviewing internet traffic and reporting blasphemous or offensive content to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority for possible removal or to the Federal Investigative Agency for possible criminal prosecution.

The constitution defines “Muslim” as a person who “believes in the unity and oneness of Almighty Allah, in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Mohammed… the last of the prophets, and does not believe in, or recognize as a prophet or religious reformer, any person who claimed or claims to be a prophet after Mohammed.” It also states that “a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Parsi community, a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), or a Baha’i, and a person belonging to any of the scheduled castes” is a “non-Muslim.”

According to the constitution and the penal code, Ahmadis may not call themselves Muslims or assert they are adherents of Islam. The penal code bans them from “posing as Muslims,” using Islamic terms, carrying out Islamic customs, preaching or propagating their religious beliefs, proselytizing, or “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims.” The punishment for violating these provisions is imprisonment for up to three years and a fine, the amount of which is at the discretion of the sentencing judge.

The penal code does not explicitly criminalize apostasy, but renouncing Islam is widely considered by clerics to be a form of blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty.

The government may use the antiterrorism courts, established as a parallel legal structure under the 1997 Antiterrorism Act, to try cases involving violent crimes, terrorist activities, and acts or speech deemed by the government to foment religious hatred, including blasphemy.

The constitution states no person shall be required to take part in any religious ceremony or attend religious worship relating to a religion other than the person’s own.

The constitution provides for “freedom to manage religious institutions.” It states every religious denomination shall have the right to establish and maintain its own institutions. The constitution states no person shall be compelled to pay any special tax for the propagation or maintenance of a religion other than the person’s own. The government collects a mandatory, automatic 2.5 percent zakat (tax) from Sunni Muslims who hold savings accounts in banks. It distributes the funds through a government-run charity as stipends for poor families and students, payment for medical treatment, and support to Sunni mosques and madrassahs registered with the government. Sunni Muslims who want to distribute zakat themselves may request an exemption, and Shia Muslims are exempted by filling out a declaration of faith form.

The constitution mandates that the government take steps to enable Muslims, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam and to promote the observance of Islamic moral standards. It directs the state to endeavor to secure the proper organization of Islamic tithes, religious foundations, and places of worship.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for organizing participation in the Hajj and other Islamic religious pilgrimages. Authorities also consult the ministry on matters such as blasphemy and Islamic education. The ministry’s budget covers assistance to indigent minorities, repair of minority places of worship, establishment of minority-run small development projects, celebration of minority religious festivals, and provision of scholarships for religious minority students.

The law prohibits publishing any criticism of Islam or its prophets or insults to others’ religious beliefs. The law bans the sale of Ahmadiyya religious literature.

The provincial and federal governments have legal responsibility for certain minority religious properties abandoned during the 1947 partition of British India.

The constitution states that no person attending any educational institution shall be required to attend religious instruction or take part in any religious ceremony relating to a religion other than the person’s own. It also states that no religious denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of its denomination in an educational institution maintained by the denomination.

The constitution states the government shall make Islamic studies compulsory for all Muslim students in state-run schools. Although students of other religious groups are not legally required to study Islam, schools do not always offer parallel studies in their own religious beliefs. In some schools, however, non-Muslim students may study ethics. Parents may send children to private schools, including religious schools, at the family’s expense. In Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces, private schools are also required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students.

By law, madrassahs are prohibited from teaching or encouraging sectarian or religious hatred or violence. Wafaqs (independent academic boards) register seminaries, regulate curricula, and issue degrees. The five wafaqs each represent major streams of Islamic thought in the country: Barelvi, Deobandi, Shia, Ahle Hadith, and the Jamaat-i-Islami, which is considered ultraconservative. The wafaqs operate through an umbrella group, Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Pakistan, to represent their interests to the government. The government requires all madrassahs to register with the Ministry of Education in addition to registration with one of the five wafaqs.

The constitution states, “All existing laws shall be brought into conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah [Islam’s body of traditional social and legal custom and practice].” It further states no law shall be enacted which is “repugnant” to Islam. The constitution states this requirement shall not affect the “personal laws of non-Muslim citizens” or their status as citizens. Some personal laws regulating marriage, divorce, and inheritance for minority communities date from prepartition British legislation.

The constitution establishes a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) composed of Muslim judges to examine and decide whether any law or provision is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” The constitution gives the FSC the power to examine a law of its own accord or at the request of the government or a private citizen. The constitution requires the government to amend the law as directed by the court. The constitution also grants the FSC “revisional jurisdiction” (the power to review of its own accord) over criminal cases in the lower courts relating to certain crimes under the Hudood Ordinance, including rape and those linked to Islamic morality, such as extramarital sex, alcohol use, and gambling. The court may suspend or increase the sentence given by a criminal court in these cases. The FSC’s review power applies whether the cases involve Muslims or non-Muslims. Non-Muslims may not appear before the FSC. If represented by a Muslim lawyer, however, non-Muslims may consult the FSC in other matters, such as questions of sharia or Islamic practice that affect them or violate their rights. By law, decisions of the FSC may be appealed to the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench. A full bench of the Supreme Court may grant a further appeal.

The constitution establishes a Council of Islamic Ideology to make recommendations, at the request of the parliament and provincial assemblies, as to “the ways and means of enabling and encouraging Muslims to order their lives in accordance with the principles of Islam.” The constitution further empowers the council to advise the legislative and executive branches when they choose to refer a question to the council as to whether a proposed law is or is not “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.”

In the absence of specific language in the law authorizing civil or common law marriage, marriage certificates are signed by religious authorities and registered with the local marriage registrar. The province-level Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the national-level Hindu Marriage Act (applying to federal territory and all other provinces) codify legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages. In addition to addressing a legal gap by providing documentation needed for identity registration, divorce, and inheritance, the Hindu Marriage Acts allow marriages to be voided when consent “was obtained by force, coercion, or by fraud.” The acts allow for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism. The Sindh provincial government has legislation allowing couples to seek divorce and granting Hindu women the right to remarry six months after a divorce or a spouse’s death. The Sindh Hindu Marriage Act also applies to Sikh marriages. The Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act allows local government officials in that province to register marriages between a Sikh man and Sikh woman solemnized by a Sikh Anand Karaj marriage registrar.

Some court judgments have considered the marriage of a non-Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man dissolved if she converts to Islam, although the marriage of a non-Muslim man who converts remains recognized.

The constitution directs the state to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities,” to secure the well-being of the people irrespective of creed, and to discourage sectarian prejudices. It forbids discrimination against any religious community in the taxation of religious institutions. The National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), an independent government-funded agency that reports to parliament, is required to receive petitions, conduct investigations, and request remediation of human rights abuses. The NCHR is also mandated to monitor the government’s implementation of human rights and review and propose legislation. It has quasi-judicial powers and may refer cases for prosecution but does not have arrest authority. A constitutional amendment devolves responsibility for minorities’ affairs, including religious minorities, to the provinces.

According to the constitution, there shall be no discrimination on the basis of religion in appointing individuals to government service, provided they are otherwise qualified. There is a 5 percent minimum quota for hiring religious minorities (primarily Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Kalash, and Parsis but excluding Shia and Ahmadi Muslims) at the federal and provincial levels of government.

The constitution prohibits discriminatory admission based on religious affiliation to any governmental educational institution. According to regulations, the only factors affecting admission to government schools are students’ grades and home provinces, although students must declare their religious affiliation on application forms. This declaration is also required for private educational institutions, including universities. Students who identify themselves as Muslims must declare in writing they believe Mohammed is the final prophet. Non-Muslims are required to have the head of their local religious communities verify their religious affiliation. There is no provision in the law for atheists.

The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) designates religious affiliation on passports and requires religious information in national identity card and passport applications. Those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe Mohammed is the final prophet and must denounce the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder as a false prophet and his followers as non-Muslim. There is no option to state “no religion.” National identity cards are required for all citizens upon reaching the age of 18. Identification cards are used for voting, pension disbursement, social and financial inclusion programs, and other services.

The constitution requires the President and Prime Minister to be Muslims. All senior officials, including members of parliament, must swear an oath to protect the country’s Islamic identity. The law requires elected Muslim officials to swear an oath affirming their belief that Mohammed is the final prophet of Islam. This requirement effectively prohibits Ahmadi Muslims from holding elected office, as they recognize a prophet subsequent to Mohammed.

The constitution reserves seats for non-Muslim members in both the national and provincial assemblies. The 342-member National Assembly has 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims. The 104-member Senate has four reserved seats for non-Muslims, one from each province. In the provincial assemblies, there are three such reserved seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; eight in Punjab; nine in Sindh; and three in Balochistan. Political parties elected by the general electorate choose the minority individuals who hold these seats; they are not elected directly by the minority constituencies they represent.

The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and maintains two reservations: first, that ICCPR Article 3 regarding equal rights of men and women would be “applied as to be in conformity with Personal Law of the citizens and Qanoon-e-Shahadat Order, 1984 (Law of Evidence),” under which the in-court testimony of men in certain civil matters pertaining to contracts and financial obligations is given greater weight than that of women; and second, that ICCPR Article 25, on the equal right for citizens to take part in public service, would be subject to articles of the constitution mandating that the President and Prime Minister be Muslims.

Government Practices

Instances of torture and mistreatment by some police personnel were part of broader human rights concerns about police abuses against citizens of all faiths reported by local and international human rights organizations; some police agencies took steps to curb abuses by incorporating human rights curricula in training programs.

On January 29, an antiterrorism court in Lahore acquitted and ordered the release of 42 individuals accused of participating in the 2015 lynching of two Muslim men in Lahore. The killings took place during protests sparked by twin suicide bombings outside two churches there. The victims, burned to death by an angry mob, were Babar Noman and Hafiz Naeem.

