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Executive Summary

The constitution states that while the official religion is the Shafi’i school of Islam, all other religions may be practiced “in peace and harmony.” The government permitted Shafi’i Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths, but has banned several religious groups it considers “deviant.” Phase one of the Sharia Penal Code (SPC) has operated in parallel with the existing common law-based criminal justice system since 2014 and primarily involves offenses punished by fines or imprisonment, such as propagating religions other than Islam, eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, cross-dressing, close proximity of unmarried people of the opposite sex, and “indecent behavior,” which is defined broadly. The SPC applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, with non-Muslims exempted from certain sections. During the year, the government did not implement phases two and three of the SPC, which would include punishments such as stoning to death for fornication, sodomy, or apostasy, and amputation of the hand for thievery. The government has not published the criminal procedure code that would be a necessary precursor to implementation of these phases of the SPC. During the year, a government health official was charged under the sedition law for posting what the government said were inflammatory comments on Facebook regarding the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ new halal policy. In November the sultan called for the rejection of Islamic teachings that repudiate local practices. A fatwa barring church and temple expansion or renovation remained in force, but the government granted a school associated with the Christian community permission to build a parking lot. Throughout the year, the government published guidance for respecting Islam; however, unlike in previous years, the government did not issue warnings that public displays of Christmas decorations and Chinese New Year’s traditional lion dances could amount to an offense under the SPC. Six Christian churches and one Chinese temple were recognized in the country, which practitioners said were not sufficient for the number of believers.

Non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. Islamic authorities organized a range of proselytizing activities and incentives to explain and propagate Islam. Anecdotal reports indicated that some Muslims and Christians who wished to convert to another religion feared social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community. Religious freedom continued to be debated on social media platforms, with some commentators calling for increased “Islamification” and the removal of non-Malays from the country.

Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador expressed to government officials at all levels concern that full implementation of the SPC, including the severe penalties in the remaining phases, would undermine several of the country’s international human rights commitments, including the freedoms of religion and of expression, and prohibitions on torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The Ambassador also urged the government at the highest levels to defer the implementation of phases two and three of the SPC and encouraged the government to ratify the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment of Punishment; sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and engage in interfaith dialogue and open academic discussions on religion and human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 444,000 (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 78.8 percent of the population is Muslim, 8.7 percent Christian, and 7.8 percent Buddhist, while the remaining 4.7 percent consists of other religions including indigenous beliefs.

There is significant variation in religious identification among ethnic groups. According to 2015 official statistics, ethnically Malay Bruneians comprise 66 percent of the population, and are presumed to be Muslim as an inherited status. The Chinese population, which is approximately 10 percent of the total population and includes both citizens and permanent residents, is 65 percent Buddhist and 20 percent Christian. Indigenous tribes such as Dusun, Bisaya, and Murut make up approximately 4 percent of the population and are estimated to be 50 percent Muslim, 15 percent Christian, and the remainder followers of other religious groups, including adherents of traditional practices. The remaining fifth of the population includes foreign-born workers, primarily from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Asia, or are stateless residents. According to official statistics, approximately half of these temporary and permanent residents are Muslim, more than one quarter Christian, and 15 percent Buddhist.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the religion of the country shall be the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam but allows all other religions to be practiced “in peace and harmony” by the persons professing them.

The legal system is divided between civil law and sharia, which run parallel systems of both criminal and civil/family law and operate separate courts under a single judiciary department. The civil courts are based on common law. The sharia courts follow Islamic jurisprudence, in which there is no law of precedence and judges are not bound by the decisions of a higher court. Sharia courts have jurisdiction over both criminal law and civil/family matters involving Muslims and hear cases brought under long-standing sharia legislation as well as under the SPC. In some cases non-Muslims are subject to sharia courts, such as khalwat (close proximity between the sexes) if the other accused party is Muslim.

Phase one of the SPC, which came into force in 2014, runs in parallel with the existing common law-based criminal law system and primarily involves offenses punishable by fines or imprisonment. It expands restrictions in long-standing domestic sharia law on drinking alcohol, eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, cross-dressing, close proximity between unmarried people of different genders, and propagating religions other than Islam. It includes a prohibition of “indecent behavior,” including pregnancies out of wedlock, and criminalizes any act that “tends to tarnish the image of Islam, deprave a person, bring bad influence, or cause anger to the person who is likely to have seen the act.” The SPC applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, as well as to offenses committed outside the country by citizens or permanent residents. Non-Muslims are exempted from certain sections, such as requirements for men to join Friday prayers or payments of zakat (obligatory annual alms giving). It states that Muslims will be identified for purposes of the law by “general reputation.”

The second phase of the SPC, which would include amputating the hands of thieves, is not scheduled to come into effect until one year after the publication of a Sharia Courts Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). To date, the government has not published the CPC. Phase three of the SPC, which includes punishments – stoning to death for rape, adultery, or sodomy, and execution for apostasy, contempt of the Prophet Muhammad, or insult of the Quran – is scheduled to be implemented two years after the publication of the CPC. The punishments included in phases two and three include different standards of proof than the common law-based penal code, such as requiring four pious men to witness personally an act of fornication to support a sentence of stoning. Stoning sentences, however, could be supported by a confession in lieu of evidence at the discretion of a sharia judge.

The government describes its official national philosophy as Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or Malay Islamic Monarchy, which the government defines as “a system that encompasses strong Malay cultural influences, stressing the importance of Islam in daily life and governance, and respect for the monarchy as represented by His Majesty the Sultan.” The government has said this system is essential to the country’s way of life and its main defense against extremism. A government body, the MIB Supreme Council, seeks to spread and strengthen the MIB philosophy and ensure MIB is enshrined in the nation’s laws and policies. MIB is a compulsory subject for students in both public and private schools, including at the university level.

The Religious Enforcement Division under the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) is the lead agency in many investigations related to religious practices, but other agencies also play a role. The Religious Enforcement Division leads investigations on crimes that exist only in the SPC and other sharia legislation, such as male Muslims failing to pray on Fridays. Cases involving crimes that are not covered by sharia legislation such as human trafficking are investigated by the Royal Brunei Police Force (RBPF). Cases involving crimes covered by both sharia and the civil code are also investigated by the RBPF and referred to the Attorney General’s Chamber (AGC). In these cases, the AGC determines in each case if a specific crime should be prosecuted and whether it should be filed in the sharia or civil court. No official guidelines for the AGC’s determination process have been published.

The government bans religious groups it considers deviant, including the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Al-Arqam, Abdul Razak Mohammad, Al-Ma’unah, Saihoni Tasipan, Tariqat Mufarridiyyah, Silat Lintau, Qadiyaniah, the Bahai Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The list is based on fatwas proclaimed by the state mufti or the Islamic Religious Council – a government body and the sultan’s highest authority on matters on Islam – and is publicly available on the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ website. The SPC also bans any practice or display of “black magic.”

The SPC includes a list of words and expressions, including the word “Allah,” reserved for use by only Muslims or in relation to Islam. In 2016 the government clarified that the use of certain words, such as “Allah” by non-Muslims, did not constitute an SPC offense when used in a nonreligious context or social activity.

The law forbids the teaching or promotion of any religion other than Islam to Muslims or to persons of no faith. Under the first phase of the SPC, the penalty for propagating religions other than Islam is up to five years in prison, a fine of up to 20,000 Brunei dollars (BND) ($14,900), or both. The SPC includes a provision that makes it illegal to criticize Islam, including the SPC itself, although no cases, arrests, or charges under this provision have been reported.

Muslims are legally permitted to renounce their religion until phase three of the SPC is implemented but must inform the Islamic Religious Council in writing. A person must be at least 14 years and seven months old to convert to a different religion. If parents convert to Islam, their children automatically become Muslim.

The law requires all organizations, including religious groups, to register and provide the names of their members. Applicants are subject to background checks for leaders and board members, and proposed organizations are subject to naming requirements. Registered organizations must furnish information on leadership, election of officers, members, assets, activities, and any other information requested by the registrar. Benefits of registration include the ability to operate, reserve space in public buildings, and apply for permission to raise funds. The registrar of societies oversees the application process, exercises discretion over applications, and is authorized to refuse approval for any reason. Organizations are prohibited from affiliation with any organization outside the country without written approval by the registrar. Unregistered organizations may face charges of unlawful assembly and may be subject to fines. Individuals who participate in or influence others to join unregistered organizations may be fined, arrested, and imprisoned. The general penalty for violating laws on the registration and activity of organizations is a fine of up to 10,000 BND ($7,500), imprisonment for up to three years, or both.

The law states that any public assembly of five or more persons requires official approval in advance. Under long-standing emergency powers, this applies to all forms of public assembly, including religious assembly. In practice, however, places of worship are viewed as private.

Laws and regulations limit access to religious literature. The law states it is an offense for a person to import any publication deemed objectionable, which is defined in part as describing, depicting, or expressing matters of race or religion in a manner likely to cause “feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.” The law also bans distributing materials relating to religions other than Islam to Muslims or persons of no faith.

The law establishes two sets of schools: those offering the national or international curriculum and administered by the Ministry of Education (MOE), and those offering supplemental religious education (ugama) that are administered by MORA. Ugama instruction in MORA schools is a seven-to-eight-year course that teaches the day-to-day practice of Sunni Islam according to the Shafi’i school and is mandatory for Muslim students ages seven to 14 who hold citizenship or permanent residency. Alternatively, MORA also administers a set of schools taught in Arabic that offer the national curriculum combined with ugama religious education. The law states that Muslim parents who fail to enroll their children in an ugama school face a 5,000 BND ($3,700) fine, imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year, or both. The law promulgates the officially recognized Shafi’i school and does not make accommodations for Muslims who have non-Shafi’i beliefs. MOE schools are also required to teach a course on Islamic religious knowledge, which is required for all Muslim children ages seven to 15 who reside in the country and who have at least one parent who is a citizen or permanent resident.

Public and private schools, including private schools run by churches, are prohibited from providing religious instruction in beliefs other than the Shafi’i school of Islam during school hours. Schools may be fined or school officials imprisoned for teaching non-Islamic religious subjects. The SPC criminalizes exposing Muslim children or the children of parents who have no religious affiliation to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. The law also requires practitioners to obtain official permission before teaching any matter relating to Islam. Churches and religious schools are permitted to offer non-Shafi’i Islamic education in private settings.

All parental rights are awarded to the Muslim parent if a child is born to mixed-faith parents. The non-Muslim parent is not recognized in any official document, including the child’s birth certificate, unless that parent has converted to Islam. The law bans any Muslim from surrendering custody of a minor or dependent in his or her guardianship to a non-Muslim.

Under the SPC, non-Muslims may be arrested for zina (fornication or adultery) or khalwat, provided that the other accused party is Muslim. Foreigners are also subject to these laws.

In July the government introduced a regulation requiring businesses that produce, supply, and serve food and beverages to obtain a halal certificate or apply for exemption if serving non-Muslims.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs has declared circumcision for Muslim girls (sunat) a religious rite obligatory under Islam and described it as the removal of the hood of the clitoris (Type I per World Health Organization classification). The government has stated it does not consider this practice to be female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and has expressed support for the World Health Organization’s call for the elimination of FGM.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Summary Paragraph: The government continued to enforce sharia restrictions and prosecute offenses under the SPC. It continued to apply sharia to Muslims and, for certain offenses, non-Muslims, resulting in arrests, fines, and confiscations. The government continued to impose traditional Islamic social norms more broadly, including placing limitations on businesses suspected of encouraging mingling of men and women, proselytizing, and religious education. In November the sultan called for the rejection of Islamic teachings that repudiate local practices. A fatwa barring church and temple expansion or renovation remained in force; however, the government granted a school associated with the Christian community permission to build a parking lot.

The authorities continued to arrest and prosecute persons for offenses under both the SPC and long-standing sharia.

The chief sharia court judge announced that the number of sharia court cases dropped to 148 cases from 259 cases in 2016. Of the 148 cases, 98 were for khalwat. The judge said khalwat cases were “mainly committed by Muslim and non-Muslim youth and civil servants.” He noted that a review of the penalties imposed by sharia judges for khalwat had so far been unsuccessful in deterring people from committing the offense. He added that khalwat could lead to other sharia criminal offenses such as “adultery, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the abandonment of babies.”

Not all of those investigated or accused of sharia crimes were formally arrested. There were some reports of administrative penalties, such as travel bans or suspension from government jobs, for individuals accused but not yet convicted of khalwat, but application of such practices reportedly was not consistent. The government had not issued implementing regulations governing sharia proceedings by year’s end.

Following the introduction of the regulation requiring businesses in the food service industry to provide a halal certificate, authorities charged a government health official under the sedition law for criticizing MORA’s halal policy on Facebook. In the post, the individual criticized the halal certification requirements’ negative impact on small businesses and called for MORA to instead investigate “why all sexual offenders are religious teachers.” His post quickly went viral on social media but was removed. Local attorneys noted this was the first case of an individual being charged with sedition in 30 years. If found guilty of sedition, the individual could face a fine of 5,000 BND ($3,700), up to three years in prison, or both. At year’s end, the defendant Shahiransheriffuddin bin Shahrani Muhammad, was free on bail and ordered not to post such comments against government policy on social media. His next hearing was scheduled for August 2018.

MORA continued to provide texts for Friday sermons to all mosques, which were required to deliver the approved texts, and the government required the sermons to be preached by registered imams.

There was no legal requirement for women to wear head coverings in public; however, religious authorities continued to reinforce social customs to encourage Muslim women to wear the tudong (a traditional Islamic head covering), and many women did so. When applying for passports, drivers’ licenses and national identity cards, Muslim females were made to wear a tudong, and all females were given a black jacket to ensure their shoulders were covered in their identity photographs. Muslim women employed by the government were expected to wear a tudong to work, although some chose not to with no reports of official repercussions. In government schools and institutions of higher learning, Muslim female students were required to wear a uniform that includes a head covering. Male students were expected to wear the songkok (a traditional hat), although this was not required in all schools. Women who were incarcerated, including non-Muslims, were required to wear a uniform that included a tudong.

Unlike in previous years, religious leaders and government officials did not officially warn citizens against publicly displaying symbols of religions other than Islam during Christmas and Chinese New Year, although many businesses still chose not to display decorations. As with past years, the government limited traditional Lunar New Year lion dance performances to a three-day period and restricted them to the Chinese temple, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese Association members. The government also introduced a new online application for event permits, making it easier for Chinese Dragon dances to take place during Chinese New Year. Members of the royal family and the minister of religious affairs again publicly attended Lunar New Year celebrations and lion dance performances during the allowed period, with coverage in state-influenced media.

The government continued to enforce restrictions on non-Muslims proselytizing to Muslims or people with no religious affiliation. The government periodically warned the population about “outsiders” preaching non-Shafi’i versions of Islam, including both “liberal” practices and those associated with jihadism, Wahhabism, or Salafism. In November during a titah (royal proclamation), the sultan said the country “could not afford to let anyone carry out or import any teachings that could disintegrate Muslims in the country” and called for the rejection of Islamic teachings that repudiate local practices, which include offering prayers for the dead, celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, and Quran readings prior to work and public events.

The government continued to enforce strict customs controls on importing non-Islamic religious texts such as Bibles, as well as on Islamic religious teaching materials or scriptures intended for sale or distribution. Authorities continued to generally ban non-Islamic texts from import, and the censorship board continued to review Islamic texts to ensure they did not contain text that deviates from the Shafi’i school of Islam. Personal packages entering the country continued to be checked by customs to ensure they did not contain anything of a non-Shafi’i Islamic or sexual nature, such as magazines showing women in swimsuits.

Churches confirmed that a long-standing fatwa discouraging Muslims from assisting in perpetuating non-Muslim faiths continued to inhibit expansion, renovation, or construction of new facilities. Christian churches and associated schools, however, were generally allowed to repair and renovate buildings on their sites if required for safety. This approval process remained lengthy and difficult, and there were reports of the government stalling new construction projects for not meeting the complicated permit process requirements. The government, however, granted a school associated with the Christian community, with students from various religious backgrounds, permission to build a parking lot to reduce traffic congestion. With only six approved churches in the country, facilities were often too small to accommodate their congregations without significant overflow seating outdoors. Chinese temples were also subjected to the same fatwa, with only one official Chinese temple preserved as a cultural heritage. Data from 2015 indicated there were 99 registered mosques. Christian worshippers reported difficulty accessing churches on many Sundays because of road closures by the government for official events, with some services being rescheduled to other times.

The MOE required courses on Islam and MIB in all schools, with non-Muslims exempted from some religious requirements. The government reported many non-Muslim children elected to take courses on Islam. Reportedly, those applying for government-funded scholarships believed having such courses could be advantageous. MORA posted religious teachers in some embassies abroad to teach Brunei citizens in those locations. Most school textbooks were illustrated to portray Islam as the norm, and women and girls were shown wearing the tudong. There were no depictions of the practices of other religious groups in textbooks.

Authorities continued to prohibit non-Muslims and non-Shafi’i Muslims from receiving non-Shafi’i religious education in schools. The government tolerated non-Islamic religious education in private settings, such as at home or in approved churches. All church-associated schools were recognized by the MOE and remained open to students of any religion, although they were not permitted to teach religions other than Shafi’i Islam.

Throughout the year, the government enforced business hour restrictions for all businesses, requiring they close for the two hours of Friday prayers. Religious enforcement officers reportedly continued to enforce a ban on restaurants serving dine-in food during the fasting hours of Ramadan, although take-out food to be consumed in private was permitted, and officers issued verbal warnings to restaurants and customers found in breach of the ban. Several Chinese restaurants, however, said that, in contrast with previous years, they did not experience government inspections on this issue. The government continued to enforce a ban on eating, drinking, or smoking in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, which was applied to both Muslims and non-Muslims.

The government maintained a long-standing ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages and cigarettes, and a restriction against the import or consumption of alcoholic beverages by Muslims. Religious authorities partnered with the RBPF in conducting “antivice raids” in which they confiscated alcoholic beverages and nonhalal meats brought into the country without proper customs clearance. In September the state mufti warned worshippers not to deviate from the path of Allah, as alcohol was still being smuggled and sold in the country, and blamed the increasing numbers of tourists and foreign workers for its illicit sale. Authorities also monitored restaurants and supermarkets to ensure conformity with halal practices. Religious authorities allowed nonhalal restaurants and nonhalal sections in supermarkets to operate without interference but continued to hold public outreach sessions to encourage restaurants to become halal.

The government continued to favor the propagation of Shafi’i beliefs and practices, particularly through public events and the education system, which remained solely based on the Al-Shafi’i school. In October the crown prince opened an event at Universiti Islam Sultan Sharif Ali to launch 25 books on the topic of the Al-Shafi’i school.

The government offered incentives to prospective converts to Islam and the Shafi’i school, especially those from indigenous communities in rural areas, including help with housing, welfare assistance, or help to perform the Hajj. During the year, Hajj participants received designer luggage from the government. The government gave presentations on the benefits of converting to Islam that received extensive press coverage in state-influenced media. For example, media reported Ramadan guidance classes for new converts headed by the Tutong District’s religious authorities. Government statistics again showed that each year an average of 500 people converted to Islam. Converts included citizens and permanent residents, as well as foreigners. Official government policy supported Islam through the national MIB philosophy as well as through government pledges to make the country a zikir nation (a nation that remembers and obeys Allah). While in London in December, the sultan met with Bruneian expatriates and reminded them that the “mold for our identity and character is MIB” and cautioning them from being derailed from the MIB track or from trying anything apart from MIB.

Despite the absence of a legal prohibition of Muslims marrying non-Muslims, all Muslim weddings required approval from the sharia courts, and officiants, who were required to be imams approved by the government, required the non-Muslim party to convert prior to the marriage.

Most government meetings and ceremonies commenced with an Islamic prayer, which the government continued to state was not a legal requirement but a matter of custom.

The government required residents to carry identity cards that stated the bearer’s ethnicity, which were used in part to determine whether he or she was Muslim; for example, all Malays were assumed to be Muslim. Female Muslim citizens were required to wear a tudong in photographs on national identity cards as well as passports, and non-Muslim women were required to dress conservatively. Ethnic Malays traveling in the country were generally assumed to be Muslim and required to follow certain Islamic religious practices or potentially face fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Religious authorities reportedly checked identity cards for ethnicity when conducting raids against suspected violators of sharia. Visitors to the country were asked to identify their religion on their visa applications.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior.

Religious freedom continued to be debated on social media platforms with some commentators calling for increased “Islamification” and the removal of non-Malays from the country. Residents who questioned the SPC or Islamic values on social media sometimes reported receiving online abuse and threats, and official monitoring. Some vocal activists who challenged established norms reported family and friends would pressure them to keep quiet due to fear they would attract the attention of authorities or damage the family’s reputation.

Some Muslims who wished to convert to another religion reportedly continued to fear social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community. If parents converted to Islam, there was often family and official pressure for the children to do the same. Some non-Muslims said they felt pressured in the workplace or in social groups to convert to Islam.

The new halal certificate order was widely criticized on social media by commentators as being detrimental to the government’s efforts to promote entrepreneurship.

There were more reports of Muslims being open to allowing other religious groups to celebrate their holidays than in the years since the SPC launched. For example, Christian leaders continued to report more Muslims wished Christians a “Merry Christmas” and attended holiday parties.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to raise concerns and recommendations about religious freedom throughout the year to government officials at all levels. U.S. officials continued to coordinate with other governments, including Australia and the United Kingdom, regarding shared concerns about implementation of the SPC and continued to encourage the government to postpone implementation. U.S. embassy officials emphasized the seriousness with which the United States takes assurances from the government that the evidentiary and witness standards in the SPC would as a matter of procedure and policy be so exacting as to effectively guarantee that torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment will not be carried out in practice. The Ambassador and other embassy officials also continued to raise concerns that a confession could be used in lieu of evidence, and that those accused could be coerced by social pressure to confess. They urged officials to defer the publication of the procedural code that is a necessary precursor to the remaining phases of the SPC. Embassy officials urged that religious enforcement officers and officials involved in drafting, implementing, and enforcing the SPC comply with international human rights norms.

Embassy officials met with religious enforcement officers as well as lawyers defending individuals charged with violations of sharia.

Embassy officials visited places of worship, spoke with leaders of all principal religious groups, and facilitated discussions on the SPC and laws and policies affecting religious freedom in the country, including obstacles to practicing religions and beliefs other than Shafi’i Islam in addition to provisions of sharia.

The embassy hosted a holiday reception that convened representatives from the various religious communities in the country. The Ambassador emphasized religious tolerance by participating in numerous Lunar New Year celebrations and attending Christian events that many locals also attended.


Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees every citizen “the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” The law prohibits speech or acts insulting or defaming any religion or religious beliefs; authorities used these laws to limit freedom of expression and press. Local and international experts said deeply woven prejudices led to abuses and discrimination against religious minorities by government and societal actors. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Violence, discrimination, and harassment against ethnic Rohingya, who are nearly all Muslim, and other minority populations continued. In particular, security forces’ actions in northern Rakhine State beginning in late August resulted in widespread reports of extrajudicial killings, rapes, torture, beatings, arbitrary arrest, mass displacement, and destruction of property, which the U.S. government deemed ethnic cleansing. Approximately 688,000 individuals reportedly fled to Bangladesh due to the violence, and an unknown number were displaced internally. In late April, following protests by Buddhist nationalists, local authorities forced the closure of two madrassahs in Rangoon. In other areas, non-Buddhist minorities, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, reported incidents in which authorities unduly restricted religious practice, denied freedom of movement to members of religious minorities, destroyed religious property and texts, denied or failed to approve permits for religious buildings and renovations, and discriminated in employment. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious groups said local authorities in some cases moved quickly to investigate and debunk rumors that could inflame religious tensions and spark violence. In November the government facilitated the first visit of a Roman Catholic pope to Burma, culminating in a public Mass attended by approximately 150,000 individuals from various religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Some leaders and members of the Buddhist Committee for Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha), including Ashin Wirathu, continued to issue pejorative statements against Muslims, in spite of government denunciations. In May the State Sangha Monk Coordination Committee (SSMNC) ordered that no group or individual would be allowed to operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha and sanctioned Wirathu, the chairperson of the Ma Ba Tha Mandalay branch, for his propagation of hate speech. The group continued to operate, but its influence reportedly waned after the SSMNC order. Some Ma Ba Tha leaders continued propagating anti-Muslim sentiment in sermons and through social media, and the organization’s leaders rebranded the organization under the new name, the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation. In May nationalist monks prompted violence as they sought to investigate whether Rohingya were living illegally in a neighborhood in Rangoon; police intervened and arrested those responsible for the violence. In September Buddhist nationalists conducted a violent protest against a Muslim business owner and a mosque in Magway, which resulted in the destruction of property; police responded by firing rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. On October 30, a prominent Buddhist leader delivered a widely viewed sermon to soldiers suggesting that the killing of non-Buddhists would constitute a minor sin. Religious and civil society leaders increasingly organized intrafaith and interfaith events and developed mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech.

Senior U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State and the Ambassador, advocated for religious freedom and tolerance and consistently raised concerns about violence against religious minorities countrywide, the treatment of Rohingya and conditions in Rakhine State – including those facing Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist communities, and the rise of anti-Muslim hate speech and tensions. The Secretary of State announced on November 22 that the situation in northern Rakhine State constituted ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, and the U.S. government later imposed sanctions on an army general involved in atrocities there. The embassy regularly highlighted concerns about religiously based discrimination and abuses and called for respect for religious freedom and the values of diversity and tolerance.

Since 1999, Burma 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, including extrajudicial killings; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; prolonged abduction and/or detention without charges; and other flagrant denials of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons. On December 22, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 55.1 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the most recently available estimates, approximately 88 percent are Theravada Buddhists. Approximately 6 percent are Christians (primarily Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, along with several small Protestant denominations). Muslims (mostly Sunni) comprise approximately 4 percent of the population. NGOs and the government estimate the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Rohingya population at 1.1 million. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, this includes more than 800,000 stateless individuals in northern Rakhine State, prior to the outbreak of violence in October 2016. As of December, international organizations estimated 300,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State. There are small communities of Hindus and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. There is a very small Jewish community in Rangoon.

There is significant demographic correlation between ethnicity and religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Bamar ethnic group and among the Shan, Rakhine, Mon, and numerous other ethnic groups. Christianity is dominant among the Kachin, Chin, and Naga ethnic groups. Christianity also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, although many Karen and Karenni are Buddhist and some Karen are Muslim. People of South Asian ancestry, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south central region, are predominantly Hindu or Muslim, although some are Christian. Islam is practiced in Rakhine State and in Rangoon, Irrawaddy, Magwe, and Mandalay Divisions by some Bamar and ethnic Indians as well as ethnic Kaman and Rohingya. Chinese ethnic minorities generally practice traditional Chinese religions and to a lesser extent Islam and Christianity. Traditional indigenous beliefs are practiced among smaller ethnic groups in the highland regions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice his or her religious beliefs. The constitution limits those rights if they threaten public order, health, morality, or other provisions of the constitution. It further provides that every citizen has the right to profess and practice his or her religion if not contrary to laws on security, law and order, community peace, or public order and morality.

The law prohibits deliberate and malicious speech or acts intended to outrage or wound the religious feelings of any class by insulting or defaming its religion or religious beliefs. The law also prohibits injuring, defiling, or trespassing on any place of worship or burial grounds with the intent to insult religion.

All organizations, whether secular or religious, are required to register to obtain official status. This official status is required for organizations to gain title to land, obtain construction permits, and conduct religious activities.

The law bars members of “religious orders” (such as priests, monks, and nuns of any religious group) from running for public office, and the constitution bars members of religious orders from voting. The government restricts by law the political activities and expression of the Buddhist clergy (sangha). The constitution forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes.”

Although there is no official state religion, the constitution notes that the government “recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.” The constitution “also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”

The government bans any organization of Buddhist monks other than nine state-recognized monastic orders. Violations of this ban are punishable by immediate public defrocking and criminal penalties. The nine recognized orders submit to the authority of the SSMNC, the members of which are elected by monks.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs’ Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (Buddhist teaching) oversees the government’s relations with Buddhist monks and schools.

Four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion” remain in effect. The Buddhist Women Special Marriage law stipulates notification and registration requirements for marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women and stipulates obligations to be observed by non-Buddhist husbands and penalties for noncompliance. The Religious Conversion law regulates conversion through an extensive application and approval process. The Population Control Law allows for the designation of special zones for which population control measures could be applied, including authorizing local authorities to implement three-year birth spacing. The Monogamy Law bans polygamous practices, which were already criminalized under the country’s penal code.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Summary Paragraph: There were reports of large-scale abuses by the military and others against ethnic Rohingya, who are nearly all Muslim, and other minority populations – including extrajudicial killings, rapes, torture, beatings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, mass displacement, burning of structures, restrictions on religious practice and freedom of movement, and discrimination in employment, granting of building permits, and access to citizenship. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Elsewhere in the country, non-Buddhist minorities, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, reported incidents in which authorities unduly restricted religious practice and travel, destroyed religious property and texts, denied or failed to approve permits for religious buildings and renovations, and discriminated in employment.

According to the government, ongoing attacks on and threats against civilians by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) prompted the government to deploy security forces to northern Rakhine State in early August. According to NGO and media reports, security forces, in their search for ARSA members, committed enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests of various persons, the majority of whom were Muslim Rohingya. According to the government, security forces later acted in response to coordinated ARSA attacks on August 25 against 30 border guard police and military outposts in northern Rakhine State that resulted in the deaths of 12 soldiers. Media sources and NGOs said some Rohingya villagers joined ARSA to attack security units. The military and Border Guard Police subsequently launched so-called “clearance operations,” which they said were to search for the perpetrators of the ARSA attacks.

From August through November, there were numerous reports by media, the UN, NGOs, and others of mass atrocities in northern Rakhine State, including killings, rapes, beatings, arrests, and the burning of 354 villages by security forces and local vigilante groups. NGOs and UN observers assessed that the security forces’ operations were preplanned, pointing to the movement of units, the spike in arrests of Rohingya before the ARSA attacks, and the common tactics used by many different units in many different villages. Other NGOs, think tanks, and UN observers said the security forces’ response appeared opportunistic and disproportionate, but not pre-planned, given the ongoing security threats in northern Rakhine State against Rohingya, Rakhine, and other civilians between January and August.

The government said its “clearance operations” ended September 5, but satellite imagery corroborated claims by witnesses that security forces or local vigilante groups continued to raze villages for weeks afterward. According to the government, as of September, there were reports of approximately 400 “insurgent” deaths, 30 civilian deaths, as well as 6,842 homes burned in 59 villages during security forces’ operations. The government restricted UN, NGO, and media access to Rakhine State through the end of the year.

As of December, international organizations reported that approximately 688,000 civilians, overwhelmingly Rohingya, arrived in Bangladesh after being displaced from Rakhine State. An additional unknown number were internally displaced. The Government of Bangladesh estimated 500 of the Rohingya refugees from Burma in Bangladesh are Hindu and the remainder Muslim. Human rights organizations and media reported security forces and vigilante groups carried out mass killings and rapes of Rohingya civilians,, as well as arson, in multiple locations in northern Rakhine State, citing far higher numbers of burned homes and villages than the government. International NGOs documented through satellite imagery many instances where homes belonging to villagers from other ethnic groups were not burned in areas that were otherwise destroyed. For example, over 90 percent of the Rohingya homes in Maungdaw District, one of three districts in northern Rakhine, were reportedly burned. Reports indicated children, elderly, or infirm persons were burned alive in houses. Places of worship and religious texts were destroyed. In September the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) released a report that included an interview with a Rohingya Muslim refugee from Burma in Cox’s Bazar, who reported that Burmese security forces attacked a mosque and burned a Quran in Buthidaung Township a few days before the ARSA attacks on August 25. Based on victim and witness interviews, NGOs and media reported that security forces employed similar tactics in different villages. According to eyewitness accounts collected by The New York Times, Human Rights Watch, and others in Cox’s Bazar, villagers who fled to Bangladesh described the military’s use of small arms, mortars, and armed helicopters in the attacks. Rohingya refugees also said they witnessed children and elderly family members being thrown into burning homes and experienced or witnessed gang rapes of women by uniformed security forces. Some media reports and some NGOs stated that some of the serious allegations from Rohingya victims were not completely accurate and the result of collective trauma due to forced displacement. NGOs and media also reported on allegations of several mass casualty massacres in Tula Toli (aka Min Gyi), Inn Din, and other Rohingya villages across northern Rakhine State, with total deaths among them reported in the thousands. According to a report by NGOs Fortify Rights and the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, on August 27, in Chut Pyin Village, Rathedaung Township, soldiers shot rocket-propelled grenades to burn houses and opened fire on Rohingya individuals, while armed civilians slashed and stabbed Rohingya with knives and long swords.

