The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam are free to exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, which is punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property according to the Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” There were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy during the year, but converts from Islam to other religions reported they continued to fear punishment from the government as well as reprisals from family and society. The law prohibits the production and publishing of works contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions. The new penal code, which went into effect in February, includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam. Shia leaders continued to state that the government neglected security in majority-Shia areas. The government sought to address security issues in Western Kabul’s Shia Hazara Dasht-e Barchi area, a target of major attacks during the year, by announcing plans to increase Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) presence. Media reported the government arrested 26 militants preparing attacks on the Shia community during the community’s observance of Ashura in Kabul. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils. Representatives of minority religious groups reported the courts’ continued failure to grant non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. The Independent Elections Commission (IEC) granted an extension on July 5 for the registration for a Sikh candidate to run in the October parliamentary elections following the death of the only Sikh candidate in a suicide attack in Jalalabad on July 1. Shia Muslims continued to hold some major government positions; however, Shia leaders said the number of positions still did not reflect their demographics.
The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, again targeted and killed members of minority religious communities, and the Taliban again targeted and killed individuals because of their beliefs or their links to the government. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), consistent with trends observed in the past two years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras. During the year, UNAMA recorded 22 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, causing 453 civilian casualties (156 deaths and 297 injured), all attributed to ISKP and other antigovernment elements. The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam. Taliban gunmen killed imams and other religious officials throughout the country. On November 20, a suicide bomber killed more than 50 religious scholars gathered at a Kabul wedding hall to celebrate the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials and to punish residents in areas under Taliban control according to their interpretation of Islamic law, including stoning any person suspected of adultery or other “moral crimes.” Insurgents claiming affiliation with the ISKP reportedly engaged in similar activities. On February 27, in Tangi Wazir, Nangarhar Province, the ISKP stoned to death a man accused of engaging in extramarital sexual relations (zina), and subsequently issued a press statement about the killing. In April the ISKP stoned to death a 60-year-old man accused of raping a woman in Darzab District, Jawzjan Province. According to some religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISKP in their sermons.
Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported continued harassment from some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they were able to practice their respective religions in public. Christian groups reported public opinion remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims stated they continued to worship privately to avoid societal discrimination and persecution. Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering. Observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. The authoritative body of Islamic scholars, known as the Ulema Council, announced plans to establish a special committee to oversee social reform to address government corruption and “moral corruption” in society that religious clerics deemed incompatible with the teachings of Islam. According to minority religious leaders, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities. Community leaders reported that 500 to 600 Sikhs and Hindus, representing almost half their numbers, fled to either India or Western countries during the year, particularly in the aftermath of the July 1 bombing in Jalalabad. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported interference with their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, from individuals who lived near cremation sites. On June 4, the Ulema Council convened approximately 3,000 religious scholars in Kabul to issue a propeace fatwa that also condemned discrimination based on religion.
U.S. embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and the protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. In October the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met with government officials and civil society leaders to promote religious tolerance. To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism, facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, and create policies to foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met frequently with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC). Embassy officials met regularly with leaders of major religious groups, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify means and ways to counter violent religious extremism, and promote tolerance for religious diversity. During the month of Ramadan, the embassy used social media platforms to share information on Islam in America, based on Department of State-created materials that profiled prominent Muslim-Americans and organizations. The embassy also used social media to highlight the National Religious Freedom and International Religious Freedom Days.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.9 million (July 2018 estimate). There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not track disaggregated population data. According to the Pew Forum, Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent of the population.
According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. Sikh and Hindu leaders estimate there are 245 Sikh and Hindu families totaling 700 individuals, down from 1,300 individuals estimated in 2017, mostly in Kabul, with a few communities in Nangarhar, Ghazni, Paktiya, Kunduz, Kandahar, and Helmand Provinces.
The Ahmadi Muslim community estimates it has 450 adherents nationwide, down from 600 in 2017. Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including one Jewish person.
Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Baha’i Faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions. Members of the Hindu community continued to report they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress. Both groups attributed fewer cases of harassment of members of their communities to the decline in the Sikh and Hindu populations in the country.
Although in past years media reported cases of local religious leaders forcing young men to fast during Ramadan, there were no cases reported during the year.
Women of several different faiths, including Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, the women said they continued to wear burqas in public in rural areas and in some districts of urban areas, including in Kabul, in contrast to other more secure, government-controlled areas where women said they felt comfortable without burqas. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and increase their security in public. MOHRA and the National Ulema Council both continued to state there was no official pressure on women regarding their attire.
Ahmadi Muslims continued to report verbal abuse on the street and harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith. They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad. They said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Ahmadis maintained a place of worship but kept it unmarked, without minarets or other adornments identifying it as an Ahmadi Muslim community mosque. Overall, Ahmadis reported the need to increasingly conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public, or to depart the country permanently.
Christian representatives reported public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. There continued to be no public Christian churches.
According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few places of worship. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were 12 gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and four mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, compared with a combined total of 64 in the past. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Following past seizures of their places of worship by residents of Kandahar, Ghazni, Paktiya, and other provinces, the Hindu community had presented a list of its places of worship to MOHRA in 2016 in an effort to stop further seizures and to reclaim the land and buildings previously lost. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said these problems were still unresolved at year’s end.
Community leaders said they perceived the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul as a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons. Sikh and Hindu leaders also reported neighboring residents tended to place household trash in their temples of worship. Although they filed official complaints to police, neither local authorities nor local imams took action to remedy the situation.
The government attempted to honor the Sikh and Hindu community following the July 1 suicide attack that killed several members of their community in Jalalabad by renaming the location of the attack as Daramsal, after the Sikh parliamentary candidate who died in the bombing. Community leaders, however, said the government’s decision brought more unwanted attention and harassment to Hindus and Sikhs in the area.