According to civil society reports, there were many individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges and at least 35 under sentences of death, compared with 82 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges and 29 under sentences of death in 2019. The government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. According to data provided by the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), authorities accused at least 199 individuals of new blasphemy offenses during the year. Leaders in other NGOs agreed the actual number of blasphemy cases was likely higher, but uneven reporting and lack of media coverage in many areas made it difficult to identify an exact number. According to the CSJ, 2020 saw the highest number of blasphemy cases in a single year in the country’s history. Other NGOs also said that 2020 had seen an increase in blasphemy cases. Shia and Ahmadi Muslims were the most often accused, accounting respectively for 70 and 20 percent of all cases. Sunni Muslims made up 5 percent of all accused blasphemers, followed by Christians at 3.5 percent, and Hindus at 1 percent.

Courts issued two new death sentences for blasphemy and sentenced another individual to five years’ imprisonment. Other blasphemy cases continued without resolution. At least one individual was accused of spreading blasphemous content through social media under PECA. Civil society groups continued to state that the blasphemy laws disproportionately affected members of religious minority communities. Persons accused of blasphemy were often simultaneously charged with terrorism offenses.

According to NGOs and media reports, individuals convicted and sentenced to death in well-publicized blasphemy cases dating as far back as 2014 – including Nadeem James; Taimoor Raza; Junaid Hafeez; Mubasher, Ghulam, and Ehsan Ahmed; Shafqat Emmanuel; and Shagufta Kausar – remained in prison and continued to await action on their appeals. In all these cases, judges repeatedly delayed hearings, adjourned hearings without hearing arguments, or sent appeals to other judicial benches. Civil society and legal sources said judges were generally hesitant to decide blasphemy cases due to fear of violent retribution.

Human rights groups reported an increase in blasphemy cases and allegations against members of the Shia Muslim community. On September 5, the HRCP expressed concern over the surge in blasphemy cases against religious minorities, particularly the Shia community, and the potential for sectarian violence. The HRCP reported that more than 40 such cases were registered under the blasphemy laws in August alone.

On January 30, police arrested two Shia men in Tando Mohammed Khan, southern Sindh, and charged them with blasphemy. According to police, the content they posted on Facebook insulted the companions of Mohammed, which, they said, infuriated Sunni Muslims.

On April 14, police filed a blasphemy case against Shia singer Zamin Ali in Jamshoro, Sindh. The case was based on the complaint of a local shopkeeper who claimed Zamin Ali’s Facebook page contained a blasphemous song that hurt the religious sentiments of Sunni Muslims. By year’s end, police had dropped the case due to lack of evidence and pressure from activists.

On August 30, police charged Shia cleric Taqqi Jaffar with blasphemy for criticizing Mohammed’s companions during a Karachi Muharram procession. Jaffar made his remarks in Arabic, which were then aired on a popular Karachi news station, 24 News HD. Following complaints by some Sunni groups, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority temporarily suspended 24 News from broadcasting, citing Jaffar’s comments as “hate-inciting content.”

The blasphemy charges against Jaffar were followed by anti-Shia rallies throughout the country and at least three rallies in Karachi by Sunni groups on September 11 and 13 attended by thousands of individuals. Speakers at these rallies warned Shia of dire consequences, including beheadings, if they continued to blaspheme against the Prophet Mohammed’s companions.

On June 10, police arrested Sajid Soomro, a professor at Shah Abdul Latif University, in Khairpur, Sindh, on blasphemy charges. According to eyewitnesses, police officials in at least four police vans cordoned off the area and arrested Soomro, who initially resisted. Subsequently, Arfana Mallah, a professor at Sindh University Jamshoro who criticized Soomro’s arrest and the blasphemy laws, was herself accused of committing blasphemy and had to apologize publicly. Soomro was free on bail at year’s end, but the case was still pending in court.

NGOs, legal observers and religious minority representatives continued to raise concerns regarding the failure of lower courts to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases, and the slow pace of adjudicating these cases, which led to some suspects remaining in detention for years as they waited their initial trial or appeals, and to some convicted persons spending years in prison before higher courts overturned their convictions and freed them for lack of evidence. According to legal advocacy groups, some lower courts continued to conduct proceedings in an intimidating atmosphere, with members of antiblasphemy groups, such as the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), often threatening the defendants’ attorneys, family members, and supporters. At other times, advocacy groups reported that blasphemy trials were held inside jails for security reasons, in which case the hearings were not public, resulting in a gain in immediate security but a loss of transparency. These observers said the general refusal of lower courts to hold timely hearings or acquit those accused persisted due to fear of reprisal and vigilantism. Legal observers also reported judges and magistrates often delayed or continued trials indefinitely to avoid confrontation with, or violence from, groups provoking protests.

While the law requires a senior police official to investigate any blasphemy charge before a complaint may be filed, a requirement that NGOs and legal observers stated helped contribute to an objective investigation and the dismissal of many blasphemy cases, some NGOs said police did not uniformly follow this procedure. There were some cases in which police received custody of the accused from a court for 14 days for a senior officer to carry out an investigation. At the same time, NGOs reported that sometimes lower-ranking police would file charges of blasphemy, rather than a senior police superintendent who had more authority to dismiss baseless claims, or that police would not carry out a thorough investigation. NGOs and legal observers also stated police often did not file charges against individuals who made false blasphemy accusations.

During the year, courts overturned some blasphemy convictions upon appeal and acquitted others after the accused had spent years in prison. On October 6, the Lahore High Court acquitted Sawan Masih, a Christian man sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2014, but Masih continued to face death threats and had to go into hiding with his family. His was the first acquittal for blasphemy since October 2018, when Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death in 2010, was acquitted. On December 15, the Lahore High Court acquitted a second Christian man, Imran Ghafur Masih, who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Courts also penalized antiblasphemy groups. In January, an antiterrorism court sentenced 86 members of the TLP to 55-year prison terms each for taking part in violent protests following Bibi’s acquittal.

Police intervened on multiple occasions to quell mob violence directed at individuals accused of blasphemy. On September 10, police saved a Hindu trader from a mob that accused him of committing blasphemy and called for his death in Kashmore, Sindh. Several hundred protesters led by religious leaders took to the streets and chanted slogans against the alleged blasphemer. Police took him into protective custody and transferred him to a senior police officer’s office as the mob blocked the Indus Highway and demanded police hand over the alleged blasphemer. Also in September, according to law enforcement reports, Peshawar police rescued an Ahmadi family after a large mob gathered outside their home, accusing the family of preaching Ahmadi beliefs.

There were reported cases of government intervention and assistance from courts and law enforcement in situations of attempted kidnapping and forced conversion, although enforcement action against alleged perpetrators was rare. In January, after going missing, a 15-year-old Hindu girl appeared in a video with Ali Raza, a Muslim man, in which the two claimed they had willingly married and she had converted to Islam. Her family said she had been kidnapped and forcibly converted. In court proceedings, the girl retracted her video statement and said she wanted to return to her parents. In February, a court in Jacobabad, Sindh, ruled that the marriage with Raza was illegal under the 2013 Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act. On July 9, the Sindh High Court ordered that the girl could return to her Hindu parents. According to local sources, the high-profile case led to communal tensions in Jacobabad, the couple’s home district, and clerics from the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal party publicly accused the girl of apostasy and called for her death. The girl remained in a government shelter for several months before returning to her parents.

On November 23, the Sindh High Court dissolved the marriage of an underage Christian girl to a 44-year-old Muslim man. According to her parents, the girl had been abducted and raped after being forcibly converted to Islam in Karachi. The Sindh High Court on October 27 originally upheld the validity of the marriage, citing the marriage certificate that indicated the girl was 18 years old, and ruling that she had converted to Islam and married of her own free will. Following petitions, the court reversed its decision and declared the marriage illegal under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act and ordered the girl placed in a shelter after she refused to return to her parents. The court also barred her alleged husband and his family from meeting her and ordered police to arrest those who facilitated the marriage.

The Ministry of Interior maintained multitier schedules of religiously oriented groups it judged to be extremist or terrorist that were either banned or had their activities monitored and curtailed (Schedule 1) and individuals whose activities in the public sphere could also be curtailed, including during religious holidays such as Ashura (Schedule 4). On August 23, the Sindh provincial government barred 142 “firebrand” speakers and religious scholars from leaving their home districts for 60 days to avoid violent disturbances during Shia Muharram commemorations. These 142 individuals included both Shia and Sunni clerics who in the past had given controversial statements leading to sectarian tensions.

According to Ahmadiyya community leaders, authorities continued to target and harass Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, violations of “anti-Ahmadi laws,” and other crimes. Ahmadiyya leaders stated the ambiguous wording of the legal provision forbidding Ahmadis from directly or indirectly identifying themselves as Muslims enabled officials to bring charges against members of the community for using the standard Islamic greeting or for naming their children Mohammed.

Community leaders continued to report that the government hindered Ahmadis from obtaining legal documents and pressured community members to deny their beliefs by requiring individuals wishing to be listed as Muslim on identity cards and passports to swear Mohammed was the final prophet of Islam and the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder was a false prophet. Ahmadiyya community representatives reported the word “Ahmadi” was written on their passports if they identified themselves as such.

In 2018 the Islamabad High Court issued a judgment requiring citizens to declare an affidavit of faith to join the armed forces, judiciary, and civil services and directed parliament to amend laws to ensure Ahmadis did not use “Islamic” terms or have names associated with Islam. Neither the National Assembly nor the Senate had acted on the 2018 judgment by year’s end, but Ahmadiyya community representatives said that NADRA required Ahmadis to declare in an affidavit that they are non-Muslims to obtain a national identification card, another requirement of the high court judgment.