According to NGO and media reports, victims reported that soldiers told some Rohingya Muslim villagers they needed to leave because they were Bengali or because Burma was not a place for Muslims. After some instances of abuse, including killings and physical abuse, soldiers reportedly mocked or denigrated villagers’ religious beliefs.

UN experts and other observers expressed serious concern regarding the role of religious intolerance in abuses against the Rohingya Muslim community and other minorities throughout Rakhine State. The military denied any discrimination on its part. Some Rakhine State leaders said they feared Rohingya would demographically overtake the Rakhine community in Rakhine State and would consequently take over the land of ethnic Rakhine. On September 1 in Nay Pyi Taw, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said insurgents used religion as a tool for violent attacks, and said the “Bengali problem” was a holdover from previous governments that the current government had to solve. Denying allegations of widespread rape, Colonel Phone Tint, the Rakhine State border security minister, stated, “look at those women who are making these claims – would anyone want to rape them?” In November the military replaced the army general responsible for Rakhine State, Major General Maung Maung Soe, for undisclosed reasons.

The UN, media, human rights groups, and Bangladesh border authorities reported security forces planted landmines along the border of Bangladesh in northern Rakhine State in September, with some saying the security forces planted the mines to prevent Rohingya refugees from returning. Sources said at least nine internally displaced persons (IDPs) died from wounds characteristic of landmine injuries while fleeing northern Rakhine State to Bangladesh.

On September 11, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the situation in northern Rakhine State “appears to be a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” On December 5, the High Commissioner noted security forces had committed “acts of appalling barbarity … against the Rohingya, including deliberately burning people to death inside their homes, murders of children and adults; indiscriminate shooting of fleeing civilians; widespread rapes of women and girls, and the burning and destruction of houses, schools, markets and mosques;” and that “elements of genocide may be present.”

At the end of September a commissioner from the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission visited northern Rakhine State and declared security forces had not used disproportionate force or committed any human rights abuses.

According to news reports, some of the small number of Rohingya Hindus who fled to Bangladesh described witnessing killings and arson in their communities, like their Muslim neighbors.

Multiple government-led investigations into earlier reported abuses by security forces did not result in prosecutions or accountability. Following widespread disturbances in northern Rakhine State in October 2016 and reports of abuses by security forces, on February 16, the military declared an end to security operations there, stating that 106 individuals had died, including 76 “attackers,” and that security forces had detained over 600 individuals. On January 3, the government-led Investigation Commission on Maungdaw, headed by military-appointed Vice President Myint Swe, released an interim report stating there was “insufficient evidence to take legal action” regarding allegations of rape, and that the unrest was due to foreign-funded “extremists.” In February the UNOHCHR mission in Bangladesh released a report based on interviews with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh detailing widespread allegations of extrajudicial killings, rape, and other abuses occurring in 2016. In August the Investigation Commission on Maungdaw released its final report, informed by separate military and police investigations into 2016 abuses in northern Rakhine State. In the report, the government-led commission stated there was no credible basis for allegations of human rights abuses by security forces in northern Rakhine State during operations in October and November 2016. International experts pointed to serious flaws in the commission’s methodology, including interrupting alleged victims of abuses to assert that their testimony was false and then broadcasting the exchange on national television. At the end of September, a commissioner from the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission visited northern Rakhine State and declared security forces had not used disproportionate force or committed any other human rights abuses during their August 2017 clearance operations.

On August 25, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, established by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016 and led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, released its final report with recommendations. The report noted, “protracted statelessness and profound discrimination have made the Muslim community particularly vulnerable to human rights violations.” The commission’s recommendations included: accelerating the citizenship verification process for stateless individuals; ending restrictions on freedom of movement; ensuring minority representation in local governance; closing IDP camps; and ensuring the safe and voluntary return of IDPs to their homes. The government committed to implementing these recommendations but had not taken steps to do so by year’s end.

On December 24, 2016, the military detained two affiliates of the Kachin Baptist Convention, Dumdaw Nawng Latt and his nephew, Langjaw Gam Seng, in Mong Ko, in northern Shan State. Civil society groups said the military did not disclose until the end of January that they were holding the men. The two were detained after speaking to journalists about a church in Mong Ko allegedly damaged by the military. In January the military charged both men under the Unlawful Association Act for supporting the Kachin Independence Army and for having unlicensed motorbikes. In March the military announced an additional charge of defamation based on an interview the men gave to Voice of America saying the Burmese military bombed civilians during the 2016 conflict. A court convicted the two men on October 27. It sentenced Nawng Latt to four years and three months for criminal defamation and violating the Unlawful Association Act and the Export Import Act, and sentenced Gam Seng to two years, three months under the same latter two charges. The two had been in detention for 10 months at the time of convictions, which were deducted from their sentences.

International observers reported abuses by authorities during late 2016 operations and against alleged participants in those attacks in the year following. Police and security forces reportedly arrested and detained hundreds of Rohingya males at random following the October 2016 violence. Some of these individuals reportedly stood trial with hundreds of codefendants after being held in prison for over a year.

On May 24, President Htin Kyaw pardoned and the government released 259 prisoners, including Muslim interfaith activists Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt. The released also included seven of the 12 alleged Muslim Myanmar Army prisoners whom authorities had arrested in 2014 under the subsequently repealed Emergency Provisions Act; they had been accused of receiving training from an armed group, among other charges.

According to various religious organizations and NGOs, the process to register an NGO, including a religiously affiliated NGO, remained lengthy and, due largely to what they say is bureaucratic inefficiency in local governments, was often not completed. Organizations noted that lack of registration did not generally hinder the ability of groups and individuals to conduct religious activities, except in a few cases.

Fighting between the government and rebels that restarted in Kachin State in 2011 continued; and fighting in Shan State reportedly increased as new groupings of rebels confronted the army. According to UN figures, almost 100,000 civilians remained displaced by conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States, where there are many Christians and Buddhists as well as other religious groups.

There were reports of local authorities preventing Muslims from conducting prayer services at religious facilities in some villages. Rohingya in northern Rakhine were reportedly prohibited from gathering publicly in groups of more than five persons.

On December 9, local government authorities in Kan Thar Village Tract in Magwe Division, which has an ethnic Chin Christian population, issued a letter barring a planned pre-Christmas prayer in a private home from proceeding. The letter said Buddhist neighbors had suggested to the local government officials that the celebration could cause religious conflict.

The government relaxed its requirements to receive prior written authorization for public events, including religious ceremonies outside of houses of worship and festivals, although in practice religious organizations still operated under the former regulations. While the law, as amended in 2016, only requires written notification to the local government for public events, in practice many religious and civil society organizations stated they preferred to receive written authorization from ward, township, and other local authorities before holding events. There were reports that some religious and nonreligious events received written authorization with restrictive security regulations or other controls.

Several Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several madrassahs.

The government continued to support financially Buddhist seminaries and Buddhist missionary activities. The government continued to fund two state sangha universities in Rangoon and Mandalay, respectively, which trained Buddhist monks under the purview of the SSMNC, as well as the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Rangoon.

Religious organizations said Buddhist groups generally did not experience difficulty obtaining permission to build new pagodas, monasteries, or community religious halls, in contrast with minority religious groups. According to religious organizations, the Ministry of Religious Affairs financially supported the SSMNC and religious ceremonies.

Some teachers at government schools reportedly continued to require students to recite Buddhist prayers, although such practices were no longer a mandated part of the curriculum. Many classrooms displayed Buddhist altars or other Buddhist iconography.

Due to movement restrictions, many Rohingya reportedly could not access education in state-run schools. Authorities did not permit Rohingya high school graduates from Rakhine State and others living in IDP camps to travel outside the state to attend college or university. Authorities continued to bar any university students who did not possess citizenship scrutiny cards from graduating, which disproportionately impacted students from religious minorities, particularly Muslim students. These students were permitted to attend classes and take examinations, but they could not receive diplomas unless they had a national identification card, the application for which required some religious minorities to identify as a “foreign” ethnic minority.

Faith communities throughout the country, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, all reported difficulties and delays that could last for years in getting permits to allow construction of new and rehabilitation of existing religious buildings. Buddhists, however, said getting such permission was harder for other groups. Religious groups said the multiple permissions required, unclear authority among government agencies, and interminable delays in responses to requests for permits led them to construct places of worship without the required permissions, leaving them vulnerable to future government action or to pressure by members of other religious groups. Others said it was necessary to bribe authorities to obtain permits.

In Mandalay, Christians said the local General Administrative Department (GAD), which has a significant role in issuing permits, required them to attest prayer activities would not take place in a requested new house of worship. Christians also said the local GAD office in July told them the permit process for new religious buildings was suspended due to May incidents in Rangoon related to “illegal mosques and prayer activities leading to social unrest.” A Hindu group seeking similar authorization in Mandalay said the GAD had not granted it by year’s end. In Meiktila in Mandalay Division, Muslims said authorities strictly prohibited cleaning, renovating, or entering eight mosques shut down after interreligious conflict in 2014; five others remained authorized. In Rangoon and Mandalay, Buddhist leaders said local GAD authorities denied some requests to build or renovate some monasteries, while other monasteries were shut down due to insufficient information provided to the GAD.

Christian communities in Chin and Kachin States reported that while applications to local authorities for property registration, construction, and renovation were not formally denied, the applications encountered delays spanning several years or were lost altogether. These included continued reports that local government officials delayed permits to restore crosses previously destroyed, or to renovate and build Christian churches in Chin State. Local authorities in Chin State also continued to delay applications from Christian groups and churches to buy land in the name of their religious organizations. Religious groups said individual members circumvented this requirement by purchasing land on behalf of the group, a practice the government tolerated.

Christian and Muslim groups seeking to build small places of worship on side streets or other inconspicuous locations continued to be able to do so only with informal approval from local authorities, according to religious groups.

Muslim groups reported official building requests encountered significant delays, and even when approved could subsequently be reversed. They also reported it remained extremely difficult to acquire permission to repair existing mosques, although authorities permitted internal maintenance in some cases. Historic mosques in Meiktila in Mandalay Division, Mawlamyine in Mon State, and Sittwe in Rakhine State, as well as in Rangoon and other areas continued to deteriorate because authorities did not allow routine maintenance.

Rohingya remained unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions. A 2005 local order in Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine State requires residents, predominately Rohingya, to obtain local authorization to marry. In addition, some Rohingya sources expressed concern about the two-child policy for Rohingya families, referring to a 2005 local order promulgated in northern Rakhine State and sporadically enforced.

On September 18, local government authorities in Hpa-An Township in Karen State issued a letter requiring Muslims from Hpa-An to inform and receive authorization from local administrators to travel. Enforcement of the order reportedly was haphazard, however, and the chief minister of Karen State later rescinded it. In September airport officials at Thandwe Airport in southern Rakhine State requested some organizations traveling to Ngapali Beach to identify Muslim travelers and note where they would be staying.

In November Amnesty International released a two-year study on conditions in Rohingya IDP camps in place since intercommunal violence in 2012. The report noted that the camps segregate Rohingya men and women in what some called an “open air prison,” with little access to food and basic services and increasing restrictions on their freedom of movement.

In Rakhine State, the government and security forces imposed restrictions on the movement of various ethnic groups, particularly members of the nearly all Muslim Rohingya community and including IDPs, both before and after the violence beginning in August. According to NGOs and the Annan report, such restrictions seriously impeded the ability of Rohingya to pursue livelihoods, gain access to markets and other basic services, and engage other communities. According to civil society groups, government officials denied the Rohingya normal access to basic services, including hospitals, which Rohingya could only access through an arduous and unclear approval process. Additionally, as the vast majority of the restricted groups in the area were Muslim, individuals stereotyped by security forces as appearing to be Muslim received additional scrutiny on movements in the region, regardless of their actual religion.

Restrictions governing the travel of persons whom the government considers as foreigners, including both Muslim and Hindu Rohingya, and others between townships in northern Rakhine State, varied depending on the township, usually requiring submission of an immigration form. The traveler could obtain this form only from the township Immigration and National Registration Department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and two guarantors. The form authorized travel for 14 days. Authorities granted Muslims located outside of Rakhine State more freedom to travel, but they still faced restrictions on travel into and out of Rakhine State.

Muslim community representatives reported that in some cases Muslim-owned businesses encountered significant delays to procure government contracts without a Buddhist “front” person. Media and religious sources said local authorities in some villages restricted the licensing and butchering of cattle by slaughterhouses, the vast majority owned by Muslims, which negatively affected business operations and the ability of Muslim communities to celebrate Islamic holidays.

Nearly all senior officials within the military and civil service remained Buddhist, in spite of military and civil service outreach to various ethnic groups, including by inviting various ethnic groups to attend the Defense Services Academy. Applications for civil service and military positions required the applicant to list his or her religion.

Authorities required citizens and permanent residents to carry government-issued identification cards that permitted holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards often indicated religious affiliation and ethnicity, but there appeared to be no consistent criteria governing whether a person’s religion was indicated on the card. The government also required citizens to indicate their religion on certain official applications for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer’s religion. Members of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, faced problems obtaining identification and citizenship cards. Some Muslims reported that they were required to indicate a “foreign” ethnicity if they self-identified as Muslim on applications for citizenship cards.

According to the Annan commission, “Muslims in Rakhine constitute the single biggest stateless community in the world. …Efforts by the government to verify citizenship claims have failed to win the confidence of either Muslim or Rakhine communities.” The government continued to call for Rohingya to participate in the government’s citizenship verification process and to apply for National Verification Cards (NVCs), but Rohingya communities objected to the exercise, citing a lack of requisite change in their rights after obtaining the NVCs and a general distrust towards the government. In September and October, the government reported issuing more than 2,600 NVCs (the first step in the citizenship verification process) to Rohingya in Maungdaw Township, and, as of the end of the year, a small number of Rohingya had gained either full or naturalized citizenship. Recipients of naturalized citizenship were ineligible to participate in some political activities and professions, although all citizens had the right to vote. The national government no longer required participants to identify as “Bengali” to receive NVCs and did not include race or religion on the document, but local implementers reportedly made applicants identify as “Bengali,” and all were required to identify as “Bengali” on their ensuing citizenship card. In October the government reportedly attempted to force Rohingya in Sittwe to apply for NVCs by making renewal of fishing licenses contingent on applying and by refusing to release Rohingya prisoners from Sittwe prison until they applied. According to a news report, Rohingya Hindus had accepted documents that recognized them as naturalized citizens.

According to a Refugees International report published in December, “decreased international aid, decreased accessibility due to government policies, and waning global attention are creating a desperate and unsustainable situation for the displaced people” in northern Burma – in particular, an estimated 100,000 displaced persons still living in camps in Kachin State, mostly Christian with some Buddhists also impacted, and northern Shan State, mostly Buddhist. According to the report, nearly half of this displaced population lived in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups to which the government blocked nearly all access by the UN and other international groups.

On April 28, authorities sealed off two madrassahs in Thaketa Township near downtown Rangoon in response to protests by a group of 50 to 100 Buddhist nationalists, who believed that the schools were unlawfully operating as mosques. According to local residents and media, Buddhist nationalists and police locked the buildings and barricaded the entrances. Several weeks later, when Muslim leaders arranged a large community prayer on a nearby street, authorities reportedly banned the event and threatened participants with jail. Police charged the Muslim community member who led the prayers, Moe Zaw, and two other community members with failure to obtain a permit to organize prayers, punishable by a fine or up to six months in prison. The two madrassahs remained closed as of year’s end. Several hundred students had attended the madrasahs’ primary schools prior to their closure.

On June 1, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture ordered the closure of Mya Taung Saung Monastic Education School in the town of Mrauk-U in Rakhine State after the military charged the head Buddhist monk at the school with having connections to the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group deemed an illegal association by the government. The monk reportedly held a soccer match on school grounds on April 8 to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the Arakan Army. The Burmese military based in Mrauk-U found out about the match and filed charges against the monk and Khine Min Ni, another organizer of the match. The school reportedly later received a letter from the ministry removing authorization for the school to operate. According to officials, the monastic school had approximately 180 students, of which 50 lived on the school grounds.

Second Vice President Henry Van Thio, a Chin Christian, continued to serve in his position. There were no Muslim members of parliament. While some political parties fielded religious minority candidates in the 2015 elections and 2017 by-elections, including Muslims, the vast majority of parliamentarians were Buddhist. High-profile Buddhist monks remained informally involved in controversial political issues.

State-controlled media frequently depicted government officials and family members paying respect to Buddhist monks; offering donations at pagodas; officiating at ceremonies to open, improve, restore, or maintain pagodas; and organizing “people’s donations” of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines nationwide. The government published and distributed books on Buddhist religious instruction.

The government officially recognized a number of interfaith groups, including the Interfaith Dialogue Group of Myanmar, which organized monthly meetings and sponsored several religious activities promoting peace and religious tolerance around the country throughout the year. The group’s leadership included Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu leaders as well as from other religious groups. The government also organized interfaith prayer meetings across the country in October.

The government generally permitted foreign religious groups to operate. Local religious organizations were also able to send official invitations for visa purposes to clergy from faith-based groups overseas, and foreign religious visitors acquired either a tourist or business visa for entry. Authorities generally permitted Rangoon-based groups to host international students and experts.

The government facilitated the visit of Pope Francis to Rangoon and Nay Pyi Taw November 28 to 30. The pope’s visit, the first by any pope, included meetings with government leaders, religious leaders, and a public Mass attended by approximately 150,000 participants from various religious faiths.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local and international experts said deeply woven prejudices led to instances of abuse or discrimination against members of religious minorities by societal actors. Many prominent military, civilian and religious leaders spoke about the challenge of the “Western Gate” – the idea that only Burmese society and Buddhism stood in the way of “hordes” of Muslims who would come through the mountains of western Burma (i.e., northern Rakhine State where the Rohingya lived) and overwhelm Buddhist areas of Burma and Thailand.

In September the government organized a trip for journalists to see the alleged mass graves of 45 Hindus whom the government said ARSA had killed in northern Maungdaw Township on August 25. Civil society organizations and some local villagers, however, suggested that security forces or vigilante groups not associated with Rohingya had killed the individuals. ARSA denied responsibility for the killings.

Despite the May 23 order by the SSMNC that no group or individual could operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha, some of the group’s leaders and members continued to issue pejorative and hateful statements against Muslims in sermons and through social media through its new Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation. The group continued to operate, but its influence reportedly waned following the SSMNC order.

On March 9, the SSMNC banned the self-defined ultranationalist Wirathu, a monk and the chairperson of the Ma Ba Tha branch in Mandalay, from delivering sermons across the country for one year due to what the SSMNC called religious hate speeches against Muslims, which inflamed communal tensions. For example, in January he publicly thanked the suspected killers of Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim constitutional lawyer, and stated that it would be better for women to marry dogs than Muslims. On March 11, in response to the banning order, Wirathu livestreamed a video to his Facebook page of him with tape over his mouth, while a recording of one of his older sermons played for a crowd of some 500 persons. On August 30, Wirathu headlined a rally at which he spoke about the attacks in northern Rakhine State and stated international NGOs were “supporting the terrorists in Rakhine.” The SSMNC did not take action against him following the public speeches.

On May 10, nationalist monks stated that Rohingya were hiding illegally in Mingala Taungnyunt Township in Rangoon and, according to media reports, the monks informed local police about their suspicions. The reports stated that when local police investigated and found no one to be living illegally in the neighborhood, monks and Buddhist laypeople instigated acts of violence against the Muslim community there, injuring at least two individuals. Police arrested eight individuals for their involvement in the violence.

On May 20, more than 700 individuals who identified themselves as nationalists protested against Minister of Religious Affairs and Culture Aung Ko and demanded his resignation, a week after the SSMNC ordered that no group or individual would be allowed to operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha. After the protest, the Nay Pyi Taw Council Administrative Department instructed regional police to file a case against the protesters on charges that they broke an agreement to use only approved slogans during the protest.

According to media reports, on July 6, 150 Buddhists and monks attacked newly converted Christians in This Taw village in the Sagaing Region in the northwest area of the country, injuring seven and destroying their homes and property. According to the media, the neighbors grew frustrated at the Christian household’s loud celebration lasting through the night for three days; on the third day, the neighbors attacked. The report also noted that local police and some other monks and neighborhood laypeople tried to stop the mob.

On September 10, in Taungdwingyi near Magwe, approximately 50 young men wearing masks threw stones at a house reportedly belonging to a Muslim man. The attackers then proceeded to a mosque in Shwe Kyar Inn, Ward 1, loudly singing the national anthem and throwing stones. The crowd grew in size to approximately 400 individuals before police intervened. Police detained at least four persons. According to police, the four suspects and the Muslim homeowner had an existing personal dispute, and the riot leaders had attempted to build support for the four suspects’ cause by inflaming existing religious tensions in the community.

In March police arrested Swe Win after Ma Ba Tha supporter Kyaw Myo Shwe claimed that Swe Win shared a Facebook post suggesting Wirathu violated the monastic code of conduct by making statements commending the January 28 assassination of Muslim constitutional lawyer Ko Ni. Authorities subsequently released Swe Win on bail, but the charges remained pending at year’s end.

There were reports of some local villages in Rakhine State deterring individuals from assisting the Rohingya community. In September in central Rakhine State, a local Rakhine woman who offered food to Rohingya in a neighboring village was forced to shave her head and march around the village with a sign around her neck that said “traitor.”

On October 30, Buddhist leader Sitagu Sayadaw gave a sermon to soldiers at a military training school in Kayin State, live-streamed on Facebook to more than 250,000 persons, that was widely interpreted to suggest that in the course of battle, it is less of a sin for soldiers to kill non-Buddhists then to kill Buddhists. He quoted a parable from Sri Lanka in which a king who killed millions of the Hindu Tamil community is told by his council of advisors, including monks, that it was only a minor sin because those millions of deaths only added up to one and a half real human beings since the Hindus did not obey the five precepts of Buddhism. In his sermon, Sitagu Sayadaw noted the need for Buddhist leaders and the Burmese military to work together for national unity. Commentators generally interpreted these remarks as condoning the military’s abuses against members of religious minority groups.

During the year, there were multiple reports of possible ARSA members killing civilians in northern Rakhine State for collaborating with the government; however, others said these reports were not credible. On August 1, the government reported “extremists” killed six ethnic Mro Buddhists villagers in northern Rakhine State.

Some Buddhist and Muslim community leaders continued to collaborate to quell rumors and prevent violence through formal and informal community-centered mechanisms. For example, during the violence in Magway in September, local religious and community groups worked to calm community tensions and dispel rumors, preventing the mob from growing larger and more violent. Similarly, during the incident in Mingala Taungnyunt in Rangoon, interfaith networks cautioned Muslims to stay indoors to avoid encountering the violent mob.

Religious and community leaders and civil society activists organized intrafaith and interfaith events, and some worked jointly to develop mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech and to promote religious tolerance and diversity. A coalition of interfaith civil society groups continued developing draft legislation, which they said they planned to bring to parliament in 2018, to counter hate speech and promote interfaith harmony. In Mandalay Division, various NGOs and interfaith leaders continued to hold meetings and public events to promote peace and religious tolerance for community leaders and youth. A number of interfaith groups continued mobilizing civil society around the country to promote religious tolerance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Senior U.S. officials – including the Secretary of State, the Ambassador, the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific Affairs, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Conflict and Stabilization Operations, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, and the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor – consistently raised with senior leaders ongoing U.S. concerns about religious freedom in the country. They specifically raised the plight of the mostly Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State, hardships facing religious minority communities in Kachin and northern Shan States in the midst of ongoing military conflicts, and advocacy on social media of violence against religious minorities. On November 22, the Secretary of State announced that the situation in northern Rakhine State constituted ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. After August 25, the U.S. government severely curtailed bilateral military-to-military relations, prevented current and former military leaders from obtaining visas to the U.S., imposed financial sanctions against a general who commanded forces in northern Rakhine, and took other steps towards accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations. U.S. government officials consistently called for long-term and durable solutions to the root causes of longstanding issues in Rakhine State and the lack of citizenship status for most Rohingya, including a voluntary and transparent path to restoration and provision of citizenship, and full access to humanitarian aid for Rohingya and other affected communities in the region. Embassy officials also urged government and interfaith leaders to improve efforts to mitigate religiously motivated violence such as in Rangoon and Magwe.

Embassy officials at all levels discussed the importance of addressing the effects of ethnoreligious violence and hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric. Embassy officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in meetings with high-level government officials, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the commander in chief, the national security advisor, and the ministers of foreign affairs; religious affairs; home affairs; ethnic affairs; immigration, population, and labor affairs; and social welfare, relief, and resettlement affairs. Embassy officials also met with officials in the president’s office, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, parliamentarians, members of civil society, scholars, and representatives of other governments.

The Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration led a delegation to Burma and Bangladesh in October. In central Rakhine State, the delegation met with Rohingya confined to IDP camps since 2012, and in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the delegation met with Rohingya refugees who had recently fled the ethnic cleansing in northern Rakhine State. The delegation also engaged government officials, civil society groups, and international organizations.

Embassy officials traveled to ethnic minority-predominant areas to discuss religious freedom and tolerance with state and local government officials, NGOs, and members of community-based organizations and religious communities. The Ambassador visited Rakhine, Kachin, and Chin States, areas where religious minorities were affected by conflict or violence, as well as other areas that had suffered from and were identified as at risk of ethnoreligious conflict. Embassy officials visited northern Rakhine State in January to assess the impact the October 2016 violence had on humanitarian assistance and the various communities living there. The Ambassador’s multiple visits to Rakhine State to assess the situation helped inform the embassy’s efforts and strategies in engaging the government and advocating for the rights of all communities in the state.

The embassy continued to call for respect for religious freedom, tolerance, and unity in its interactions with all sectors of society, and on its Facebook page. At high-profile events, embassy representatives spoke out for religious freedom and against intercommunal conflict and hate speech. Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, repeatedly met with Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, members of faculties of theology, and other religiously affiliated organizations – such as Ma Ba Tha and its successor organization – and NGOs to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy also shared multiple posts on Facebook about religious pluralism, tolerance, and shared identity in the U.S.

The embassy regularly published statements highlighting concerns about religiously based tension and anti-Muslim discrimination, as well as calling for respect for religious diversity, unity, and tolerance. For example, on August 25, the embassy released a statement welcoming the release of the Annan Commission Report and the Burmese government’s declared commitment to implement the recommendations. The same day the embassy released a statement condemning the ARSA attacks on August 25 in northern Rakhine State – recognizing government and security force responsibility to apprehend perpetrators and urging them to do so in a way that protects all civilians. On November 22, the Secretary of State stated, “No provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued. These abuses by some among the Burmese military, security forces, and local vigilantes have caused tremendous suffering and forced hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to flee their homes in Burma to seek refuge in Bangladesh. After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.”

Embassy facilities in Rangoon and Mandalay hosted numerous discussions for youth and civil society on religious tolerance. A U.S. government-sponsored program on supporting political and civic engagement provided several courses to civil society representatives on pluralism and social respect as the basis of a free and democratic civil society that is more robust than authoritarian societies, economies, and militaries. As in prior years, the embassy partnered with and supported numerous faith-based and civil society organizations working on programs promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Since 1999, Burma 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 22, 2017, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.


Executive Summary

The constitution states Buddhism is the state religion and is promoted by the government through holiday observances, religious training, Buddhist instruction in public school, and financial support to Buddhist institutions. The law provides for freedom of belief and religious worship, provided such freedom neither interferes with others’ beliefs and religions nor violates public order and security. The government refused to allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to resettle a group of Christian Montagnards UNCHR said had legitimate claims of asylum and who had fled persecution in Vietnam. In October the government cooperated with the United Nations on the resettlement of seven of the Montagnards to a third country, but it said an additional 29 had weak asylum cases and announced plans to forcibly repatriate them back to Vietnam, even though UNHCR was ready to assist in resettling them. The government condemned a statement by the UN special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Cambodia criticizing the treatment of the Montagnards as interference in domestic affairs.

Villagers killed several Phnong people suspected of practicing sorcery due to their animist beliefs and practices. There also were continued reports of societal barriers to the integration of the predominantly Muslim Cham people.

U.S. embassy officials discussed the issue of the Montagnard Christians with the government. Embassy officials also discussed the importance of religious acceptance and diversity with government representatives, political party leaders, civil society organizations, and leaders of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim groups. The embassy promoted themes of religious tolerance and understanding through a formal iftar dinner, speakers’ series, and other forms of engagement.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 16.2 million (July 2017 estimate). The 2013 Intercensal Population Survey conducted by the National Institute of Statistics said Buddhists make up 97.9 percent of the population, almost all of them Theravada Buddhist, according to the Ministry of Cults and Religions (MCR). The vast majority of ethnic Khmer Cambodians are Buddhist. Ethnic Vietnamese in the country traditionally practice Mahayana Buddhism, although there are many who have adopted Theravada Buddhism. Other ethnic Vietnamese practice Roman Catholicism, and they make up the vast majority of Catholics in the country. Ethnic Vietnamese make up approximately 5 percent of the population. According to government estimates, approximately 2.1 percent of the population is Muslim, although some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) estimate the Muslim population to be 4-5 percent. The Muslim population is predominantly ethnic Cham, although not all Cham are Muslim. The Cham typically live in towns and rural fishing villages on the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River, as well as in Kampot Province. There are four branches of Islam represented in the country: the Shafi’i branch, practiced by as many as 90 percent of Muslims in the country; the Salafi (Wahhabi) branch; the indigenous Iman-San branch; and the Kadiani branch. The remainder of the population includes Bahais, Jews, ethnic Vietnamese Cao Dai, and members of various Christian denominations.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religious worship, provided such freedom neither interferes with others’ beliefs and religions nor violates public order and security. The constitution establishes Buddhism as the state religion and provides for state support of Buddhist education; it also prohibits discrimination based on religion. The law requires that religious groups refrain from openly criticizing other religious groups, although this provision is rarely tested. The law also forbids religious organizations from organizing events, rallies, meetings, and training sessions that are politically focused.

The law requires all religious groups, including Buddhist groups, to register with the MCR to conduct religious activities. The law mandates that groups must inform the government of the goals of their religious organization, describe its activities, provide biographical information for all religious leaders, describe funding sources, commit to submitting annual reports detailing all activities, and refrain from insulting other religious groups, fomenting disputes, or undermining national security. Registration requires approvals from numerous local, provincial, and national government offices, a process which can take up to 90 days. The MCR, however, has no authority to punish religious groups for failing to register, and there are no associated penalties for failing to register. Registered religious groups receive an income tax exemption from the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

The law formally bans non-Buddhist groups from door-to-door proselytizing and stipulates that non-Buddhist literature may be distributed only inside religious institutions. The law also prohibits offers of money or materials in order to convince people to convert.

The law requires separate registration of all places of worship and religious schools. Unregistered places of worship and religious schools may be shut down temporarily until they are registered, although the MCR says it has not taken such action. The law also makes a legal distinction between “places of worship” and “offices of prayer.” The establishment of a place of worship requires that the founders own the structure and the land on which it is located. The facility must have a minimum capacity of 200 persons, and the permit application requires the support of at least 100 congregants. An office of prayer may be located in a rented property and has no minimum capacity requirement. The permit application for an office of prayer requires the support of at least 25 congregants. Places of worship must be located at least two kilometers (1.2 miles) from each other and may not be used for political purposes or to house criminals or fugitives. The distance requirement applies only to the construction of new places of worship and not to offices of religious organizations or offices of prayer.

Religious schools must be registered with the MCR and the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport (MOEYS). Religious schools are advised to follow the MOEYS core curriculum, which does not include a religious component; however, schools may supplement lessons with a religious curriculum in addition to the ministry’s core curriculum. The government promotes Buddhist religious instruction in public schools in coordination with MOEYS. Non-Buddhist students are allowed to opt out of this instruction. The law does not mandate non-Buddhist religious instruction, and no other religions are taught in public schools. Non-Buddhist religious instruction may be provided by private institutions.

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

Government Practices

In August UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith released a statement following her two-week mission to the country affirming UNHCR had determined 36 Vietnamese Christian Montagnards who had fled to Cambodia had legitimate asylum claims. The Cambodian government, however, had not agreed to settle them within the country or facilitate their transit to a third country for resettlement. In October the government determined that seven of the Montagnards had legitimate refugee claims and cooperated in sending them to a third country. It said the remaining 29 had weak asylum cases and announced plans to forcibly repatriate them back to Vietnam, even though UNHCR was ready to assist in resettling them. The government dismissed the special rapporteur’s statement and condemned her for what it described as interference in its domestic affairs.