According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and one school in Kabul remained operational. Sikh and Hindu representatives, however, said these schools were still underequipped to teach students.
Sikh leaders continued to state the main cause of Hindu and Sikh emigration was a lack of employment opportunities; they said one factor impeding their access to employment was illiteracy. Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples (gurdwaras and mandirs) because they could not afford permanent housing. Both communities stated emigration would continue to increase as economic conditions worsened and security concerns increased. Community leaders estimated between 500 to 600 Sikhs and Hindus had fled the country during the year to either India or Western countries.
Observers reported societal discrimination against the Shia minority by the Sunni majority continued to decline, although there were reports of discrimination in some localities, especially involving employment opportunities. There were also instances, however, where Sunnis and Shia joined in prayer or to donate blood in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Shia clerics and NGOs reported instances of Sunni religious leaders openly condemning attacks against the Shia community and attending the funeral processions of Shia victims.
Media published reports of both Shia and Sunni leaders condemning particular secular events as contrary to Islam; however, there were no prominent reports of joint condemnations.
Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump. The lone Jew said he was able to perform all his religious rituals. He said in the past Jews from international military forces and foreign embassies attended the synagogue but could no longer do so due to security concerns and threats.
Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul.
Media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports.
According to media reports, the Ulema Council sought an expanded role in public life; on August 4, it announced plans to establish a special committee to oversee social reform to address government corruption and “moral corruption” deemed incompatible with the teachings of Islam. Media reported that President Ghani and the public welcomed the council’s initiative to cooperate with the government in tackling government corruption. Media outlets however, conveyed public concerns that the council’s social reform plans infringed on freedoms and rights provided under the country’s constitution, referring to the country’s past history of religious social repression under the Taliban regime. According to religious community representatives, however, the council did not implement these plans during the year. Early in the year, a video clip went viral on social media of a prominent mullah of a registered madrassah in Kabul, praising the Taliban and strongly criticizing the government for permitting the continued presence of international forces in the country.
NGOs reported Muslim residents remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.
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. It was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity in the country. Violence, discrimination, and harassment against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State, who are nearly all Muslim, and other minority populations continued. Following the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that took place in 2017 and resulted in the displacement of more than 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh, Rohingya who remained in Burma continued to face an environment of particularly severe repression and restrictions on freedom of movement and access to education, healthcare, and livelihoods based on their ethnicity, religion, and citizenship status, according to the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In March the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar reported that the government appeared to be using starvation tactics against remaining Rohingya. On September 17, the UN Fact-Finding Mission, established by the UN Human Rights Council, published its final report on the country, which detailed atrocities committed by the military in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States, as well as other areas, and characterized the “genocidal intent” of the military’s 2017 operations in Rakhine State. The government denied the Fact-Finding Mission permission to enter the country and publicly disavowed the report. Some government and military officials used anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim rumors and hate speech circulating on social media in formal meetings, public speeches, and other official settings. Public remarks by the minister of religious affairs in November were widely understood to denigrate Muslims. Christians in Kachin State, according to media and NGO reports, stated the military was carrying out a campaign to eliminate them similar to the situation in Rakhine State. 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, closed places of worship, denied or failed to approve permits for religious buildings and repairs, and discriminated in employment and housing. The military’s selective denial of humanitarian access in some conflict areas, including Kachin, Chin, and Rakhine States, led to severe hardship on religious minorities and others and intercommunal tensions, according to NGOs. Among Rohingya who fled the country during the year, some cited ongoing abuses in Rakhine State, while others reportedly fled due to government pressure to participate in a citizenship verification campaign, which they stated they did not trust. NGOs and religious groups said local authorities in some cases worked to reduce religious tension and improve relations between communities.
In the Wa Self-Administered Division, where the government has no administrative control, United Wa State Army (UWSA) authorities detained Christian leaders, destroyed churches, and otherwise interfered with Christian religious practice, according to media reports and the UWSA spokesperson.
Some leaders and members of Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, better known by its former name Ma Ba Tha, continued to issue pejorative statements against Muslims. In May the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), an independent but government-supported body that oversees Buddhist affairs, reiterated its 2017 order that no group or individual was allowed to operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha. In spite of the order, many local Ma Ba Tha branches continued to operate with that name. The SSMNC’s 2017 ban on public speaking by the monk Wirathu, a self-described nationalist, expired in March. He appeared at a large promilitary rally in Rangoon in October, at which he made anti-Muslim statements. Other Ma Ba Tha leaders continued propagating anti-Muslim sentiment in sermons and through social media. Anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya hate speech was prevalent on social media. Facebook removed pages belonging to Wirathu and a number of senior military leaders and military-affiliated groups for propagating hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric. Religious and civil society leaders continued to organize intrafaith and interfaith events and developed mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech.
Senior U.S. government officials, including the Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador to the United Nations, USAID Administrator, Ambassador to Burma, and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom advocated for religious freedom and tolerance and consistently raised concerns about discrimination against religious minorities, the treatment of Rohingya and conditions in Rakhine State, and the prevalence of anti-Muslim hate speech and religious tension. In November the Vice President said, “The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse” and asked State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi about the country’s progress in holding accountable those who were responsible. In July at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, the USAID Administrator stated, “The Rohingya were victimized by nothing less than ethnic cleansing: extrajudicial killings, rapes, tortures, beatings, arbitrary arrests, displacement, destruction of property – all driven by intolerance and sectarian hatred.” The United States has sanctioned five generals and two military units for human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities. Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, frequently met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, to highlight concerns about religiously based discrimination and abuses and called for respect for religious freedom and the values of diversity and tolerance in statements and other public messaging.