According to Ahmadiyya leaders, the government effectively disenfranchised their community by requiring voters to swear an oath affirming the “finality of the Prophethood of Mohammed,” something that they stated was against Ahmadi belief, in order to register as Muslims. Since voters who registered as Ahmadis were kept on a separate voter list, they said they were more exposed to threats and physical intimidation, and many Ahmadis continued their longstanding practice of boycotting elections.

Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives continued to state that Ahmadi families were unable to register their marriages with local administrative bodies, known as union councils, since those councils considered Ahmadis to be outside the authority of the Muslim Family Law of 1961.

Some community representatives said Christians continued to face difficulties in registering marriages with Islamabad union councils because the councils claimed they had no authority to deal with unions recorded by Christian marriage registrars (usually church authorities). Parliament, church leaders, and advocates continued to debate the text of a draft law to govern Christian marriages nationwide, because the existing regulation dated from 1872. Members of parliament and officials of the Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Law and Justice held consultations with church leaders from prominent Christian denominations and with NGO representatives, but the denominations, church leaders, and NGO representatives had not agreed on elements of the draft law pertaining to divorce and interfaith marriage by year’s end. NGOs lobbying for amendments to permit divorce in a wider range of circumstances praised the Ministry of Human Rights’ efforts to consult with stakeholders and the ministry’s overall efforts to accelerate progress on the bill.

Although the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act covers registration of Sikh marriages in that province, members of the Sikh community reportedly continued to seek a separate Sikh law so as not to be considered as Hindus for the purposes of the law. The Sindh provincial cabinet adopted regulations to implement the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act in December 2019, which provided more specific rules for implementation. In 2020, the provincial government began to implement the act, and NADRA began registering Hindu marriages in Sindh, according to Hindu community activists.

The government continued to prohibit citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, from traveling to Israel. Representatives of the Baha’i community said this policy particularly affected them because the Baha’i World Center – the spiritual and administrative center of the community – was in Haifa, Israel. Christian advocates also called on the government to allow them to travel to Israel.

According to media reports and law enforcement sources, in the weeks leading up to and during the Islamic month of Muharram – religiously significant for Shia Muslims – authorities at the federal and provincial levels again restricted the movement and activities of dozens of clerics on the Ministry of Interior’s Schedule 4 listing. According to civil society and media reports, the government restricted the movement and activities of these individuals because they were known for exacerbating sectarian tensions.

Some religious minority leaders stated the system of selecting minority parliamentarians through the internal deliberations of mainstream parties resulted in the appointment of party stalwarts or those who could afford to “buy the seats,” rather than legislators who genuinely represented minority communities. Others said parliamentarians occupying reserved seats had little influence in their parties and in the National Assembly because they did not have a voting constituency.

The requirement that Muslim elected officials swear an oath affirming their belief that Mohammed is the final prophet of Islam continued to discourage Ahmadi Muslims from seeking public office. To seek office, Ahmadis would be forced to do so because by law they are considered non-Muslims, even though they self-identify as Muslim.

The government continued to permit limited non-Muslim foreign missionary activity and to allow missionaries to proselytize as long as they did not preach against Islam and they acknowledged they were not Muslim. According to the government’s immigration website, the Ministry of Interior could grant visas to foreign missionaries invited by organizations registered in the country. The visas were valid for one year and allowed one reentry into the country per year, although it was understood by missionary sources that only “replacement” visas for those taking the place of departing missionaries were available for long-term missionaries seeking to enter the country for the first time. The website further stated extensions could be granted for two years with two reentries per year, excluding from India.

The government continued its warnings against blasphemy and other illegal content on social media through periodic print advertisements and text messages sent by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA). The text messages stated, “Sharing of blasphemy, pornography, terrorism, and other unlawful content on social media and the internet is illegal. Users are advised to report such content on content-complaint@pta.gov.pk for action under PECA 16 (the 2016 PECA act).”

In a January press release, PTA stated it was “proactively playing its role in blocking/removal of unlawful content, with social media platforms being approached in this regard,” and it encouraged the public “to report such content directly to PTA and avoid sharing it on social media platforms and other websites.”

In February, the National Assembly introduced a draft law requiring internet and technology companies to open offices in Islamabad, locate their servers within the country, and remove “objectionable” internet content within a specified timeframe. According to technology companies and religious minority activists, the definition of objectionable content in the draft law was vague and subject to government interpretation.

On October 9, the PTA blocked the video-sharing social media application TikTok, based on what it called “immoral and indecent” content. Reactions to the PTA’s measure was mixed, with many social media users praising the decision to ban TikTok, but others concerned that the government could use this to target religious minorities. On October 19, the PTA lifted the block after the government received reassurances from the company that it would more closely regulate content, but NGOs and activists expressed concern that the government could use this authority to target religious minorities.

In November, the government finalized its Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020, which sought to codify the PTA’s authority to regulate content the government deemed “unlawful.” The rules not only enhanced the PTA’s ability to compel online content platforms such as Facebook, Google’s YouTube, Twitter, and Wikipedia to remove content but also extended the regulator’s purview to include local internet service providers that could also be held liable for such content. In late December, the PTA publicly used this new authority for the first time to demand the removal of “sacrilegious” content. The PTA cited public complaints against an “unauthentic version” of the Quran uploaded by the Ahmadiyya community on the Google Play Store and information that portrayed Mirza Masroor Ahmad as a Muslim on Wikipedia, which the PTA characterized as “misleading, wrong, deceptive, and deceitful.” The PTA successfully removed the same Quran application from the Apple Store in July. On December 24, the PTA issued a legal notice to two Ahmadi U.S. citizens requiring them to remove their website, trueislam.com, or face fines, sanctions, or potential prison sentences.

According to representatives of some minority religious groups, the government continued to allow most organized religious groups to establish places of worship and train members of the clergy. Similar to the previous year, some Sikh and Hindu places of worship reopened during the year. The Katas Raj Hindu temple was reopened for Hindus after renovation in the Chakwal district of Punjab. An additional six Sikh gurdwaras and seven Hindu temples were also reopened after renovation in Punjab.

In July, religious and right-wing parties criticized the government’s plan to permit construction of a new Hindu temple in Islamabad. Prime Minister Imran Khan gave verbal approval to build the temple following a request from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Hindu and Christian members of the National Assembly. Then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government had granted the land to build the temple in 2016. Islamist political parties and Punjab Provincial Assembly speaker Chaudhry Elahi (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – PTI – party) criticized the decision before written approval was issued, however, declaring new temples should never be built in an Islamic country. Opponents filed a petition to stop construction with the Islamabad High Court on June 29, and vandals destroyed the land’s boundary wall on July 5. On October 28, the Council on Islamic Ideology gave its approval for construction, ruling that Islamic law allows Hindus a place of worship, but noting there is no tradition for the government to provide funds for places of worships owned by private parties. The government announced it would seek a review from the Council on Islamic Ideology and at the end of the year it was unclear whether it still maintained its support for the temple.

On July 21, the government returned a 200-year-old Sikh gurdwara to the Sikh community in Quetta. The gurdwara had been used as a government-run girls’ school since 1947. Danesh Kumar, the adviser on minority affairs to the Balochistan Chief Minister, said the government had decided to hand over sacred sites of religious minorities in Balochistan to promote interfaith harmony.

On February 7, the district administration returned a century-old Hindu temple to the Hindu community in Zhob, Balochistan. The temple had also been part of a government-run school. Hindu community representatives welcomed the decision to return the temple to the community after 70 years.

Although there continued to be no official restriction on the construction of Ahmadiyya places of worship, according to Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders, local authorities regularly denied requisite construction permits, and Ahmadis remained forbidden to call them mosques.

Authorities provided enhanced security for Shia Muslim, Christian, and Hindu places of worship at various times throughout the year, including around particular religious holidays or in response to specific threats. In August and September, increased security was provided throughout the country for the Shia community’s Muharram processions. In Islamabad, the deputy inspector general of police said as many as 15,000 police, Rangers, and Frontier Corps personnel were involved. In Peshawar, security was increased around churches ahead of Christmas after security forces arrested four militants on December 17 who were allegedly planning an attack on Christmas Day, which is also celebrated as Quaid-i-Azam Day, the birthday of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Ahead of Christmas in Lahore, police deployed some 6,000 officers and officials at 623 churches. Police also deployed snipers and used closed-circuit television cameras and metal detectors to ensure the security of churches and Christmas markets. In Sindh, police provided enhanced security at churches and Hindu temples, especially in Karachi, on eves of festivals such as Christmas and Diwali.

Legal experts and NGOs continued to state that the full legal framework for minority rights remained unclear. While the Ministry of Law and Justice was officially responsible for ensuring the legal rights of all citizens, in practice, the Ministry for Human Rights continued to assume primary responsibility for the protection of the rights of religious minorities. The NCHR was also mandated to conduct investigations of allegations of human rights abuses, but legal sources said the commission had little power to enforce its requests. Since 2019, the NCHR has been without a mandate for a second four-year term and lacked newly appointed commissioners, making it effectively nonfunctional throughout the year.

Members of religious minority communities said there continued to be an inconsistent application of laws safeguarding minority rights and enforcement of protections of religious minorities at both the federal and provincial levels by the Ministry of Law and Justice, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Human Rights. Religious minority community members also stated the government was inconsistent in safeguarding against societal discrimination and neglect, and that official discrimination against Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadi Muslims persisted to varying degrees, with Ahmadi Muslims experiencing the worst treatment.

In May, the Cabinet approved a Religious Affairs Ministry proposal establishing a National Commission for Minorities housed within the ministry. The proposal named a prominent Hindu business owner and ruling PTI party leader as the commission’s chair, along with other Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Parsi, and Kalash members. The commission also included two Sunni Muslim clerics and senior civil servants from the Ministries of Interior, Law and Justice, Human Rights, Federal Education and Professional Training, Religious Affairs, and the Council of Islamic Ideology.