In September during a speech to garment workers in Kampong Cham Province, Prime Minister Hun Sen urged all private-sector employers to allow Muslims to wear headscarves and conservative clothing at the workplace. During Ramadan, the prime minister reaffirmed Muslim rights to wear religious head coverings at school and in photographs used for official identification. He also pledged support to Muslim teachers across the country and praised the government for facilitating their integration into the public education system.

The government continued to promote Buddhist holidays by declaring some of them as official holidays off from work, provide Buddhist training and education to monks and others in pagodas, and provide financial support to an institute that performed research and published materials on Khmer culture and Buddhist traditions. The government did not grant similar treatment to other religions or religious holidays.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, continued to hear testimony related to charges of ethnic- and religious-based genocide against the Cham population during the Khmer Rouge era from 1975 to 1979.

During Ramadan Prime Minister Hun Sen hosted an iftar for more than 4,700 members of the Muslim community. In his speech he told his guests there was no basis for political discrimination in the country and called on Buddhists to be tolerant and accepting of the Muslim and Christian communities.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Villagers killed several ethnic Phnong people suspected of practicing sorcery due to their animist beliefs. In July a 29-year-old man was shot in the head in Mondulkiri, and in November a 62-year-old man was beheaded by villagers in Kampot; both were accused of sorcery.

There were reports from members of the Cham Muslim community of barriers to their integration into society. Local media reported some members of the majority Buddhist community continued to view the Cham and other minority ethnic groups with suspicion as purported practitioners of sorcery or “black magic.” In some cases, those who were suspected of practicing black magic were threatened or, in past years, killed by villagers or by their own family members.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom and tolerance with MCR representatives and other government officials. MCR officials spoke about their initial plans of drafting a new law on religious freedom. The embassy offered to review the draft law when appropriate. Embassy officials also discussed the issue of forced repatriation and residency of Montagnard Christians with government officials and members of international and local NGOs.

The embassy underscored the importance of acceptance of religious diversity with leaders of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim groups, emphasizing the importance of interfaith tolerance in a democratic society. Embassy programs focused on faith-based communities and promoted pluralism through exchanges and youth programs.

Several embassy programs specifically focused on the preservation of Cham heritage, including religious heritage, through reading and writing instruction in the Cham language, and included the preservation and study of religious artifacts from the ancient Kingdom of Champa. The embassy continued a series of speaking engagements and focus groups in which Islamic leaders from around the world engaged with the Cham community to provide them with a deeper understanding of the constructive role that various Muslim populations play throughout the world in their workforces and communities.

Other embassy programs focused on interfaith cooperation, community leadership, and conflict resolution. Embassy officials toured the country on several occasions to meet members of the community, in the process promoting religious tolerance, showing respect for Cham culture, lessening the isolation of the Cham, and supporting Cham integration into the wider culture. The Ambassador also hosted an iftar for members of the Cham and Muslim community during Ramadan. The iftar included members of the ruling and opposition parties, youth groups, and civil society and allowed for open discussions about the importance of religious tolerance and acceptance.


Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right to worship according to one’s own beliefs but states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and to satisfy “just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society.” In May a panel of judges for the North Jakarta District Court found the Governor of Jakarta, a Christian, guilty of blasphemy against Islam and sentenced him to two years in jail. In March the East Jakarta District Court convicted three senior leaders of the banned Gafatar religious group of blasphemy, and sentenced them to jail terms ranging from three to five years. In Aceh, the authorities carried out public canings for sharia violations, including, in May the first ever punishments for homosexual activities. Some local governments imposed local laws and regulations restricting religious freedom, such as local regulations banning Shia or Ahmadi Islamic practice. Ahmadi Muslims again reported incidents of forced conversion, discrimination, and mosque closures. Many religious groups outside the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law (Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam, which is widely interpreted by the government and society to mean Sunni Islam), reported issues with identifying their religion on their national identification cards (KTPs). On November 7, however, the Constitutional Court struck down two articles in the law that required citizens to either choose from one of six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law, or leave the religion column blank. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) stated that members of indigenous religions were entitled to the same access to basic services, regardless of what they did or did not declare as their religion, and that discrimination against them based on their religion violated the law. President Joko Widodo expressed support for religious tolerance, and the government took steps to address specific longstanding religious disputes, including the construction of the Santa Clara Catholic Church in Bekasi, West Java, which has been opposed by local residents. There were again instances in which local governments and police acceded to the demands of groups, such as the Islam Defender’s Front (FPI), Islamic Community Forum (FUI), Islamic Jihad Front (FJI), and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI), which are locally labeled as “intolerant groups,” to close houses of worship for permit violations or otherwise restrict the rights of minority religious groups. The National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), an independent government-affiliated body, stated that the government at both the national and local levels at times failed to prevent or appropriately address intimidation and discrimination against individuals based on their religious beliefs. Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority religious groups, and elected politicians from religious minorities served in majority Muslim districts. There was one Shia member of the national legislature.

Many prominent civil society representatives, including from religious organizations of all faiths, worked to counter religious intolerance and promote pluralism and tolerance of minority religious groups. “Intolerant groups,” however, continued to disrupt religious gatherings, illegally closed houses of worship, and widely disseminated materials promoting intolerance. Muslim minorities and Christians reported threats of violence and intimidation for gathering in public. On February 11, an estimated 200,000 people attended a mass prayer in Jakarta’s national mosque to urge Muslims to vote for a Muslim candidate in the February 14 Jakarta gubernatorial election.

The U.S. government advocated for religious freedom at the highest levels, with both government and civil society leaders, and spoke out publicly against discrimination and religious violence. The Vice President visited Jakarta in April and stressed the importance of religious freedom with government officials, civil society leaders, and religious groups in Jakarta. Embassy and consulate officials engaged government officials on specific issues, including actions against religious minorities; closures of places of worship and access for foreign religious organizations; convictions for blasphemy and defamation of religion; the importance of tolerance and rule of law; the application of sharia to non-Muslims; and religious identification requirements on national identification cards. The U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism – endorsed by the U.S. and Indonesian governments and comprising religious and civil society leaders, academics, and experts from both countries – facilitated public lectures, academic and religious exchanges, and discussion on religious freedom issues. The embassy and consulates carried the message of respect for diversity and religious tolerance to tens of millions of people in the country through outreach efforts, including events, media interviews, social media initiatives, digital and public speaking engagements, youth exchanges, and educational programs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 260.6 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2010 census, approximately 87 percent of the population is Muslim, 7 percent Protestant, 3 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.5 percent Hindu. Those identifying with other religious groups, including Buddhism, traditional indigenous religions, Confucianism, and other Christian denominations, and those who did not respond to the census question comprise approximately 1.3 percent of the population.

The Muslim population is overwhelmingly Sunni. An estimated one to three million Muslims are Shia. Many smaller Muslim groups exist; estimates put the total number of Ahmadi Muslims at 200,000 to 400,000.

An estimated 20 million people, primarily in Java, Kalimantan, and Papua, practice various traditional belief systems, often referred to collectively as aliran kepercayaan. There are approximately 400 different aliran kepercayaan communities throughout the archipelago. Many religious groups incorporate elements of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, making it difficult to disaggregate the exact number of followers.

There is a Sikh population estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000, primarily in Medan and Jakarta. There are very small Jewish communities in Jakarta, Manado, Jayapura, and elsewhere. The Bahai Faith and Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong) community report thousands of members, but independent estimates are not available. The number of atheists is also unknown, but the group Indonesian Atheists states it has more than 700 members.

The province of Bali is predominantly Hindu, and the provinces of Papua, West Papua, East Nusa Tenggara, and North Sulawesi are predominantly Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees the right to practice the religion of one’s choice and specifies that freedom of religion is a human right that may not be limited. The constitution states, “The nation is based upon belief in one supreme God,” but guarantees all persons the right to worship according to their own religion or belief. The law restricts citizens from exercising these rights in a way that impinges on the rights of others, oversteps common moral standards and religious values, or jeopardizes security or public order.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) extends official recognition to six religious groups: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. The government maintains a longstanding practice of recognizing Sunni Islam as the official version of Islam of Indonesian Muslims, though the constitution has no such stipulation. The law prohibits deliberate public statements or activities that insult or defame any of the six official religious groups, or have the intent of preventing an individual from adhering to an official religion. The law also stipulates that in any case of defamation of the six officially recognized religions, the MOHA, the MRA, and the Attorney General’s Office must first warn the individual in question before he or she can be charged. The law also forbids the dissemination of information designed to spread hatred or dissension among individuals and/or certain community groups based on ethnicity, religion, or race. Individuals may be prosecuted for blasphemous, atheistic, or heretical statements under either of these provisions or under the laws against defamation, and can face a maximum jail sentence of five years. The law on electronic information and transactions forbids the electronic dissemination of the same types of information, with violations carrying a maximum four-year sentence.

The government defines a religion as having a prophet, holy book, and deity, and being recognized internationally. The six officially recognized religions are deemed to have met these requirements. Organizations representing one of the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law are not required to obtain a legal charter if they are established under a notary act and obtain approval from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. Religious organizations other than the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law must obtain a legal charter as a civil society organization from the MOHA. Both ministries consult with the MRA before granting legal status to religious organizations. By law, all religious groups must be registered in some form. Under the law, civil society organizations are required to uphold the national ideology of Pancasila, which encompasses the principles of belief in one God, justice, unity, democracy, and social justice, and they are prohibited from committing blasphemous acts or spreading religious hatred. Violations of the law could result in a loss of legal status, dissolution of the organization, and arrest of members under the blasphemy law or other applicable laws. Indigenous religious groups may also register with the Ministry of Education and Culture as aliran kepercayaan.

A joint ministerial decree bans both proselytizing by the Ahmadi Muslim community and vigilantism against the group. Violations of the Ahmadi proselytizing ban carry a maximum five-year prison sentence on charges of blasphemy. No Ahmadi has been charged with blasphemy, but Ahmadi sources say provincial and local regulations based on this decree place tighter restrictions on Ahmadis than on the six religions recognized in the blasphemy law.

The government requires all officially registered religious groups to comply with directives from the MRA and other ministerial directives on issues such as construction of houses of worship, foreign aid to domestic religious institutions, and propagation of religion.

According to a joint ministerial decree, religious groups may not hold services in private residences, and those seeking to build a house of worship are required to obtain the signatures of at least 90 members of the group and 60 persons of other religious groups in the community stating they support the construction. Local governments are in charge of implementing the decree, and local regulations, implementation, and enforcement vary widely. The decree also requires approval from the local interfaith council, the Religious Harmony Forum (FKUB). Government-established FKUBs exist at the city or district level and comprise religious leaders from the six official groups. They are responsible for mediating interreligious conflicts.

The law requires religious instruction in public schools. Students have the right to request religious instruction in any one of the six official religions, but teachers are not always available to teach the requested religion classes. Individuals are not allowed to opt out of religious education requirements.

Under the terms of a 2005 peace agreement that ended a separatist conflict, Aceh Province has unique authority to implement sharia regulations. The law allows for provincial implementation and regulation of sharia, and extends the jurisdiction of religious courts to economic transactions and criminal cases. Sharia does not apply to non-Muslims, foreigners, or Muslim Indonesians who are not permanent residents of Aceh. Aceh’s provincial sharia regulations criminalize homosexual activities, adultery, gambling, consumption of alcohol, and proximity to members of the opposite sex outside of marriage for Muslim residents of the province. An Aceh governor’s decree forbids women from working in or visiting restaurants unaccompanied by their spouse or a male relative after 9:00 p.m. A Banda Aceh mayoral decree forbids women from working in coffee shops, internet cafes, or sports venues after 10:00 p.m. Female Muslim residents of Aceh are prohibited from wearing tight pants in public and must wear headscarves. One district in Aceh prohibits women from sitting astride motorcycles when riding as passengers, but this reportedly is rarely enforced. The maximum penalties for violations of sharia regulations include imprisonment and public caning. There are also regulations limiting the amount of force that may be applied during a caning.

Many local governments outside of Aceh have enacted regulations based on religious considerations. Most of these are in majority Muslim areas, although local governments in non-Muslim majority areas also have enacted regulations based on religious considerations. Many of these regulations relate to matters such as religious education and only apply to a specific religious group. Some religiously inspired local regulations in effect, however, apply to all citizens. For instance, some local regulations require restaurants to close during Ramadan fasting hours, ban alcohol, or mandate the collection of zakat (Islamic alms). Other local regulations forbid or limit the religious activities of religious minorities, especially Shia and Ahmadi Muslims.

The marriage law does not explicitly forbid interfaith marriage, but it contains an article stipulating that a marriage must be performed according to the rituals of a religion that is shared by both the bride and groom. A man and woman of different religions who seek to marry may have difficulties finding a religious official willing to perform a wedding ceremony. Some couples of different religions select the same religion on their KTPs in order to marry legally.

The law allows a Muslim man to have up to four wives, provided he is able to support each equally. For a man to take a second, third, or fourth wife, he must obtain court permission and the consent of the first wife. These conditions, however, are not always met in practice.

The marriage law makes polygamy illegal for civil servants, except in limited circumstances. Government regulations require Muslim male civil servants to receive permission from a government official and their first wives prior to marrying a second, third, or fourth wife, and prohibit female civil servants from becoming second, third, or fourth wives.

The law requires the leader of an aliran kepercayaan group to demonstrate group members live in at least three regencies, which are administrative designations one level below a province, before the leader is permitted to officiate legally at a wedding. This constraint effectively bars believers of some smaller groups without such geographic presence from receiving official marriage services from a member of their faith, although groups can aid each other and facilitate marriages by a group with a similar faith tradition and rituals.

The Constitutional Court struck down on November 7 two articles that required citizens to choose on their KTPs either one of the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law, or leave the religion column blank.

A joint ministerial decree requires domestic religious organizations to obtain approval from the MRA to receive funding from overseas donors and forbids dissemination of religious literature and pamphlets to members of other religious groups as well as going door to door for the purposes of converting others.

Foreign religious workers must obtain religious worker visas, and foreign religious organizations must obtain permission from the MRA to provide any type of assistance (in-kind, personnel, or financial) to local religious groups.

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

Government Practices

Summary Paragraph: There were arrests, charges, and convictions for blasphemy and insulting religion, including the conviction and imprisonment of the former governor of Jakarta for blaspheming against Islam and three senior leaders of the banned Gafatar religious group for “contradicting and offending” the religious values of the majority of citizens. In Aceh there were public canings by local officials for sharia violations, including the first ever punishments for homosexual activities and the first case of Buddhists choosing to be punished under sharia rather than civil procedures. There were reports of government attempts of forced conversions of Ahmadi Muslims to Sunni Islam. There were instances in which local governments and police acceded to the demands of “intolerant groups,” such as the FPI, FUI, FJI, and MMI, to close houses of worship for permit violations, or otherwise restrict the rights of minority religious groups. For example, local authorities closed three house churches in Bogor, West Java, by using national regulations in a joint ministerial decree that forbid congregations from holding services in private residences. Komnas HAM reported the government at both the national and local levels at times failed to prevent or appropriately address intimidation and discrimination against individuals based on their religious beliefs. Reportedly, some people who left the religion portion of their identity card blank were denied public services.

The Setara Institute, a domestic nongovernmental organization (NGO) that conducts advocacy and research on religious and political freedom, again stated the central government made efforts to reaffirm constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, promote tolerance, and prevent religiously motivated violence. It also stated the central government did little to intervene at the local level or solve past religious conflicts through its mandate to enforce court rulings, override unconstitutional local regulations, or otherwise uphold the constitutional and legal protections afforded to minority religious groups. Local governments selectively enforced blasphemy laws, permitting regulations, and other local regulations in ways that affected various religious groups.

According to religious groups and NGOs, government officials and police sometimes failed to prevent “intolerant groups” from infringing on others’ religious freedom and committing other acts of intimidation. Police did not always actively investigate and prosecute crimes by members of “intolerant sectarian groups.” During the year, police worked with human rights activists and NGOs to provide tolerance-training sessions to religious leaders and local police.

The Setara Institute reported 24 cases of government abuses of religious freedom between January and November, compared to 44 cases in the first eleven months of 2016. Abuses cited included the closures of, and protests against, houses of worship and statements by public officials that condoned violence towards minorities, especially towards Ahmadi Muslims.

On March 7, the East Jakarta District Court convicted and sentenced for blasphemy three senior leaders of the banned religious group, Gafatar. The court found that the leaders committed blasphemy because the group’s blending of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic doctrine “contradicts and offends Islamic values held by most Indonesian citizens.” The founder of the movement, Ahmad Moshaddeq, and its President Mahful Muis Tumanurung received five-year prison sentences, and the Vice President, Andri Cahya, received a three-year sentence. Authorities arrested them in May 2016, two months after the government officially banned Gafatar in reaction to local residents forcing thousands of Gafatar members from their homes and communal farms in West Kalimantan. Moshaddeq was previously convicted and imprisoned for blasphemy in 2008 because he declared himself a prophet from the now banned al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah group. The central government relocated most of former Gafatar members to Java, where they reported they still faced discrimination, including when seeking employment. Because they are not followers of one of the country’s six officially recognized religions, some former members had difficulty obtaining new KTPs. During their relocation, some former members also reported that officials forced them to undergo re-education programs or mandatory all-day “patriotic education,” which pressured them to identify with one of the six recognized religions.

On May 9, a panel of judges for the North Jakarta District Court found the Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as “Ahok”), guilty of blasphemy against Islam and sentenced him to two years in jail. In September 2016, Ahok, the first Christian governor of Jakarta in more than 50 years, told a crowd that it was wrong to manipulate verses from the Quran for political gain. The FPI, the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI), and other Muslim groups criticized the governor’s speech and filed a police complaint, resulting in an investigation. Ahok apologized but stated he did not commit blasphemy, saying that he did not intend to insult the Quran and that his comments were directed at his political opponents, not Islam. MUI officials actively participated as expert witnesses during Ahok’s five-month trial. The court’s lengthy ruling referenced these testimonies and MUI’s October 2016 fatwa (religious opinion) stating Ahok’s remarks were blasphemous as factors leading the judges to conclude that Ahok was guilty of blasphemy.

On August 21, a court in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara Province, sentenced Siti Aisyah to 30 months in prison for spreading “deviant” Islamic teachings. The court found Aisyah, the owner of an independent Quranic school, guilty of violating the blasphemy law and the law on electronic information and transactions. Aisyah stated she began to study an Indonesian translation of the Quran in 2013 because it was difficult to study in Arabic. She said she came to believe the Quran was perfect in its own right, making the hadiths (the Prophet Muhammad’s deeds and sayings) and other tenets of mainstream Islam superfluous. In November 2016, she founded a school and began teaching her interpretation of Islam to local youth. In January a Facebook video of her activities was widely disseminated on the internet. West Nusa Tenggara Governor Zainul Majdi subsequently ordered the closure of the school and the local branch of the MUI issued an edict declaring her teaching blasphemous. The police arrested her.

On September 28, a military court sentenced a soldier serving in Papua, a Christian-majority province, to two-and-a-half years in prison for blasphemy after the soldier, possibly inadvertently, burned several copies of the Bible. In May the Bibles were reportedly burned, along with other items, as the soldier discarded boxes from a storage shed at a military installation near Papua’s provincial capital, Jayapura. The authorities also dismissed the soldier from his position in the military. Following the incident, which sparked a small but violent protest, Papua Military Commander Major General George Elnadus Supit publicly apologized for the soldier’s actions and asked community members to respect the legal process. Papuan Christian leaders immediately issued a statement to quell tensions, calling for restraint and respect for the law.

On September 25, a court sentenced Johanda (one name only) to life in prison for the November 2016 attack on a church in Samarinda, East Kalimantan, that killed a two-year-old girl and injured three other children. He was associated with the pro-ISIS group, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah. Four other codefendants received sentences between six to seven years. Johanda was previously convicted for his involvement in attempted bombings in West Java in 2011. In February 2012 he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years but received a remission and was released in 2014 for good behavior.

The proselytizing ban did not prohibit Ahmadi Muslims from worshipping or continuing to practice within their community, but “intolerant groups” invoked the ban to justify their intimidation of Ahmadi communities or to decline to issue KTPs to Ahmadi if they attempt to register as Muslims. On September 11, the Constitutional Court began a judicial review of the blasphemy law at the request of Jemaah Ahmadiyah Indonesia (JAI), an advocacy organization, which argued the law was used to discriminate against Ahmadis. The judicial review continued at the end of the year.

Government and sharia officials stated non-Muslim residents of Aceh could choose to be punished under sharia law or civil court procedures, but Muslim residents of Aceh must be punished under sharia law, although some local authorities interpreted the law to apply also to Muslims visitors to Aceh. On March 10, two Buddhists were caned in Aceh for cockfighting and gambling, marking the first time Buddhists chose to be punished under sharia rather than face civil procedures. Cockfighting and gambling are illegal under both sharia and provincial civil law. On May 23, two gay men, convicted of violating an article of Aceh’s sharia code banning homosexual acts, were each publicly caned 85 times. Both men were reportedly Muslims. This was the first instance in which individuals were convicted and punished for homosexuality under sharia in Aceh, although homosexuality was not illegal under national law. On September 8, sharia officials publicly caned an unmarried man and woman in Lhokseumawe, Aceh Province after a court convicted them of adultery for being found alone together in private. On September 11, sharia officials publicly caned two women and nine men in Banda Aceh. Six were convicted of adultery and five were convicted of gambling. According to the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, authorities in Aceh caned 350 individuals in 2016.

The MRA maintained its authority at both the national and local level to conduct “development” of religious groups and believers, including efforts to convert minority religious groups to Sunni Islam. In several West Java regencies, local governments continued efforts to force or encourage conversion of Ahmadi Muslims with a requirement that Ahmadis sign forms renouncing their beliefs in order to register their marriages or participate in the Hajj. According to JAI, on July 14, approximately 1,500 Ahmadis in Kuningan, West Java, signed an agreement to renounce Ahmadi teachings in order to obtain KTPs from the local government. According to an Ahmadi spokesperson, the individuals who signed the agreement did not receive KTPs by the end of the year despite assurances from the local government that the issue would be resolved by August.

On February 23, local officials in Depok, West Java, shuttered the Al-Hidayah Mosque, marking the sixth time since 2011 that the Ahmadi mosque was closed by authorities. Ahmadis reported that local groups complained to Depok officials that the mosque, which received a house of worship permit in 2007 and served a community of approximately 400 members, was disturbing the public. On February 24, hundreds of people, including FPI members, protested in front of the mosque, calling for the disbandment of the Ahmadi congregation and the demolition of the mosque. Representatives from the Ahmadi community said the group coexisted peacefully with neighbors of all faiths, rejecting the accusation that they had disturbed public order. Spokespersons for the community complained they were not consulted prior to the closure and reported the incident to the president’s office and Komnas HAM on April 24. As of December, the local government continued to enforce the mosque’s closure, although Komnas HAM urged the local government to protect the Ahmadis.

On March 9, local officials forced three house churches of different denominations (Batak Protestant, Catholic, and Methodist) in Bogor, West Java, to end religious services after local MRA and MUI representatives, in consultation with police and neighborhood leaders, issued a “status quo agreement” forbidding the congregations from holding religious services in private residences. The agreement was based on a 2006 MRA-MOHA joint decree stipulating that private residences could not be used for religious services or as headquarters for religious congregations. The decision to halt religious services at the residential venues came after a crowd comprised of 11 Islamic organizations gathered on March 5 to protest the approximately 800 congregants gathered at a housing complex for Sunday services. According to the congregations, police dispersed the crowd, but congregants were too intimidated to resume their activities. The congregations have struggled to secure houses of worship following the sub-district government’s demolition in 2000, for alleged permit violations, of a shared complex constructed in 1997. The congregations have subsequently met in private residences.

More than 300 Shia from Madura remained displaced on the outskirts of Surabaya, East Java, after communal violence forced them from their homes in 2012. Approximately 200 Ahmadis remained internally displaced in cramped apartments in Mataram, the capital of West Nusa Tenggara, after a mob expelled them from their Lombok village in 2006.

Across the country, minority religious groups, including Muslim groups in non-Muslim majority areas, continued to state that the official requirement for a specific number of supporters to build or renovate a house of worship served as a barrier to construction, either because governments did not issue permits when the requisite numbers were obtained or because neighbors were pressured not to approve. In many local cases, a few vocal opponents from the local majority religious affiliation were reportedly sufficient to stop construction approvals. State-recognized religious leaders in government-supported interfaith forums reportedly found ways to block aliran kepercayaan believers from constructing places of worship, largely through stringent house of worship permit requirements. Aliran kepercayaan adherents said they were fearful of being accused of atheism were they to fight this treatment in court. Other religious minorities, such as Ahmadis, Shia Muslims, and Christians, faced problems even when seeking approval to move to temporary facilities while a primary place of worship underwent renovation.

Local governments, police, and religious organizations reportedly tried to close religious minority groups’ houses of worship for permit violations, often after protests from “intolerant groups,” even if the minority groups had a proper permit. Many congregations could not obtain the requisite number of nonmember signatures supporting construction of a house of worship and often faced protest from “intolerant groups” during the application process, making permits nearly impossible to obtain. Even when permits were issued, some houses of worship were forced to close or halt construction after facing legal challenges and public protests. Protestant and Catholic churches also reported that “intolerant groups” forced them to pay protection money to continue operating without a permit. Some houses of worship that were established before the joint ministerial decree on house of worship construction came into effect reportedly were still obligated to meet the requirements or face closure. NGOs estimated, however, that as many as 85 percent of houses of worship, the majority of which are Sunni mosques, were operating without a permit. Many houses of worship operated without permits in office buildings, malls, private homes, and shops.

Legal uncertainty among local officials and police, anonymous threats of violence, insufficient police protection, and fear of publicity were barriers to reopening Ahmadi mosques that were previously shut down, including mosques in Sukabumi, West Java, and Tulungagung, East Java that were closed in 2016, and a South Jakarta mosque closed in 2015. Ahmadis reported, however, that police and local government were taking positive actions to protect a mosque in Kendal, Central Java that was vandalized by unknown perpetrators in May 2016. The local government facilitated mediation between the Ahmadi community and its neighbors, and the Ahmadis agreed to halt reconstruction of the mosque pending a police investigation. Following the police investigation, the local village leader initiated a community effort to reconstruct the mosque, and police publicly stated they would protect the Ahmadis’ right to worship in the community.

Construction moved forward on the Santa Clara Catholic Church in Bekasi, West Java. The congregation had waited over 15 years for the approval of its construction permit until it was granted in 2015, and “intolerant groups” regularly targeted the construction site for protests. On March 24, police disrupted a crowd gathered at the construction site to protest the building of the Church. Following the protest, the Bekasi mayor assured the congregation that it would be able to finish construction by December, but construction was not complete at the end of the year.

An Indonesian Christian Church congregation in Bogor, West Java, continued negotiations related to its building permit after local authorities, responding to public pressure, closed its church in 2010. The national ombudsman previously tried unsuccessfully to convince Bogor Mayor Bima Arya to uphold a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the congregation in its dispute with the local government over the building permit. Arya attended the church’s 2016 Christmas service where he announced plans, which were still in negotiation, to allow the congregation to build a church in a complex with a mosque in order to facilitate interfaith harmony, a solution he formulated with the Presidential Chief of Staff’s Office. The congregation regularly held services outside the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, and it had not obtained a permanent complex by the end of the year.

Civil rights activists said locally implemented sharia-based regulations violated the constitution and called on the central government to exercise its constitutional jurisdiction to revoke or review these regulations. On April 5, the Constitutional Court ruled that MOHA did not have authority to revoke local regulations once in force, even if regulations are religiously inspired, such as bans on opening food stalls in the daytime during Ramadan. MOHA, however, retained review authority during the drafting process of local regulations. This ruling invalidated a 2014 law that reaffirmed MOHA’s authority to revoke local regulations concerning religious matters that violated the constitution or national law, although MOHA reportedly never exercised this authority.

Although the MUI’s fatwas lacked legal standing, government figures used them to make legal and policy decisions.

In April female Muslim leaders held a meeting titled, The Indonesian Women’s Ulama Congress, and produced fatwas recommending the criminalization of marital rape and raising the minimum age of marriage for females from 16 to 18. Minister of Religious Affairs Lukman Hakim Saifuddin pledged to present these recommendations to the government.

In January National Police Chief Tito Karnavian publicly reminded police officers that MUI fatwas did not constitute national law and that officers had the responsibility to enforce the constitution, not MUI edicts. On May 25, Karnavian issued a directive forbidding “intolerant groups” from conducting sweeps of food stalls open for business before sundown during Ramadan.

Aliran kepercayaan followers continued to say they were pressured to send their children to a religious education class of one of the six officially recognized religions. Minority religious groups not listed in the blasphemy law said schools often allowed their children to spend religious education time in study hall, but parents were required to sign documents stating their children received official religious education. Ahmadi Muslim students reported religion classes for Islam only focused on Sunni teachings.

Civil servants who openly professed an adherence to an indigenous belief system continued to say they had difficulty getting promoted.

Although the government generally allowed citizens to leave the religion column blank on their KTPs, individuals continued to report difficulties accessing government services and experiencing other forms of discrimination if they did so. NGOs reported that local officials occasionally did not issue KTPs to people who wanted to leave the religion column blank. The lack of a KTP led to issues ranging from an inability to register for health insurance to problems applying for mortgages. Faced with this problem, many religious minority members reportedly chose to identify as a member of a religion listed in the blasphemy law close to their beliefs or reflecting the locally dominant religion. According to researchers, this practice obscured the real number of adherents to any particular religious group in government statistics. The government continued to allow aliran kepercayaan believers to omit religious information on their identity cards, but when accessing basic social services, other government forms did not always permit leaving this section blank.

NGOs and religious advocacy groups continued to urge the government to remove the religion field from KTPs. Religious minorities reported they sometimes faced discrimination after others saw their religious affiliation on their KTPs. Members of the Jewish community said they felt uncomfortable stating their religion in public and often chose to state that they were Christians or Muslims depending on the dominant religion where they lived, out of concern that local communities did not understand their religion.

On May 8, MOHA and the Ministry of Law and Human Rights provided written support for including local aliran kepercayaan on the KTP religion column at a Constitutional Court judicial review. Aliran kepercayaan communities petitioned the Constitutional Court to consider the legality of including local aliran kepercayaan on KTPs. On November 7, the Constitutional Court subsequently struck down two articles that required citizens to either choose on their KTPs one of the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law or leave the religion column blank. Data from an NGO showed approximately 42,000 followers of several traditional faiths were denied basic civil registry documentations such as KTPs, birth certificates, and marriage licenses, and approximately 80,000 could not access public services. MOHA reported on November 17 that it received 138,791 requests from individuals who wanted to add aliran kepercayaan to their KTPs after the Constitutional Court’s ruling. MOHA stated that members of indigenous religions were entitled to the same access to basic services, regardless of what they did or did not declare as their religion on their KTP, and discrimination against them based on their KTP religion column was a violation of the law.

Minority Muslim groups, including Ahmadis and Shia, also continued to report resistance when they tried to apply for KTPs as Muslims, effectively denying them access to public services if they could not secure KTPs. Minority religious groups, including Shia and Ahmadi Muslims, continued to report discrimination in the administration of public services, such as procuring marriage licenses or receiving healthcare, if they chose to leave the religion column blank on their KTPs. Many local officials reportedly were unaware of the option to leave the religion section blank and refused to issue such KTPs.

Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority groups. For example, the Governor of West Kalimantan and the Mayor of Solo were Catholic, and a leading Shia figure held a seat in the House of Representatives, elected from a majority Sunni district in Bandung, West Java. As of December President Widodo’s 34-member cabinet included five members of minority faiths.

Foreign religious workers from many religious groups continued to state they found it relatively easy to obtain visas. Despite laws restricting proselytizing, some foreign religious groups reported little government interference with preaching or religious conversions.

Police provided special protection to some churches in major cities during Sunday services and Christian holidays.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Although the MUI’s fatwas lacked legal standing, “intolerant groups,” including those that mobilized against former Jakarta Governor Ahok, used them to justify actions against religious minorities and other vulnerable groups. Individuals affiliated at the local level with the MUI used rhetoric religious minorities considered intolerant, including fatwas declaring Shia and Ahmadi as deviant sects. Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from “intolerant groups.” Anti-Shia rhetoric was common in some online media outlets and on social media.