Since 1999, Burma has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 28, 2018, 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 55.6 million (July 2018 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. The 2014 Census reportedly excluded the Rohingya from its count, but NGOs and the government estimated the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Rohingya population at 1.1 million prior to the outbreak of violence and initial exodus of Rohingya into Bangladesh in October 2016. According to current estimates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh beginning in August 2017, and an estimated 520,000 to 600,000 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. Various forms of Christianity are 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. Ethnic Rohingya and Kaman in Rakhine State, as well as some Bamar and ethnic Indians in Rangoon, Ayeyarwaddy, Magway, and Mandalay Divisions, practice Islam. Chinese ethnic minorities generally practice traditional Chinese religions and to a lesser extent Islam and Christianity. Some smaller ethnic groups in the highland regions observe traditional indigenous beliefs.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In May AI reported that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army was likely responsible for the killing of 45 Hindu villagers in Maungdaw Township on August 25, 2017, which the government previously had reported, but some civil society organizations had questioned.
The Chin Human Rights Organization reported the Arakan Army beat villagers and looted property in a village in Paletwa Township, Chin State, in May.
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 continued to promote the idea that Burmese Buddhist culture was under assault by Islam and Muslims, who would come through the mountains of western Burma – northern Rakhine State where the Rohingya live – and overwhelm Buddhist areas of the country.
CHRO reported that in July a mob that included Buddhist monks attacked two Chin nursery school teachers in the house of a Christian pastor in Pade Kyaw Village, Ann District, Rakhine State. Village monks previously said there would be a 50,000 kyat ($33) penalty per household if each household did not send a member to a meeting at which the monks urged participants to harass Christians attending a church service. In August, according to CHRO, a mob attacked Pastor Tin Shwe of Good News Church in the same area of Rakhine State, and he was hospitalized. In January the village tract administrator in Gangaw Township, Magway Division, along with two police officers and some local Buddhist monks, tried to expel a family who had converted to Christianity from the village. Authorities reportedly failed to investigate or hold perpetrators accountable in these cases.
Despite the renewal during the year of the 2017 order by the SSMNC that no group or individual could operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha, some branches of the group continued to use the name Ma Ba Tha, while others used the new name, Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation. Many of the group’s leaders and members continued to make pejorative and hateful statements against Muslims in sermons and through social media. In August Reuters found more than 1,000 examples of anti-Muslim hate speech on Burmese-language Facebook pages, including calls for “genocide,” comparisons to “pigs” and “dogs,” and widespread use of pejoratives to refer to Muslims.
In March the SSMNC’s ban expired on the influential self-defined nationalist Wirathu, a monk and the chairperson of the Ma Ba Tha branch in Mandalay, from delivering sermons across the country for one year. The SSMNC imposed the ban due to what the SSMNC called religious hate speech against Muslims, which inflamed communal tensions. In October Wirathu, who reportedly maintained strong ties to military and government officials, spoke at a large promilitary rally in Rangoon, mocking foreign sympathy for the Rohingya and making other anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim remarks. There were numerous previous reports of Wirathu making anti-Muslim remarks, such as praising the killers of the prominent Muslim lawyer Ko Ni in 2017. In September Facebook removed pages belonging to Wirathu and a number of senior military leaders and military-affiliated groups for propagating hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Some observers said Ma Ba Tha received financial support from and otherwise coordinated with the military.
In March prominent writer Maung Thway Chuun gave a speech in Sagaing Division in which he criticized the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament for being Christian and said the country’s religious and ethnic identity was under threat. Authorities arrested him in June on charges of inciting conflict between ethnic and religious groups, and in October a court sentenced him to two years in prison. Some observers criticized his case as an infringement of freedom of expression.
There were continued reports of social stigma surrounding any assistance to or sympathy for the Rohingya community. Some civil society leaders said that even among otherwise tolerant individuals, anti-Rohingya sentiment remained prevalent. There were continued reports of general anti-Muslim prejudice, including social pressure not to rent housing to Muslims in some areas.
Some Buddhist and Muslim community leaders in Mandalay continued to collaborate to quell rumors and prevent violence through formal and informal community-centered mechanisms.
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 advocating for and consulting on draft legislation to counter hate speech, although parliament did not take up the legislation by year’s end.
In Mandalay Division, civil society and interfaith leaders held meetings and public events to promote peace and religious tolerance for community leaders and youth, as in previous years. For example, an event in August drew dozens of community members to a day of activities around the theme of diversity and tolerance. A number of interfaith groups continued mobilizing civil society around the country to promote religious tolerance.
On November 21-23, the Religions for Peace Advisory Forum on National Reconciliation and the Advancement of Peace in Myanmar convened in Nay Pyi Taw, bringing together voices from all major religions to advance an agenda of tolerance and respect. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the deputy commander-in-chief, and other senior government officials participated in the event.
China (Includes Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Macau)
IN THIS SECTION: CHINA (BELOW) | TIBET | XINJIANG | HONG KONG | MACAU
Reports on Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet are appended at the end of this report. Given the scope and severity of reported religious freedom violations specific to Xinjiang this year, a separate section on the region is also included in this report.
The constitution states citizens have freedom of religious belief but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” and does not define “normal.” The government continued to exercise control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents when the government perceived these as threatening state or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests, according to nongovernmental organization (NGO) and international media reports. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant) are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services. There continued to be reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices.