The plan followed a 2014 Supreme Court decision that ordered the government to take steps to ensure the rights of minorities and promote a culture of religious and social tolerance, but religious freedom activists and civil society groups said the proposal was “toothless” and raised concerns regarding the Religious Affairs Ministry’s lack of public consultation, the limited powers of the proposed body, and the ultimate decision to exclude Ahmadis. Information Minister Shibli Faraz’s announcement that the Cabinet had decided against including an Ahmadi Muslim representative on the new commission contributed to a wave of hate speech against Ahmadis, according to community representatives. The Religious Affairs Ministry later issued a statement saying Ahmadis would not be included on the commission, “given the religious and historical sensitivity” of including Ahmadis in government institutions. Ahmadi Muslim leaders said they had never been approached about participating in the commission and would never join a body that required them to identify as non-Muslims.

The Punjab Provincial Assembly also unanimously passed a resolution in May insisting that the federal National Commission on Minorities not include a representative from the Ahmadi community until community leaders submitted in writing that they accepted their status as non-Muslims under the constitution. The resolution stated, “This House demands that if the chief of Qadianis [a derogatory term for Ahmadis] submits in writing declaring that they accept the Constitution of Pakistan and accept their status as non-Muslims, then we will have no objection to their inclusion into the Commission.”

Speaker of the Punjab Provincial Assembly and Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) party leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi made numerous statements denouncing Ahmadis and any effort to undermine the status of Mohammed as Islam’s final prophet. The Punjab provincial government adopted three anti-Ahmadi measures: in May, a resolution that Ahmadis not be permitted to join the federal government’s National Commission for Minorities unless they “acknowledge” they are not Muslims; in June, a new curriculum law that requires school textbooks to state the finality of the Prophet Mohammed; and in July, the “Protection of the Foundations of Islam” bill giving the provincial government authority to censor objectionable materials and inspect any publishing house or private home for banned Ahmadi literature.

Lawmakers from the National Assembly, the Sindh Provincial Assembly, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly also adopted resolutions requiring the title “last of the prophets” to be used when referring to Mohammed. Video footage from a National Assembly session in July showed opposition lawmakers immediately criticizing Prime Minister Khan when he failed to use the phrase after speaking the name of the Prophet Mohammed in an address to parliament.

In April, police arrested Ramzan Bibi, an Ahmadi Muslim woman, after a neighbor accused her of blasphemy against Mohammed – a crime that carries the death penalty – in an argument over Bibi’s charitable donation to a non-Ahmadi mosque. Bibi remained in custody at year’s end.

In May, the Federal Investigative Agency raided the Lahore home of Ahmadi missionary and youth worker Rohan Ahmad, arresting him on charges of cybercrime, blasphemy against the Quran, and propagating the Ahmadi faith through a WhatsApp group in September 2019. At year’s end, he was still being held at Camp Jail, Lahore, and had not been charged

In July, the Lahore High Court Bar Association (LHCBA) demanded that the federal interior ministry prevent the Ahmadi community from sacrificing animals on Eid al-Adha. In a letter written to the Interior Minister, the LHCBA quoted the section of the constitution stating that Ahmadis are non-Muslim.

In August, a case was opened against three Ahmadi men after an official of a religious seminary approached police complaining that the men sacrificed an animal on Eid al-Adha. The complainant said the three men “hurt the belief of Muslims” by engaging in Islamic rituals as non-Muslims. No arrests were made, and no one was charged.

In October, Punjab police arrested three Ahmadis for using Islamic symbols and practices in their mosque. The charges carry up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine. A complainant filed a criminal charge against them on May 3, triggering the police investigation. As of year’s end, the case was awaiting prosecution.

Government officials and politicians attended and spoke at multiple Khatm-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) conferences held in major cities and at religious sites around the country. These conferences were organized by groups that stated they were defending the teaching that Mohammed is the final prophet but were often characterized by both secular and Ahmadi critics as engaging in hate speech against Ahmadi Muslims.

On September 7, the JUI-F party held a large Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference in Peshawar, with party leaders and national and provincial parliamentarians in attendance. At the conference, JUI-F national leader Fazl ur Rehman praised the lawyers who were defending the teenager accused of killing U.S. citizen Tahir Naseem, a self-proclaimed Ahmadi, in Peshawar and blamed Western nations for supporting Ahmadi Muslims. That same day, a Punjab Provincial Assembly lawmaker from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Mohammed Ilyas Chinyoti, participated in an international Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference in the Chanab Nagar area of Punjab near the Ahmadiyya Muslim community’s headquarters. Speakers at that conference repeatedly used anti-Ahmadi rhetoric.

The Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training held consultations with minority faith representatives during the year in a review of textbooks for derogatory material.

In June, the Punjab Provincial Assembly unanimously passed the Curriculum and Text Book Board Amendment Bill, which Governor Chaudhary Muhammad Sarwar signed into law. The law requires clearance from the Muttahida Ulema Board, a Punjab-based advisory council of religious scholars from multiple Muslim schools of thought, to publish content on Islam in school textbooks, which Assembly Speaker Elahi said was necessary to “stop the publishing of blasphemous material” against Mohammed and his companions. Civil society representatives said the bill targets Ahmadis, who do not have representation on the ulema board and who are barred by the constitution and the penal code from identifying as Muslims. Some politicians acknowledged privately the bill was intended to ensure textbooks identify Mohammed as the final prophet, thereby excluding Ahmadis from the definition of Islam taught in public schools.

On July 22, the Punjab Provincial Assembly passed the Protection of Foundation of Islam Bill, which prohibits the printing and publication of objectionable material in the province. Governor Sarwar did not sign the bill, which was promoted by the PML-Q party, noting controversy about its provisions and concerns that it could be seen as anti-Shia. According to a Punjab government official, Sarwar had no intention of signing the bill until there was a consensus that it would not harm religious minorities. Other government officials, including Prime Minister Khan, advised Sarwar against signing the bill, according to a Lahore-based journalist. Among the restrictions outlined in the bill, publishers, editors, and translators would be barred from printing or publishing any book and material containing statements or anything deemed to be of a blasphemous nature. The bill would also require the words “last of the prophets” to be written after the name of Mohammed and specific honors for his companions revered in the Shia community (“may Allah be pleased with them,” rather than “peace be upon them”). Ahmadi community leaders said they saw the requirement to designate Mohammed as last of the prophets as directly targeting them. Shia leaders, meanwhile, denounced the specific honors prescribed by the bill to Mohammed’s companions, which they said risked stoking discord between Shia and Sunnis, given their fundamental disagreements over some of the companions’ status within Islam.

The law also would make “desecration” (including physical destruction of books or symbols, along with verbal, written, or online actions perceived to be insults) of any prophet, any of the four divine books (the Quran, Torah, Psalms of David, and Gospel of Jesus), any family and companions of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as abetting or glorifying terrorists, or promoting sectarianism in any book, punishable with a maximum of a five-year jail term and a substantial fine of up to 500,000 Pakistani rupees ($3,100). According to the bill, all publishers would be required to submit to the Directorate General Public Relations, the provincial government authority with jurisdiction over printing presses and publishing houses, four copies of every edition of each title they print. The directorate would be empowered to inspect printing presses, bookstores, and publishing houses and confiscate books before or after they are printed if they are judged to contain “objectionable” content.

While schools were required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students, sources reported many non-Muslim students were also required to participate because their schools did not offer parallel courses in their own religious beliefs or ethics. The government did not permit Ahmadis to teach Islamic studies in public schools. Members of religious minority communities stated public schools gave Muslim students bonus grade points for memorizing the Quran, but there were no analogous opportunities for extra academic credit available for religious minority students.

Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in admission to colleges and universities. Ahmadi representatives said the wording of the declaration students were required to sign on their applications for admission to universities continued to prevent Ahmadis from declaring themselves as Muslims. Their refusal to sign the statement meant they were automatically disqualified from fulfilling the admissions requirements. The government said Ahmadis could qualify for admission if they did not claim to be Muslims.

There were continued reports that some madrassahs taught violent extremist doctrine, which the government sought to curb through madrassah registration and curriculum reform.

Members of religious minorities, particularly lower-caste Hindus, complained of forceful evictions from their homes and villages by individuals desiring their land with assistance from government officials. On July 13, hundreds of members of the Bheel community, including women and children, marched and demonstrated against the demolition of their homes by revenue officials whom they said were in collusion with an influential landlord of the area in Mithi, Sindh. The protesters said that when they opposed the illegal evictions of villagers, they were charged in “fake” cases by revenue officials. They complained that Dalits, who are considered to be the lowest in the traditional Hindu caste structure, were being targeted and subjected to violence and torture in Thar and other areas. For example, in March, media reported that a woman from Meghwar committed suicide after being repeatedly raped by a man of an upper-caste Hindu clan in Deeplo, Sindh. The woman’s family said she was pregnant at the time of her suicide and that police initially refused to file charges against the man because of his caste.

Most minority religious groups said they continued to face discrimination in government hiring. According to religious minority activists, provincial governments also often failed to meet quotas for hiring religious minorities into the civil service.

Minority rights activists said most government employment advertisements for janitorial staff continued to list being non-Muslim as a requirement. Minority rights activists criticized these advertisements as discriminatory and insulting. For example, the Lahore Waste Management Company continued to employ mainly Christian street sweepers, which HRCP criticized as the result of employment advertisements continuing to specify that religious minorities should apply. Citing a sanitation job advertisement issued by the Sindh provincial government, HRCP stated such advertisements infringed on human dignity and violated the constitutional guarantee of equality of all citizens. In May, the New York Times reported the issue, which was subsequently raised by international human rights NGOs.