“Intolerant groups” accused of using religion to justify criminal activity and vigilantism, continued to take actions against minority religious groups, including intimidation, extortion, vandalism, and protests that lead to the closure of houses of worship, such as the Ahmadi mosque in Depok, which closed in February. “Intolerant groups” reportedly accept bribes to advance corrupt political and business interests through their protests and actions.

Komnas HAM stated there was a decrease in cases of religiously inspired violence, with 11 cases occurring between January and March, compared to 20 cases occurring during the same period in 2016.

On February 11, an estimated 200,000 people attended a mass prayer at Jakarta’s national mosque organized by members of the FPI and other groups who urged Muslims to vote for a Muslim candidate, and not Ahok, in the February 14 Jakarta gubernatorial election. Protests and mass prayers in November and December 2016, organized by the FPI and other groups calling for Ahok’s arrest for blasphemy, drew crowds ranging from 100,000 to 500,000 people.

On July 29, a Jakarta-based NGO demanded the demolition of a 100-foot-high statue of Guan Yu, a Chinese general revered by some as a deity, at the Confucian Kwan Sing Bio temple in Tuban, East Java. The NGO objected to the statue’s size because it is larger than a Jakarta statue of General Sudirman, a respected Indonesian military commander. Additionally, local media said the temple reportedly did not secure the proper permit for the statue from the local government. The topic spread rapidly on social media, with the statue portrayed as anti-Indonesian and disrespectful to Islam due to its location at the birthplace of one of the nine nationally revered Muslim saints, or Wali Sanga, credited with spreading Islam in Java and throughout the country. As of December there were no plans to demolish the statue, although it remained covered as temple leaders sought to limit further controversy.

Religious minorities in Bali continued to state that the close association of Balinese traditional culture with Balinese Hinduism created problems for Balinese who converted to Christianity, Islam, or another religion. Leaders of religious minorities reported Balinese women could maintain their family and social ties after converting to a new religion under laws articulating the rights of inheritance and custody, but these laws were ignored in practice. Balinese men who converted to a new religion faced social banishment and loss of inheritance rights.

Many individuals in the media, civil society, and the general population were vocal and active in protecting and promoting tolerance and pluralism. The largest and most influential religious groups and NGOs, including the two largest Islamic groups in the country – Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, with some 40 and 30 million members, respectively – officially endorsed and advocated for tolerance, pluralism, and the protection of minority groups. NU, for example, hosted a conference in November attended by the president and vice president, and produced recommendations for the president’s administration on how to prevent the politicization of religion. Religious groups cooperated with each other and with other organizations on interfaith conferences and events, advocating for respect and tolerance, and speaking out against violence. Leaders of different religious groups regularly held interfaith meetings with the president to promote tolerance and pluralism. The International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development, Komnas HAM, and the Office of the President held a conference in December that focused on local administrations’ roles in preventing intolerance and extremism. NGOs reported large numbers of Christian-to-Muslim and Muslim-to-Christian conversions, particularly in urban centers and the province of West Java, although many people who converted faced discrimination.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, the Consulate General in Surabaya, and the Consulate in Medan regularly engaged with all levels of government on specific religious freedom issues, such as actions against religious minorities; closures of places of worship; convictions for blasphemy and defamation of religion; the undue influence of “intolerant groups” and the importance of the rule of law; the application of sharia to non-Muslims; religious registration requirements on KTPs; the importance of education and interfaith dialogue in promoting tolerance; the equal protection of all citizens regardless of their religion; and promotion of tolerance in international forums. During his April visit, the U.S. Vice President met senior government officials, including President Widodo, and called for the equal protection of all people regardless of religious affiliation. The Vice President also met with representatives of the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law to discuss the importance of promoting religious freedom, tolerance, pluralism, and protecting the rights of all.

The Ambassador visited Aceh Province in April and raised issues of religious freedom and tolerance with the governor-elect, the vice mayor, the head of provincial police, and the Wali Nanggroe, a cultural leader of Aceh.

Representatives of the embassy, consulate general, and consulate spoke publicly about the importance of religious tolerance and protecting minorities from acts of violence, including the Ambassador who spoke at Islamic boarding schools. Embassy staff at all levels met frequently with religious leaders, representatives of social organizations, and human rights advocates to discuss religious tolerance, condemn blasphemy laws, and promote respect for religion. Embassy and consulate officials also met with members of minority religious groups who were victims of religious intolerance, including Shia and Ahmadi Muslims, house church congregations, and Gafatar members.

The U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism regularly convened a diverse group of experts, academics, and religious and civil society leaders to promote interfaith dialogue, pluralism, and tolerance. The council also facilitated public lectures and discussions on religious freedom issues. The United States-Indonesia Society, a nonprofit organization endorsed by the U.S. and Indonesian governments, collaborated with Indonesian and U.S. religious leaders to launch the nongovernmental council in 2016.

The embassy held numerous events at U.S. government-sponsored venues throughout the country that directly and indirectly supported religious freedom. For example, the embassy hosted a discussion with high school students on Religious Freedom Day in January and emphasized every individual has a role in promoting religious tolerance.

Embassy and consulate staff appeared on a number of nationally televised programs to discuss themes related to religious tolerance and diversity. Previous participants in U.S. government-funded student exchange programs appeared with embassy and consulate officials to provide accounts of their experiences in the United States including religious tolerance. Embassy and consulate personnel also led discussions and gave presentations at venues throughout the country, conveying the importance of diversity and religious tolerance to thousands of high school, Islamic boarding school, and university students. Collectively, these outreach activities carried messages of religious tolerance and religious freedom to tens of millions of viewers.

During Ramadan, embassy and consulate staff held numerous events and outreach activities throughout the country that promoted religious tolerance. Embassy-hosted iftars advocated tolerance and pluralism through remarks and discussions that included a wide cross-section of society, such as political figures, civil society representatives, and students. The Consulate General in Surabaya hosted an event on Islam in the United States, led by an Ahmadi Muslim U.S. Foreign Service Officer, which included discussion about the rights of religious minority communities.

Embassy and consulate staff conducted extensive print, TV, and digital outreach, including a guest appearance by the Ambassador on the highest-rated national soap opera, in which he promoted religious tolerance and understanding; the Ambassador’s and Consul General’s Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr greeting videos; and other religious pluralism initiatives that reached millions of individuals throughout the country. The embassy continued to promote religious freedom, diversity, and pluralism on its social media platforms, including a regular English language-learning column titled “Miss Understanding.”

The embassy, consulate general, and consulate sponsored professional and academic exchanges and other civil society programs focused on religious pluralism and tolerance, including programs for rising leaders and scholars. Three such projects focused on Muslim life in the United States at local, state, and national levels; religious education and its relationship with various government and private institutions; and cooperation between faith-based organizations, civil society organizations, and government entities. Likewise, the Consulate General in Surabaya sponsored a program for leading professors at one of the largest Islamic universities to travel to the United States to study community-based social services, meet experts in their field, and experience religious diversity and tolerance in America.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides citizens with “the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion.” The government officially recognizes four religious umbrella groups – Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahai Faith – and generally requires other religious groups to affiliate with one of these four groups to operate legally. A decree issued in 2016 with the stated intent of clarifying rules for religious practice extends registration requirements to Buddhist groups, which had previously enjoyed a de facto exemption, and defines the government’s role as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. The government finalized the implementation instructions with all concerned ministries early in the year and continued to disseminate them to all provinces and in Vientiane. Under the decree, any religious groups must register with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) as associated with one of the four religious groups already recognized by the government. According to religious leaders, freedom of religion tended to decline in the rural areas. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said government restrictions on registered or unregistered minority religious groups, particularly Protestant groups, remained disproportionately limiting in certain remote regions. Reports continued of authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting, detaining, and exiling followers of minority religions, particularly Christians. For example, a district level official in Houaphan Province expelled 26 Hmong Christians from their village and advised they could return to their village only if they renounced Christianity. There were reports of authorities detaining new converts to Christianity, as well as detention or withholding of necessary documentation from Christians to force them to renounce their faith. Christian groups also reported longstanding problems registering and constructing churches in some areas. Reportedly, Christians who congregated in homes and other unregistered facilities for religious purposes were in some cases subjected to harassment by authorities.

According to government and religious group sources, tension continued in the countryside between animists and growing Christian communities. Animists in some cases again reportedly interfered with Christian burials, and the conversion of young persons to Christianity or the refusal of Protestants to participate in local non-Christian religious ceremonies sometimes continued to result in friction.

U.S. embassy officials regularly raised specific religious freedom cases with the government to continue an open dialogue and encourage resolution of conflicts, including concerning implementation of the 2016 prime ministerial decree. The embassy maintained regular contact with officials in the MOHA and the Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), which is a mass organization of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and is responsible for some administration of religious organizations. Embassy officials were also in regular contact with religious leaders and laypersons from a wide variety of denominations and faiths to understand better the problems they face in practicing their religions.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.1 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2015 national census, 64.7 percent of the population is Buddhist, 1.7 percent Christian, 31.4 percent has no religion, and the remaining 2.1 percent identify as other or having a nonlisted religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion of the ethnic or “lowland” Lao, who constitute 53.2 percent of the overall population. According to the LFNC and MOHA, the remainder of the population comprises at least 48 ethnic minority groups, most of which practice animism and ancestor worship. Animism is predominant among Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, and the Mon-Khmer and Burmo-Tibetan groups. Among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist animist beliefs are incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice, particularly in rural areas. Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Bahais, Mahayana Buddhists, and followers of Confucianism in total constitute less than 3 percent of the population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the right and freedom to believe or not believe in any religion and states citizens are equal before the law regardless of their beliefs or ethnic group. The government officially recognizes four religious umbrella groups – Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahai Faith. It generally requires other religious groups to affiliate with one of these four groups in order to operate legally. The constitution also states the government respects and protects all lawful activities of Buddhists and followers of other religions, and “mobilizes and encourages Buddhist monks and novices as well as the priests of other religions to participate in activities that are beneficial to the country and people.” It prohibits all acts that create division between religious groups and classes of persons.

A 2016 decree with the stated intent of clarifying rules for religious practice extends registration requirements to Buddhist groups, which had previously enjoyed a de facto exemption, and defines the government’s role as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. The decree also sets forth regulations for religious practice; the government implemented and sent instructions on the decree in the capital and to all provinces during the year. The decree reiterates the constitution’s priority that religious practice should serve national interests by promoting development and education and by instructing believers to be good citizens. The decree’s stated purpose is to set the principles, regulations, and laws concerning the governance and protection of religious activities for clergy, teachers of religion, believers, and religious groups in order to preserve and promote national culture, increase solidarity among members of religious groups, and “preserve and develop the nation.”

The 2016 decree states nearly all aspects of religious practice – such as congregating, holding religious services, building houses of worship, modifying existing structures, and establishing new congregations in villages where none existed – require permission from a local MOHA branch office, regardless of whether a group is recognized or registered nationally. Some cases require approval from the central-level MOHA. The decree empowers MOHA to order the cessation of any religious activities or beliefs not in agreement with policies, traditional customs, laws, or regulations within its jurisdiction. It may stop any religious activity threatening national stability, peace, and social order, causing serious damage to the environment, or affecting national solidarity or unity between tribes and religions, including threats to the lives, properties, health, or reputations of others. The decree also requires MOHA to collect information and statistics on religious operations, cooperate with foreign countries and international organizations regarding religious activities, and report religious activities to the government.

The 2016 decree prohibits individuals, organizations with a legal personality, and social establishments from causing division among ethnic groups and religions.

The 2016 decree requires any religious groups operating in the country to register with MOHA. The decree and implementing regulations do not mention the government’s official recognition of four umbrella religious groups – Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahai Faith – under which all religious groups have historically been advised to operate. Neither the decree nor implementing regulations mention that government-recognized Christian denominations are limited to the Catholic Church, the Laos Evangelical Church (LEC), and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, or the government instruction that all other Christian denominations wishing to be recognized register as part of the LEC, instead of receiving separate recognition.

The same decree stipulates that religious groups must present information on elected or appointed officeholders in committees of responsibility to national, provincial, and district and village level MOHA offices for review, consideration, and certification. MOHA and the related lower-level offices also have authority to issue certificates for religious groups.

Religious groups operating in multiple provinces must obtain national MOHA approval; groups operating in multiple districts are required to obtain provincial level approval; and groups operating in multiple villages are required to obtain district level approval. If a religious group wishes to operate beyond its local congregation, approvals at the corresponding level are required. A religious occurring outside a religious group’s property requires village authority approval. Activities in another village require approval from district authorities, from provincial authorities for activities in another district, and from national authorities for activities in another province. Religious groups must submit annual plans of all activities other than routine events in advance for local authorities to review, investigate, and approve.

All houses of worship must register under the law and applicable regulations. Any maintenance, restoration, and construction activities at religious facilities must receive MOHA approval from all levels. Local authorities may provide opinions regarding building, care, and maintenance of religious facilities, present their findings to their respective provincial governors and city mayors for consideration, and subsequently ask the minister of home affairs to investigate, consider, and approve activities conducted in religious facilities.

Individuals entering the clergy for more than three months require approval from district and village authorities, agreement from the receiving religious establishment, and agreement from a guardian or spouse, if applicable. For a period less than three months, the village authority, as well as a guardian or spouse, if applicable, must approve. The shorter period stipulations are particularly relevant to Buddhists, as every Buddhist male is expected to enter the monkhood at least once in his life, often for fewer than three months.

The Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES) and MOHA must approve the travel of clergy and religious teachers traveling abroad for specialist studies. Generally, any students going abroad for study require approval from the MOES. Religious organizations conducting religious activities overseas must receive approval from the appropriate geographical MOHA level in Laos.

The LFNC may educate and meet with religious leaders, clergy, teachers, and members to ensure compliance with laws and regulations, aim to reduce ethnic and religious tensions, and “contribute to the development of the nation.” LFNC officials may listen to opinions and concerns of religious communities in order to work with police or other authorities to investigate and resolve problems.

The government controls written materials for mass consumption, including for religious use. The 2016 decree regulates the importation and printing of religious materials and production of books, documents, icons, and symbols of various religions. MOHA may require the relevant religious group to certify the imported materials are truly representative of their religion, to address issues of authenticity, and to ensure imported materials comport with values and practices in the country. The law prohibits the import or export of unapproved printed or electronic religious materials.

The 2016 decree states the government may continue to sponsor Buddhist facilities, incorporate Buddhist rituals and ceremonies in state functions, and promote Buddhism as an element of the country’s cultural and spiritual identity and as the predominant religion of the country.

The 2016 decree requires Buddhist clergy to have identification cards, and clergy of other religions are required to have certificates to prove they have received legitimate religious training.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with a reservation that Article 18 on freedom of religion shall not be construed as authorizing or encouraging any activities to directly or indirectly coerce or compel an individual to believe or not to believe in a religion or to change his or her religion or belief, and that all acts that create division and discrimination among ethnic groups and religious groups are incompatible with the article.

Government Practices

Summary paragraph: There were reports authorities subjected some religious minority members to attempted forced renunciations, imprisonment, arrest, detention, and fines. Leaders of the recognized minority religions said they were aware of fewer of these types of incidents among villagers who had converted to Christianity than in previous years; in most cases, those arrested were fined and/or released. Persons arrested or detained received little protection under the law and could be held for lengthy periods without trial and then released, according to reports. In some cases local officials reportedly threatened Protestants with arrest or expulsion from their villages if they did not comply with certain orders. For example, a district-level official in Houaphan Province expelled 26 recently converted Hmong Christians from their village and advised they could return to their village only if they renounced Christianity. Some local officials withheld required documentation, such as titles to land usage rights, from Christians to force them to renounce their faith, or denied issuance of travel documents. NGOs stated the relatively decentralized nature of the government structure contributed to abuses by local officials, some of whom reportedly were unaware of laws and policies protecting religious freedom or unwilling to implement them. Religious groups stated that most, if not all, instances of abuse occurred in remote villages. Local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal, while Protestant groups reported they sometimes could not obtain permission to build new churches. As many as three-fourths of the LEC congregations throughout the country did not have permanent church structures and conducted worship services in homes.

In February officials detained five Christian pastors in Attapeu Province for traveling beyond their village limits to proselytize without prior authorization and for crossing the Vietnamese border, and returning, without valid travel documents, religious leaders in Vientiane reported. Authorities released the pastors after a few weeks, after the group paid a “fine” totaling 57.4 million kip ($6,900).

In October in Phonxay District of Luang Prabang Province, officials detained for less than one day four Christians at the district public security office for their beliefs, according to religious leaders in Vientiane. Officials elsewhere in Luang Prabang Province tried to pressure a recovered drug addict in remote, ethnically Khmu, Huyano Village to renounce Christianity or face drug charges. Officials detained him for three weeks until he paid a fine of 3.5 million kip ($420). Elders in the same village tried to pressure three other Christians to renounce their religion, while four others reportedly renounced under pressure in the past year. By year’s end provincial and central government officials had failed to act on local Christian leaders’ requests for assistance; local officials continued to enforce the will of village elders.

In December religious leaders reported a number of incidents that occurred during the Christmas season involving detentions of Christians traveling without permission to attend religious events outside of their normal locales. In some incidents, government officials reprimanded Christians for holding small gatherings in private homes to celebrate Christmas without receiving prior authorization. In Vientiane Province, local police arrested six Christians for traveling without permission for religious purposes. Although central authorities requested provincial officials release the six detainees after payment of a small court fee, those authorities had not released the detainees by year’s end. Provincial authorities required each detainee to pay six million kip ($730) in fines to provincial authorities as a condition of release. Religious leaders reported various incidents throughout the country related to the issue of lack of prior travel permission; most other cases were resolved within hours of occurrence.

In February religious leaders in Vientiane reported that in Houy Poong and Hinpan villages in Luang Prabang Province, local officials told ethnic Khmu and Hmong families to abandon their Christian practices or be evicted from the village. When the families refused to do so, officials initially told them to move to another province, but other officials then stopped the families at the provincial border. They ordered the families to return to their village, but subsequently officials prevented them from accessing their farmland to plant crops. In each case, officials confiscated titles to land usage rights to attempt to force their renunciations, but allowed them to keep their household registration documents so they could move elsewhere. Eventually, most of the affected families chose to resettle in other villages in the province, and one family renounced Christianity. In a separate incident near Luang Prabang, authorities arrested a village’s first convert to Christianity, pushing him to renounce his new religion. After Christian leaders in Vientiane intervened with the government, authorities released the individual.

In February in Son District, Houaphan Province, a district-level official expelled 26 Hmong Christians from their village and advised they could return only if they renounced Christianity, according to religious leaders in Vientiane. The official also confiscated the individuals’ land usage rights documents. The local level LFNC provided the group with temporary shelter in the district capital for several months, but at year’s end, the Christians remained unable to return to their village. Provincial officials, including provincial assembly members, reportedly tried to persuade village elders to allow these Christians to return.

According to religious groups, in April 2016 in Khamkeut District, Bolikhamxay Province, village leaders forced 10 Christian families to leave for allegedly creating conflict and disrupting village harmony by dividing the village into followers of more than one religion. During the year local officials in the village to which the Christian families had fled allowed them to purchase land rights to set up homes, farm, and send their children to local schools; however, household registration papers for new properties had not been issued by local authorities by the end of the year.

Government officials said the country was open to all religions, although authorities continued to provide official recognition to only four groups. The LEC continued to serve as an umbrella group for all registered Christian denominations other than Catholics or Seventh-day Adventists, as religious leaders reported applications for new Christian groups were too difficult to have recognized. Several unregistered Christian denominations attempted to register independently from the LEC due to differences in doctrinal beliefs; their applications were still pending at year’s end.

Although the law prohibits members of religious groups not registered with MOHA or the LFNC from practicing their faith, several reportedly did so quietly without interference. Christian groups seeking official recognition separate from the LEC continued to be targets of restrictions, and authorities in several provinces insisted independent congregations join the LEC. In many areas, however, local authorities allowed unauthorized churches to conduct services unhindered.

Religious leaders continued to indicate Christians appeared to be the fastest growing religious community, and Christians reported facing the most difficulties with local authorities and the general population. Their growth was most evident in rural areas, which led to frequent reports of conflicts with local communities and local authorities.

According to religious groups, both local and central government officials referred to the constitution, the former and current prime ministerial decrees, and social harmony as reasons for restricting and monitoring religious activity, especially the activities of new or small Christian organizations among minority ethnic groups.

According to Muslim community leaders, Muslims were able to practice openly at the two active mosques in Vientiane, the only mosques in the country. According to the Muslim Association, its leaders met regularly with LFNC and MOHA officials and maintained an effective working relationship with the government. The government permitted individuals from Thailand to conduct Tabligh teachings.

While animists generally reported little governmental interference, the government actively discouraged animist practices that it deemed outdated, dangerous, or illegal, such as the practice in some tribes of killing children born with defects or burying the bodies of deceased relatives beneath homes.

Representatives of Bahai communities in Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang reported that local authorities generally did not interfere with or restrict their activities. In October Bahais held a public event at the LFNC’s training offices, which was attended by high-ranking officials from various ministries and included representatives of nearly all recognized religious communities.

Religious leaders said authorities enforced a ban on proselytizing in public, although this did not generally impede individuals from speaking about their beliefs to others in private settings or among friends. Authorities enforced rules requiring that programs or activities conducted outside houses of worship receive prior approval from local or higher officials.

Authorities sought to control the importation of religious materials from outside the country. MOHA officials said they were concerned that imported religious materials and texts might include content that differed from domestic practices, and enforced such controls “to avoid misunderstandings.”

Provincial, district, and local officials, as well as the MOHA Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, LFNC representatives, and local Protestant leaders and community leaders did not meet again following 2016 negotiations concerning confiscations of churches in prior years, including one property in Vientiane Capital and fewer than eight properties in Savannakhet Province. The pending cases were unresolved at year’s end.

Due to difficulties obtaining building permits from local authorities, as many as three-fourths of the LEC congregations throughout the country did not have permanent church structures and conducted worship services in homes. The LFNC Religious Affairs Department continued to urge that house churches be replaced with designated church structures whenever possible; local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal. Religious group representatives said the building permit process began at the local level and then required district, provincial, and ultimately central-level LFNC and MOHA permission. They said local officials used the process to block construction of new churches.

Many religious leaders said they experienced lengthy delays in obtaining permits for church construction, and generally received no response to requests. According to the LFNC, many of the delays involved legal matters concerning construction, or in some cases, a cluster of Christian families in a village wished to build two or three churches in their village, which would result in more churches than local authorities thought the number of Christians would justify. The LFNC said this led to conflict with other religions in the village that often had an equal number of temples, and therefore local authorities did not permit the construction of additional churches. The LFNC cited counter examples in which a Catholic church, a Protestant church, and several Buddhist temples existed in harmony.

According to MOES, there was no Buddhist curriculum taught as religion in any public schools. The government, however, promoted the teaching of Buddhist practices in public schools as part of national culture. Mandatory cultural sessions included lessons taught in Buddhist temples and, to advance to the next grade level, educational authorities required all students to pray in Buddhist temples. Christian students reported discomfort with the requirement. MOES said it allowed parents to remove their children from the classes if they were dissatisfied with the program. In several provinces, however, lessons in Buddhism were still mandatory to pass to the next grade level, reportedly sometimes as a form of punishment of Christian students. This was especially true in areas where temples provided education because the government was unable to support a public school. A number of private schools affiliated with various religious groups existed throughout the country and accepted students from any religious denomination.

Religious groups stated they were aware of no openly non-Buddhist or nonanimist government officials in higher-level posts at provincial or national levels.

In cases that came to officials’ attention, the government strictly enforced a prohibition on proselytizing by foreigners, which reportedly continued to be widespread although conducted mainly in small private settings. Christian leaders from foreign countries reported local congregations often requested they not preach from the pulpit to avoid the perception that foreigners were proselytizing citizens. In May security officials briefly detained a tour guide in Luang Prabang when foreign members of his tour group distributed religious materials to some villagers. The tourists left the country before authorities could question them.

With advance permission and no open proselytizing, government authorities permitted Lao and expatriate Christians to organize a public, open-air religious music event for the first time. The Vientiane International Gospel Music Festival took place October 27-29 at the night market of That Luang Lake Specific Economic Zone, with performances by local and foreign artists and bands.

Religious groups said provincial government officials asked religious leaders not to report grievances to foreigners in exchange for greater religious freedom. According to religious groups, the central government continued efforts to keep individuals who had been arrested, banished, punished, marginalized, or had otherwise been the victim of abuses due to their religious beliefs out of sight of international observers.

In dealing with local conflicts regarding religious problems, officials at MOHA reported they first waited for the provinces to resolve the issue before getting involved. Government officials from MOHA and LFNC officials again acknowledged some local officials were on occasion incorrectly applying regulations or in fact creating their own regulations contrary to national law.

The LFNC and MOHA stated they continued to visit occasionally areas where abuses of religious freedom had reportedly taken place to instruct local officials on government policy and law. LFNC and MOHA officials said they frequently traveled to the provinces to encourage religious groups to practice in accordance with the country’s laws and regulations. They also hosted training workshops for local officials to explain officials’ obligations under the constitution and the right to believe or not to believe in religion. During these sessions, central authorities provided training to provincial LFNC and MOHA officials on the 2016 decree and other laws governing religion and held seminars that reviewed the basic tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, the Bahai Faith, and Islam from religious leaders. With support from an international NGO, MOHA and/or the LFNC held workshops and seminars in Vientiane Capital and Xaysomboun Province in January; Vientiane Province in February and August; and in Xiengkhuang, Phongsaly, and Savannakhet Provinces in September, October, and November, respectively. They also held a seminar in December in Ngoi District, Luang Prabang Province, where several problems has arisen early in the year. The national government funded a workshop in mid-2017 in Houaphanh Province.

Observers said the government approved implementation guidelines for the 2016 decree much more quickly than it did for other new decrees. The officially recognized religious groups supported the government’s dissemination efforts by printing and distributing the decree and its implementation guidelines.

In collaboration with the LFNC, an international NGO continued to conduct training for provincial and district officials and local religious leaders throughout the year. The training was designed to help the officials and religious leaders understand the law and each other better, and to address religious leaders’ continuing concerns about the eviction of religious minority families and the subsequent confiscation of their property in various villages.

Officials continued to state there were cases where Buddhist or animist prisoners have converted to Christianity in prison in the hope their new religious group may press for their release or a reduced sentence on religious grounds.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Christian sources reported occasional interreligious tensions among some minority ethnic groups, particularly in response to the growth of Christian congregations or disagreements over access to village resources.

The refusal by members of non-Buddhist groups, particularly Protestants, to participate in Buddhist or animist ceremonies continued to be a source of tension in rural areas. In some cases, villagers threatened Christians with expulsion from the village if they did not renounce their faith. Christian group leaders, however, encouraged their members to work out a compromise allowing them to support local Buddhist or animist ceremonies without participating in them. Members of some Christian groups said they could not make such compromises, which they said would violate their religious beliefs.

Christians said conflicts with animists regarding burial practices remained an issue throughout the year, and Christian leaders cited cases that occurred in Khammouan, Savannakhet and Xayaburi provinces. Some animists continue to be concerned about the Christian practice of burying their dead within the village boundary or nearby confines, believing that the deceased’s spirit would bring disharmony to the village and conflict with the village spirits because the body was not cremated.

Officials and press reported cases in remote villages in which animist family members reported their Christian convert children or grandchildren damaged or destroyed animist relics. Elder animists said they opposed their younger family members adopting nonanimist beliefs and threatened them via various means, including government intervention. According to both religious leaders in Vientiane and central government officials, some of these conflicts may not involve religion specifically, but rather other family or village disputes. Local officials or village elders possibly addressed these problems at face value in terms of religious differences instead of determining underlying problems. It was sometimes difficult for those in Vientiane to differentiate whether the problems reported were religious in nature.

Some religious leaders partly agreed with the government’s ‘social harmony’ rationale for monitoring and oversight of religious activities. They said misunderstandings continued to occur, which they said was due to low education levels in remote parts of the country and some local animists’ not having prior exposure to nonanimists.

Several private preschools and English-language schools received support from religious groups abroad of various denominations. Many boys received instruction in religion and other subjects in Buddhist temples, which continued to play a traditional schooling role in smaller communities where formal education was limited or unavailable. Two Buddhist colleges and two Buddhist secondary schools provided religious training for children and adults. Christian denominations, particularly the LEC and Seventh-day Adventists, conducted religious education for children and youth. Bahai groups conducted religious training for children and adult members. The Catholic Church operated a seminary in Khammouane Province for students with high school degrees to study philosophy and theology for two to 10 years. The Muslim community offered limited educational training.

Some members of ethnic groups associated with the United States during the Vietnam War era said they felt abandoned by the United States and had rejected Christianity, which they viewed as an American religion. This sentiment reportedly led to problems in remote areas where these ethnic communities placed additional pressure on Christians, including by their own families and neighbors.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials regularly advocated with a range of government officials for religious freedom and the reform of relevant laws and decrees to ensure they were consistent with international human rights standards. In frequent exchanges with MOHA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the LFNC Religious Affairs Department, embassy officials discussed the need for swift and appropriate resolution of specific cases of arrest, abuse, or harassment; and cumbersome registration procedures; and trends in abuses of religious freedom. Embassy officials also engaged the government on its management of religious practices in the provinces, including forced or threatened detentions, removal from villages, evictions, and other problems, especially for recent converts. Embassy officials regularly followed up on developments with religious leaders and government officials.

In May the embassy sponsored participation of an official from the Religious Affairs Department of the LFNC in a three-week program in the United States on Religious Freedom, Diversity and Tolerance.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with religious leaders and advocacy groups to address religious equality concerns. A senior Department of State official met with religious leaders in Xieng Khouang Province to understand the constraints they faced at the provincial level. Embassy officials regularly consulted registered and unregistered religious groups regarding reports of arrests of religious followers, cumbersome registration procedures, and abuses of freedom to worship, including during visits to Luang Prabang Province.


Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the “religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.” Federal and state governments have the power to mandate doctrine for Muslims and promote Sunni Islam above all other religious groups. Other forms of Islam are illegal and subject to action by religious authorities. The government maintains a parallel legal system, with certain civil matters for Muslims covered by sharia. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system. In August the ruling government coalition permitted a bill drafted by the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) to be introduced in parliament that would significantly raise current limits on sharia courts’ punishment powers, although lawmakers did not vote on the bill. Sedition laws criminalize speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.” Despite closed circuit television footage of the kidnapping of a Christian pastor and eyewitness testimony, police reportedly made little progress investigating the incident. Authorities announced they would investigate reports the pastor was involved in proselytizing Muslims. The government arrested hundreds of persons practicing forms of Islam other than Sunni, including Shia Muslims celebrating Ashura, and individuals whom authorities said insulted religion or incited “religious disharmony.” The government continued to bar Muslims from converting to another religion and imposed fines, detentions, and canings on those classified under the law as Muslims who contravened sharia codes. Non-Muslims continued to face legal difficulty in using the word “Allah” to denote God. The government canceled a Christian prayer gathering to be held in Melaka State, saying it would upset the sensibilities of Muslims during Ramadan. A Muslim government-supported consumer group implied it could take violent measures against the Ahmadiyya Muslim community; police intervened to prevent the group from protesting outside the community’s headquarters. Non-Sunni religious groups continued to report difficulty in gaining registration as nonprofit charitable organizations or building houses of worship; religious converts had difficulty changing their religion on their national identification cards.

Local human rights organizations and religious leaders again stated that society continued to become increasingly intolerant of religious diversity. They continued to cite some Muslim groups’ public condemnation of events and activities they said were “un-Islamic,” as well as other statements targeting Muslim and non-Muslim groups. Citing 400 cases of Muslims appealing to sharia courts to convert to another religion, the chief executive officer of a government-linked human rights group called for a ban on the Christian evangelism movement, a move he implied was necessary for “national security.” Muslim women who did not dress in what others considered modest attire continued to report incidents of public shaming.