Multiple media and NGOs estimated that since April 2017, the government detained at least 800,000 and up to possibly more than 2 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other Muslim groups, mostly Chinese citizens, in specially built or converted detention facilities in Xinjiang and subjected them to forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity. There were reports of deaths among detainees. Authorities maintained extensive and invasive security and surveillance, particularly in Xinjiang, in part to gain information regarding individuals’ religious adherence and practices. The government continued to cite concerns over the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as grounds to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Muslims in Xinjiang. Authorities in Xinjiang punished schoolchildren, university students, and their family members for praying. They barred youths from participating in religious activities, including fasting during Ramadan. The government sought the forcible repatriation of Uighur Muslims from foreign countries and detained some of those who returned.
Religious groups reported deaths in or shortly after detentions, disappearances, and arrests and stated authorities tortured Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, and members of Falun Gong. The Church of Almighty God reported authorities subjected hundreds of their members to “torture or forced indoctrination.” Although authorities continued to block information about the number of self-immolations of Tibetan Buddhists, including Buddhist monks, there were reportedly four self-immolations during the year. The government began enforcing revised regulations in February that govern the activities of religious groups and their members. Religious leaders and groups stated these regulations increased restrictions on their ability to practice their religions, including a new requirement for religious group members to seek approval to travel abroad and a prohibition on “accepting domination by external forces.” Christian church leaders stated the government increased monitoring even before the new regulations came into effect, causing many churches to cease their normal activities. Authorities continued to arrest Christians and enforce more limitations on their activities, including requiring Christian churches to install surveillance cameras to enable daily police monitoring, and compelling members of house churches and other Christians to sign documents renouncing their Christian faith and church membership. An ongoing campaign of church closings continued during the year, and authorities removed crosses and other Christian symbols from churches, with Henan Province a particular focus area of such activity. In September the Holy See reached a provisional agreement with the government that reportedly would resolve a decades-long dispute concerning the authority to appoint bishops.
Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities. In Xinjiang, tension between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese continued.
The Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other embassy and consulates general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom. On July 26, the Vice President said, “Religious persecution is growing in both scope and scale in the world’s most populous country, the People’s Republic of China…Together with other religious minorities, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians are often under attack.” On September 21, the Secretary said, “Hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions of Uighurs are held against their will in so-called re-education camps, where they’re forced to endure severe political indoctrination and other awful abuses. Their religious beliefs are decimated. And we’re concerned too about the intense new government crackdown on Christians in China, which includes heinous actions like closing churches, burning Bibles, and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith.” A statement from the July 24-26 U.S. Government-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom said, “Many members of religious minority groups in China – including Uighurs, Hui, and Kazakh Muslims; Tibetan Buddhists; Catholics; Protestants; and Falun Gong – face severe repression and discrimination because of their beliefs. These communities consistently report incidents, in which the authorities allegedly torture, physically abuse, arbitrarily arrest, detain, sentence to prison, or harass adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and peaceful practices. Authorities also restrict travel and interfere with the selection, education, and veneration of religious leaders for many religious groups….” The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with Chinese officials, members of registered and unregistered religious groups, family members of religious prisoners, NGOs, and others to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom.
Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.4 billion (July 2018 estimate). According to the State Council Information Office’s (SCIO) report on religious policies and practices, published in April, there are more than 200 million religious believers in the country. Many experts, however, believe official estimates understate the total number of religious adherents. The U.S. government estimated in 2010 that Buddhists comprise 18.2 percent of the population, Christians 5.1 percent, Muslims 1.8 percent, and followers of folk religion 21.9 percent. According to a February 2017 estimate by the international NGO Freedom House, there are more than 350 million religious believers in the country, including 185-250 million Chinese Buddhists, 60-80 million Protestants, 21-23 million Muslims, 7-20 million Falun Gong practitioners, 12 million Catholics, 6-8 million Tibetan Buddhists, and hundreds of millions who follow various folk traditions. According to 2017 data from the Jewish Virtual Library, the country’s Jewish population is 2,700.
SCIO’s report found the number of Protestants to be 38 million. Among these, there are 20 million Protestant Christians affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state-sanctioned umbrella organization for all officially recognized Protestant churches, according to information on TSPM’s website in March 2017. According to a 2014 State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) statistic, more than 5.7 million Catholics worship in sites registered by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), the state-sanctioned organization for all officially recognized Catholic churches. The SCIO’s report states there are six million Catholics, although nongovernment estimates suggest there are 10-12 million Catholics, approximately half of whom practice in non-CCPA affiliated churches. Accurate estimates on the numbers of Catholics and Protestants as well as other faiths are difficult to calculate because many adherents practice exclusively at home or in churches that are not state sanctioned.
According to SCIO’s report, there are 10 ethnic minorities in which the majority practices Islam, and these 10 groups total more than 20 million persons. Other sources indicate almost all of the Muslims are Sunni. The two largest Muslim ethnic minorities are Hui and Uighur, with Hui Muslims concentrated primarily in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan Provinces. SARA estimates the Muslim Hui population at 10.6 million.
While there is no reliable government breakdown of the Buddhist population by branch, the vast majority of Buddhists are adherents of Mahayana Buddhism, according to the Pew Research Center.
Prior to the government’s 1999 ban on Falun Gong, the government estimated there were 70 million adherents. Falun Gong sources estimate that tens of millions continue to practice privately, and Freedom House estimates 7-20 million practitioners.
Some ethnic minorities retain traditional religions, such as Dongba among the Naxi people in Yunnan Province and Buluotuo among the Zhuang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Media sources report Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, is growing in popularity among the Han Chinese population.
Local and regional figures for the number of religious followers, even state-sanctioned legal religions, are unclear and purposely kept opaque by authorities. Local governments do not release these statistics, and even official religious organizations do not have accurate numbers. The Pew Research Center and other observers say many religious groups often are underreported.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because the government and individuals closely link religion, culture, and ethnicity, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of societal discrimination as being solely based on religious identity. The Council on Foreign Relations reported religious and ethnic minority groups, such as Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims, experienced institutionalized discrimination throughout the country because of both their religious beliefs and their status as ethnic minorities with distinct languages and cultures.
Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread, despite the government’s announcement in September 2017 that it would censor some anti-Muslim expression on the internet.
In some online forums, anti-Muslim speech regarding the Hui Muslims in Shadian, Yunnan Province persisted. Some individuals said imams in Shadian colluded with Rohingya Muslims from Burma on drug use and drug trafficking in Shadian. Other criticisms in these online forums include labelling the imams in Shadian as radicals for encouraging Hui Muslims in the city to marry Rohingya individuals and not to send their children to school.
Despite labor law provisions against discrimination in hiring based on religious belief, some employers openly discriminated against religious believers. Some Protestant Christians reported employers terminated their employment due to their religious activities. There were also reports from Falun Gong practitioners that employers dismissed them for practicing Falun Gong. In some instances, landlords discriminated against potential or current tenants based on their religious beliefs. Falun Gong practitioners reported having a very difficult time finding landlords who would rent them apartments. Following government crackdowns in May and December, members of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, reported local authorities pressured their landlords to evict them due to their affiliation with the unregistered church. The members also said their universities and employers received pressure from the local authorities to expel them from the schools or terminate their employment.
The Guardian reported Uighurs faced difficulty in finding accommodation because local hotels frequently told Uighur visitors no rooms were available. One individual, who was initially mistaken as a foreigner, said hotel staff denied him entry to a hotel after they saw the word Uighur on his Chinese identification card. Hotels are required to report on guests to local police authorities, and hoteliers could face punishment for hosting Uighurs.
On April 19, the son of a pastor from the Shenzhen-based Canaan House Church in Guangdong Province said the church’s landlord relented to authorities’ pressure to terminate the lease and cut off the church’s electrical supply. The pastor’s son said the church faced “constant persecution” after unidentified people repeatedly harassed the church, broke into the church’s property, and requested members leave the building for what authorities said were safety or fire hazards.
On July 5, a Uighur woman in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province reportedly posted a letter online addressed to Shenzhen Party Secretary Wang Weizhong complaining about the frustrating restrictions she experienced as an ethnic minority in finding a rental apartment. The Uighur woman identified herself as a CCP member holding a senior management position in a big company in Shenzhen. After receiving discouraging messages from the local community, several landlords broke her rental contracts. Local officials told the woman they required her landlord and her to report in person each week to the police, which she said no landlord wanted to do. The woman was staying in a colleague’s apartment at year’s end.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief. The 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK, however, concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and in many instances, violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity. In October the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK reported to the UN General Assembly the country’s use of arbitrary executions, political prison camps, and torture amounting to crimes against humanity remained unchanged despite a series of diplomatic engagements between the country and other nations. In December the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that condemned “the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” The assembly specifically expressed its very serious concern at “the imposition of the death penalty for political and religious reasons,” and “all-pervasive and severe restrictions, both online and offline, on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association.” In May, after diplomatic discussions involving the U.S. Secretary of State, the government released a U.S. citizen pastor who had been arrested in 2017. A South Korean nongovernmental organization (NGO) said defectors who arrived in South Korea from 2007 until March 2018 and other sources reported 1,341 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by DPRK authorities, including 120 killings and 90 disappearances. The government deported, detained, and sometimes released foreigners who allegedly engaged in religious activity within its borders. According to NGOs and academics, the government’s policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make arrests and punishments difficult to verify.
Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear their activities would be reported to the authorities. There were conflicting estimates of the number of religious groups in the country and their membership.
The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the country. In July the Secretary of State hosted the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, at which the Vice President said, “…North Korea’s persecution of Christians has no rival on the Earth. It is unforgiving, systematic, unyielding, and often fatal.” The United States cosponsored a resolution at the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council condemning the government’s systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations. In December the Department of State submitted the Report on Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea to Congress, identifying three entities and three North Korean officials responsible for or associated with serious human rights abuses or censorship. Since 2001, the country has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.4 million (July 2018 estimate). In a 2002 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government reported there were 12,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, and 800 Roman Catholics. The report noted Chondoism, a modern religious movement based on a 19th century Korean neo-Confucian movement, had approximately 15,000 practitioners. Consulting shamans and engaging in shamanistic rituals is reportedly widespread but difficult to quantify. The South Korea-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) reported that five priests from the Russian Orthodox Church are in Pyongyang. South Korean and other foreign religious groups estimate the number of religious practitioners in the country is considerably higher than reported by the authorities. UN estimates place the Christian population at between 200,000 and 400,000. The COI report stated, based on the government’s own figures, the proportion of religious adherents among the population dropped from close to 24 percent in 1950 to 0.016 percent in 2002.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to the fear their activities would be reported to the authorities.
The COI report concluded government messaging regarding the purported evils of Christianity led to negative views of Christianity among ordinary citizens.
In 2017, KINU reported accounts of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious activity remained difficult to quantify. While some NGOs and academics estimated up to several hundred thousand Christians practiced their faith underground, others questioned the existence of a large-scale underground church or concluded it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers. Individual underground congregations were reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes. Some defector reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available and secret religious meetings occurred, spurred by cross-border contact with individuals and groups in China. Some NGOs reported individual underground churches were connected to each other through well-established networks. The government did not allow outsiders access to confirm such claims.
According to KINU, defectors reported being unaware of any recognized religious organizations that maintained branches outside Pyongyang. Religious ceremonies such as for weddings and funerals were almost unknown.
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The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), as well as other laws and policies, states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Falun Gong practitioners reported generally being able to operate openly, however, they reported harassment from groups they said were connected to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and difficulty renting venues for large events, including from the SAR government. Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in October to raise awareness of what they said was 19 years of CCP persecution of the Falun Gong in the Mainland.