Representatives of religious minorities said a “glass ceiling” continued to prevent their promotion to senior government positions, but one NGO also stated that due to insufficient higher education opportunities compared to the majority religious community, few religious minorities met the qualifications to apply for these positions. Although there were no official obstacles to the advancement of minority religious group members in the military, they said that in practice, non-Muslims rarely rose above the rank of colonel and were not assigned to senior positions.

Print and broadcast media outlets continued to publish and broadcast anti-Ahmadi rhetoric. In May, after the government announced that Ahmadis would be excluded from the National Commission for Minorities, Religious Affairs Minister Qadri said on a popular television show, “Anyone supporting Ahmadis is not a Muslim.” Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives stated that the Urdu-language press frequently printed hate speech in news stories and editorials, some of which could be considered as inciting anti-Ahmadi violence. Inflammatory anti-Ahmadi rhetoric continued to exist on social media and was at times spread by senior members of mainstream political parties.

Following the killing of U.S. citizen Tahir Naseem in July, JUI-F leader Mufti Kifayatullah celebrated the accused killer for his act of “justice.” Some political figures, including the ruling PTI Party’s Sindh provincial president Haleem Adil Sheikh, who is also a member of the Sindh Provincial Assembly, changed their social media profile pictures to that of Naseem’s killer.

On January 26, a local court sentenced four young boys, who had confessed to vandalizing a Hindu temple in Sindh’s Tharparkar district, to a juvenile center in Hyderabad. The incident was the first attack on a Hindu temple in Tharparkar in more than 30 years. Minority lawmakers and civil society activists reacted strongly to the attack, stating the boys had been instigated by local Muslim clerics.

Civil society members reported authorities took no action to prevent attacks on Ahmadi mosques or punish assailants who demolished, damaged, forcibly occupied, or set fire to Ahmadi mosques. Local authorities did not allow the repair or unsealing of Ahmadi mosques damaged or demolished by rioters in previous years. In February, a crowd occupied and vandalized a 100-year-old Ahmadi mosque in Punjab. In July, residents in the Sheikpura District of Punjab damaged Ahmadi gravestones.

Community leaders continued to state the government did not take adequate action to protect its poorest citizens, including religious minorities, such as Christian and Hindu Dalits, from bonded labor practices. In May, Daniel Masih appealed to the court in the Sargodha District of Punjab, urging authorities to rescue his brother Bashir and his family from bonded labor under a Muslim landlord. Hindu Dalits remained vulnerable to human rights violations and pressure by perpetrators to withdraw police cases. On September 30, media reported that a 17-year-old girl from a Hindu Dalit community committed suicide after having been gang-raped a year earlier by Muslim men and subsequently blackmailed by them in Tharparkar, Sindh. Three suspects were arrested for the rape but were released on bail, and the girl’s family said they harassed and pressured the girl to withdraw the case.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

According to civil society and media, armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government, including the LeJ, TTP, and the once-banned anti-Shia group SSP, continued to be responsible for violence and other abuses against religious minorities. Groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, such as ISIS, also committed violent acts. Among the targets of these attacks were Shia Muslims, particularly the predominantly Shia Hazara community.

According to the SATP, the number of sectarian attacks by armed groups continued to decrease, corresponding with an overall decline in terrorist attacks. Data on sectarian attacks varied because no standardized definition existed of what constituted a sectarian attack among reporting organizations. According to the SATP, at least 10 persons were killed and three injured in 10 incidents of sectarian violence by extremist groups during the year. These attacks targeted gatherings of Shia individuals.

There were multiple reports of targeted killings of Shia Muslims in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, although because religion and ethnicity were often closely related, it was difficult to categorize some incidents as being solely based on religious identity. In September, unidentified gunmen killed two prominent members of the local Shia community in the Kohat District of that province. This was part of an increase in anti-Shia activity that month nationwide that included the shooting of a prominent Shia religious leader in Punjab’s Mandi Bahauddin District and the shooting of a Shia employee of the National Bank of Pakistan in Islamabad. On October 11, unidentified militants abducted six Shia pilgrims near the Pakistan-Iran border region of Panjgur, in Balochistan. The six, all from Karachi, were returning from a pilgrimage in Iran; they remained missing at year’s end.

According to the SATP and media reports, antiterrorism courts convicted and sentenced several individuals affiliated with terrorist organizations and involved in past sectarian attacks and targeted killings. On June 25, an antiterrorism court sentenced five al-Qa’ida militants to 16 years’ imprisonment each for terrorist financing and possession of explosives. The militants were also convicted for running an al-Qa’ida media cell in Gujranwala. On July 27, an antiterrorism court sentenced a member of SSP to 13 years’ imprisonment for facilitating terrorist activities.

The Hindu community in Sindh and Balochistan remained vulnerable to targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom. On July 19, members of the Hindu community staged a sit-in in Khuzdar, Balochistan, to protest the July 18 killing of local Hindu trader Nanak Ram by unidentified assailants in the Wadh area of Khuzdar District. On July 31, Hindu business owner and member of the Khairpur Chamber of Commerce and Industries Raja Kishan Chand was killed by unknown gunmen in that city. In a statement, the Pakistan Hindu Council condemned the killing as well as two other July incidents of violence towards Hindu citizens in the district.

According to the nonprofit Middle East Media Research Institute, the December edition of the Urdu language TTP magazine Journal of The Tehreek-E-Taliban Pakistan blamed “the Jews and their puppets” for the COVID-19 pandemic and for harassing Muslims during the pandemic. The author of the article wrote that COVID-19 had been hidden since the 1960s to be “used against Muslims.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Targeted killings of Shia and Ahmadi Muslims and violence and discrimination against Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadi Muslims continued to occur. Throughout the year, unidentified individuals assaulted and killed Shia and Ahmadis in attacks sources believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear.

Shia Hazaras in Quetta, Balochistan, continued to express concern about targeted killings taking place for the last several years. Although the government continued to implement elevated security measures around Hazara neighborhoods in Quetta, some Hazara community members continued to state that these measures had turned their neighborhoods into isolated ghettos.

In July, a teenager killed U.S. citizen Tahir Naseem in a Peshawar courtroom, where Naseem was on trial for blasphemy. The young man and two coconspirators were indicted, taken into government custody, and were awaiting trial at year’s end. The 16-year-old suspect was being tried as a juvenile; the two coconspirators were a prayer leader and a young lawyer involved in the blasphemy complaint against Naseem. Many social media users celebrated Naseem’s killing. At least three top Twitter trends praised the killer and called him the “savior” and “pride” of Pakistan. Twitter and WhatsApp users circulated graphic images and video footage from the courtroom, depicting Naseem slumped over a chair and crowds of men ignoring the body and seeming to congratulate the killer.

Following Naseem’s death, there were a series of additional violent incidents targeting Ahmadis, and Ahmadiyya community members said they felt in more danger than ever before. Unknown assailants shot a Peshawar trader, also an Ahmadiyya community member, near his business on August 12. Police stated they believed he was targeted because of his religious beliefs. On October 5, also in Peshawar, Professor Naeemuddin Khattak, a member of the Ahmadiyya community, died after being shot while driving home from work. Khattak’s brother, who witnessed the killing, named two suspects in his criminal complaint, including a friend of Khattak – a lecturer from the University of Agriculture in Peshawar – with whom Khattak had had a heated religious argument on October 4. On November 9, also in Peshawar, an 82-year-old retired Ahmadi government worker was killed by unknown gunmen while waiting for a bus. Ahmadiyya community leaders said he was targeted due to his religious beliefs.

On November 20 in a rural area of Punjab, a teenage boy killed Ahmadi doctor Tahir Ahmad and seriously wounded three of his family members. On November 21, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari posted a tweet calling for the government to protect all its citizens. Ahmadiyya community members said they were surprised by this instance of a senior government official condemning anti-Ahmadi violence, but added that they do not expect it to become the new norm. The special assistant to the Prime Minister for religious harmony, Tahir Ashrafi, said it was “the responsibility of the government and court to punish” the perpetrator in a televised interview.

In its 2020 World Watch List report, the international NGO Open Doors listed Pakistan, noting that Christians face “extreme persecution in every area of their lives, with converts from Islam facing the highest levels.” According to Open Doors, all Christians in the country “are considered second-class citizens, inferior to Muslims.” The NGO stated Christians are often given jobs “perceived as low, dirty and dishonorable, and can even be victims of bonded labor.” The NGO also said that Christian girls in the country were increasingly “at risk of abduction and rape, often forced to marry their attackers and coerced into converting to Islam.”

AsiaNews, the official press agency of the Roman Catholic Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, reported that two members of a Christian family were shot and wounded after buying a house in a neighborhood inhabited primarily by Muslims on June 4 in the Sawati Phatak Colony of Peshawar. Police arrested several members of a neighboring Muslim family in connection with the incident. Salman Khan, the head of the Muslim family, remained at large. According to AsiaNews, once Khan learned the family was Christian, he ordered them to leave immediately, because “Christians are enemies of Islam.” After harassing the family for a few days, Khan gave them a 24-hour ultimatum to leave. When he and his sons returned to the house, they shot and wounded two of the Christian family members.

Civil society activists and media reported young Christian and Hindu women being abducted and raped by Muslim men. Victims said their attackers singled them out as vulnerable due to their religious minority identity. According to the NGOs Center for Legal Aid, Assistance, and Settlement (CLAAS) and the Pakistan Center for Law and Justice, there were also reports of religious minority women being physically attacked by men. On October 9, a Hindu teacher was attacked by a Muslim man with an axe on her way to her school in Mithi, Sindh. The teacher survived the attack and told media the man had been following and harassing her for days. Despite her filing a complaint, police did not open a case initially. The man was later arrested by police after the Sindh education secretary intervened in the case.