U.S. embassy officials regularly discussed with government officials and leaders at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Prime Minister’s Department, among others, issues including constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, proposed legislation affecting religious groups, and increasing religious intolerance. Embassy representatives also met with members of religious groups, including those not officially recognized by the government. The embassy’s continued engagement with the government and religious organizations included speaker programs and visitor exchanges to promote religious tolerance and freedom. The Ambassador led a “Harmony Walk” with faith leaders in Kuala Lumpur to promote religious tolerance; the embassy disseminated photos and video of the event to highlight the importance of interfaith dialogue and acceptance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 31.4 million (July 2017 estimate). Census figures from the most recent census in 2010 indicate that 61.3 percent of the population practices Islam; 19.8 percent, Buddhism; 9.2 percent, Christianity; 6.3 percent, Hinduism; and 1.3 percent, Confucianism, Taoism, or other traditional Chinese philosophies and religions. Other religious groups include animists, Sikhs, and Bahais. Ethnic Malays, who are defined in the federal constitution as Muslims from birth, account for approximately 55 percent of the population. Rural areas – especially in the east coast of peninsular Malaysia – are predominantly Muslim, while the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo have relatively higher numbers of non-Muslims. Reports indicate that a growing number of converts to Christianity are ethnic Chinese middle-class individuals who were originally Buddhists or Confucianists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The federal constitution states that “every person has the right to profess and practice his religion,” but gives federal and state governments the power to control or restrict proselytization to Muslims. The constitution names Islam as the “religion of the Federation,” and gives parliament powers to make provisions regulating Islamic religious affairs. Federal and state governments have the power to “control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.” The constitution identifies the traditional rulers, also known as sultans, as the “Heads of Islam” within their respective states. Sultans are present in nine of the country’s 13 states and are the highest Islamic authority; in the remaining four states and the Federal Territories, the highest Islamic authority is the king. Sultans oversee the sharia courts and appoint judges based on the recommendation of the respective state Islamic religious departments and councils who manage the operations of the courts. In states with no sultan and in the Federal Territories, the king assumes responsibility for this process. The law allows citizens and organizations to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom. Federal law has constitutional precedence over state law, except in matters concerning Islamic law. A 1996 fatwa, supported by state laws, requires the country to follow only Sunni teachings of the Shafi’i school and prohibits Muslims from possessing, publishing, or distributing material contrary to those teachings.

Muslims who seek to convert to another religion must first obtain approval from a sharia court to declare themselves “apostates.” Sharia courts seldom grant such requests and can impose penalties on apostates, including enforced “rehabilitation.” In the states of Perak, Melaka, Sabah, and Pahang, apostasy is a criminal offense punishable by a fine or jail term. In Pahang, up to six strokes of the cane may also be imposed. The maximum penalty for apostasy in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu is death. These laws have never been enforced and their legal status remains untested. Nationally, civil courts generally cede authority to sharia courts in cases concerning conversion from Islam, and sharia courts remain unwilling to allow such conversions for those who are born Muslims and reluctant to allow conversion for those who had previously converted to Islam. In some states, sharia allows one parent to convert children to Islam without the consent of the second parent.

There are laws that restrict and punish speech seen as criticizing Sunni Islam.

Sedition laws regulate and punish, among other acts, speech considered hostile to ethnic groups, which includes speech insulting Islam. Convictions can result in prison sentences of three to seven years, or up to 20 years if there is physical harm or damage to property. The law also bars speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.”

The federal Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) and state Islamic authorities prepare Friday sermons for congregations as well as oversee and approve the appointment of imams at mosques. JAKIM and state Islamic officials must formally approve all teachers of Islam before they may be allowed to preach or lecture on Islam in public.

There is no legal requirement for other religious groups to register, but in order to become approved nonprofit charitable organizations, all groups must register with the government’s registrar of societies (RoS) by submitting paperwork showing the organization’s leadership, purpose, and rules, and paying a small fee. Once registered, these organizations continue to be registered as long as they submit annual reports to the RoS as legally required.

Tax laws allow a tax exemption for registered religious groups for donations received and a tax deduction for the individual donors. Donors giving zakat (tithes) to Muslim religious organizations receive a tax rebate. Donors to government-approved charitable organizations (including some non-Muslim religious groups) may receive a tax deduction on the contribution rather than a tax rebate.

The law forbids proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims, with punishments varying from state to state, and including imprisonment and caning. The law allows and supports Muslims proselytizing others. The law does not restrict the rights of non-Muslims to change their religious beliefs and affiliation. A non-Muslim wishing to marry a Muslim must convert to Islam for the marriage to be officially recognized. A minor (under the age of 18, according to federal law) generally may not convert to another faith without the explicit permission of his or her guardian; however, some states’ laws allow conversion to Islam without permission after age 15.

All Islamic houses of worship – including mosques and surau (prayer rooms) – fall under the authority of JAKIM and corresponding state Islamic departments; officials at these departments must give permission for the construction of any mosque or surau.

Islamic religious instruction is compulsory for Muslim children in public schools; non-Muslim students are required to take nonreligious morals and ethics courses. Private schools may offer a non-Islamic religious curriculum as an option for non-Muslims.

Sharia courts have jurisdiction over Muslims in matters of family law and religious observances. A constitutional amendment provides that civil courts have no jurisdiction with respect to any matter within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. Non-Muslims have no standing in sharia proceedings, leading to some cases where sharia court rulings have affected non-Muslims who have no ability to defend their position or appeal the court’s decision, most frequently in rulings affecting custody, divorce, inheritance, burial, and conversion in interfaith families. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains largely unresolved in the legal system. Two states, Kelantan and Terengganu, have symbolically enacted hudood (the Islamic penal law) for Muslims, although the federal government has never allowed the code to be implemented. The states cannot implement these laws without amendments to federal legislation and the agreement of the sultan.

The legal age of marriage is 16 for Muslim females and 18 for Muslim males, although they may marry before reaching those ages with the permission of their parents and the sharia courts. Non-Muslims must be 18 to marry.

National identity cards specify religious affiliation and are used by the government to determine which citizens are subject to sharia. The cards identify Muslims in print on the face of the card; for members of other recognized religions, religious affiliation is only encrypted in a smart chip within the identity card. Married Muslims must carry a special photo identification of themselves and their spouse as proof of marriage.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Summary Paragraph: Police made little progress investigating a Christian pastor’s kidnapping by armed individuals that was caught on closed circuit television. The government continued to forbid any non-Sunni practice of Islam, arresting at least 25 Shia and detaining others for celebrating Ashura. It barred Muslims from converting to another religion, and imposed fines, detentions, and canings on those classified under the law as Muslim who contravened sharia codes. In August the ruling government coalition permitted a bill to be introduced in parliament that significantly raised current limits on sharia courts’ punishment powers, although lawmakers did not vote on the bill. It also limited proselytization by non-Muslim religious groups and restricted the distribution of religious texts. Restrictions remained on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims. The government canceled a Christian prayer gathering to be held in Melaka State, saying it would upset the sensibilities of Muslims during Ramadan. Police intervened to prevent a Muslim government-supported consumer group from protesting outside the Ahmadiyya Muslim community’s headquarters. The consumer group had implied it could take violent measures against Ahmadiyya Muslims. The government prosecuted some individuals deemed to have “insulted Islam.” Since Islam, Malay ethnic identity, and the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) political party were closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

In February a group of armed individuals abducted Raymond Koh, a Christian pastor, from his vehicle on a suburban Kuala Lumpur highway. Despite closed circuit television footage of the kidnapping and eyewitness testimony, police made little progress investigating the incident, leading to widespread speculation among the public that government officials were involved in an attempt to intimidate the Christian community, a charge the police denied. The inspector general of police later announced that police would investigate reports that Koh was involved in proselytizing Muslims, adding, “It would not be fair if we only investigated Raymond’s disappearance.” Police reportedly made little progress in investigating the separate disappearances in 2016 of another Christian pastor, Joshua Hilmy, and his wife Ruth, in addition to Amri Che Mat, a Muslim activist said to be linked to Shia teachings. In May the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Regional Office for South-East Asia said in a statement, “Enforced disappearances are rare in Malaysia and it is deeply concerning that little progress has been made in these cases.” In October the Malaysian Human Rights Commission initiated a public inquiry into the disappearances; the public inquiry remained in progress at year’s end.

The government continued to monitor Shia Muslims and take action against those engaged in practicing their religious rituals, which the government continued to consider “deviant” activity. In September the Selangor State Islamic Department (JAIS) temporarily detained 200 Shia Iraqi nationals participating in an event marking the Ashura holiday. Separately, religious authorities arrested 21 Shia men in Johor State and four Shia men in Kedah State for observing Ashura. The 200 Shia Iraqi nationals were quickly released, reportedly following pressure from Iraqi authorities. Under sharia law, which differs by state, individuals convicted of “deviant” religious activity face up to three years in prison or a 5,000 ringgit (RM) ($1,200) fine for “insulting Islam.”

In September immigration authorities temporarily detained Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist and visiting fellow at a U.S. university, as he attempted to board a flight departing the country. Akyol and Ahmad Farouk Musa of the Islamic Renaissance Front had previously been summoned by the Kuala Lumpur Islamic Affairs Department in relation to a speech Akyol delivered at a private club on apostasy in Islam. The Islamic Renaissance Front also canceled a speech Akyol was scheduled to give later in Kuala Lumpur on the advice of the Islamic Affairs Department. Authorities said Akyol was in violation of a law prohibiting individuals from teaching “any matter relating to the religion of Islam” without authorization. The government also banned Akyol’s book Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty and its Bahasa Malaysia translation, arguing it was “prejudicial to public order” and likely to “alarm the public.” In November another prominent private club in Kuala Lumpur announced it was cancelling a lecture by a visiting U.S. academic and would reject any future requests to host religion-related events on its grounds to avoid breaking government restrictions on religious forums.

JAKIM continued to implement established federal guidelines concerning what constituted deviant Islamic behavior or belief. According to the government, authorities identified 17 “deviant teachings” in the country during the year and arrested a total of 246 individuals for their involvement in practicing such beliefs. There are 56 groups that JAKIM has deemed “deviant.” State religious authorities generally followed these guidelines. Those differing from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. The government forbade individuals to leave such centers until they completed the program, which varied in length, but often lasted approximately six months. These counseling programs continued to be designed to ensure the detainee adopted the government’s official interpretation of Islam.

In March a civil appeals court ruled in the case of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Sisters in Islam (SIS) against Selangor State Islamic Council (MAIS) authorities that the case should be heard again by the lower court, but with a different judge. In July the Federal Court allowed MAIS’ appeal of the March decision; the case remained ongoing at year’s end. The case stemmed from a 2014 fatwa with the force of state religious law labeling the NGO a “religiously deviant organization for subscribing to liberalism and pluralism.” In 2016 a lower civil court ruled that only the sharia court had the authority to decide on the validity of the fatwa.

State Islamic religious enforcement officers continued to have the authority to accompany police on raids of private premises and public establishments, and to enforce sharia, including for violations such as indecent dress, distribution of banned publications, alcohol consumption, or khalwat (close proximity to a nonfamily member of the opposite sex). In January the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (JAWI) arrested a married couple for close proximity despite proof of their marriage. The couple subsequently sued JAWI, accusing the agency of violently detaining them and causing injuries. The case remained pending at the end of the year. In September state religious authorities required a Muslim man to attend a “counseling session” after he was stopped for wearing shorts in public. According to some state laws, Muslims could be fined RM 1,000 ($250) if they did not attend “counseling” after being found guilty of wearing what the authorities deem to be immodest clothing.

Civil society activists said the government selectively prosecuted speech allegedly denigrating Islam and largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. In November the government stated atheism was unconstitutional and threatened to use sedition laws against anyone spreading its tenets. The government did not take any action against those issuing violent threats against nonbelievers.

In October Zamihan Mat Zin, a preacher and former JAKIM official, criticized the hygiene practices of Chinese Malaysians in a speech defending a controversial Muslim-only launderette. Police arrested him under sedition laws for criticizing the Sultan of Johor, who had ordered the launderette to reverse its policy. The preacher was not charged by year’s end.

Officials at the federal and state levels oversaw Islamic religious activities, distributed all sermon texts for mosques to follow, used mosques to convey political messages, and limited public expression of religion deemed contrary to Sunni Islam.

The government maintained restrictions on religious assembly and provisions which denied certain religious groups the ability to register as charitable organizations. Many churches and NGOs continued to find registration difficult, with the RoS denying or delaying many applications without explanation or for highly technical reasons. Representatives of religious groups continued to say the registrar had no consistent policy or transparent criteria for determining whether to register religious groups. In cases in which the government refused to register a religious group, the group could pursue registration as a company. Religious groups reported that registering as a company was generally relatively quick and provided a legal basis for conducting business, did not limit the group’s religious activities, and allowed the organization certain activities such as holding a bank account and owning property, but did not give the organization tax-exempt status or government funding. Examples of groups that continued to be registered as companies included Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

In June the government canceled the “Jerusalem Jubilee,” a Christian prayer gathering to be held in Melaka State, saying it would upset the sensibilities of Muslims during Ramadan. In response to the Jerusalem Jubilee event, a PAS member of parliament said Muslims must “rise up to defend the community and country from the savagery of Christian evangelists.”

The government launched an investigation into a meeting of atheists after a photo of an “Atheist Republic” event in Kuala Lumpur spread on social media in early August. A government minister was quoted in local media calling on authorities to “track them down and identify each one of them,” referring to those who appeared in the photo. In response to the incident, the Mufti of Negeri Sembilan State told the media that Islam prescribes death for Muslims who become atheists, although he added that Malaysian sharia courts could not implement such punishments.

The federal and state governments continued to forbid religious assembly and worship for groups considered to be deviant Islamic groups such as Shia, Ahmadiyya, and Al-Arqam. While Ahmadi Muslims in the country reported generally being able to maintain a worship center, government religious authorities did not allow them to hold Friday prayers as these could only be performed in an officially registered mosque. In October the Muslim Consumer Association of Malaysia (PPIM), a government-supported group, held a press conference denouncing the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and implied PPIM could take violent measures against its members. Police intervened to prevent a PPIM protest outside the Ahmadiyya Muslim community’s headquarters outside Kuala Lumpur, although PPIM remained vocal in its call for the government to close down the organization and its mosque. Local authorities have permitted billboards proclaiming “Ahmadis are not Muslims” to be placed in front of the group’s headquarters for the past several years.

Restrictions remained on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims. An appeal by the Sidang Injil Borneo, an evangelical church based in Sabah and Sarawak, for the right of the church and its Malay language-speaking congregation to use the word “Allah” in Bibles and other religious publications remained ongoing. A lawyer in the attorney general’s department said in June the Home Ministry would file an expert opinion in a separate case in support of the government’s position that the word “Allah” is for the exclusive use of Muslims.

The government continued to ban books for promoting Shia beliefs, mysticism, and other beliefs the government determined “clearly deviated from the true teachings of Islam.”

State governments had exclusive authority over allocation of land for, and the construction of, all places of worship, as well as land allocation for all cemeteries. Non-Muslim groups continued to report regular difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to build new places of worship, leading many groups to use buildings zoned for residential or commercial use for their religious services. Observers said that this practice remained largely tolerated, but also left the religious groups vulnerable. In April the state government of Selangor stated it would suspend clauses in state guidelines and planning standards that placed restrictions on non-Muslim places of worship. The standards included the recommendation that non-Muslim places of worship not be built within 50 meters (165 feet) of a Muslim home, new places of worship be lower in height than the nearest mosque, and non-Muslim places of worship in multiracial communities would require the consent of residents within a 200-meter (650-foot) radius. According to a state government official, the guidelines were enacted in 2007, removed in 2010, and reinstated early in 2017. The same official said Johor, Melaka, and Negeri Sembilan states had similar provisions.

In March the state government of Penang announced that 32 plots of state land would be made available to non-Muslim religious groups to build churches and temples. The government said the land was made available after groups complained about the lack of suitable places to construct houses of worship.

Some government bodies, including the federal Department of National Unity and Integration, were tasked with encouraging religious harmony and protecting the rights of minority religious groups. Many faith-based organizations, however, continued to state they believed that none had the power and influence of those that regulated Islamic affairs, citing the large footprint and budget for JAKIM, compared to the more limited funding for the Department of National Unity and Integration. In the 2018 budget, the Department of National Unity and Integration was allocated approximately RM 275 million ($68 million), while RM 1 billion ($247 million) was marked for the development of Islam, including RM 811 million ($201 million) for JAKIM.

During the year, JAKIM funded a wide variety of Islamic education and mosque-related projects. There were no specifically allocated funds in the government budget for non-Muslim religious groups, although some religious groups reported continuing to receive sporadic funding for temple and church buildings and other activities.

At public schools at the primary and secondary level, student assemblies frequently commenced with recitation of an Islamic prayer by a teacher or school leader. Particularly in the peninsula of the country, community leaders and civil liberties groups said that religion teachers in public schools pressured Muslim girls to wear the tudong (Islamic head covering) at school. Some private schools required Muslim girls to wear veils covering their faces, except for their eyes. In a public school in Selangor State, the government launched an investigation after photos spread on social media of separated drinking cups for Muslims and non-Muslims. Homeschooling remained legal, but some families reported difficulty in obtaining approval from the Ministry of Education.

Lawyers, civil liberty groups, and non-Muslim religious leaders said that when civil and sharia jurisdictions intersected, civil courts continued largely to give deference to sharia courts, creating situations where non-Muslims were affected by sharia judgments. The media and lawyers continued to report that sharia courts often decided child custody cases where one parent converted to Islam while the other did not – and have historically favored the Muslim parent. When facing competing orders by civil and sharia courts regarding custody, they stated the police generally sided with the sharia decisions.

In October, in a rare public statement, the country’s Council of Rulers expressed concerns about the actions of Muslims whose views on religious practices have “gone beyond all acceptable standards of decency, putting at risk the harmony that currently exists within our multireligious and multi-ethnic society.” The statement was in response to reports of Muslim-only launderettes in two states. The owner of one launderette said he was protecting Muslims from “impurities” that could be present on non-Muslims’ clothing, such as dog fur or pork, an argument Johor’s mufti publicly supported.

In April the Mufti of Perlis published a poem that some individuals said they considered offensive to Hinduism. Authorities did not take any action against him.

The family of a Hindu man in the state of Negeri Sembilan initiated court proceedings in September against officials from the state Islamic affairs department after authorities reportedly took the body of the man, Mahat Sulaiman, from a local hospital and buried him in an Islamic cemetery against the deceased’s wishes. Religious authorities reportedly acted unilaterally because the man’s name appeared to be Muslim.

Court proceedings continued in the case of Prasana Diksa, who was abducted in 2009 by her father after he converted from Hinduism to Islam, and a federal court was expected to rule on the case in early 2018. The case involved the issues of civil court review of sharia courts’ decisions as well as whether the consent of both parents was required for the conversion of a minor child. In 2010, a civil court awarded Prasana’s mother, Indira Gandhi, custody of her daughter; however, police did not execute the civil court’s order to arrest Prasana’s father for contempt of court, nor did the police take action to locate Prasana.

After opposition from some Muslim leaders, in August the government withdrew a bill from parliament that would have prevented one parent from converting his or her child to another faith without the consent of the second parent. A government minister said the bill was withdrawn “to preserve the harmony between the races and faiths” and asked that “no party politicize” the decision.

The government continued not to recognize marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims and considered children born of such unions illegitimate. In July the Court of Appeal ruled that the National Registration Division was not bound by edicts issued by the National Fatwa Committee, a religious body, regarding when a child conceived out of wedlock could take his or her father’s name; however, the government appealed the case and successfully applied for a stay in implementing the decision. A 2003 edict by the committee declared children to be illegitimate, and therefore unable to take their father’s name if they were born fewer than six months after the marriage of their parents.

In August the ruling government coalition permitted a bill drafted by the opposition PAS to be introduced in parliament that would significantly raise existing limits on sharia courts’ punishment powers; limited proselytization by non-Muslim religious groups; and restricted the distribution of religious texts. Proceedings were suspended before lawmakers could vote on it, however. Under existing law, states must limit sharia court punishments to three years in prison; RM 5,000 ($1,200) fines; and six strokes of the cane. The most recent version of the PAS bill proposed to raise those limits to 30 years in prison; RM 100,000 ($24,700) fines; and 100 strokes of the cane. The bill generated substantial public discussion, with some Muslim groups and some official state Islamic authorities supporting the effort. Some Muslim and non-Muslim groups opposed the legislation, which they stated infringed on the country’s civil laws and represented a first step toward the eventual enforcement of hudood. Some government officials argued that non-Muslims did not have the right to criticize the legislation because it would only apply to Muslims.

In December PAS President Hadi Awang supported a Muslim-only cabinet, which he said could accept non-Muslims playing a role in professional and management positions other than in policymaking. The PAS vice president later denied that the president supported a Muslim-only cabinet.

It remained difficult for those registered as Muslims to have their religious identification changed by the authorities. In February the Federal Court agreed to hear the appeal of three converts to Islam who later said they had left Islam and wanted their identification information changed accordingly, although the court did not set a date for the hearing by the end of the year. In 2016 the Court of Appeal in Sarawak State ruled against the three converts.

In September the city of Kuala Lumpur denied an application to hold a “Better Beer Festival,” despite approving the festival in previous years, after some religious leaders and PAS complained that such an event would “lead to extremist activities” and could lead the nation’s capital to be “known to the world as Asia’s biggest vice center.” Police later said the event was canceled because of security concerns and said they had arrested three militants who planned to attack the festival.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In response to the PAS president’s Muslim-only cabinet statement in December, the country’s main nongovernmental interreligious body – The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism – said “The race and religion card has been overplayed. This must end immediately. The energy of all Malaysians especially politicians should be channeled towards further developing a society filled with mutual understanding and respect.”

Local human rights organizations and religious leaders again stated that society continued to become increasingly intolerant of religious diversity. They cited some Muslim groups’ continuing public condemnation of events and activities they said were “un-Islamic,” as well as heavily publicized statements targeting non-Sunni Muslims and non-Muslim groups.

In response to a ban on non-Muslims at a launderette in the state of Johor, the NGO Sisters in Islam said in a statement, “It is becoming very alarming that week upon week we witness a growing number of incidences where there is discrimination premised on the Islamic faith…This type of simplistic interpretation of ‘what Islam requires of its Ummah’ is a danger to the racial diversity that we as Malaysians (including Malaysian Muslims) have always cherished. This is causing such great disunity in our beautiful nation.”

Religious converts, particularly those converting from Islam, sometimes faced severe stigmatization. Citing 400 conversion cases pending before sharia courts, the CEO of a government-linked human rights group called for a ban on Christian evangelism, a move he implied was necessary for “national security.” In many cases, converts reportedly concealed newly adopted beliefs and practices from their former coreligionists, including friends and relatives.

Religious identities continued to affect secular aspects of life. Muslim women who did not wear the head scarf or conform to religious notions of modesty were often subject to shaming on social media. In February a beauty pageant was forced to cancel a component of the event featuring contestants in swimwear, none of whom were Muslims, after Islamist groups protested.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials engaged with a wide variety of federal and state government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Prime Minister’s Department, among others, on religious freedom issues throughout the year. The Ambassador raised concerns about the disappearance of Pastor Raymond Koh and three other individuals and urged government officials to speak out against religious intolerance, particularly in the wake of high profile incidents such as the “Muslim-only” launderettes in two states.

Embassy officials held meetings with members of Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslim groups; the groups detailed the heavy government restrictions on their religious activities. Embassy officials also met with a variety of non-Muslim groups who reported continued difficulties registering churches and building houses of worship, and facing societal discrimination. The embassy engaged with groups of Sunni Muslims whose activities were limited by the government, such as SIS, G25, Islamic Renaissance Front, and Komuniti Muslim Universal.

The embassy broadcast messages related to religious freedom on its social media platforms on International Religious Freedom Day and throughout the year.

In March the embassy organized a visit by a leader of a U.S. Muslim community network to several states to engage with youth and promote civic consciousness, volunteerism, and religious tolerance.

In October the embassy hosted the U.S.-based director of a large religious NGO for meetings with local religious leaders and students on how interfaith groups can mitigate conflict and build community resilience.

In conjunction with the United Nations’ International Day for Tolerance, the Ambassador led a “Harmony Walk” with faith leaders to several houses of worship in Kuala Lumpur. The embassy disseminated a video of the event, which had been viewed at least 74,000 times in addition to being featured in the nation’s largest newspapers. The event emphasized the centrality of freedom of religion and interfaith dialogue in reducing intolerance, discrimination, and persecution and underscored the U.S. commitment to ensuring all individuals be able to exercise their human rights, including freedom of belief or nonbelief.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religious profession and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of religion by law. The government continued to implement the “strategic peace roadmap,” which it said would address the aspirations of Muslim and other separatist groups in Mindanao. On July 17, President Rodrigo Duterte received the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) from relevant stakeholders and expressed support for congressional approval. Local authorities in Paniqui, Tarlac Province in Central Luzon considered creating an identification system for Muslims in the region suggested by Muslims. The Office of the President’s National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) continued to promote the rights of Muslims at the national and local level, and the Department of Education continued to promote the standardization of Arabic language and Islamic values curricula for Muslim students in private madrassahs and public schools with 10 percent or more Muslims. The president made several statements during the year critical of the Catholic Church when its leadership criticized his policies. The president also made statements toward developing a better relationship with the Catholic Church and among persons of all faiths.

In May the Maute Group (also known as Dawlah Islamiya-Lanao) and other related factions seized areas of the southern city of Marawi. These ISIS-affiliated groups carried out killings, attacks, and bombings, including against hospitals, schools, and city jails. These groups reportedly went house-to-house searching for Christians and killing them. They also burned churches and took several hostages, including a priest and staff members of a Catholic church. The government continued sustained military, law enforcement, and counterterrorism operations against these groups.

There were instances of clan violence and societal discrimination against Muslims pursuing housing and employment opportunities, including on the basis of names and religious attire. There were frequent public statements on the internet and social media that denigrated the beliefs or practices of religious groups, particularly Muslims.

The U.S. embassy routinely discussed with government officials and nongovernmental organizations the role of the peace process in increasing space for religious diversity. The embassy supported a visiting expert who discussed methods for improving engagement between the police force and religious minorities. The Ambassador also gave remarks at representational events on the importance of the value of religious freedom and tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 104.3 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2015 census conducted by the National Statistics Office, approximately 79.5 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and approximately 9 percent belong to other Christian groups. These groups include internationally based denominations such as the Seventh-day Adventists, the United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Episcopal Church in the Philippines, Bible Baptist Church, other Protestant churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons); and domestically established churches such as the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), Philippine Independent Church (Aglipayan), Members Church of God International, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, and the Name Above Every Name. Approximately 6 percent of the population is Muslim according to the Philippine Statistics Authority, although the NCMF estimated that 12 percent of the total population is Muslim.

Approximately 4 percent did not report a religious affiliation or belong to other groups, such as the animistic and syncretic religions of the Lumad (indigenous tribes). The majority of Muslims are members of various ethnic minority groups and reside in Mindanao and nearby islands in the south. Although most are practitioners of Sunni Islam, a small minority of Shia Muslims live in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga del Sur on Mindanao. An increasing number of Muslims are migrating to the urban centers of Manila and Cebu.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religious profession and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion by law. No religious test is required for the exercise of civil or political rights. The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state. The law treats intentional attacks directed against buildings dedicated to religion as war crimes or crimes against international humanitarian law.

The law requires organized religious groups to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and with the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) to establish tax-exempt status. Religious groups must submit their articles of faith and bylaws for SEC registration as religious corporations. The SEC requires existing religious corporations to submit annual financial statements. The law does not specify penalties for failure to register with the SEC. To register as a nonstock, nonprofit organization, religious groups must meet the basic requirements for corporate registration with the BIR and must request tax exemption from the BIR. The basic requirements for registration include a name verification of the religious corporation, articles of incorporation and bylaws, the name of a director, list of members, and a list of financial contributors. The BIR provides tax exemptions to newly established religious corporations that are then reviewed for renewal every three years. Established religious corporations may be fined for the late filing of registrations with the BIR or for failing to submit registration datasheets and financial statements.

The government permits religious instruction in public schools with written parental consent, provided there is no cost to the government. Based on a traditional policy of promoting moral education, local public schools give religious groups the opportunity to teach moral values during school hours. Attendance is not mandatory, parents must express in writing a desire for their child to attend religious instruction for a specific denomination, and the various groups share classroom space. Students who do not attend religious instruction, whether because no class was offered in their denomination or because their parents did not express a desire, receive normal supervised class time. The government also allows groups to distribute religious literature in public schools. The law mandates that government agencies address religious issues and consult recognized experts on Filipino Muslim beliefs, as well as the history, culture, and identity of indigenous peoples, when formulating the national history curriculum.

By law, public schools must ensure the religious rights of students are protected. Muslim girls may wear the hijab and are not required to wear shorts during physical education classes.

The government recognizes sharia in all parts of the country through a presidential decree. Sharia courts are organized into five sharia districts all located in the south of the country; Muslims residing in other areas must travel to these districts to pursue an action in a sharia court. Sharia courts handle only cases relating to personal laws on family relations and property. Sharia does not apply in criminal matters and applies only to Muslims. The state court system hears cases involving Muslims and non-Muslims, and national laws apply in those cases.

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

Government Practices

In July President Duterte received a new draft of the BBL, designed to implement the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The BBL would grant additional political autonomy in majority Muslim areas. The updated BBL was drafted by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and MNLF representatives. The BBL remained in the legislature as of the end of the year. In 2016, President Duterte approved the “strategic peace roadmap” with the goal of continuing the implementation of previous peace agreements with Muslim and other separatist groups in Mindanao. According to the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), the roadmap aims to uphold all preexisting MNLF and MILF agreements within constitutional parameters, including the role of sharia. Observers said the government’s drive to build a roadmap towards implementation of previous peace agreements in Mindanao was not solely based on religious factors, but also on aspirations among the Muslim separatist groups to attain greater political autonomy.

The Catholic Church remained vocal against the rising number of alleged extrajudicial killings associated with the war on drugs under President Duterte. Duterte publicly denounced the Catholic Church and labeled some Church leaders as “corrupt” and “womanizers.” On several occasions, Duterte directed his disapproval toward specific priests and bishops who criticized his policies. Duterte, however, also expressed hope for pursuing an amicable relationship with the Catholic Church in the future.

Muslim officials reported that while Muslim prison detainees were allowed to engage in religious observances, Roman Catholic Mass was often broadcast by loudspeaker to both Catholic and non-Catholic prison populations.

The Philippines Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) stated again during the year that many Muslims viewed the congressional failure to pass the BBL as a failure of the government to expand religious freedoms for Muslims agreed upon by OPAPP and MILF negotiators. The council, however, reported that it was hopeful that an agreement could be reached in the future. The PCEC also said the Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity Expression bill, which emphasizes the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex community and passed the third reading in the lower house, potentially infringed on the rights of religious communities.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the Presidential Task Force on Interreligious and Intercultural Concerns continued to monitor issues relating to religious freedom and again received no complaints or cases involving the abuse of religious freedom during the year.

The NCMF’s Bureau of Pilgrimage and Endowment continued to administer logistics for the Hajj, such as obtaining flight schedules, administering vaccines, coordinating with the Department of Foreign Affairs to process Hajj passports, filing Hajj visa applications at the Saudi Embassy, and conducting predeparture orientations for pilgrims. The NCMF reported that 5,868 Filipinos made the pilgrimage during the year, meeting the limit set by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj for pilgrims from the Philippines. The NCMF also administered the awqaf (an endowment for the upkeep of Islamic properties and institutions) and continued to oversee the establishment and maintenance of Islamic centers and other projects. Following the September 2016 bombing of a night market in Mindanao’s Davao City that left 15 persons dead, the city government discussed plans to require Muslim women to remove their hijabs and burqas upon entering malls and at other checkpoints as a security measure. The Davao City Council did not adopt this requirement, but citizens reported tightened security in public places such as malls and hotel entrances, particularly for women with Muslim headwear.

The Department of Education continued to support the Arabic Language and Islamic Values Education (ALIVE) program for Muslim students in public elementary schools with a Muslim population of 10 percent or greater. For the 2016-17 school year, 1,622 public elementary schools administered the voluntary ALIVE program for 308,071 students.

Madrassahs continued to have the option of registering with the NCMF and Department of Education, both, or neither. Registered madrassahs received government funding and produced curriculum that was subject to government oversight. There were 80 private madrassahs registered with the Department of Education, and 24 more applied for registration but had not met all requirements to receive funding. Many private madrassahs chose to remain unregistered rather than allow government oversight, according to Department of Education representatives. Some unregistered madrassahs preached radical ideologies, according to religious officials. Only registered schools could receive financial assistance from the government. The Department of Education’s Office of Madrassah Education managed local and international financial assistance to the private madrassah system. The madrassahs registered by the Department of Education followed the Standard Madrassah Curriculum and received funding for classrooms, facilities, and educators who taught the Revised Basic Education Curriculum. The overall funding for and attendance at private madrassahs increased by 10 percent from the previous year. During the year, the Department of Education provided a subsidy of 5,000 pesos ($100) per student to 12,284 private madrassah students within the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and to 2,250 private madrassah students outside the ARMM.