Some Hong Kong pastors’ exchanges with Mainland counterparts reportedly were negatively affected by changed regulations on the Mainland. Religious leaders reported hosting and participating in interfaith activities, such as a local mosque and a Jewish synagogue maintaining regular interaction between religious leaders of each community.
The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with the government. The Consul General and consulate general officials met regularly with religious leaders and community representatives to promote religious equality.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (July 2018 estimate). According to SAR government statistics, there are more than one million followers of Buddhism and more than one million followers of Taoism; 480,000 Protestants; 379,000 Roman Catholics; 100,000 Hindus, and 12,000 Sikhs. According to the World Jewish Congress, about 2,500 Jews live in Hong Kong. According to a 2017 South China Morning Post article, there are approximately 25,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints residing in Hong Kong. SAR government statistics estimate the SAR has approximately 300,000 Muslims. Small communities of Baha’is and Zoroastrians also reside in the SAR. Confucianism is widespread, and in some cases, elements of Confucianism are practiced in conjunction with other belief systems. The Falun Gong estimates there are approximately 500 Falun Gong practitioners in Hong Kong.
There are dozens of Protestant denominations, including Anglican, Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Church of Christ in China, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Seventh-day Adventists. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong recognizes the pope and maintains links to the Vatican.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Some religious groups expressed concern that new PRC religious affairs regulations that entered into force in February had a negative impact on exchanges and interactions with counterparts in the Mainland. Media reported that Hong Kong Christian churches provided underground churches on the Mainland with monetary support, Bibles, blacklisted Christian literature, theological training, and assistance in founding new churches. Under the new regulations in the Mainland, however, many Hong Kong pastors were suspending or canceling their work with Mainland churches to avoid endangering people there, according to media reports.
Religious groups, some of which received government funding, provided a wide range of social services open to those of all religious affiliations including welfare, elder care, hospitals, publishing services, media and employment services, rehabilitation centers, youth and community service functions, and other charitable activities.
Religious leaders reported hosting and participating in interfaith activities. For example, a local mosque and a local Jewish synagogue maintained regular interaction between religious leaders of each community. Jewish leaders also hosted public events to raise Holocaust awareness.
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The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education. The law also protects the right of religious assembly and the rights of religious organizations to administer schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and to provide other social services. The law states the government does not recognize a state religion and explicitly states all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad. Falun Gong continued to hold rallies and protests of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in Mainland China.
There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.
In meetings with religious leaders and civil society representatives, representatives from the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong and Macau stressed the importance of religious freedom and tolerance for all religious groups and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the Mainland and in Hong Kong.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 606,000 (July 2018 estimate). The latest SAR yearbook does not provide an estimate for Buddhists but states they are numerous and that individuals often practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religions. Other sources say the majority of the population practices Buddhism or Chinese folk religions. The SAR Government Information Bureau estimates there are approximately 30,000 Roman Catholics, of whom more than half are foreign domestic workers and other expatriates, and more than 8,000 Protestants. Protestant denominations include the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian Churches. Evangelical Christian and independent local nondenominational churches, some of which are affiliated with Mainland churches, are also present. Various reports estimate the Muslim population at 5,000 to 10,000. Smaller religious groups include Baha’is, who estimate their membership at above 2,000, and a small group of Falun Gong practitioners, with some estimates at 20 to 50 persons.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution also states, “subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” It also states “a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), is a non-Muslim.” The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, punishment for which ranges from life in prison to execution for a range of charges, including “defiling the Prophet Muhammad.” According to civil society reports, there were at least 77 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 28 of whom had received death sentences, although the government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. Some of these cases began before the beginning of the year but were not previously widely known. According to data provided by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), police registered at least seven new blasphemy cases against seven individuals. On October 31, the Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. In what was described as an effort to end widespread violent protests orchestrated by the antiblasphemy movement Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) against the government in the wake of Bibi’s acquittal, the government promised protestors it would not oppose a petition seeking further judicial review of the case. Following violent antistate threats, the government later undertook a sustained campaign of detentions and legal charges against the TLP leadership and violent protestors. The original accuser’s petition for a judicial review of Bibi’s case remained pending at year’s end, although most sources believed it was likely to be dismissed. In October Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Noor-ul Haq Qadri said the government would “forcefully oppose” any change to the blasphemy laws. NGOs continued to report lower courts often failed to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders and human rights organizations continued to express concerns that the government targeted Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, and Ahmadis continued to be affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation that denied them basic rights. Throughout the year, including during the general election campaign, some government officials engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities, and perpetrators of such abuses often faced no legal consequences due to what the NGOs said was a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases. Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in public schools and tertiary education, and in private and civil service employment. In September the newly-elected government withdrew its invitation to economist and Ahmadi Muslim Atif Mian to join the Economic Advisory Council after significant public criticism, including from religious leaders. In a conference organized by UN-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed in October, Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Qadri said the “Government and the Prime Minister of Pakistan will always stand against Ahmadis.” In March the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued a judgment requiring citizens to declare an affidavit of faith to join the army, judiciary, and civil services and directed parliament to amend laws to ensure Ahmadis did not use “Islamic” terms or have names associated with Islam.
Armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government as extremist, as well as groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, continued to stage attacks targeting Christians and Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) however, both the number of sectarian attacks by armed groups and the number of casualties decreased compared to 2017, corresponding with an overall decline in terrorist attacks. On November 23, a suicide bombing near a Shia prayer hall in Orakzai district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa killed 33 people, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as some Sikhs. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) claimed responsibility. There were multiple reports of targeted killings of Shia in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, although it was often unclear whether religion was the primary motivation. In February and May several Shia residents were killed by alleged Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militants, the same group believed to be responsible for multiple subsequent killings in the same area in August. On April 2, gunmen shot and killed a Christian family of four traveling by rickshaw in Quetta, Balochistan. An affiliate group of ISIS-K claimed responsibility. The government continued to implement the 2014 National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism, as well as military and law enforcement operations against terrorist groups; however, according to Ahmadi civil society organizations, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, despite this being a component of the NAP. Civil society groups expressed ongoing concerns about the safety of religious minorities.
Throughout the year, unidentified individuals targeted and killed Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazaras, who are largely Shia, and Ahmadi Muslims in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. According to the SATP, attacks against Shia members of the minority Hazara ethnic group decreased relative to 2017. In four separate incidents, unidentified assailants shot and killed six members of the Hazara Shia community in Quetta in April. Assailants killed a member of the Ahmadiyya community in Lahore on June 25 in what appeared to be a targeted attack, and robbers shot and killed another man in his jewelry shop in Syedwala on August 29 after singling him out as an Ahmadi. Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam, including forced conversions of young women; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities. There also continued to be reports of attacks on the holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of the Christian and Ahmadiyya minorities.
Senior officials from the U.S. Department of State, including the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, the Charge d’Affaires, and embassy officers met with senior advisors to the prime minister, the minister for foreign affairs, the minister for human rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss the need to combat sectarian violence, to ensure the protection of religious minorities, and blasphemy law reform. Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts to discuss ways to combat intolerance and promote dialogue on interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom. Visiting U.S. government officials met with minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of the Shia, Ahmadiyya, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and other minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion. The U.S. government provided training for provincial police officers on human rights and protecting religious minorities. The Department of State publicly condemned terrorist attacks throughout the year, including the November attack near a Shia place of worship in Orakzai District, Khyber Pakhtunkha.
On November 28, the Secretary of State designated Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 207.9 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the provisional results of a national census conducted in 2017, 96 percent of the population is Muslim. According to government figures, the remaining 4 percent includes Ahmadi Muslims (whom Pakistani law does not recognize as Muslim), Hindus, Christians, Parsis/Zoroastrians, Baha’is, Sikhs, Buddhists, Kalash, Kihals, and Jains. Most of the historic Jewish community has emigrated.
Sources vary on the precise breakdown of the Muslim population between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunnis are generally believed to be 80-85 percent of the Muslim population and Shia are generally believed to make up 15-20 percent. Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups. According to 2014 media accounts, although there are 2.9 million non-Muslims registered with the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), the actual number exceeds 3.5 million. Religious community representatives estimate minority religious groups constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population.
According to the 2014 government registration documents cited by the press, there are approximately 1.4 million Hindus, 1.3 million Christians, 126,000 Ahmadis, 34,000 Baha’is, 6,000 Sikhs, and 4,000 Parsis. Taking account of the Ahmadi boycott of the official census, however, community sources put the number of Ahmadi Muslims at approximately 500,000-600,000. Estimates of the Zikri Muslim community, located in Balochistan, range between 500,000 and 800,000 individuals. Several minority rights advocacy groups dispute the provisional results of the 2017 census and state the numbers underrepresent their true population.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Throughout the year, unidentified individuals assaulted and killed Shia, including predominantly Shia Hazaras, and Ahmadis in attacks sources believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. According to the SATP, attacks against Shia members of the minority Hazara ethnic group decreased relative to 2017.
In April six Shia Hazaras were killed in four targeted drive-by shooting incidents in Quetta, Balochistan. The killings sparked sustained protest by Quetta’s ethnic Hazara community, who stated that at least 509 Hazaras were killed and 627 were injured in Quetta from 2012 to 2017. Chief of Army Staff Bajwa met with protest leaders in May, and police subsequently provided additional security in Quetta to protect religious minorities from attack. Although the violence subsided, some Quetta Hazara community members complained that increased security measures had turned their neighborhoods into isolated ghettos.
On May 22, Charan Jeet Singh, a leader of the Sikh community in Peshawar and an interfaith activist, was shot and killed by an unknown assailant in his Peshawar store.
On June 1, two gunmen shot and killed Naresh Kumar, a Hindu tailor, in his shop in Gwadar, Balochistan. Two other Hindu tailors were killed in the drive-by shooting. The motive of the assailants was unknown, and there were no arrests reported.
According to Ahmadiyya community representatives, there were two instances of what appeared to be targeted killings of Ahmadiyya community members by unknown individuals. On June 25, masked gunmen entered Qazi Shaban Ahmad Khan’s home in Lahore and shot and killed him. Community representatives said Khan had been threatened by the cleric of a nearby mosque in the preceding days. On August 29, armed robbers raided an Ahmadi-owned jewelry shop in Syedwala, killing Muhammad Zafrullah. According to community representatives, police chased the robbers and killed three of them.
There were numerous reports from Christian legal defense activists of young Christian women being abducted and raped by Muslim men. Victims said their attackers singled them out as vulnerable due to their Christian identity. The Pakistan Center for Law and Justice (PCLJ) stated in January a 28-year-old Muslim farm worker raped a 13-year-old Christian girl working as a sweeper at the same farm. When the girl’s father registered a complaint with local police, the accused reportedly told him to withdraw the complaint or the accused would rape his other daughters. According to CLAAS and the PCLJ, although the victims filed reports with local police, they were treated similarly to most rape cases, in which the cases rarely went to trial or received a verdict due to threats from the accused party’s family, lack of witnesses, or lack of interest from police.