The HRCP said forced conversions of young women of minority faiths, often lower-caste Hindu girls from rural Sindh province, continued to occur. On October 13, according to local media reports, Reeta Kumari, a pregnant Dalit Hindu woman, told the Sindh High Court in Sukkur that she had been abducted by a Muslim man, Rafique Domki, in Islamkot. She said Domki had taken her to Balochistan two months earlier and held her there until police rescued her. She denied her abductor’s claim that she had willfully married him and converted to Islam, and instead asked the court to allow her to reunite with her Hindu husband and minor son. The court ordered police to hand over the woman to her Hindu husband and no police or court action was taken against Domki.

Christian activists also stated young women from their communities were vulnerable to forced conversions. On February 22, a Christian woman from Lahore fled to a shelter after a Muslim factory worker forced her to convert to Islam and marry him. The woman’s mother filed a police report against the abductor, who was subsequently arrested.

On July 22, Saeed Amanat, a Muslim man, abducted a 15-year-old Christian girl on her way to church in Faisalabad, Punjab. The girl’s family said they feared she had been forced to convert and marry a Muslim. On August 22, another teenage Christian escaped from the home of Mohamad Nakash, a Muslim who had kidnapped her in April and had been holding her since. On September 8, Mehwish Hidayat, a Christian woman, was reunited with her family after being abducted by a Muslim man and spending three months in captivity.

Also in September, a Karachi court issued an arrest warrant for Abdul Jabbar, a Muslim man who allegedly abducted, forcibly married, and converted a teenage Christian girl in Karachi in 2019. She was taken to Dera Ghazi Khan, in Punjab, to avoid Sindh provincial law, which bans marriage of girls younger than 18. At year’s end, she and her alleged husband had not appeared in court in Karachi, despite multiple court orders to do so.

International and local media, as well as Christian activists, reported that young Christian women, many of them minors, were specifically targeted by Chinese human traffickers because of their poverty and vulnerability. The traffickers told pastors and parents they would arrange marriages to Chinese men who had supposedly converted to Christianity, after which the women were taken to China, abused, and in some cases, sexually trafficked. Reports indicated parents and pastors were frequently paid by the traffickers for the women, and that some pastors were complicit in the trafficking.

Members of civil society reported that converts from Islam lived in varying degrees of secrecy for fear of violent retribution from family members or society at large.

Representatives of the Kalash, an indigenous group in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, continued to report their youth were under pressure from Muslim schoolteachers and others to convert from their traditional beliefs.

Throughout the year, Islamic organizations with varying degrees of political affiliation held conferences and rallies to support the doctrine of Khatm-e-Nabuwat. The events were often covered by English and local-language media and featured anti-Ahmadiyya rhetoric which Ahmadiyya community representatives said could incite violence against Ahmadis. In addition to the large JUI-F conference and rallies, the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami also held a large event in September in Peshawar; both parties criticized the PTI-led national government for failing to enforce Islamic law. The TLP and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, a banned organization under the National Counterterrorism Authority’s Schedule-I list, also held smaller rallies. The rallies occurred days after a unanimous resolution by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly condemning anti-Islam statements and the republication in France of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed.

In September, several religious groups from the Deobandi and Barelvi schools of Sunni Islam organized a series of rallies in Karachi to denounce Shia “defamation” of revered Sunni religious figures. The rallies came after police charged Shia cleric Taqi Jaffar with blasphemy on August 30 for criticizing two companions of Mohammed during a Karachi Muharram procession.

Ahmadis continued to report widespread societal harassment and discrimination against community members, including physical attacks, destruction of homes and personal property, and threats intended to force Ahmadis to abandon their jobs or towns. On August 12, armed gunmen attacked the house of Ahmadi Muslim Syed Naeem Ahmad Bashir in the Sahiwal District of Punjab, firing into the courtyard at night, where they reportedly expected the family to be sleeping. The family was in another location, however, and survived. On August 20, attackers attempted to kill Sheikh Nasir Ahmad, an Ahmadi man from the Lalamusa area of central Punjab.

In October, members of a State Youth Parliament team in Gujranwala defaced a public portrait of the country’s first Nobel laureate, physicist Dr. Abdus Salam, an Ahmadi. The group also painted slogans insulting the Ahmadiyya community. On October 22, a private business school, the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi, cancelled an online seminar that was to feature U.S.-based Ahmadi economist Dr Atif Mian, citing pressure by “extremists.”

Christian religious freedom activists continued to report widespread discrimination against Christians in private employment. They said Christians had difficulty finding jobs other than those involving menial labor, with some advertisements for menial jobs specifying they were open only to Christian applicants. In January, two Christians, Kamran Sandhu and Nauman Aslam, applied for seats reserved for minorities in the Gujranwala Electric Power Company (GEPCO) in Punjab. Both passed the recruitment test and had successful interviews but were denied appointment by the assistant manager. CLAAS helped both file an antidiscrimination petition in the Lahore High Court. The court ordered the chief executive officer of GEPCO to hire the two Christians, but he did not do so. The CLAAS legal team filed a contempt of court application, but the Lahore High Court dismissed the plea. At the end of the year, CLAAS was planning to take the case to the Federal Ombudsman.

Observers reported that English-language media continued to cover issues facing religious minorities in an objective manner, but Urdu-language media continued to show bias in reporting on minority religious groups, including multiple instances in which media censored references to Ahmadis on talk shows, used inflammatory language, or made inappropriate references to minorities. In a September editorial, the largest Urdu daily, Nawa-i-Waqt, described the 1974 legislation declaring Ahmadis officially non-Muslim as a historic day in the country’s history. The high circulation daily Jang also published a lengthy editorial on the struggle to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslims in a special magazine edition.

Human rights and religious freedom activists and members of minority religious groups continued to report that they exercised caution and, occasionally, self-censorship when speaking in favor of religious tolerance because of a societal climate of intolerance and fear. Some activists reported receiving death threats because of their work.

Hindu activists in Sindh reported discrimination against the Hindu community during COVID-19 food-relief efforts by private charities. In April, some members of the Hindu community in Karachi’s Lyari area were denied food packages provided by a local charity, according to local sources.

Reports continued of attacks on religious minorities’ holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols. In July, police arrested four men for destroying a 1,700-year-old Gandharan civilization statue of Buddha in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after a video showing one of the men hammering the statue went viral on social media. The four men were charged with defacing antiquities. On October 25, a Hindu temple was vandalized in Nagarparkar, Sindh, during the nine-day Navratri celebrations. Several statues were destroyed. Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah Imran Ismail issued a statement condemning the attacks.

On October 20, HRCP reported that an Ismaili Muslim mosque in Ghizer was attacked by unknown assailants, who opened fire on the building. No casualties were reported.

On December 30, a mob estimated at 1,000 people incited by a cleric attacked an historic Hindu temple site in Karak District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, destroying the shrine of Hindu saint Shri Paramhans Jee Maharaj and an adjacent building under construction. Police arrested more than 45 JUI-F followers and clerics involved in the destruction. Government officials condemned the incident, suspended more than 100 police officials for failure to stop the mob, and ordered the temple rebuilt.

On October 7, Dr. Qibla Ayaz, then chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, inaugurated a national code of conduct to promote interreligious harmony in the face of increased sectarian violence and mistreatment of religious minorities. Islamic and minority religious leaders endorsed the code. Ayaz also spoke at a seminar on interfaith harmony at the cultural center at the National Library of Pakistan in Islamabad.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires, consuls general, other embassy officers, and visiting senior U.S. officials engaged government officials and senior advisors to the Prime Minister, including the Minister for Human Rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect.

During his February visit to Karachi, the Department of State Special Adviser for Religious Minorities told students and faculty at Karachi University’s Department of Islamic Studies, “An inclusive society creates more space for trade and prosperity.” The audience applauded his comments about the protection of religious freedom for Muslims in the United States. Following the address, the Special Adviser convened an interfaith roundtable discussion at Karachi University, which included Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Parsis. The event received positive coverage in local media. The Special Adviser went on to meet with federal and provincial government officials and civil society leaders in Islamabad and Lahore.

Three U.S. government cultural centers in Sindh Province and Islamabad held events to promote religious freedom. On January 21, the center in Khairpur hosted a Religious Freedom Day event at which 25 students discussed the importance of being able to practice religion freely in Pakistan. On January 22, the Hyderabad center hosted an event on educational institutions’ roles in promoting tolerance and creating peaceful communities. Sanjay Mathrani, a former participant in a U.S. government exchange program, was a featured speaker. On August 24, the Karachi center hosted a talk entitled, “How to Develop Religious Tolerance and Empathy,” with Syed Ali Hameed from the Shaoor Foundation and a consulate general officer.

Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, experts, and journalists to stress the need to protect the rights of religious minorities and to continue to support measures that decrease sectarian violence. They also met with representatives of other embassies, leaders of religious communities, NGOs, and legal experts working on religious freedom issues to discuss ways to increase respect among religions and to enhance dialogue. Department of State programs, including outreach activities such as speakers and workshops, helped to promote peacebuilding among religious and community leaders. The embassy and consulates highlighted the principles of religious freedom and examples of interfaith dialogue in the United States on their social media platforms throughout the year.

In July, the Department of State issued a statement following the killing of Tahir Naseem expressing outrage over the killing and noting that Naseem had been lured from his home in the United States by individuals who used blasphemy laws to entrap him. The statement also called on the government to “immediately reform its often abused blasphemy laws and its court system, which allow such abuses to occur, and to ensure that the suspect is prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

In an official tweet in November following the killing of Ahmadi physician Tahir Ahmad, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom said the killing was “the latest in a series of recent killings targeting the Ahmadiyya community. We call upon authorities to ensure the safety of all Pakistanis.”