Local authorities in Paniqui, Tarlac Province in Central Luzon, considered an identification system for Muslims in the region. A local Muslim association had initially created the system for its community. After national expressions of concern, the CHR investigated media reports about the proposal and said the initiative came from the Muslim community and that authorities did not infringe religious liberties.

NCMF officials said that anti-Muslim discrimination occurred in government offices but cited no specific examples. There were 11 Muslims in the 292-member House of Representatives. Some Muslim leaders, including an NCMF official, expressed concern with the low representation of Muslims in senior government and military positions.

The government said it continued to promote interfaith dialogue to build mutual trust and respect among various religious and cultural groups. The Presidential Task Force on Interreligious and Intercultural Concerns coordinated all interreligious and intercultural concerns and initiatives within the government on behalf of the Office of the President. The task force participated in February’s World Interfaith Harmony Week and mandated all government agencies observe the week. The Philippine National Police Chaplaincy Services hosted a symposium that underscored the importance of acknowledging different religious beliefs, and attendees included the Imam Council of the Philippines and United Religious Initiatives. Furthermore, the University of the Philippines, in partnership with the NCMF, hosted an interfaith forum titled “Celebrating Women’s Rights in the Light of Islam,” which coincided with World Hijab Day. The forum highlighted the importance of mutual respect and promoted solidarity with Muslim women worldwide.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

The government attributed several killings, attacks, and kidnappings for ransom in the south of the country to the ISIS-linked Maute Group, the terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and other ISIS-related groups. The government continued sustained military, law enforcement, and counterterrorism operations against the Maute Group, ASG, and other ISIS-related groups. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

In May the Maute Group, ASG, Ansar Al-Khalifa, the Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters, and an undetermined number of foreign fighters seized portions of Marawi City in Lanao del Sur, Mindanao. The group occupied and destroyed buildings, including churches, mosques, jails, schools, and private homes. These ISIS-linked groups reportedly sought out Christian residents to kill during the first days of the siege. The media reported that the militants killed nine Christians at a checkpoint, and killed at least one Christian man when he failed to recite the Shahada, a Muslim proclamation of faith. They also reportedly targeted Christians who refused to convert to Islam and Muslims who rejected violence. Media footage showed militants defacing a church and destroying religious symbols. The group took several hostages at the beginning of the siege, including a priest and more than a dozen staff members from a Catholic church. The priest escaped in September during a firefight between the military and the militants. The Marawi siege ended in October, and as of December, official government statistics estimated that 47 civilians were killed.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country, were frequently associated with clan violence. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as being solely based on religious identity.

Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities said that while relations among religious groups were generally amicable, there were reports of tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas such as Marawi City. The NCMF received no formal complaints of discrimination on the grounds of Muslim religious identity during the year. The NCMF stated, however, that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination existed throughout the country, including in education. There were reports of discrimination by students against Muslim students displaced from Marawi. The Department of Education employed several outreach initiatives to welcome these students. Internally displaced Muslims also reported discrimination in private-sector employment and housing. Other Muslims witnessed negative reactions to Muslim names or forms of dress, and said they stood out in public places. Social media comments denigrating the beliefs or practices of Muslims continued to occur in the country.

Religious representatives report increasing tensions between communities of various faiths and within subsets of the Muslim community.

Religious communities participated in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination. Efforts included training Catholic leadership on interreligious dialogue and more than 100 attendees for events within World Interfaith Harmony week in February. The PCEC served as the co-convener of the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform, which aims to ensure the continuation of the peace process between the government and the National Democratic Front.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador expressed support for religious freedom and the protection of civil liberties for persons of all faiths during his public engagements. U.S. embassy officials met with the NCMF and Muslim civil society groups to discuss government protection, the promotion of religious freedom, the attacks in Marawi City, radicalization, and the impact of foreign donor financing on religious education in Muslim communities. Embassy officials also met with government officials, including representatives from the Presidential Task Force on Interreligious and Intercultural Concerns, to affirm the importance of supporting all communities of faith, particularly in conflict areas. Throughout the year, embassy officials met with Muslim, Christian, and other religious leaders to discuss religious freedom issues.

On June 21, the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar for Muslim and Christian guests at the University of the Philippines-Diliman. He delivered remarks on religious tolerance, the importance of interfaith service projects, and the sacrifices of Muslim Filipinos protecting non-Muslims in the wake of the Marawi crisis. The iftar emphasized the importance of interreligious dialogue and youth empowerment across faiths. As an example of interfaith cooperation, the Charge d’Affaires shared photographs of U.S. government exchange alumni organizing a similar iftar conducted for both Muslims and Christians displaced by the Marawi conflict. On January 16, the embassy’s Facebook page had two postings commemorating National Religious Freedom Day.

In September the embassy sponsored an American police lieutenant for a speaking tour to discuss his role in bringing law enforcement together with marginalized groups in order to address violence targeting at-risk communities. During his visit, he spoke with Muslim representatives about enhancing community-level cooperation between religious minorities and the police.


Executive Summary

The constitution, laws, and policies provide for religious freedom, subject to restrictions relating to public order, public health, and morality. The government continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). The government restricted speech or actions it perceived as detrimental to “religious harmony.” There is no legal provision for conscientious objection, including on religious grounds, and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 12 conscientious objectors remained detained at year’s end. In April an Indian imam who uttered an Arabic prayer during which he asked for “help against Jews and Christians” was fined and deported for acts “prejudicial to the maintenance of religious harmony and likely to disturb public tranquility.” Three foreign Islamic preachers were banned from entering the country in October and November, and two foreign Christian speakers were banned from preaching in September because the government reportedly viewed their teaching as damaging to social harmony. The government changed a voluntary program into a mandatory requirement that all Muslim religious teachers and centers of learning register with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS). Parliament discussed the existing prohibition on wearing the hijab for certain civil servants, but the prohibition remained. In September former Parliamentary Speaker Halimah Yacob, who wears the hijab, became president. The post was reserved in this presidential cycle for eligible Malays, who are mostly Muslim. The government made multiple high-level affirmations of the importance of religious harmony, launched an initiative to foster understanding of different religious practices, and created a fund and documentary to explore religious differences and prejudices.

Journalists wrote articles throughout the year encouraging their readers not to view Muslims with suspicion and telling Muslims they should not feel responsible for the actions of radicalized Muslims.

The U.S. embassy engaged with senior government officials, including President Halimah Yacob, at a June iftar during which the Charge d’Affaires gave a speech about religious tolerance in a pluralistic society. The embassy hosted a variety of events and programs with religious groups, including an interfaith youth forum to facilitate discussion on ways to combat religious discrimination in the religious leaders’ home communities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.9 million (July 2017 estimate). The local government estimates a total population of 5.6 million, with 3.9 million of this total citizens or permanent residents, of which 81.5 percent state a religious affiliation. Approximately 33.2 percent of the population of citizens and permanent residents are Buddhist, 18.8 percent Christian, 14 percent Muslim (predominantly Sunni), 10 percent Taoist, and 5 percent Hindu. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church).

According to a 2017 report by the Department of Statistics, 74.3 percent of the resident population is ethnic Chinese, 13.4 percent ethnic Malay, 9.0 percent ethnic Indian, and 3.2 percent other, including Eurasians. Nearly all ethnic Malays are Muslim. According to a 2016 national survey, among ethnic Indians, 59.9 percent are Hindu, 21.3 percent are Muslim, and 12.1 percent are Christian. The ethnic Chinese population includes Buddhists (42.3 percent), Christians (20.9 percent), and Taoists (12.9 percent).

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states every person has a constitutional right to profess, practice, or propagate his or her religious belief as long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. The constitution also prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion in the administration of any law or in the appointment to or employment in any office under a public authority. It states that every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs and it does not prohibit restrictions in employment by a religious institution.

The government maintains a decades-long ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church. The government banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1972 on the grounds the Church was prejudicial to public welfare and order because it objected to national service, reciting the national pledge, or singing the national anthem. A 1996 decision by the Singapore Appeals Court upheld the rights of individual members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to profess, practice, and propagate their religious beliefs. The government does not arrest Jehovah’s Witnesses for attending or holding meetings in private homes; however, it does not allow them to hold public meetings or publish their literature, which is banned. The government banned the Unification Church in 1982 on grounds it was a “cult” that could have detrimental effects on society.

The Presidential Council for Religious Harmony reports on matters affecting the maintenance of religious harmony and considers cases referred by the minister for home affairs or by parliament. The president appoints the council’s members on the advice of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The law requires two-thirds of Council for Religious Harmony members be representatives of the major religions in the country, which according to law are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

The law authorizes the minister of home affairs to issue a restraining order against any person in a position of authority within a religious group if the minister ascertains the person causes feelings of enmity or hostility between different religious groups, promotes political causes, carries out subversive activities, or excites disaffection against the government under the guise of practicing religion. Restraining orders are discretionary, depending on the situation, and prevent a person in a position of authority within a religious group from making or participating in additional statements; failure to comply can result in criminal action. Any restraining order issued must be referred to the Council for Religious Harmony, which recommends to the president that the order be confirmed, cancelled, or amended. Restraining orders lapse after 90 days, unless confirmed by the president. The minister must review a confirmed restraining order at least once every 12 months and may revoke such an order at any time. The law prohibits judicial review of such restraining orders. In addition, under the penal code, “wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person” or knowingly promoting “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred, or ill will between different religious or racial groups” can result in detention and or imprisonment.

The constitution states Malays are “the indigenous people of Singapore” and requires the government to protect and promote their interests, including religious interests. The MUIS, established under the Ministry for Culture, Community, and Youth, administers affairs for all Muslims in the country such as the construction and management of mosques, halal certification, fatwa issuances, preparation of Friday sermons, and the Hajj. The MUIS includes representatives from Sunni as well as Muslim minority groups, including Shia. Use of MUIS sermons is not compulsory, but imams who use their own content are responsible for it and may be investigated if there are complaints.

The law requires all associations of 10 or more persons, including religious groups, to register with the government. Registration confers legal identity, which allows property ownership, the ability to hold public meetings, and the ability to conduct financial transactions. Registered religious groups may apply to establish and maintain charitable and humanitarian institutions, which enable them to solicit and receive funding and tax benefits, such as income tax exemption. Registered societies are subject to potential deregistration by the government on a variety of grounds, such as having purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or good order. Deregistration makes it impossible to maintain a legal identity as a religious group, with consequences related to owning property, conducting financial transactions, and holding public meetings. A person who acts as a member of or attends a meeting of an unregistered society may be punished with a fine of up to 5,000 Singapore dollars (SGD) ($3,700), imprisonment of up to three years, or both.

Prisoners are allowed access to chaplains of various faiths.

The government may prohibit the importation of publications, including religious publications, under the law. A person in possession of a prohibited publication can be fined up to 2,000 SGD ($1,500) and jailed for up to 12 months for a first conviction. All written materials published by the International Bible Students Association and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, publishing arms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, remain banned by the government.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) establish the guidelines on land development and use of space for religious activities. The URA regulates all land usage and decides where organizations may be located. Religious buildings are primarily classified as places of worship. A group seeking a new place of worship must apply to the URA for a permit. The Ministry of Social and Family Development and the URA determine whether a religious institution meets the requirements as a place of worship, such as being located in an allotted zone and meeting the maximum plot ratio and building height. URA guidelines regulate the use of commercially and industrially zoned space for religious activities and religious groups, and apply equally to all religious groups. Commercial or industrial premises that host religious activities but are not zoned as places of worship must be approved by the URA. They may not be owned by or leased to religious organizations and must be available to rent out for other nonreligious events. They may not display signage, advertisements, or posters of the religious use; be furnished to resemble a worship hall; or display any religious symbols, icons, or religious paraphernalia when the premises are not in use by the religious organization. Use of the space for religious purposes must not cause parking, noise, or other problems.

Registration of religious teachers and centers of learning with the MUIS, which includes minimum standards and a code of ethics, has been mandatory since January, although reports say the majority of teachers had previously registered on a voluntary basis. As of October, there are 193 registered Islamic centers of learning and more than 3,000 registered Islamic religious teachers.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools, although it is allowed in the country’s 57 government-subsidized religiously affiliated schools. Religious instruction in these schools is provided outside of regular curriculum time and must not include proselytization; students have a right to opt out and be given alternatives such as civics and moral education in lieu of religious instruction. The constitution states that no person shall be required to receive instruction or take part in any ceremony or act of worship other than his or her own. Religious instruction is allowed in private schools not aided by the government. At the primary level, the law allows seven designated private schools (six Sunni madrassahs and one Seventh-day Adventist school) to educate primary-age students, provided these schools continue to meet or exceed public school performance benchmarks in annual national exams. Other Muslim minority groups may operate part-time schools.

The law empowers the Ministry of Education to regulate schools, including prohibiting students from wearing anything not forming part of an official school uniform. The law prohibits the wearing of hijabs or headscarves in public schools. International, other private, and government-aided religious schools are not subject to the same restrictions. For example, in madrassahs, headscarves are part of the uniform. Headscarves are not banned at institutions of higher learning. All madrassahs are under the purview of the MUIS.

The law allows the Muslim community, irrespective of school of Islam or ethnicity, to have personal status issues governed by Islamic law, “as varied where applicable by Malay custom.” Ordinarily the Shafi’i school of law will be used, but there are provisions for use of “other accepted schools of Muslim law as may be appropriate.” Under the law, a sharia court has nonexclusive jurisdiction over the affairs of marriages where both parties are or were married as Muslims, including maintenance payments such as alimony and child support, disposition of property upon divorce, custody of minor children, and inheritance. According to legal experts in inheritance, a man will receive twice the share of a woman of the same relational level. The law permits a person involved in a sharia court divorce case to apply for permission to begin civil proceedings concerning division of property or custody of children. Orders of the sharia court are enforced by the ordinary civil courts. Appeals within the sharia system go to an appeal board, which is composed of three members of the MUIS, selected by the president of the MUIS from a panel of seven individuals nominated every two years by the president of the country. The ruling of the appeal board is final and may not be appealed to any other court. The law allows Muslim men to practice polygamy, but the Registry of Muslim Marriages may refuse requests to marry additional wives after soliciting the views of existing wives and reviewing the husband’s financial capability. Additionally, under the law, certain criminal offenses apply only to those who profess Islam, including cohabitation outside of marriage and publicly expounding any doctrine relating to Islam in a manner contrary to Islamic law. Muslim men and women who cohabit with a member of the opposite sex (including non-Muslims) to whom they are not married are liable to a maximum fine of 500 SGD ($370) or maximum imprisonment of six months, or both. Instead of imprisonment, a women may be sentenced to a “place of safety established under any written law” for a period not to exceed 12 months. The punishment for teaching or publicly expounding any doctrine contrary to Muslim law is a maximum fine of 2,000 SGD ($1,500), maximum imprisonment of 12 months, or both.

The law does not recognize a right to conscientious objection. Male citizens or second generation permanent residents are required to complete 24 months of uniformed national service upon reaching age 18, with no alternative provided to national service.

The Presidential Council for Minority Rights, an advisory body that is part of the legislative process, examines all legislation to ensure it does not disadvantage particular religious groups. The council also considers and reports on matters concerning any religious group that the parliament or the government refers.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official website reported as of December, 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained in the armed forces detention facility for refusing to complete national service on religious grounds. Conscientious objectors were generally court martialed and sentenced to detention, typically for 12 to 39 months. Although they remained technically liable for national service, servicemen who had refused to serve on religious grounds were generally not called up for reservist duties. They did not, however, receive any form of legal documentation that officially discharged them from reservist duties.

Government ministers and officials regularly cited religious harmony as an important policy goal. In April the government deported Imam Nalla Mohamed Abdul Jameel to India after he was convicted and fined 4,000 SGD ($3,000) for “committing acts known to be prejudicial to the maintenance of religious harmony and likely to disturb public tranquility.” The imam, who had worked in the country since 2010, was removed from speaking at the mosque after a video of him reciting an Arabic prayer from his home village in India asking for “help against Jews and Christians” surfaced on Facebook. The police initiated an investigation when a member of the public filed a complaint. In public meetings with various faith groups, including Christian and Jewish leaders and Minister of Home Affairs K. Shanmugam, Nalla apologized repeatedly, adding that he understood the charges against him were necessary to “preserve the sanctity of interfaith harmony.” In a separate case, two individuals investigated for uploading and commenting on the video were officially warned but not prosecuted for violating religious harmony laws.

The government said that all religions would be held equally responsible for maintaining religious harmony. In June the MUIS barred Singaporean “extremist” Islamic preacher Rasul Dahri from teaching in the country, and the Ministry of Information and Communications banned nine of his publications. In October the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) banned two foreign Islamic preachers, Ismail Menk (known as Mufti Menk) and Haslin bin Baharim, from entering the country on the grounds that their “exclusivist” and “divisive” preaching would damage social harmony. In November the ministry banned a third foreign Islamic preacher on the same grounds. In September the MHA declined applications to speak in Singapore for two foreign Christian preachers whom it said had previously made “denigrating and inflammatory comments” about Muslims and Buddhists. In September the National Council of Churches advised its member churches to exercise “careful discernment” before inviting preachers in order “to preserve the harmonious religious environment that currently exists.”

Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told parliament in October, “Religion can be and has been a source of strength to our society, but we must also watch for exclusivist, intolerant practices because these can deepen fault lines and weaken our entire society.” Shanmugam said the law on religious harmony is expected to be tightened in 2018 to ensure that religious groups do not sponsor foreign speakers who promote ill will. Several Christian and Muslim groups spoke against amending the legislation, on the grounds that religious groups already practiced a culture of religious sensitivity and already self-selected speakers to avoid those promoting disharmony.

Although government policy prohibited the wearing of hijabs by certain public sector professionals, such as nurses and uniformed military officers and at some schools, many statutory boards within government agencies continued to allow Muslim staff to wear the hijab while the government continued to evolve its stance “gradually and carefully.” Some in the Muslim community continued to petition for a change in government policy, as did opposition Member of Parliament Muhammad Faisal Abdul Manap in parliament in April. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong endorsed Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli’s response that such a “deeply emotive” matter should be resolved by government and community leaders working together quietly. The prime minister said on Facebook the best way to make progress on such sensitive issues “is quietly, outside the glare of publicity.”

The September presidential election was won by former parliamentary speaker Halimah Yacob, who is Muslim and wears the hijab. President Halimah’s portrait was displayed in all schools and government buildings. In 2016 the government passed legislation that resulted in the 2017 presidential election being reserved for eligible Malay, and effectively Muslim, candidates. The legislation, which generated some controversy in social media, states that the presidency should be reserved for a certain race if a person of that community has not occupied the office for five consecutive terms, effectively 30 years.

The government assisted religious groups in locating spaces for religious observance in government-built housing, where most citizens lived. The government continued to enforce the maintenance of ethnic ratios in public housing and prevent the emergence of religious enclaves in concentrated geographic areas.

As part of the Ministry of Education’s National Education Program, the official primary and secondary public school curricula encouraged religious harmony and tolerance. All schools celebrated the annual racial harmony day in July, which promoted understanding and acceptance of all religions within the country. Children wore traditional clothing and celebrated the country’s racial and religious diversity. Students were encouraged to recite the “Declaration of Religious Harmony.”

Missionaries, with the exception of members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and representatives of the Unification Church, were permitted to work and to publish and distribute religious texts. While the government did not formally prohibit proselytization, it continued to discourage its practice in speeches and through the application of laws regarding public speech and assembly as it deemed proselytizing might offend other religious groups and upset the balance of intergroup relations.

Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said in parliament in October that as fears over terrorism increased, local Muslims found it “unpleasant” being “under constant scrutiny” and that “for the Malay-Muslim community, this sense of being misunderstood is deeply felt.”

Associate Professor of Sociology Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir published an op-ed in March in which he said Islam was the most regulated religion in the country and described a “culture of fear” among Muslim clerics, whom he said sensed the Muslim community’s anger at the “disciplining of Islam” but who felt limited in their response because they feared overstepping the boundaries of state-endorsed Islam.

The government launched the “BRIDGE” initiative in March, which aimed to foster understanding of different religious practices and beliefs and to encourage discussions, as well as to support interfaith initiatives through the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY)’s Harmony Fund. For example, one such discussion was on how “religion is hijacked by extremists” and how teenagers self-radicalize.

Minister of State and chair of NGO, Janil Puthucheary, hosted a television documentary called Regardless of Religionwhich explored religious differences and prejudices. Puthucheary attended interfaith dialogues and religious events, including those held by minority religious groups such as the Jaafari Muslim Association, a Shia Muslim organization that opened a new religious center in August in Geylang.

The government appointed all members of the MUIS and the Hindu Endowments Board, and nominated four of the 11 members of the Sikh Advisory Board. These statutory boards managed various aspects of their faith communities, ranging from managing properties and endowments to safeguarding customs and the general welfare of the community.

The MUIS continued to operate the Harmony Center, which was set up to promote greater religious understanding. The Harmony Center housed artifacts and information about Islam, as well as nine other major religions in Singapore. It also organized interfaith programs, including dialogues with leaders from other religions. Additionally, the Ministry of Home Affairs, encouraged by the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), encompassing the leaders of the 10 largest religious groups in the country, opened organized daily tours of the interactive Harmony in Diversity Gallery.

The government continued to support the operation of an “interracial and religious confidence circle” (IRCC) in each of the country’s 27 electoral constituencies. The IRCCs gave religious group leaders a forum for promoting religious harmony at the municipal level. Under the auspices of the MCCY, the IRCCs conducted local interreligious dialogues, counseling and trust-building workshops, community celebrations, and similar activities. Throughout the year, interfaith dialogues were held in different communities around the island.

The government continued to engage religious groups through the community engagement program (CEP), created to foster social cohesion and minimize ethnic or religious discord in the event of a terrorist attack or other civil emergency. The government trained community leaders involved in the CEP in emergency preparedness and techniques for promoting religious harmony. Throughout the year, the CEP continued to conduct outreach activities to strengthen intercommunal and interreligious bonds.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Journalist Elgin Toh and other journalists wrote articles throughout the year encouraging their readers not to view Muslims with suspicion and telling Muslims they should not feel responsible for the actions of radicalized Muslims.

According to an August op-ed in the Singapore Straits Times, a public Facebook group, Melayu Singapura Tolak Syiah (Singapore Malays Reject Shia) with 1,814 members, often demonizes Shia. Comments on YouTube and other social media referred to Shia as “deviant”, “apostates,” and by other negative terms.

In June vandals wrote the word “terrorist” on a cartoon image of a Muslim woman who wore a hijab on a temporary board fence surrounding a construction site. Numerous individuals subsequently posted comments online to support the Muslim community, and the Free Community Church hosted an iftar in addition to a talk on Islam by Muslim scholar Mohamed Imran Taib.

Shia and Sunni Muslims continued to cooperate and to share Sunni mosques, and held intrafaith iftars during Ramadan. The Sunni Ba’alwie Mosque hosted an iftar with Shia guests, and a Shia youth group hosted an interfaith iftar for 100 guests. Some Shia and Sunni Muslims stated that trust in the minority Shia community of approximately 5,000 persons (1 percent of the Muslim community) by the majority Sunnis declined as the influence of anti-Shia discourse in neighboring Malaysia increased. Shia continue to work with Muslim authorities to secure permission to open a second Shia mosque.

In April the Muslim community, with encouragement from the government, opened use of some facilities of its new Yusof Ishak Mosque to persons of all faiths. Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob and mosque chairman Ayub Johari said that the mosque would help spread an ethos of religious plurality.

In October a Hindu sanctum was consecrated at the multireligious Loyong Tua Pek Kong Temple, which also houses Hindu, Taoist and Buddhist deities, as well as a Muslim shrine. The deputy prime minister said the event was a good example of multireligious harmony.

The Buddhist Singapore Soka Association invited dignitaries from other religions to its Lotus Sutra Exhibition in October, during which it hosted a number of interfaith lectures, one of which was given by MUIS president Mohammad Alami Musa.

The IRO, which includes leaders of the 10 major religions in the country, has the stated objective of inculcating a spirit of friendship among the leaders and followers of various religious groups and promote mutual respect, assistance, and protection by conducting interreligious prayer services, seminars, and public talks throughout the year. The major religious groups have taken turns organizing the annual Harmony Games, an MCCY-supported sports event for youth of all faiths; the Muslim community organized the games during the year.

A number of people-to-people initiatives promoted religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. These included a meeting organized by community group Explorations into Faith in April to discuss building inclusive interfaith public spaces; an ongoing dialogue entitled, “Religion and Atheism: A Conversation” in which atheists, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims discussed race and religion; and dinners during which groups of strangers discussed sensitive religious issues.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy’s June iftar was attended by then-Speaker of Parliament (and now President) Halimah Yacob, senior representatives from Malay Muslim organizations, representatives from many ethnic and religious groups, media representatives and government officials. The speech by the Charge d’Affaires advocated for religious tolerance and respect.

U.S. embassy representatives interacted with a variety of religious groups, including the IRO, the MUIS, and representatives from Sunni, Shia, and Christian groups, to reinforce the importance of religious freedom. The embassy utilized social media to highlight the Charge d’Affaires’ religious outreach and demonstrate appreciation of and respect for the country’s religious diversity.

The embassy supported a four-day Southeast Asian interfaith youth forum in April in collaboration with Critical Xchange, a local Muslim NGO. The forum brought together 10 young leaders for workshops, with a focus on collaborating to develop ideas for new interfaith initiatives that would tackle religious discrimination in their home communities. The interfaith forum was highlighted on the embassy’s Facebook page, and featured in Berita Harian, a local Malay language newspaper.


Executive Summary

Based on a draft approved in a 2016 national referendum, the new constitution endorsed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn in April specifically prohibits discrimination based on religious belief and protects religious liberty. Insurgent violence continued in the Malay Muslim-majority Deep South, where there has been a longstanding separatist conflict, in which religious and ethnic identity are closely linked. There were no reports that monks were attacked or killed by Malay Muslim insurgents during the year. In October the government dropped all charges against three Amnesty International activists charged with criminal defamation and computer crimes for a 2016 report, which the government denied, that the military tortured and mistreated Malay Muslim insurgents under the continued use of the government’s emergency decree and martial law provisions. In January the ruling military government (NCPO) approved a plan to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation among peoples of different religious faiths. Areas covered included education, disseminating religious principles, promoting religion, preventing the subversion of religion, building understanding and cooperation among religious groups, and improving the awareness of and sensitivity to religious norms and traditions.

During the year some Buddhist monks defined themselves as part of the Buddhist nationalist movement and used social media to call for violence against Muslims. They also criticized what they said was the state’s accommodation of Islam. There were no reports of calls by Muslims advocating violence targeting Buddhists.

Embassy and consulate general officials discussed equal rights for religious minorities, continuing religious conflicts in the region, strategies to prevent similar interreligious fractures from emerging elsewhere in the country, and Buddhist-Muslim relations with government officials from the Ministry of Culture’s Religious Affairs Department and the National Buddhism Bureau. The embassy also led a discussion with 100 monks on religious diversity and tolerance prior to their traveling to the United States to serve in Buddhist temples. The embassy hosted two roundtable discussions on religious freedom for government representatives, academics, and religious leaders representing officially recognized religious groups. Roundtables discussed the role of the government, religious organizations, and the community in promoting interfaith dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 68.4 million (July 2017 estimate). The 2010 population census indicated 93 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and 5 percent Muslim. NGOs, academics, and religious groups state that 85 to 95 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and 5 to 10 percent Muslim. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include animists, Christians, Confucians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, and Taoists.

Most Buddhists incorporate Hindu and animist practices into their worship. The Buddhist clergy (sangha) consists of two main schools of Theravada Buddhism: Mahanikaya and Dhammayuttika. The former is older and more prevalent within the monastic community.

Islam is the dominant religion in four of the five southernmost provinces (Narathiwat, Yala, Satun, and Pattani) near the Malaysian border, commonly referred to as the Deep South. The majority of Muslims in those provinces are ethnic Malay, but the Muslim population nationwide also includes descendants of immigrants from South Asia, China, Cambodia, and Indonesia, as well as ethnic Thai. Statistics provided by the Religious Affairs Department (RAD) of the Ministry of Culture indicate that almost all Muslims (99 percent) are Sunni.

The majority of ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese practice either Mahayana or Theravada Buddhism. Many ethnic Chinese, as well as members of the Mien hill tribe, also practice forms of Taoism.

The majority of Christians are ethnic Chinese, and more than half of the Christian community is Roman Catholic.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

A new constitution drafted by the NCPO and approved by popular referendum came into force on April 6 upon endorsement by the king. It carries over provisions from the 2007 constitution on religious freedom and states that all persons are equal before the law regardless of religious belief and allows all persons to profess, observe, or practice any religion of their choice. It also carries a new provision that these freedoms shall not “be harmful to the security of the State.” The new constitution empowers the state to patronize and protect Buddhism as well as other religions, but a new provision adds a mandate for the special promotion of Theravada Buddhism through education, propagation of its principles, and the establishment of measures and mechanisms “to prevent the desecration of Buddhism in any form.”

The NCPO issued a special order in August 2016 guaranteeing the state’s promotion and protection of “all recognized religions” in the country but mandating all state agencies monitor the “right teaching” of all religions to ensure they are not “distorted to upset social harmony.” A law specifically prohibits the defamation or insult of Buddhism and Buddhist clergy. Violators can face up to one year’s imprisonment, fines of up to 20,000 baht ($610), or both. The penal code prohibits the insult or disturbance of religious places or services of all officially recognized religious groups. Penalties range from imprisonment for one to seven years, a fine of 2,000 to 14,000 baht ($61 to $430), or both.

The law officially recognizes five religious groups: Buddhists, Muslims, Brahmin-Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. As a matter of policy, the government will not recognize any new religious groups outside the five umbrella groups. While there is no official state religion, the constitution continues to require the king to be Buddhist and says he is the “upholder of religions.”

Religious groups associated with one of the five officially recognized religions may register to receive state benefits such as tax exemption, visa status, or government subsidies. Registration as a religious group is not mandatory and religious groups may still operate without government interference whether or not they are officially registered or recognized. Under the law, the RAD is responsible for registering religious groups, excluding Buddhist groups, which the National Buddhism Bureau, an independent state agency under direct supervision of the prime minister, oversees.

The RAD may register a new religious denomination within one of the five recognized religious groups only if it meets the following qualifications: the national census indicates the group has at least 5,000 adherents, it possesses a uniquely recognizable theology, is not politically active, and it obtains formal approval in a RAD-organized meeting of representatives from the concerned ministries and the five recognized umbrella religions. To register with the RAD, a religious group’s leader also must submit documentation on its objectives and procedures, any relationship to a foreign country, a list of executive members and senior officials, and locations of administrative, religious, and teaching sites. Registration is voluntary, but once approved, the RAD issues a certificate of registration and the group is then eligible for benefits that include access to state subsidies, exemption from property and income taxes, and preferential allocation of resident visas for the registered organization’s officials.

The constitution continues to prohibit Buddhist priests, novices, monks, and other clergy from voting in an election or running for seats in the House of Representatives or Senate. According to the National Buddhism Bureau, as of September there are more than 40,000 Buddhist temples in the country with approximately 360,000 clergy who are thus ineligible to vote or run for office. Christian clergy are prohibited from voting in elections if they are in formal religious dress. Except for the chularajmontri (grand mufti) himself, imams are not regarded as priests or clergy and are thus allowed to vote in elections and assume political positions.

The law requires religious education for all students at both the primary and secondary levels; students may not opt out. The curriculum must contain information about all of the five recognized umbrella religious groups in the country. Students who wish to pursue in-depth studies of a particular religion may study at private religious schools and can transfer credits to public schools. Individual schools, working in conjunction with their local administrative boards, are authorized to arrange additional religious studies courses. There are two private Christian universities open to the public with religious curricula. There are 10 Catholic grade schools whose curriculum and registration the Ministry of Education oversees. The Sangha Supreme Council serves as Thai Buddhism’s governing clerical body. The Sangha Supreme Council and the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand create respectively special curricula for Buddhist and Islamic studies required in public schools.

The Central Islamic Council of Thailand, whose members are Muslims appointed by royal proclamation, advises the Ministries of Education and Interior on Islamic issues. The government provides funding for Islamic educational institutions, the construction of mosques, and participation in the Hajj. There are several hundred primary and secondary Islamic schools throughout the country. There are four options for students to obtain Islamic education in the Deep South: government-subsidized schools offering Islamic education with the national curriculum; private Islamic schools that may offer non-Quranic subjects such as foreign languages (Arabic and English) but whose curriculum may not be approved by the government; traditional pondoks, or private Islamic day schools, offering Islamic education according to their own curriculum to students of all ages; and tadika, an after-school religious course for children in grades one through six, often held in a mosque.