On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.

Romania

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits restricting 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 religious groups have the freedom to organize “in accordance with their own statutes.” According to the law on religious freedom and religious denominations, the state recognizes the “important role” of the Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC) in the history of the country, but it also recognizes the role of “other churches and denominations.” The law specifies a three-tiered classification of religious organizations. In addition, civil associations wishing to perform religious functions may organize under a separate provision of the law. During the year, the government approved four applications for registration of religious associations. Religious groups stated restrictions meant to contain the spread of COVID-19 were unfair because a March ban on travel outside the home contained an exemption for travel to work but not for travel to places of worship. In September, the National Council for Combating Discrimination ruled the lack of an agreement with all recognized religious denominations on Easter observances while COVID-19 restrictions were in force constituted discrimination. The council recommended the Ministry of Interior be impartial towards all religious denominations and establish nondiscriminatory rules for the exercise of freedom of belief. There were continued reports of the slow pace of restitution of confiscated properties, especially to the Greek Catholic Church and the Jewish community. During the year, the government rejected 500 restitution claims for confiscated religious properties and approved 83, compared with 474 claims rejected and 48 approved in 2019; it again approved no claims for the Greek Catholic Church. In February, the standing bureaus of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies appointed Parliamentarian Silviu Vexler to the honorary position of “High Representative of the Parliament for Fighting Antisemitism, Protecting the Memory of Holocaust Victims and Developing Jewish Life.”

Some minority religious groups continued to report at times ROC priests and adherents blocked their access to cemeteries. In June, the Impreuna Agency for Community Development released a survey on the perceptions of Roma and other ethnic and religious minorities in the country, including Jews. According to findings, 44 percent of respondents had little or no trust in Jews and 30 percent would accept Jews as friends or relatives. Some private media outlets depicted religious minority groups as a threat. In October, an article published by the news site activenews.ro mentioned the alleged religious affiliation of several government officials, purportedly members of the Baha’i, Unitarian, Reformed, Muslim, or Roman Catholic faiths, and called them “anti-Orthodox Talibans” for imposing COVID-19-related restrictions on religious activities. According to a study released by the Wiesel Institute in May, several articles published online stated Jews or the state of Israel were responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak and were profiting from the health crisis.

Embassy officials continued to advocate with the government for property restitution and religious tolerance. The Ambassador and a senior embassy official participated in several Holocaust commemorations and spoke out against anti-Semitism. Using its Facebook page, the embassy emphasized respect for religious freedom and paid tribute to Holocaust victims. The Ambassador met with leaders of the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Muslim community to discuss ways to promote religious freedom and interfaith dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 21.3 million (midyear 2020 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. According to the Greek Catholic Church, since the time of the census, a significant number of persons whose Greek Catholic families were forced to covert during the Communist regime rediscovered their roots and joined the Greek Catholic Church. Other religious groups include Old Rite Russian Christians; Protestants, including Reformed Protestants, Pentecostals, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Evangelical Lutherans, and Evangelical Augustans; Jews; Muslims; Jehovah’s Witnesses; Baha’is; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Zen Buddhists; the Family (God’s Children); the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church); the Church of Scientology; and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. Atheists and nonbelievers represent less than 1 percent of the population.

According to the 2011 census, Old Rite Russian Christians are mainly located in Moldavia and Dobrogea. Of the 64,337 Muslims accounted for in the 2011 census, 43,279 live in the southeast near Constanta. Most Greek Catholics reside in Transylvania. Protestants of various denominations and Roman Catholics reside primarily in Transylvania. Orthodox and ethnic Ukrainian Greek Catholics 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

Legal Framework

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 on religious freedom and religious denominations 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 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. Only clergy members of recognized religious denominations may be hired by the government as military or prison chaplains. Regulations state that clergy members of religious associations may be granted access to prisons on a case-by-case basis in certain conditions. There are no similar regulations for religious groups. The law forbids public authorities or private legal entities from asking individuals to specify their religion, except for 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. Civil associations established under separate provisions of the law governing associations and foundations 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 law on religion was enacted in 2006: 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 Augustan Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Unitarian Church, 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 beginning in 2006. A religious association is then eligible to apply for the status of religious denomination if it has a membership of at least 0.1 percent of the population as counted at the most recent census (approximately 20,120 persons).

The law defines a religious association as an organization of at least 300 citizens who share and practice the same faith and 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 the government may not share with other public institutions or use in any other way. To operate as religious associations, organizations also require approval from the National Secretariat for Religious Denominations, which is under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister.

The law defines a religious group as a group of individuals sharing 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. 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.

Under the constitution, each of the 18 recognized minorities, including Jews, is entitled to a representative in the Chamber of Deputies. An organization is required, however, to receive votes equal to 5 percent of the national average number of votes cast by district for a deputy to be elected, and any citizen, regardless of religious affiliation, may vote for them. The list of organizations that benefit from these provisions is limited to those belonging to the National Council of Minorities, which consists of organizations already in Parliament.

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,” which the law does not define.

Religious associations do not receive government funding and do not have the right to teach religion in public schools, 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 and own cemeteries. 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 allows all types of religious organizations to bury their dead in cemeteries belonging to other religious organizations, except for cemeteries belonging to local Jewish and Muslim communities. By law, non-Muslims and non-Jews are not entitled to be buried in Jewish or Islamic cemeteries. 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 to function 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, and during the ensuing Communist regime, if the properties are in the possession of 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 remain 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 by another religious group.

A separate statute on the reinstatement of the Greek Catholic Church regulates the restitution of properties to the 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 World War II 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. According to the country’s various civil codes adopted between World War II and subsequently, heirless property and unclaimed property devolves to the government.

A law passed in October prioritizes compensation to Holocaust survivors for immovable properties confiscated during the Communist regime. Under the law, the National Authority for Property Restitution (NAPR) must make a one-time compensation payment to successful claimants who are Holocaust survivors, as opposed to other claimants who receive compensation in several tranches over a period of five years. The law expands access to prioritized processing of claims by persons residing outside of the European Union who can prove their status as Holocaust survivors with documents issued by an entity designated by the government of their country of residence. The bill also entitles original owners and their inheritors to compensation based on current-day market prices, rather than 2013 market prices, as provided for in an earlier government decision.

Romanian and foreign citizens persecuted based on ethnic criteria between 1940 and 1945, defined in the law to include Jews, are entitled to a monthly pension. The amount of the pension varies, depending on the type and length of persecution endured. The pension is available to survivors and their families who are no longer Romanian citizens, thus entitling U.S. citizen Holocaust survivors and U.S. citizen family members of Holocaust victims to the same benefits as Romanian citizens.

A law that went into effect in 2019 allows Holocaust survivors residing in foreign countries and who are eligible for compensation in Romania to prove they were victims of racial and ethnic persecution based on official documents released by institutions of the country of residence. The law exempts Holocaust survivors residing in foreign countries from having to physically submit their applications for compensation at the pension offices in Romania and allows them to use other means of communication, such as electronic mail or express mail, to apply.

By law, religious education in schools is optional in both public and private schools. 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, participation in religion classes is not obligatory. Parents of students younger than age 18 must 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 submit a certificate from the denomination to receive academic credit.

Religion teachers in public schools are government employees, but each religious denomination approves the appointment and retention of the teachers of its religion classes.

The law forbids proselytizing in public and private schools. If teachers proselytize, the school management determines the appropriate discipline, 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; from age 16, a person has the right to choose her or 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 ($250-$25,200), depending on whether the victim is an individual or a community.

According to amendments to a law that went into effect in 2019, deceased adherents of Judaism are exempted from autopsy upon the request of their families or the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania and if law enforcement determines there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding their death.

By law, anti-Semitism is defined as a perception of Jews expressed in the form of anti-Jewish hatred, as well as speech and physical acts motivated by hatred that target Jews, non-Jews or their belongings, Jewish community institutions, or Jewish places of worship. Penalties for publicly promoting anti-Semitic ideas and doctrines or manufacturing and disseminating anti-Semitic symbols range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment and the loss of certain rights such as the right to vote and run for election. Penalties for establishing anti-Semitic organizations range from three to 10 years of imprisonment and the loss of certain rights.

The law prohibits the establishment of fascist, Legionnaire (the country’s interwar fascist organization), racist, or xenophobic organizations, which it defines in part as groups that promote violence, religiously motivated hatred, or extremist nationalism, the latter term undefined. Penalties for establishing such organizations range from three to 10 years of 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 racist, fascist, xenophobic, and Legionnaire symbols illegal. Penalties range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment.

Publicly denying the Holocaust or contesting, approving, justifying, or minimizing it in an “obvious manner” as determined by a judge is punishable by six months’ to three years’ imprisonment or by a fine, depending on circumstances, of up to 200,000 lei ($50,400). Publicly promoting persons convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes may incur fines and prison terms ranging from three months to three years and from six months to five years if done online. The same penalties apply to publicly promoting anti-Semitic, 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 party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The government approved four applications for religious association status during the year, compared with two religious associations approved in 2019. Approved applications were for the “Universal Reformed” Christian Apostolic Center, Belin Vale Association, Holy Trinity Christian Center, and “House of Jacob” Pentecostal Christian Union of Roma. As of December, 40 entities with diverse religious affiliations were registered as religious associations, up three from 36 in 2019.

Some minority 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 required only 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.