The Ministry of Justice allows the practice of sharia as a special legal process, outside of the national civil code, for Muslim residents of the Deep South for family law, including inheritance. Provincial courts apply this law and a sharia expert advises the judge. The law officially lays out the administrative structure of Muslim communities in the Deep South including the process of appointing the chularajmontri, whom the king appoints as the state advisor on Islamic affairs.

The RAD sets a quota for the number of foreign missionaries permitted to register and operate in the country: 1,357 Christian, six Muslim, 20 Hindu, and 41 Sikh. Registration confers some benefits, such as longer visa validity.

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

Government Practices

Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of violence due to the Malay Muslim insurgency as being solely based on religious identity.

According to Deep South Watch, insurgent-related violence during the year resulted in at least 263 deaths – among them 187 Muslims, 64 Buddhists, and 12 unidentified. Deep South Watch also reported 374 persons injured, including 195 Muslims, 178 Buddhists, and one unidentified. In 2016 there were reports of 307 killed and 628 injured; most of those killed were civilians. There were no reports any of those killed or injured were targeted due to their religion. The insurgents often considered teachers, along with their military escorts, as affiliated with the state and hence legitimate targets. According to the Ministry of Education, there were no deaths of students, teachers, or other education personnel during the year, but according to Deep South Watch, insurgents killed two teachers and one student. According to Deep South Watch, no monks or imams were killed during the year, unlike in 2016.

According to news reports, on June 21, insurgents shot and killed an Islamic teacher, Ahwae Tohsatu, as he left prayers with his family. Tohsatu was an adviser to the Internal Security Operations Command and known for his campaign to convince Muslim insurgents to lay down their arms.

There were reports authorities continued to use the emergency decree and martial law provisions in effect in the Deep South since 2005 and 2004, respectively, that gave military, police, and civilian authorities significant powers to restrict certain basic rights, including pretrial detention and searches without warrant. Authorities delegated certain internal security powers to the armed forces, often resulting in accusations of unfair treatment. Human rights groups continued to denounce insurgent attacks on civilians. The Young Muslim Association of Thailand (YMAT), the Fasai Youth Center, the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies of Mahidol University, the Look Rieng Group, the Peaceful Southern Boundary Organization, and the Buddhist Network for Peace issued statements denouncing the shooting attack on a school bus that took place in Rueso District of Narathiwat on March 2.

In September military personnel arrested a Buddhist monk, Apichat Punnajanatho, in the Deep South city of Songkhla with the stated purpose of preventing the monk’s violent, anti-Islamic, hate speech. According to news reports, soldiers flew him to Bangkok’s Wat Benchamabophit, where he was disrobed and expelled from the monkhood upon orders from the Supreme Sangha Council. Subsequently he was turned over to police for violating the law on computer crimes and for inciting public disorder, but police did not file any charges, and he was later released. The monk had attracted public attention for his anti-Muslim Facebook and other online posts, and in 2015 he had called for the burning down of mosques in response to Buddhist deaths in the Deep South.

In October the government withdrew criminal defamation and computer crime charges against three Amnesty International activists who worked on a 2016 report that stated the military tortured and mistreated at least 24 insurgents detained in the Deep South between 2013 and 2015. The government denied the claims.

According to human rights groups, a majority of the country’s relatively small urban refugee and asylum seeker population were fleeing religious persecution elsewhere. Many of them, both those registered by the United Nations and others who were not, faced prolonged detention in crowded immigration detention centers, some for years. Since the country is not a party to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, even UN-designees may be considered to be in the country illegally. As a result, authorities reportedly arrested and detained some UN-designated refugees, some of whom claimed they faced religious persecution in their home countries. Those without asylum-seeking status faced eventual deportation.

Activists expressed fear the government was assisting with requests to extradite Chinese dissidents associated with religious groups banned in China, but there were no reports of any members of the banned religious group in China being forcibly deported to China during the reporting period. Members of a Falun Gong performance group stated the government canceled their January performance at the behest of the Chinese government. In 2015 a Supreme Administrative Court ruling allowed the Falun Gong to register as an NGO. Unlike in previous years, there were no reports of Falun Gong members seeking asylum being arrested on immigration charges during the year.

The National Buddhism Office issued an order in September for police to investigate temples where state funds were allegedly misappropriated. The police charged five abbots for abusing state authority and collusion, among other charges, amid a broader investigation of 35 temples and 29 individuals.

In February the NCPO issued an order authorizing police and military personnel to restrict exit from and entry to Dhammakaya temple while authorities searched the temple in an attempt to arrest Abbot Chaiyaboon Dhammajayo for his alleged role in the laundering of millions of dollars as part of the Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative embezzlement scandal. The government reportedly already sentenced the bank’s former chairman and Dhammakaya temple treasurer to prison and charged another prominent businessman in June. Temple followers and monks protested the raid. The NCPO lifted the entrance/exit restriction order in April. The investigation into Dhammajayo again drew small protests in the United States, Europe, Hong Kong, and Australia and Dhammajayo’s followers said the abbot was targeted because the popularity of his temple threatened the country’s political and religious elite. Dhammakaya supporters also said the charges and investigation were politically motivated because of reports that the movement had links to a former deposed prime minister.

Since 1984 the government has not recognized any new religious groups. Despite the lack of formal legal recognition or registration, civil society groups continued to report unregistered religious groups operated freely, and the government’s practice of not recognizing or registering new religious groups did not restrict their activities.

A group of female Buddhist monks petitioned the National Human Rights Commission in February to amend the law to recognize officially female monks. The Sangha Supreme Council continued to prohibit women from becoming monks, however; women wishing to join the monkhood usually travelled to Sri Lanka to be ordained. Of the 360,000 Buddhist clergy in the country, only 280 were women. Since a gender equality law exempts cases involving “compliance with religious principles,” female monks (bhikkhunis) were excluded from gender equality protection by the government. Officials had neither formally opposed nor supported female ordination. Officials allowed bhikkhunis to practice and establish monasteries and temples. Without official recognition, however, monasteries led by women continued to be ineligible for any of the government benefits received by other sanctioned Buddhist temples, primarily tax exemptions, free medical care, and subsidies for building construction and running social welfare programs. Unlike male monks (bhikkhus), bhikkhunis received no special government protection from public attacks that sometimes involved male monks opposing the ordination of female monks.

The first Thai bhikkhuni ordained in Sri Lanka, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, Abbess of the Songdhammakalyani Monastery, continued to lead a movement advocating for recognizing bhikkhunis and allowing their ordination within the country. Her movement continued to encounter resistance. The abbess stated the Religious Affairs Department, the Ministry of Culture, and the Royal Household Bureau twice prevented female monks from entering the Grand Palace to pay their respects to the Late King Bhumibol at the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017. The abbess filed a case alleging the Secretary of the Committee Screening Buddhist Monks and Novices violated gender equality. After negotiations, the government permitted female monks to enter the palace to pay their respects in February.

The Sangha Supreme Council issued an order in October prohibiting monks from using social media to criticize the kingdom, Buddhism, or the monarchy, or otherwise behaving in a manner inappropriate to their religious status. The order reportedly included steps to make finances more transparent such as telling monks to stop asking for donations.

The only government-certified Islamic university in the Deep South, Fatoni University, continued to teach special curricula for Muslim students, including instruction in Thai, English, Arabic, and Bahasa Malayu, a mandatory peace studies course, and the integration of religious principles into most course offerings. As of September 30, approximately 4,000 students and 470 academic personnel were affiliated with the school.

According to the Association of Private Islamic Schools of Thailand, no Islamic schools were closed by the government during the year, a change from 2016. According to the association and faculty at a prominent university in the Deep South, scrutiny of Muslim professors and clerics declined substantially; however, the military continued to scrutinize Muslim teachers at private schools.

The government allocated approximately 404 million baht ($12.4 million) for the fiscal year (October 1-September 30) to the RAD as an agency under the Ministry of Culture. Approximately 325 million baht ($10 million) of that allocation went to strategic planning for religious, art, and cultural development. The budget included grants of approximately 18 million baht ($552,000) for the maintenance and restoration of non-Buddhist religious sites of the five officially recognized religious groups; 240,000 baht ($7,400) for the Chularajmontri’s annual per diem; and 2.2 million baht ($67,500) to educate Thai pilgrims traveling for the Hajj on proceedings at the grand mosques and logistics for long-distance air travel. The Hajj Pilgrim Fund was transferred from the RAD to the Ministry of Interior, and the fund’s fiscal year 2018 budget was expected to be 48 million baht ($1.47 million).

The National Buddhism Bureau, funded separately from the RAD, received 5 billion baht ($153.4 million) in government funding. Half of that budget, 2.5 billion baht ($76.7 million), went to empowerment and human capital development projects. 1.6 billion baht ($49.1 million) was allocated for personnel administration, 682 million baht ($20.9 million) for education projects, including scripture and bookkeeping instruction for monks and novices, and 255 million baht ($7.8 million) for Deep South conflict resolution and development projects.

The government continued to recognize 39 elected Provincial Islamic Committees nationwide. Their responsibilities included providing advice to provincial governors on Islamic issues; deciding on the establishment, relocation, merger, and dissolution of mosques; appointing persons to serve as imams; and issuing announcements and approvals of Islamic religious activities. Committee members in the Deep South continued to report acting as advisers to government officials in dealing with the area’s ethnonationalist and religious tensions.

Religious groups proselytized without reported interference. Thai Buddhist monks working as missionaries were active, particularly in border areas among the country’s tribal populations, and received some public funding. According to the National Buddhism Bureau, there were 6,300 Buddhist missionaries working nationwide. Buddhist missionaries needed to pass training and educational programs at Maha Makut Buddhist University and Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University before receiving appointments as missionaries by the Sangha Supreme Council. Per government regulations, no foreign monks were permitted to serve as Buddhist missionaries within the country.

There were 11 registered foreign missionary groups operating in the country during the year: six Christian, one Muslim, two Hindu, and two Sikh groups. There were 1,357 registered foreign Christian missionary organizations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), which is not an officially recognized Christian group, has obtained a special quota for 200 missionaries through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Security Council. Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus had smaller numbers of missionaries in the country. Although registration provided some benefits, such as visas with longer validity, religious groups reported that being unregistered was not a significant barrier to foreign missionary activity, and many unregistered missionaries worked in the country without government interference. Many foreign missionaries entered the country using tourist visas and proselytized without the RAD’s authorization. Non-Buddhist missionaries did not receive public funds or state subsidies.

According to online newspaper Prachatai, the NGO Cross Cultural Foundation reported that in July six men who said they were from the Internal Security Operation Command ordered Anchana Heemmina, the Muslim president of Duay Jai, a local human rights advocacy group in the Deep South, to stop posting on Facebook information on human rights violations concerning jailed insurgency suspects.

In December, according to Prachatai, six police officers interrogated four Malay Muslims and illegally collected detailed personal information about the individuals, including fingerprints, in Nakhon Si Thammarat. One of those detained said police arrived in a pickup truck without a license plate and told him they were from the provincial “Special Crimes Suppression Division” and were “searching for Muslim Malays from Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat.”

On January 31, the NCPO approved a plan by the Sangha Supreme Council, National Buddhism Bureau, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior, National Security Council, and Southern Border Provinces Administration Center to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation among peoples of different religious faiths in key areas. Areas covered included education, disseminating religious principles, promoting religion, preventing the subversion of religion, building understanding and cooperation among religious groups, and improving the awareness of and sensitivity to religious norms and traditions. There was no action on the plan during the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Ethnic Malay insurgents continued to attack Buddhists and Muslims in the Deep South. There were no reports of Muslims advocating violence against Buddhists. According to Crisis Group, in keeping with the nationalistic nature of the Deep South conflict, the Malay Muslim insurgency was against the “Siamese colonizers” of the Deep South region. Some Buddhist monks regarded as part of the Buddhist “nationalist” movement used social media to call for violence against Muslims. The government tried to stop the violence by arresting Buddhist monk Apichat Punnajanatho and removing inflammatory content posted on Facebook and other social media platforms. Academics and human rights activists in the Deep South said extremism, fueled by anti-Muslim sentiment, continued to increase within the Buddhist community and, according to religious studies experts, was seldom reported. Both Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders, however, stated the majority of the Buddhist community continued to advocate for interfaith dialogue and cultural understanding between their communities.

According to media reports, there were reports some Buddhist residents in Khon Kaen and Sakhon Nakhon provinces protested the construction of mosques, citing fear of terrorism and a threat to the Buddhist character of the country. Some Buddhist monks posted on social media their opposition to what they considered the state’s accommodation of Islam. A Buddhist group in the Deep South petitioned the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center for, among other requests, Buddhist temples to receive the same subsidies as mosques.

According to human rights and civil society groups, more than a decade of continuing violence has decreased interaction between the Muslim and Buddhist communities.

In December academics, NGOs, journalists, and government officials held a seminar on societal roles regarding the peace-building process in the Deep South. NGO representatives said there was tension between Buddhist and Muslim students at most schools. An NGO representative said they no longer have access to interrogation centers. A major general said families had access to such centers, and NGO access was on a case-by-case basis. He also said insurgents were no longer focusing on attacking “soft targets” like teachers and monks.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy and consulate general officials discussed religious freedom with senior government officials from the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Religious Affairs and with the National Buddhism Bureau. They discussed continuing religious conflicts in the region and ways to prevent similar interreligious fractures from emerging elsewhere in the country.

The Ambassador met with Somdet Phra Maha Muneewong, the new Supreme Patriarch and President of the Sangha Supreme Council chosen by King Maha Vajiralongkorn at the beginning of the year. The Ambassador met separately with the chularajmontri to discuss Buddhist-Muslim relations and the role of the international community in helping to reduce religious conflict.

Embassy and consulate officials regularly met Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders, academics, and elected officials as part of the embassy’s effort to promote tolerance and reconciliation and to discuss complex religious issues in society, including ethnic identity and politics. In January and November, a high-level embassy official held a roundtable discussion on religious freedom with a dozen leaders representing the five officially recognized religious groups to gain a greater understanding of the groups’ treatment under the law and government, religious leader, and community efforts to promote interfaith dialogue. Another embassy official participated in a discussion on American respect for religious tolerance and diversity with 100 monks prior to their traveling to the United States to serve in Buddhist temples. The embassy sponsored two centers in Pattani and Yala Provinces in the Deep South, which served as platforms for peace building and conflict mitigation projects targeting Buddhist and Muslim youth. Embassy representatives organized a youth camp that included a discussion of interfaith issues, as well as presentations on Muslims in the United States and on Muslims living in a multicultural society.

The embassy also continued two initiatives in Yala and Pattani provinces to improve the capacity of local civil society to aid the process of peacebuilding. The first initiative focused on building trust between Muslims and Buddhists in six communities through youth leadership and community activities. The second focused on using person-to-person engagement to bridge conflict, including a discussion on living in an interfaith community led by an alumnus of a U.S. exchange program.

The embassy and the consulate general in Chiang Mai regularly engaged with religious minority groups through events such as iftars and interfaith dialogues to promote respect for individual rights to worship and the importance of religious pluralism – using Facebook to amplify the importance of these and other meetings and programs advancing religious freedom and tolerance.


Executive Summary

The constitution states that all people have freedom of belief and religion. Current law, however, provides for significant government control over religious practices and includes vague provisions that permit restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity. The 2016 Law on Belief and Religion, scheduled to come into effect in January 2018, maintains these restrictions. The new law maintains a multistage registration and recognition process for religious groups; however, it shortens the time for recognition at the national or provincial level from 23 to five years. It also specifies the right of recognized religious organizations to have legal personality. There were two reports of deaths of members of religious groups in police custody; authorities said the deaths were suicides, but families said involved police use of force. Members of recognized groups or those with certificates of registration were reportedly able to practice their beliefs with less interference, although some recognized groups reported more difficulty gathering together. Religious leaders, particularly those representing groups without recognition or certificates of registration, reported various forms of government harassment, including physical assaults, arrests, prosecutions, monitoring, travel restrictions, property seizure or destruction, and denials of registration and/or other permissions. There were reports of severe harassment in the Central and Northwest Highlands and for Catholics in the north-central region of the country, especially in Nghe An and Ha Tinh Provinces. Religious followers reported local or provincial authorities committed the majority of harassment incidents. Members of religious groups said some local and provincial authorities used the local and national regulatory systems to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close government management of their leadership structures, training programs, assemblies, and other activities.

In September a group of armed individuals reportedly disrupted a Mass at a Catholic church in Dong Nai Province. On several occasions throughout the year, several hundred members of reportedly progovernment groups demonstrated against Catholics in Nghe An Province.

During his visit to the country in January, the outgoing Secretary of State raised religious freedom in meetings with senior government officials. The Ambassador and embassy and consulate general officials urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the independent United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups. They sought greater freedom for recognized religious groups, and urged an end to restrictions on and harassment of groups without recognition or registration. The Ambassador and Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City advocated for religious freedom in visits across the country, including to the Central Highlands. The Ambassador and officials met regularly and maintained recurring contact with religious leaders across the country. The outgoing Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Vietnam in January. The Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor visited in May to participate in the annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue. During their respective visits, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the Acting Assistant Secretary advocated for improvements to freedom of religion in law and practice, and met with a range of recognized and unrecognized religious groups. Embassy and senior U.S. officials submitted to government leaders recommendations on language for the associated implementing decrees for the Law on Belief and Religion during the drafting process aimed at bringing the text more in line with the country’s constitution and international commitments to protect religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 96.2 million (July 2017 estimate). According to statistics released by the Government Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), 26.4 percent of the population is categorized as religious believers, which does not include persons professing some kind of religious or spiritual beliefs, estimated to be 95 percent of the population according to previous CRA estimates. Of the population, 14.91 percent is Buddhist, 7.35 percent Roman Catholic, 1.09 percent Protestant, 1.16 percent Cao Dai, and 1.47 percent Hoa Hao Buddhist. Based on previous statistics, within the Buddhist community, Mahayana Buddhism is the dominant affiliation of the Kinh (Viet) ethnic majority, while approximately 1.2 percent of the population, almost all from the ethnic minority Khmer group, practices Theravada Buddhism. Smaller religious groups that combined constitute less than 0.16 percent of the population include a devotional form of Hinduism, mostly practiced by an estimated 70,000 ethnic Cham in the south-central coastal area; approximately 80,000 Muslims scattered throughout the country (approximately 40 percent are Sunnis; the remaining 60 percent practice Bani Islam); an estimated 3,000 members of the Bahai Faith; and approximately 1,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Religious groups originating within the country (Buu Son Ky Huong, Tu An Hieu Nghia, Minh Su Dao, Minh Ly Dao, Tinh Do Cu Si Phat Hoi, Phat Giao Hieu Nghia Ta Lon) comprise a total of 0.34 percent. A small, mostly foreign, Jewish population resides in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Other citizens say they have no religious affiliation, or practice animism or the veneration of ancestors, tutelary and protective saints, national heroes, or local, respected persons. Many individuals blend traditional practices with religious teachings, particularly Buddhism and Christianity.

According to the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project, in 2015, 45.3 percent of the population was affiliated with “folk religion,” 16.4 percent with Buddhism, and 8.2 percent with Christianity, while 29.6 percent were unaffiliated.

Ethnic minorities constitute approximately 14 percent of the population. Based on adherents’ estimates, two-thirds of Protestants are members of ethnic minorities, including groups in the Northwest Highlands (H’mong, Dzao, Thai, and others) and in the Central Highlands (Ede, Jarai, Sedang, and M’nong, among others, including groups referred to as Montagnards or Degar). The Khmer Krom ethnic group overwhelmingly practices Theravada Buddhism.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that all individuals have the right to freedom of belief and religion, including the freedom to follow no religion. The constitution acknowledges the right to freedom of religion or belief of those whose rights are limited, including inmates or any foreigners and stateless persons. The constitution states all religions are equal before the law and the state must respect and protect freedom of belief and religion. The constitution prohibits citizens from violating the freedom of belief and religion or taking advantage of a belief or religion in order to violate the law.

The 2004 Ordinance on Religion and Belief and implementation Decree 92, issued in 2012, serve as the primary documents governing religious practice. These will be replaced by the Law on Belief and Religion and implementing Decree 162, which will come into effect January 1, 2018. At year’s end a decree prescribing penalties for noncompliance with the new law was being finalized. Both the old and new laws reiterate citizens’ rights to freedom of belief and religion while also stipulating that individuals may not use the right of belief and religious freedom to undermine peace, national independence, and unification; incite violence or propagate wars; proselytize in contravention of the state’s laws and policies; divide people, nationalities, or religions; cause public disorder, infringe upon the life, health, dignity, honor and/or property of others, or impede the exercise of civic rights and performance of civic obligations; or conduct superstitious activities or otherwise violate the law.

The government recognizes 38 religious organizations and one dharma practice (a set of spiritual practices) affiliated with 15 distinct religious traditions as defined by the government. The 15 religious traditions are: Buddhism, Islam, Bahai, Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, Hoa Hao Buddhism, Cao Dai, Buu Son Ky Huong, Tinh Do Cu Si Phat Hoi, Tu An Hieu Nghia, Phat Duong Nam Tong Minh Su Dao, Minh Ly Dao Tam Tong Mieu, Khmer Brahmanism, and Hieu Nghia Ta Lon Buddhism. Distinct denominations within these religious traditions must seek their own registration and/or recognition. Two additional groups, the Assemblies of God and Ta Lon Dutiful and Loyal Buddhism, have “registration for religious operation” but are not recognized.

Current regulations and the new law provide for government control over religious practices and permit restrictions on religious freedom in the interest of “national security” and “social unity.”

The new law reduces the waiting period for a religious group, and its affiliate group or groups, to obtain recognition from 23 years to five years, reduces the number of religion-related procedures requiring advance approval from authorities, aims to clarify the process by which religious organizations can obtain registration for their activities and recognition, and for the first time specifies the right of legal status for recognized religious groups and their affiliates. The law also specifies that religious groups be allowed to conduct educational, health, social protection, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with the relevant laws, but does not specify which law controls in instances in which the law may contradict other laws, or where other laws do not have clear provisions, such as the Law on Education.

The CRA is responsible for implementing religious laws and decrees. The CRA maintains offices at the central, provincial, and in some areas, district level. Current regulations and the new law lay out specific responsibilities for central-, province-, and local-level CRA offices, and delegate certain religion-related management tasks to provincial- and local-level people’s committees (i.e. local leaders). The central-level CRA is charged with disseminating information to authorities and assuring uniform compliance with the legal framework on religion at the provincial, district, commune, and village levels.

Current regulations in force during the year and the new law state forcing others to follow, or renounce, a religion or belief is prohibited.

Current regulations prescribe a multistage process to obtain registration and recognition. A religious organization must first apply for and obtain a “registration of religious practice” from the commune-level government by providing a dossier of information, including on its structure, leadership, membership, and activities. A registration of religious practice allows a group of individuals to gather at a specified location to “practice worship rituals, pray, or express their religious faith.” After operating lawfully for 20 years under a registration of religious practice, a religious organization is permitted to apply for a “registration for religious operation” with the provincial or national-level CRA, depending on the geographic extent of the group’s activities. A registration for religious operation allows the group to conduct religious ceremonies, services, and preaching at the registered venue; hold congresses to adopt its charter and statutes; elect or designate its leaders and organize training courses on religious tenets; repair and renovate its facilities; and conduct missionary, charity, and humanitarian activities. Three years after obtaining a registration for religious operation, a religious organization becomes eligible to apply for legal recognition after electing its leaders through a national convention. The application for recognition must include information about the organization’s leadership, number of believers, history of operations, tenets and canons, and bylaws. Under current regulations, applications for recognition must be approved by the prime minister (for religious organizations operating in more than one province) or the chairman of the provincial people’s committee (for religious organizations operating within one province).

At every stage of the registration and recognition application process, current regulations specify time limits for an official response, which may be up to 45 days, depending on the scope of the request. Although current regulations require government authorities to explain formally any denial in writing, the denial may be for any reason, given the significant discretion the law gives to those authorities.

The new law also prescribes a multistage process for a religious organization to receive recognition. Under the new law, first, an unrecognized religious organization must obtain a certificate of registration for religious activities from the provincial-level CRA (if the organization will operate only within one province) or national-level CRA (if the organization will operate in multiple provinces). To obtain such registration, the organization must submit a detailed application package with information about its doctrine, history, bylaws, leaders, and members and proof it has a legal meeting location. The relevant provincial CRA office or the Ministry of Home Affairs, depending on whether the group in question is operating in one or more provinces, is responsible for approving a valid application for registration within 60 days of receipt. The relevant provincial CRA office or the Ministry of Home Affairs is required to provide any rejection in writing.

Under the new law, religious organizations with a certificate of registration (“registered religious organizations”) are allowed to preach, organize religious ceremonies, and conduct religious classes at approved locations; organize conferences to approve its charter and bylaws; elect or appoint leaders; repair or renovate religious facilities; and conduct charitable or humanitarian activities. Under the new law, however, a wide variety of these religious activities continues to require advance approval or registration from government authorities. The new law states that all such activities must also comply with other laws governing construction and charitable activities.

The new law permits a religious organization to apply for recognition after it has operated continuously for at least five years with legal registration, developed a legal charter and bylaws, had leaders in good standing without a criminal record, and managed assets and conducts transactions as its own entity. After meeting these requirements, a registered religious organization must submit a detailed application package to the provincial- or national-level CRA, depending on the geographic extent of the organization. The application must include information about the group’s structure, membership, location, history, charter, and finances. The relevant provincial people’s committee or the Ministry of Home Affairs is responsible for approving a valid application for recognition within 60 days of receipt. The relevant provincial people’s committee or Ministry of Home Affairs is required to provide any rejection in writing.

Under current regulations, the government has regulatory oversight of religious groups, which must be officially registered or recognized as formal religious organizations. Current regulations stipulate that local government authorities must approve the leadership, activities, and establishment of seminaries or religious classes, and require religious organizations to register their leaders and officials with the CRA at the central or provincial level. Current regulations specify curriculum guidelines for religious training institutions.

Under both current law and the new law, religious organizations have the right to publish religious materials, produce and export religious objects and icons, construct and maintain religious facilities, and accept donations from domestic and foreign sources. Both current law and the new law imply, but do not specify, that these rights apply only to recognized religious organizations. Religious organizations must also follow other laws governing publishing.

Current regulations do not specify whether religious organizations have legal personality. The new law, however, states a recognized religious organization will attain the status of a “noncommercial legal person” from the date of its recognition. There is no provision for registered but unrecognized religious organizations to attain such legal personality. Organizations previously recognized before the implementation of the new law will retain their recognized status and organizations with certificates of registration before the implementation of the new law will retain their certificates of registration. Affiliates of a recognized organization are permitted to apply for their own legal personality.

The new law makes it explicit that religious organizations and their affiliates, clergy, and believers have the right to file complaints or civil and administrative lawsuits, or make denunciations (formal complaints about government officials or agencies) under the relevant laws and decrees. The new law also states that organizations and individuals have the right to bring civil lawsuits in court regarding the actions of religious groups or believers. There are no specific analogous provisions in the current regulations.

A 2005 prime ministerial directive regarding Protestantism instructs authorities to help unrecognized and unregistered Protestant congregations register so they can worship openly and seek recognition. The directive specifically instructs authorities in the Central and Northwest Highlands to assist groups of Protestants to register their religious activities and practice in homes or “suitable locations,” even if they do not meet the criteria to establish an official congregation. The directive also instructs local officials in the Central Highlands, central region, and the southern Annamese Mountains region to allow unrecognized “house churches” to operate as long as they are “committed to abide by the law” and are not affiliated with separatist political movements or “Degar Protestantism.” According to CRA officials, this directive will not remain in effect when the new law comes into effect.

Both current regulations and the new law provide a separate process for unregistered, unrecognized religious organizations or groups of individuals to receive permission for specific religious activities by submitting an application package to the commune-level people’s committee. Current regulations require the people’s committee to respond in writing to such an application within 15 working days of receipt, while the new law requires a response in writing within 20 days of receipt.

Both current regulations and the new law specify that a wide variety of religious activities require advance approval or registration from the authorities at the central and/or local levels. Under the new law, these activities continue to include “belief activities” (defined as traditional communal practices related to ancestor, hero, or folk worship); “belief festivals” being held for the first time; the establishment, split, or merger of religious affiliates; the ordination, appointment, or assignment of religious administrators (or clergy with administrative authority); establishment of a religious training facility; conducting religious training classes; holding major religious congresses; organizing religious events, preaching, or evangelizing outside of approved locations; traveling abroad to conduct religious activities or training; and joining a foreign religious organization.

According to current regulations, certain religious activities do not require advance approval, but instead require notification to the appropriate authorities. Activities requiring notification include recurring or periodic “belief festivals;” dismissal of clergy; conducting fundraising activities; notification of enrollment figures at a seminary or religious school; and the repair or renovation of religious facilities not considered cultural-historical relics. Under the new law, additional activities requiring notification and not advance approval include the ordination, appointment, or assignment of religious clergy (such as monks); transfers or dismissals of religious administrators (or clergy with administrative authority); conducting operations at an approved religious training facility; routine religious activities (defined as “religious preaching, practicing religious tenets and rites, and management of a religious organization”); and internal conferences of a religious organization.

The new law provides prisoners access to religious materials, with conditions, while in detention. It reserves authority for the government to restrict the “assurance” of that right. Decree 162 states detainees may use religious documents that are legally published and circulated, in line with legal provisions on custody, detention, prison, or other types of confinement. This use and/or practice must not affect rights to belief/religion or nonbelief/religion of others, or go against relevant laws. The decree states the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs shall be responsible for providing guidelines on the management of religious documents, and the time and venue for the use of these documents.

The new law gives recognized groups and “individuals who have rights or duties concerned” the right to complain, bring an administrative lawsuit, bring a civil lawsuit, or file a request for handling a civil matter in court to protect their lawful rights and interests in accordance with relevant laws.

Both the current and new laws specify that religious organizations must follow numerous other laws for certain activities. Both laws specify that religious organizations are allowed to conduct educational, health, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with the relevant laws, but do not provide clarification as to which activities are permitted. In addition, both laws state that construction or renovation of religious facilities must abide by relevant laws and regulations on construction, and foreigners participating in religious activities must abide by immigration law.

Both the current and new laws state that publishing, producing, exporting, or importing religious texts must be in accordance with laws and regulations related to publishing. Publishing legislation requires all publishers be licensed public entities or state-owned enterprises. Publishers must receive prior government approval to publish all documents, including religious texts. By decree, only the Religious Publishing House may publish religious books. In practice, however, other licensed publishers print books on religion. Publishers have received permission to print the Bible in Vietnamese and a number of other languages, including Chinese, Ede, Jarai, Banar, M’nong, H’mong, C’ho, and English. Other published texts include, but are not limited to, works pertaining to ancestry worship, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Cao Dai. Any bookstore may sell legally published religious texts and other religious materials.

The constitution states the government owns and manages all land on behalf of the people. According to the new law, land use by religious organizations must conform to the land law and its related decrees. The land law recognizes licensed religious institutions and schools may acquire land use rights and be allocated or leased land. The law specifies religious institutions are eligible for state compensation if their land is seized under eminent domain. The law allows provincial-level people’s committees to seize land via eminent domain in order to facilitate the construction of religious facilities.

The land law states provincial-level people’s committees may grant land-use certificates for a “long and stable term” to religious institutions if they have permission to operate, the land is dispute-free, and the land was not acquired via transfer or donation after July 1, 2004. Religious institutions are not permitted to exchange, transfer, lease, donate, or mortgage their land-use rights. In the case of land disputes involving a religious institution, the chairperson of the provincial-level people’s committee has authority to settle disputes. Those who disagree with the chairperson’s decision may appeal to the minister of natural resources and environment or file a lawsuit in court.

In practice, if a religious organization has not obtained recognition, members of the congregation may acquire a land-use title individually, but not corporately as a religious establishment. The renovation or upgrade of religious facilities also requires notification to authorities, although it does not necessarily require a permit, depending on the extent of the renovation. Decree 92 stipulates authorities must respond to a construction permit application within 20 days, although the law does not provide for accountability if the authorities do not comply with the deadline.

The 2005 prime ministerial Directive on Some Tasks Regarding Protestantism calls on authorities to facilitate the requests of recognized Protestant denominations to construct churches and to train and appoint pastors.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public and private schools. Private schools are required to follow a government-approved curriculum, which does not allow for religious instruction.

The law does not require individuals to specify their religious affiliation on national identification cards.

There are separate provisions of the new law for foreigners legally resident in the country to request permission to conduct religious activities, teach, attend local religious training, or preach in local religious institutions. The new law requires religious organizations or citizens of the country to receive government permission in advance of hosting or conducting any religious activities involving foreign organizations, foreign individuals, or travel abroad. Current regulations also contain requirements for foreigners conducting religious activities within the country, including those involved in religious training, ordination, and leadership, to seek permission for their activities.

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

Government Practices

Summary paragraph: There were two reports of deaths of members of religious groups in police custody that authorities said were suicides but the families said involved police use of force. Members of religious groups said government treatment varied widely regionally and among the central, provincial, and local levels. Members of some unregistered religious groups reported the ability to gather without government interference in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, although some groups reported increased difficulties in Ho Chi Minh City, and said they were required to provide weekly attendance lists to authorities. Religious leaders, particularly those of unregistered groups outside Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and those from ethnic minorities, reported various forms of government harassment, including physical assaults, arrests and detention, prosecutions, monitoring, restrictions on travel, property seizure or destruction, and denials of registration and/or other permissions. According to sources in religious group, local authorities were not often held responsible for the reported incidents. Government authorities continued to limit the activities of unrecognized religious groups and those without certificates of registration for religious activities, particularly those the government believed to be engaged in political activity. Members of recognized groups or those with registrations were able to practice their beliefs with less interference, according to reports; however, there was a significant increase in incidents of plainclothes individuals harassing Catholic priests and parishioners throughout the country, according to religious leaders, followers, and social media. Leaders of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam North reported increased difficulty gathering at unregistered meeting points. State-run media and progovernment blogs carried articles critical of Catholics and Catholic leadership throughout the year.

On or about May 5, Ma Seo Sung died while in custody at a Dak Lak provincial police station, Tu An Ward, Buon Ma Thuot City, according to a nongovernmental organization (NGO). On April 30, Ea So commune police reportedly arrested Sung and his nephew Giang A Lang on suspicion of “searching for a new Christian homeland.” Dak Lak provincial police reported the two were arrested for drug possession. Dak Lak provincial police informed Sung’s family May 5 that Sung hanged himself in the detention center. Observers said the family’s photos of the body showed signs of blunt force trauma.

On May 2, public security officials in Vinh Long Province arrested Nguyen Huu Tan, an independent Hoa Hao follower, on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration,” according to social media and other sources. Security officials reportedly suspected him of hanging the flag of the former Republic of Vietnam in his house. On May 3, security officials informed Tan’s family that he had committed suicide by cutting his neck while he was in detention. A public security officer returned Tan’s body to his family the same day. Tan’s family members, via a video posted to Facebook, stated they believed local public security officials cut Tan’s neck to make his death appear as suicide. Reportedly, Vinh Long Province authorities harassed Tan’s family members after his death, for example, encouraging neighbors not to patronize their small restaurant or grocery store, following them when they visited the market, and calling on neighbors to socially isolate them. Tan’s mother and two of his brothers had to hide from local authorities. Local public security officers reportedly questioned all people visiting Tan’s family and asked close friends of the family to spy on the family and report back to them.

On July 30, independent Hoa Hao follower and religious freedom and human rights activist Nguyen Bac Truyen and Protestant Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton were separately arrested for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.” Truyen ran the Vietnamese Political and Religious Prisoners Friendship Association and, among other activities, advocated for the rights of independent and unregistered Hoa Hao followers. Ton was a long-time advocate for human rights and religious freedom. He was also a member of the Interfaith Council, a group composed predominately of representatives of nonregistered religions. Prior to his July arrest, on February 27, Ton and a relative were kidnapped and beaten by unknown assailants, according to multiple sources. They were found seriously injured at approximately 2 a.m. the next day outside a forest in Ha Tinh Province.

On June 26, in An Phu, An Giang Province, police arrested independent Hoa Hao Buddhists, including Bui Van Trung and members of his family, including two grandchildren, aged 16 and 11, and placed his wife, Le Thi Hen, and one of his daughters under home detention, pending an investigation for “causing public disorder.” The grandchildren were subsequently released. Police reportedly assaulted Bui Thi Tham, Trung’s daughter, who required a brief hospitalization. Police released her from custody, but Trung and his son, Bui Van Tham, remained in detention, and his wife and another daughter, Bui Thi Bich Tuyen, remained under home detention at year’s end. The June arrests were reportedly in connection with the family’s protests of police actions, including roadblocks and harassment of participants, during an unregistered death anniversary commemoration in April for Trung’s mother in his home’s prayer hall. Between April and June police reportedly called in for questioning some persons who attended; plainclothes individuals beat others. Authorities reportedly tried to investigate the group on national security grounds. Between June and November family members attended approximately 30 working sessions with authorities, and said their religious group’s sole desire was to worship peacefully.

From January to July, the health of Nguyen Cong Chinh, a Protestant pastor serving an 11-year prison sentence for “undermining state unity,” reportedly continued to decline. Chinh’s wife suspected he was not receiving medicine she supplied to prison authorities and said prison officers encouraged other prisoners to verbally harass him. She also reported local police in Pleiku, Gia Lai Province, repeatedly detained, harassed, and threatened her throughout the first half of the year, including on one occasion when diplomats visited Pleiku in March. On July 28, authorities suspended Chinh’s sentence, and he relocated to the U.S.

On September 1, authorities transferred Phan Van Thu, leader of the religious group An Dan Dai Dao, from An Phuoc Prison in Binh Duong Province to Gia Trung Detention Center in Gia Lai Province, which is closer to his wife. Phan Van Thu was sentenced to life in prison in 2013 for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.”

Members of various ethnic minority groups in the Central Highlands collectively known as Degar (or Montagnards) stated the government continued to monitor, interrogate, arbitrarily arrest, and discriminate against them, in part because of their religious practices. Officials stated that Degar Christians incited violent separatism by ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands from 2001 through 2008. State-run media published articles cautioning individuals not to follow Degar Protestantism.

Some Protestant church leaders and Montagnards stated that local authorities seized their land or property partly due to their religious beliefs. Provincial authorities routinely dispersed religious gatherings and directed officials to organize public renunciations of Degar Christianity or other “unauthorized Christian beliefs” among ethnic minority communities. Leaders and members of these unregistered congregations reported police harassment, such as being detained for questioning, undergoing increased surveillance, and having their cell phones and Bibles confiscated. There were reports of severe harassment in Dak Lak, Kon Tum, Gia Lai, Binh Phuoc, Tra Vinh and Phu Yen Provinces, among others.

In one case, according to an NGO, throughout the year government forces in Ea Lam Commune, Song Hinh District in Phu Yen Province, monitored suspected churchgoers of the Degar Evangelical Church in Pưng B Hamlet, interrogated them about their religious activities, and accused them of plotting to illegally leave the country and of receiving instructions from overseas antigovernment groups. On February 10, Phu Yen Province police issued an order to pursue Ksor Y Blia, a Degar church pastor, for organizing and leading illegal emigration to Thailand. On February 14, the chief of the commune police met Nay H Oanh, Ksor Y Blia’s daughter, and reportedly forbade her from remaining in the Degar Evangelical Church and threatened to incarcerate her unless she complied.

According to an unrecognized religious group, on July 12, public security officials in Ea Khit Village, Ea Bhok Commune, Cu Kuin District, Dak Lak Province, brought Pastor Y Joh Buon Krong before the villagers and forced him to recant his faith. The pastor was the head of the unregistered Evangelical Church of Christ in Ea Khit.

In some cases, Montagnards stated ongoing social and religious persecution drove them to flee to Cambodia and Thailand, sometimes to seek asylum. Several individuals seeking asylum in Thailand reported local Vietnamese authorities continued to harass them remotely, including through social media and by harassing, intimidating, and in some cases physically assaulting family members back home.

In Van Thai parish, Vinh Diocese, Nghe An Province, there were multiple incidents of plainclothes individuals harassing parishioners and priests, assaulting parishioners, and damaging church property and the property of parishioners. In one such instance, on May 30, plainclothes individuals reportedly surrounded the church during Mass, insulted parishioners, threw stones at their vehicles and houses, and damaged the altar. Authorities reportedly did not stop these incidents.

State-run media and progovernment blogs attempted to defame priests active in assisting activists and victims of the 2016 Formosa disaster in which a steel mill discharged toxic waste into the sea leading to a massive fish kill in the central part of the country. Authorities reportedly pressured priests who helped victims to leave their parishes. In early May state-run social organizations, such as the Veteran’s Association and Women’s Union, organized protests against Fathers Dang Huu Nam and Nguyen Dinh Thuc of Vinh Diocese, Nghe An, over the priests’ efforts to help victims of the Formosa disaster. Progovernment blogs published multiple articles criticizing Catholic priests, accusing them of receiving money from and “colluding with hostile forces with the purpose of inciting public disorder and acting against the Communist Party and State.” Authorities arrested several Catholic activists during the year, and others Catholic activists were in hiding or had fled to other countries to seek refuge.

On April 16, in the Northwest Highlands, authorities prevented priests from conducting Easter Mass at a Catholic house church in Muong Khuong District, Lao Cai Province, according to accounts on social media.

State media reported authorities at different levels in the Northwest Highlands continued to state that the Duong Van Minh religious group was a threat to national security, political stability, and social order. Authorities said they considered eliminating (membership in) the group a priority.

In January, local authorities in Cho Moi, An Giang Province, prevented independent Hoa Hao followers from celebrating the birth anniversary of the prophet Huynh Phu So, according to religious leaders.

On January 6, authorities in Vo Nhai District, Thai Nguyen Province, dismantled a nha don, a public building used for funeral rites by Duong Van Minh adherents, in Lan Thung hamlet, Phuong Giao Commune. A clash between the authorities and villagers broke out; two local police officers were wounded. Following the incident, seven villagers received “administrative fines” for “acting against persons on duty.” The media did not report on what, if any, sanctions the officers involved faced.

On October 3, media reported that authorities started a manhunt for blogger and Catholic former prisoner of conscience Tran Minh Nhat, who was released from prison in 2015 after completing his full jail term. Authorities said he had defied the terms of his three-year probationary period. Nhat said a recent court of appeals ruling had removed the probation requirement, and he told media he had not been aware of the manhunt order.

The Evangelical Council of Vietnam (ECVN) reported it had increased difficulty gathering in well-established meeting points during the year. According to ECVN leadership, local authorities in Thanh Hoa Province rejected registration of eight meeting points for Christmas celebrations in Pu Nhi, Nhi Son, and Quang Chieu communes, Muong Lat District. These were reportedly areas where ECVN groups had gathered previously for between six and 10 years without incident. In their rejections, authorities noted that these prior gatherings were illegal and explained the meeting-points had not fulfilled requirements for organizing and conducting religious gatherings – for example, they had “no legal representatives who coordinate with the authorities in exercising the state management of religious activities in line with the law” or failed “to meet order and safety requirements.” Authorities urged believers to practice their faith or celebrate Christmas at their own houses, should they wish.

Some religious leaders faced travel restrictions, and leaders and followers of certain religious groups faced restrictions on movement. Catholic Father Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong, and Pastor Than Van Truong, of an unregistered Protestant group, were separately prevented from leaving the country on “national security” grounds on June 27 and October 3, respectively.

Three Redemptorist Catholic priests and a Buddhist monk reported they were restricted from traveling to attend a special Mass for the feast of Immaculate Conception in Dong Nai Province in December. Police stopped and beat Fathers Anthony Le Ngoc Thanh, Paul Le Xuan Loc, and Joseph Truong Hoang Vu on their way to the Mass. Police detained the three priests for three hours before releasing them. Reportedly, Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, Abbot of the Lien Tri Pagoda, who was invited to attend the Mass, was blocked from leaving his home on this occasion and at other times during the year. When he could leave, he was closely followed by plainclothes police.

In March, April, and June independent Hoa Hao followers and activists reported local authorities, police, and suspected plainclothes police in several provinces, including An Giang, Vinh Long, and Dong Thap, and in Can Tho City established checkpoints to monitor and prevent them from travelling to Quang Minh Pagoda, which the government said was unregistered, to participate in a major religious commemoration. Local authorities reportedly said the government would not allow Hoa Hao followers to commemorate anniversaries related to the life of Prophet Huynh Phu So. Some unregistered Hoa Hao followers said their Facebook accounts were locked.

As in previous years, UBCV Supreme Patriarch Thich Quang Do reported authorities permitted him to leave the Thanh Minh Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City only for quarterly medical check-ups. Other UBCV leaders stated the government continued to monitor their activities and restrict their movements, although they were able to meet with some foreign diplomats, visit other UBCV members, and maintain contact with associates overseas. Between March and September, Le Cong Cau, General Secretary of the UBCV, reported local police interrogated him on several occasions for “abusing democratic freedoms.” He also stated that on May 14, local security police in Hue, Thua-Thien Hue Province, prevented him from leaving his home. Cau was on a hunger strike from May 15 to 22, to protest authorities’ preventing his visit to Thich Quang Do. On September 11, a police officer prevented a foreign diplomat from meeting Cau in his home.

Between April and July, authorities interrogated and threatened to detain Ngo Duc Tien and Nguyen Van De, two leaders of the Buddhist Youth Movement (BYM) of the UBCV, and pressured them to renounce membership in the UBCV, according to an NGO report. The two youth leaders refused to sign a statement admitting any wrongdoing.

On October 31, after Dam Thoa, a nun, visited Thich Vinh Phuoc, the head of the UBCV-affiliated Phuoc Buu Pagoda in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, authorities reportedly escorted her to the airport in Ho Chi Minh City and flew her home to Bac Giang Province where local authorities met her and then held her in a pagoda for 13 days with limited food and without a bathroom. She was released November 13 following the conclusion of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Week meetings in Danang and the visits of foreign leaders to Hanoi.

On July 19, local authorities in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province reportedly prevented some people from participating in a memorial ceremony at Phuoc Buu Pagoda in honor of Reverend Thich Minh Tue and threatened to arrest those who attended. The pagoda is affiliated with the UBCV. An NGO reported police officers infiltrated the area the night before the ceremony and plainclothes agents with suspected connections to local authorities rode motorcycles through the community while cursing at members of the congregation. The next morning, approximately 20 police officers reportedly stationed themselves outside the temple and questioned everyone who came to the ceremony, wrote down vehicle identification information, and took pictures and video recordings. Authorities also recorded similar information during a ceremony at the pagoda on September 5. On December 27, local authorities started constructing a new small ditch right in front of the pagoda’s gate, inhibiting its religious activities and followers from visiting the pagoda.

On January 13, individuals wearing masks, reportedly police, disrupted the year-end celebration of UBCV-affiliated An Cu Temple in Danang, beat adherents, seized cell phones, and stopped the religious event. Other individuals blocked the streets leading to the temple to deny access to followers.

On July 27, an NGO reported six officers from Hoai Tan Commune, Hoai Nhon District, Binh Dinh Province, verbally harassed followers at the independent Cao Dai Nam Hoai Nhan Temple while they were preparing for customary rites. In March authorities of Dong Thap Province disrupted a group of independent Cao Dai adherents in Tam Nong District and seized their temple for an officially recognized Cao Dai group to use, according to media reports. Village, district, and provincial authorities attempted to force the independent Cao Dai adherents to join a sanctioned Cao Dai group, the independent adherents told the media.

Registered Cao Dai leaders reportedly did not face the same difficulties as independent Cao Dai leaders. The media carried reports of registered Cao Dai celebrating festivals without impediment.

In July police and local authorities in Hue reportedly harassed, intimidated, and intercepted members of the BYM as they organized the movement’s annual summer camp in Hue.

On June 28, priests, bloggers, and activists reported nearly 100 suspected plainclothes police in Thua Thien-Hue Province broke into the Thien An Catholic Monastery. The individuals pushed down a cross and smashed its figure of Christ. The authorities reportedly attempted to pressure the monastery into surrendering its land for a tourism project. On July 12, the Thua-Thien Hue People’s Committee met clerics from the monastery and Archdiocese of Hue officials to try to resolve the nearly 20-year-old land dispute. The five-hour meeting marked the first official working session between the monastery and provincial authorities. Although the dispute remained unresolved, both sides stated they welcomed the opportunity for dialogue. Subsequent to that meeting, monks reported that road construction by the authorities in Hue caused water shortages at the monastery. According to social media and Radio Free Asia, on December 23, the Thua Thien Hue People’s Committee sent a note to the leadership of the Order of St. Benedict, both in Rome and in Vietnam, accusing Father Nguyen Van Duc, chief priest of Thien An Monastery, of organizing illegal activities, defying Vietnamese laws, and not respecting the local authorities and people. Accordingly, the committee requested the leadership of the Benedictine Order to remove Father Duc as chief priest of Thien An Monastery and transfer him out of Thua Thien Hue Province.

Multiple Buddhist clergy of the recognized Vietnam Buddhist Sangha who supported land rights activists or were outspoken about suspected corruption within the organization, again reported local authorities continued to harass them and members of their pagodas in Bac Giang and Ha Nam Provinces and Hanoi. They said harassment included intimidation of monks and nuns, expulsion by force of clergy from their buildings, suspected plainclothes police breaking into religious buildings, the destruction of pagoda property, and theft of cash donations from villagers.

Catholic priest Phan Van Loi in Hue reported local public security officials continued to closely watch individuals who visited his home and to monitor his communication. Loi stated in 2016 that authorities took these actions in retaliation for his activism for religious freedom and human rights.

Throughout the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported harassment by authorities in many provinces, including Cao Bang, Lang Son, Son La, Nghe An, Hue, Lam Dong, Dong Thap, Ca Mau, Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Quang Ngai, Hue, and Hanoi. Harassment included local authorities asking them to leave the parks where practitioners had gathered and individuals blaring loud music and throwing items such as fish sauce on practitioners in public spaces.

Mennonite Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang reported suspected security officials in Ho Chi Minh City occasionally threw rocks, waste, and rotten eggs at Mennonite churches and Quang’s home.

Mennonite pastors of unregistered churches in Ho Chi Minh City reported that police, local authorities, and suspected plainclothes police monitored, intimidated, and harassed church leaders and congregants throughout the year.

Registered and unregistered religious groups continued to state government agencies sometimes did not respond to registration applications or approval requests for religious activities within the stipulated time period, if at all, and often did not specify reasons for refusals. Some groups reported they successfully appealed local decisions to higher-level authorities through informal channels. Several religious leaders reported authorities sometimes asked for bribes to facilitate approvals. Some groups stated local authorities refused to process registration applications during the year due to expected new guidelines under the new law. Authorities attributed the delays and denials to the failure of applicants to complete forms correctly or provide complete information. Local authorities also continued to cite general security concerns, such as political destabilization or potential conflict between followers of established ethnic or traditional religious beliefs and newly introduced Christian beliefs. Some Protestant house churches stated local authorities used registration requirements to harass followers and pressure the religious groups to cease religious activities. Religious groups said the process to register groups or notify activities in new locations was particularly difficult. For example, churches affiliated with the ECVN had difficulty registering with local authorities in Quang Binh, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh and Hoa Binh Provinces.

Mennonite Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang reported local authorities in District 2, Ho Chi Minh City, continued to reject his congregation’s application for registration, without providing specific reasons. Catholic authorities reported Hoa Binh authorities repeatedly denied Luong Son parish’s application to become a parish-affiliate of Hoa Binh Diocese and did not respond to a similar request from Vu Ban parish. Authorities reportedly said the Long Son application was not complete and Vu Ban is a new parish, which the Church disputed.

Local authorities in some Central Highlands provinces reportedly continued to pressure smaller Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) congregations, some with as many as 100 followers, to combine into larger groups of up to 1,500 individuals in order to gain official registration. Church leaders again stated such requests were unreasonable, saying many of the congregations were composed of a variety of ethnic minority groups with different languages and incongruent worship practices. Mountainous terrain and lack of infrastructure in the rural highlands prevented other SECV churches from sustaining the required minimum number of followers necessary to qualify for local registration.

Some registered and unregistered Protestant groups continued to report local authorities, particularly in the Central Highlands, continued to pressure newer congregations to affiliate with existing congregations or other, more established denominations. Pastors said this practice was widespread in ethnic minority villages in Gia Lai and Kon Tum Provinces.

According to many Catholic bishops, parishes in remote areas or with majority ethnic minority populations continued to face difficulty registering with provincial authorities, uneven and inconsistent enforcement of national laws, and a lack of accountability on the part of provincial authorities. Catholic leaders again stated the most problematic regions were in the Central Highlands (Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong, Kon Tum, and Lam Dong Provinces), the Northwest Highlands, and Hoa Binh Province.

Some Buddhist, Protestant, and Cao Dai groups chose not to affiliate with any government-recognized or government-registered religious organizations, nor did they seek their own registration or recognition. Unregistered Buddhist, Cao Dai, and Christian religious groups, including members of the Interfaith Council, continued to regularly report some provincial authorities used local registration laws as a pretext to pressure, intimidate, threaten, extort, harass, and assault them, and discouraged their members’ participation in the groups.

The CRA reported that, as of October 30, provincial authorities in the north recognized eight new grassroots congregations, and local authorities registered 655 meeting points for congregations affiliated with ECVN, one of the two largest evangelical Christian churches. ECVN said provincial authorities recognized six new grassroots congregations in the north during the year. Numbers were not available for the south.

Religious believers, particularly members of organizations that had not applied for or been granted legal registration, continued to report intimidation by local security officials for attending religious services.

Members of the military reportedly were not permitted to read the Bible or practice religious rites at any time while on active duty; they had to take personal leave to conduct such activities, religious freedom experts again reported. The Association for the Protection of Freedom of Religion reportedly sent a petition to the government in 2015 requesting soldiers be allowed to attend church while on duty; however, the association still had yet to receive a response. There are no clear regulations for religious expression in the military, with individual unit commanders having significant discretion, experts reported.

In some cases, authorities continued to deny some prisoners and detainees the right to worship. Prison officers at the temporary detention center in Khanh Hoa Province did not allow Catholic prisoner Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh access to a Bible, according to reports. Officers at the Nam Ha detention facility, Phu Ly District, Ha Nam Province, refused to allow a priest to visit Catholic prisoner Ho Duc Hoa, according to his family. Other prisoners continued to report they were allowed to read the Bible or other religious materials and practice their beliefs while incarcerated.

On October 22, the Bahai community held bicentennial celebration ceremonies in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Danang with reportedly no government interference.

Local and central authorities permitted ceremonies with tens of thousands of participants commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation to take place in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi in November and December, respectively. Authorities permitted a foreign religious leader to lead the ceremonies in Hanoi.

A senior pastor of the Presbyterian Church reported that local authorities did not allow the church to organize summer camps for children in Central Highlands and Northern Highlands, and asked some members not to worship in Quang Ngai, Ninh Thuan, Dak Lak and Dak Nong Provinces.

On February 16, authorities prevented Father Leopoldo Girelli, at the time the nonresident papal representative to the country, from leading Mass in honor of Father Jean Baptiste Malo, recognized as a martyr by the Catholic Church, in Vinh Hoi parish, Ngan Sau District, Vinh City, Nghe An Province.

Although the law prohibits publishing of all materials, including religious materials, without government approval, in practice some private, unlicensed publishing houses continued to unofficially print and distribute religious texts without active government interference.

At year’s end, Venerable Thich Khong Tanh and monks from the Lien Tri Pagoda, which district authorities in Ho Chi Minh City demolished in 2016, were still living at various locations throughout the city. Thanh reported local authorities refused to offer any site to rebuild the pagoda other than the one previously offered in the Cat Lai area of Ho Chi Minh City, which Tanh found inappropriate.

Relocation discussions between authorities and leaders of the Dong Men Thanh Gia (Lovers of the Holy Cross) Thu Thiem Catholic Convent and Thu Thiem Catholic Church continued at year’s end.

The Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres in Hanoi reported a local property development company sought to construct an apartment building, using land-use certificates improperly issued by city officials, on convent land seized by authorities in 1954. Despite the authorities’ decision to suspend the construction in July 2016 amid protests, construction resumed in January.

In June Lam Dong authorities returned a building taken by the government nearly 40 years ago to Lam Dong Province SECV, according to media reports.

The government continued to restrict the number of students who could enroll in Catholic and Protestant seminaries. The churches’ leadership said the numbers allowed were inadequate to meet demand.

Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Bahai, and Buddhist groups were allowed to provide religious education to adherents in their own facilities. Students continued to participate in training sessions on fundamental Buddhist philosophy organized at pagodas nationwide during summer holidays.

Protestant and Catholic groups continued to report legal restrictions and lack of legal clarity on operating faith-based medical and educational facilities made them wary of attempting to open hospitals or parochial schools, despite government statements welcoming religious groups to expand participation in health, education, and charitable activities. Catholic representatives said the government refused to return hospitals, clinics, and schools seized from the Catholic Church in past decades. On July 19, the Ministry of Labor, Invalid, and Social Affairs approved an upgrade for the Hoa Binh vocational training school owned and run by the Xuan Loc Diocese, Trang Bom District, Dong Nai Province. The majority of educational facilities owned and run by religious groups continued to be kindergartens and preschools.

In several cases local authorities permitted religious organizations to operate social services. For example, in Hanoi, city officials continued to allow Protestant house churches to operate drug rehabilitation centers; however, a Protestant church in Quoc Oai continued to face difficulty expanding operations, according to the church leadership.

Most representatives of religious groups continued to report adherence to a registered religious group generally did not seriously disadvantage individuals in nongovernmental civil, economic, and secular life, but that adherence to an unregistered group was more disadvantageous. Practitioners of various registered religions served in local and provincial government positions and were represented in the National Assembly. Many nationally recognized religious organizations, such as the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, as well as other clergy and religious followers, were members of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an umbrella group for government-affiliated organizations under the guidance of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). High-ranking government officials sent greetings and visited churches during Christmas and Easter and attended Vesak activities commemorating the birth of the Buddha. The official resumes of the top four CPV leaders stated they followed no religion.

While Catholics and Protestants could serve in the enlisted ranks (including during temporary mandatory military service), commissioned officers were not permitted to be religious believers. Religious adherents were customarily excluded through the military recruitment process.

Government treatment of foreigners seeking to worship or proselytize varied in practice from locality to locality. Foreigners were generally able to meet with believers and conduct services; however, a recognized group expressed concern over difficulty securing appropriate travel visas (for religious purposes) for their religious workers. Municipal officials allowed multiple foreign religious congregations to meet and processed official paperwork for two international Protestant groups. Some foreign religious congregations could conduct charitable activities with tacit, but not official, permission.

During the year, authorities lifted travel restrictions on certain religious leaders. Authorities permitted Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to visit Danang and Hue, his first visit to the country in a decade.

A wide range of senior- and provincial-level government officials stated during the year that the country fully respected the religious freedom of its citizens and criticized reports of religious freedom abuses and travel restrictions as inaccurate. The government stated it continued to monitor the activities of certain religious groups because of their political activism and invoked national security and solidarity provisions in the constitution and penal code to override laws and regulations providing for religious freedom. For example, government actions included impeding some religious gatherings and blocking attempts by religious groups to proselytize to certain ethnic groups in border regions deemed to be sensitive, including the Central Highlands, Northwest Highlands, and certain Mekong Delta provinces.

Many religious leaders expressed a wait-and-see approach to the Law on Belief and Religion. Religious leaders and experts emphasized that the two implementing decrees and actual implementation of the law, particularly at the local level, would be critical. Some religious groups and experts continued to state the new law was a step forward in certain areas for religious freedom. Some religious groups and experts expressed concern that a more precise legal approach and registration process could make religious operations, including registration of meeting points and clergy, expansion, and proselytization, more difficult. Some religious leaders and NGOs said they believed the new law would increase the difficulty of registering new religious groups, while others said the new law would help facilitate their registration. Multiple religious groups welcomed provisions reducing the waiting period for a registered religious group to obtain recognition from 23 years to five years. Religious groups and experts expressed concern over the size of fees in the draft decree on sanctions for noncompliance, which they said could be especially difficult for house churches and other small groups. Experts said granting religious groups legal personality was a positive step forward for religious freedom. Leaders of expatriate churches said they appreciated new provisions allowing them to register their congregations.

Religious leaders and academics said the new law enshrined in the country’s legal framework significant restrictions and bureaucratic controls over religious activity. Many religious leaders expressed concern the law continued to give significant discretion to the government regarding approving or denying various types of applications. Some religious sources continued to say the new law was not in place to protect religious freedom but rather to serve and cater to the rules of the Communist Party. Religious leaders continued to note existing laws and regulations on education, health, publishing, and construction were restrictive toward religious groups and would need to be revised to allow religious groups greater freedom to conduct such activities in practice. Some religious leaders and academics said the law’s definition of religion was not consistent with the ICCPR. These groups also stated the law should allow religious organizations to conduct activities without the need for government approvals.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On September 4, a group of approximately 10 armed individuals reportedly disrupted Mass at Tho Hoa parish church in Dong Nai Province to confront the priest over a Facebook post he had made urging political reform, according to media reports. According to reports from Catholic leaders, public security officials fined those responsible, although the parish priest reportedly said the authorities initially were unresponsive to the church and sympathetic to those who disrupted the Mass.

There were several incidents of harassment of Catholics by the progovernment group the Red Flag Association. On October 29 and 30,several hundred individuals from the association gathered in Song Ngoc parish in Nghe An, and outside the People’s Committee Headquarters in Dien My Commune, Nghe An, to denounce Catholics. Two Catholic priests from the Vinh Diocese reportedly traveled to Dien My at the invitation of local leaders to discuss the harassment by the association against parishioners. The priests were surrounded by the group when they attempted to leave the meeting. Clashes between the group and Catholics reportedly turned violent on December 17 over construction of a new chapel in Vinh Diocese, according to state-run media and parishioners. State-run media reported that parishioners assaulted police officers, while social media and others reported plainclothes individuals assaulted parishioners under the direction of local authorities.

The Catholic Institute continued to meet at the Ho Chi Minh City Archdiocese’s Pastoral Center located next to the St Joseph Grand Seminary, while discussing a suitable permanent location with the city government. The current venue has limited the institute’s ability to accept new students’ admission because it receives more applications than it can accommodate in the current space.

Catholic priests in Nghe An and Ha Tinh Provinces continued to help organize a series of demonstrations calling for stronger environmental protection and criticizing an international steel company over fish deaths and pollution along the coastline of several provinces in the central region. The priests also assisted parishioners in filing complaints and lawsuits against the government for financial compensation.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In January the outgoing Secretary of State and Ambassador met with senior government officials and called for continued improvements in religious freedom. Other visiting senior U.S. officials raised core religious freedom concerns during their meetings with government officials and civil society representatives. The Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor discussed such concerns with government officials at the U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in May. The Acting Assistant Secretary also met with a variety of registered and unregistered groups on the same visit. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom traveled to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in January to discuss religious freedom with local officials and a wide range of registered and unregistered religious groups. Senior U.S. officials submitted to government leaders recommendations for revisions to the implementing decrees for the Law on Belief and Religion to bring the text in line with the country’s constitution and international commitments to protect religious freedom.

The Ambassador and other officials at the embassy and consulate general urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the UBCV, Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent Cao Dai and Hoa Hao groups; sought greater freedom for recognized and registered religious groups; and urged an end to restrictions on unregistered groups. Embassy and consulate general officials raised specific cases, including the deaths of members of religious groups in custody, as well as government harassment against Catholics, Protestant groups, the UBCV, independent Hoa Hao groups, the Duong Van Minh religious group, and ethnic minority house churches, with the CRA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and provincial- and local-level authorities. U.S. government officials called for the increased registration of church congregations around the country and for improvement in registration policies to make them more uniform and transparent, including at large public events in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

U.S. government officials also urged the government to resolve peacefully outstanding land rights disputes with religious organizations.

The Embassy in Hanoi and the Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City regularly raised concerns about religious freedom with a wide range of government officials and CPV leaders, including the president, prime minister, and senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the CRA, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and other offices in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and the provinces.

The Ambassador and embassy and consulate general officials met with religious leaders from both registered and unregistered religious groups and attended religious ceremonies to demonstrate support for religious freedom. Embassy and consulate officials at every level traveled throughout the country, including to the Northwest and Central Highlands, to monitor religious liberty, meet with religious leaders, and stress to government officials that progress on religious freedom and human rights was critical to an improved bilateral relationship. Representatives of the embassy and the consulate general maintained frequent contact with many leaders of religious communities, including recognized, registered, and unregistered organizations.