The government issued a ban on several types of public events, including public church services, during the March 15-May 14 state of emergency to contain the spread of COVID-19. A military ordinance adopted by the Ministry of Interior on March 17 banned religious activities in closed spaces. A subsequent military ordinance adopted on March 21 allowed religious groups to perform religious services in places of worship without public attendance. The ordinance allowed for private religious services such as baptisms, weddings, and burials to be held inside places of worship as long as they were attended by no more than eight participants, as well as communion services for hospitalized patients or sick persons at their homes. Following a military ordinance adopted on March 24, individuals were not allowed to travel outside their homes except for a limited number of purposes, such as for work, but not including religious activities, including visiting places of worship or cemeteries. Some members of the ROC called for lifting restrictions on religious activities. In March, ROC priest Andrei Rosca sent a letter to the government requesting it to reopen churches and stating, “It hurts to see that shops are crowded while the Church is closed; it hurts to see that food markets are filled with people while the Church is empty.”

In April, President of the Union of Baptist Churches in Romania Viorel Iuga released a public letter asking the President and the Prime Minister to ease restrictions on religious activities.

On April 14, the ROC Patriarch and the Interior Minister signed an agreement to allow Orthodox believers to go to church on April 17 (Orthodox Good Friday) and 18 to receive communion. The agreement also mandated that ROC representatives, police, and military personnel distribute the Holy Light (Orthodox candle-flame-passing ceremony normally conducted in church) to believers at their homes on April 18. Leaders of the Save Romania Union Party said the agreement was detrimental to social distancing efforts. The Chair of the Hungarian Democrat Union in Romania asked for the repeal of the agreement, citing public health concerns and discrimination against Protestants and Roman Catholics who did not benefit from similar exceptions for their Easter celebrations that took place the previous weekend. On April 15, the Ministry of Interior reached a new agreement with the ROC that changed key provisions from the original version, specifying that on the Thursday before Easter, volunteers and clergy, rather than police forces, would distribute blessed bread (sprinkled with holy water and wine and also called paste) and deliver the Holy Light (or flame) to the homes of believers instead of having them go to church. On May 18, the government downgraded the state of emergency to a state of alert, allowing open-air public church services. Religious services with no more than 16 participants were permitted inside all places of worship. On September 30, the National Council for Combating Discrimination reviewed the April 14 agreement between the ROC Patriarch and the Interior Minister and ruled that the lack of an agreement with all recognized religious denominations on Easter celebrations constituted discrimination. The council recommended the Ministry of Interior be impartial towards all religious denominations and establish nondiscriminatory rules concerning the exercise of freedom of belief.

Following the ban on public church services to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, the government-owned television network TVR began broadcasting Roman Catholic masses. In March, representatives of the Greek Catholic civic group ACUM (the word “now” in Romanian) reported that the Greek Catholic Church had requested that TVR broadcast the Greek Catholic Mass. ACUM collected more than 1,300 signatures on a petition supporting its request. Throughout April, TVR broadcast Greek Catholic masses and other Greek Catholic religious ceremonies.

On October 5, the National Committee for Emergency Situations issued a decision establishing that religious celebrations could be organized only for residents of the municipality where the event takes place and that persons were not allowed to attend religious celebrations outside their place of residence. Under this decision, persons residing outside the city of Iasi could not attend the traditional Saint Parascheva Orthodox celebration and pilgrimage to Iasi, which took place on October 14. On October 9, the ROC Patriarch released a public statement saying the ban on pilgrimages was disproportionate, discriminatory, and was decided without prior consultation with the ROC. According to media, during the October 14 celebration in Iasi, members of the gendarmerie checked the identity documents of persons who wanted to approach the relics of Saint Parascheva and banned access to nonresidents. Following a protest by several hundred persons on the same day, members of the gendarmerie allowed nonresidents access to the relics. On October 14, the ROC Patriarch stated that granting only Iasi residents the right to venerate Saint Parascheva “was unparalleled in history” and that the holiday was observed “with sadness.”

On October 22, the ROC and Bucharest municipal government signed an agreement to allow only Bucharest residents to attend the Saint Dimitrie Orthodox celebration scheduled for October 25-27, citing COVID-19-related health concerns. On November 11, the Constanta County Committee for Emergency Situations adopted COVID-19-related restrictions on several types of public gatherings and banned persons from attending religious processions and pilgrimages outside their place of residence. Citing plans to organize a pilgrimage on the November 30 celebration of Saint Andrew, the Constanta-based Archbishopric of Tomis challenged the county committee’s decision in court, but on November 25, the Constanta Tribunal rejected the Archbishopric’s suit. On December 14, the Bucharest Court of Appeal issued a nonfinal ruling repealing regulations included in the October 5 decision of the National Committee for Emergency Situations that barred attendance of religious celebrations outside a person’s place of residence. The court explained in its ruling that only laws passed by Parliament could restrict religious freedom and that the decision of the National Committee for Emergency Situations was discriminatory, since it imposed additional regulations on religious activities compared with other activities that posed similar health risks.

In October, the Targu-Mures Court of Appeal rejected an application by the town of Darmanesti challenging the jurisdiction of Sanmartin, which according to the 2011 census is 99 percent Roman Catholic, over the cemetery, and it settled the property dispute by confirming Sanmartin’s ownership. The cemetery was the site of 2019 protests and tensions between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians over the construction of a monument and placement of Orthodox-style crosses on the graves of the predominantly Hungarian Catholic World War I soldiers believed to be buried there. On December 10, the Moinesti court repealed a prosecutorial decision to dismiss the inquiry into the cemetery incident and ordered the Moinesti Prosecutor’s Office to resume criminal investigations for property damage, incitement to hatred and discrimination, and breach of public peace. According to the Greek Catholic Church, the ROC continued to deny it access to the ROC cemetery in Sapanta, which had previously belonged to the Greek Catholic Church.

Baha’i leaders continued to seek alternative arrangements for the burial of deceased followers in accordance with their religious practices. According to the Baha’is, some burial practices of existing cemeteries were contrary to the Baha’i tradition, and they therefore preferred to have their own places of burial. Baha’is continued to be registered as a religious association and not as a denomination because they did not meet the minimum requirements for membership and activity. During the year, the Baha’i community reported it was able to perform a funeral ceremony in a public cemetery under the authority of the Bucharest Municipality according to its own traditions. Although officials of the cemetery initially tried to persuade the family to organize a ceremony with an ROC priest, eventually the cemetery allowed the funeral to take place according to the Baha’i tradition and the deceased’s will, which Baha’is stated they regarded as a positive change compared with previous years.

There were continued reports of the slow pace of restitution of confiscated properties, especially to the Greek Catholic Church and the Jewish community. NAPR, the government agency responsible for overseeing the restitution process, reported the SRC had approved 26 requests for the restitution of “immovable properties” (land or buildings) to religious denominations, approved compensation in 57 cases, and rejected 500 other claims during the year, compared with 14 requests for restitution, 57 approved compensations cases, and 474 rejected claims in 2019. All the claims were submitted before the 2006 deadline. In 13 cases, the filers withdrew their claims. According to data provided by NAPR, the number of cases the SRC reviewed increased from 777 in 2019 to 816.

According to NAPR, religious denominations appealed 62 decisions the SRC submitted to the courts during the year, compared with 63 in 2019. The Roman Catholic Church made five appeals (four in 2019); the ROC made 12 (24 in 2019); the Greek Catholics made 16 (18 in 2019); the Evangelical Augustinian Church made six (four in 2018); and the Jewish community made seven (10 in 2019). Information concerning court decisions on these cases was unavailable.

During the year, NAPR reviewed 557 claims submitted by the Greek Catholic Church, compared with 335 claims in 2019, but it did not restore any property to the Church or grant it compensation in any cases. Greek Catholic Church officials reported that NAPR rejected all of their claims, mostly because the properties now belonged to the ROC and were subject to a different law, making restitution possible only through a joint commission representing the two Churches and based on “the will of the believers from the communities that possess these properties.” During the Communist regime, all places of worship and parish houses were transferred to the ROC, and most other properties (land and buildings) to the state. According to Greek Catholic officials, there was no progress on forming a joint commission by year’s end, a request the Greek Catholic Church made 18 years ago.

The Greek Catholic Church continued to report delays on restitution lawsuits. Church representatives stated there were no court decisions on Greek Catholic restitution cases again during the year and that in several cases, local government committees in charge of transferring the ownership of certain lands to the Greek Catholic Church following a restitution decision failed to do so.

ACUM continued to request that the government create an entity to combat religious discrimination. In 2019, ACUM sent a letter to the President and Prime Minister making the request and stating that 30 years after the fall of the Communist regime, the Greek Catholic Church continued to be the victim of religious persecution that began in the 1940s. According to ACUM, 90 percent of its churches and assets confiscated during the Communist regime had not been returned; the ROC, via its media and communication channels, continued to campaign against Greek Catholics; Greek Catholic students were pressured to take ROC religion classes; history textbooks and academic publications distorted or minimized the history of the Greek Catholic Church; commemorations honoring important leaders from the country’s history who were Greek Catholic deliberately overlooked those leaders’ religious affiliation; and the ROC had not asked for forgiveness for Securitate collaborators who jailed, tortured, and killed Greek Catholic priests who refused to convert to the Romanian Orthodox faith. The government had not responded to the letter by 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 in light of a revived claim for the property by the Satu Mare County Council filed in 2016. The case remained pending at year’s end.

Although implementing regulations to officially prioritize property restitution cases for Holocaust survivors remained pending, NAPR approved priority status for 163 such applications. Since the passage of the legislation, NAPR had awarded compensation to Holocaust survivors in 91 cases, rejected the claims in nine cases, and not issued a decision in 63 cases by year’s end.

The SRC approved 21 pending claims from previous years by the Jewish community– all through compensation – and rejected 45 others, compared with 21 during the same period in 2019. In nine other cases, compared with 10 in 2019, claimants withdrew their requests. Religious groups said it was difficult to obtain required