Sources stated that some police branches took actions to improve conviction rates and overall service to victims of rape, regardless of religious affiliation. Inspectors general of police in Islamabad and each province introduced women’s desks at some police stations. Islamabad and Sindh police created formal standard operating procedures and trained policewomen for registering rape complaints. The procedures instruct the policewoman to accompany the victim to a hospital, unless the victim objected, in order to obtain DNA evidence. Despite these changes, by law, to obtain a conviction for rape, the prosecution needed to have corroborating witnesses, and legal experts stated that rape remained among the most difficult cases to prove in court.
According to CLAAS and PCLJ, there were reports of minority women being physically attacked when they spurning a man’s advances. In March Tahir Abbas, a Muslim man, threw Christian high school student Benish Paul from a second-story window and severely injured her. Abbas had urged Paul to convert and marry him. CLAAS stated that police took no action against the accused, and blamed the victim. In April in Sialkot 25-year-old Christian woman Asma Yaqoob suffered extensive burns when Muhammad Rizwan Gujjar threw gasoline on her and lit a match; she died in a hospital two days later. Legal activists said she had refused her attacker’s repeated demands to convert and marry.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a local NGO, said forced conversions of young women of minority faiths, often lower caste Hindu minor girls, continued to occur. The group reported Hindu girls were being kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, and married to Muslim men. The Hindu Marriage Act, 2017 formally recognized Hindu marriages across the country, which many activists said they viewed as beneficial to preventing forced conversions and marriages of women who were already married. However, the law also allowed for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism.
There were media reports of numerous incidents of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy. Following the Supreme Court verdict acquitting Asia Bibi of blasphemy charges, TLP leaders called for the assassination of the Supreme Court judges who ruled in the case and organized three days of nationwide protests that included damage to property and burning of vehicles.
In January a student in Charsadda, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, killed his teacher for marking him absent when he protested with the TLP, claiming the teacher committed blasphemy for opposing his activities.
The Express Tribune reported protesters gathered outside the home of an 18-year-old Christian man in Shahdara, Punjab in February. According to media reports, the crowd accused the man of circulating blasphemous content on social media. According to a post on social media, the crowd carried gasoline and threatened to burn all the houses of Christians. Police ended the protest by charging the man with blasphemy. The report said many Christian families fled the village out of fear. Pakistan Today reported that in September in Gujar Khan, Punjab, assailants attacked a Christian family in their home, beat them, looted jewelry and other valuables, and set the family’s house and van on fire. The attackers reportedly wanted to take the land for themselves and claimed the patronage of a powerful local politician. The Gujar Khan Police filed an incident report against 12 men, but only some were in custody at year’s end. The PCLJ provided legal assistance to the family. According to activists, the attackers threatened the family with a false blasphemy accusation if they did not withdraw their case.
Reports continued of attempts to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam. Rights activists reported victims of forced marriage and conversion were pressured and threatened into saying publicly they had entered into the marriage of their own free will. Christian and Hindu organizations stated that young women from their communities were particularly vulnerable to forced conversions. A report during the year by the NCHR said that Kalash youth were under pressure from Muslim school teachers to convert, and that 80 percent of Kalash converts to Islam were minors.
Throughout the year, Islamic organizations with varying degrees of political affiliation held conferences and rallies to support the doctrine of Khatm-e-Nabuwat. The events, which were often covered by English and vernacular media, featured anti-Ahmadiyya rhetoric, including the incitement of violence against Ahmadis. Speakers at these conferences called on the government to “stop the support of the Qadianis.” Conference speakers also asked the government to refrain from changing the current blasphemy law.
Ahmadis continued to report widespread societal harassment and discrimination against members of their community, especially during the summer election campaign, according to media and Ahmadiyya community reports.
On July 17, human rights activist and candidate for national and provincial assemblies Jibran Nasir faced a crowd in Karachi demanding he label Ahmadis as non-Muslim and state his own religious affiliation. Following his refusal to do so, the crowd reportedly became increasingly agitated, and police intervened. There were no injuries or arrests, but Nasir continued to receive threats for his positions supporting Ahmadis.
Christian activists continued to report widespread discrimination against Christians in private employment. They said Christians had difficulty finding jobs other than those involving menial labor; some advertisements for menial jobs even specified they were open only to Christian applicants.
According to the NCJP, the 2016 execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who was convicted of killing then-Governor of Punjab Province Salman Taseer in 2011 after Taseer publicly criticized the country’s blasphemy laws, and the 2018 Supreme Court acquittal of Asia Bibi continued to spur TLP and other religious groups to defend the blasphemy laws, sometimes by seeking out alleged blasphemers themselves. Thousands of persons continued to pay homage at Qadri’s grave, which his family had turned into a shrine, including Punjab Provincial Minister of Information Fayyaz ul Hassan Chohan, who was recorded paying his respects.
Observers reported that coverage in the English-language media of issues facing religious minorities continued, but that journalists faced threats for covering these issues. Following the government’s reversal of the appointment of prominent Ahmadi economist Atif Mian to the Prime Minister’s Council of Economic Advisers, English-language outlets such as the Daily Times and Dawn published editorials highly critical of the government’s “caving to extremists.”
Observers reported that Urdu-language media continued to show bias in reporting on minority religious groups, including multiple instances in which media censored references to Ahmadis on talk shows, used inflammatory language, or made inappropriate references to minorities. According to Ahmadiyya community reports, in February Geo TV aired an interview in which a politician praised former Foreign Minister Zafrullah Khan, an Amahdi. When the interview aired again the next day, the portion discussing Zafrullah Khan was cut.
Human rights and religious freedom activists and members of minority religious groups reported they continued to be cautious when speaking in favor of religious tolerance because of the societal climate of intolerance and fear. Some activists reported receiving death threats because of their work.
There continued to be reports of attacks on religious minorities’ holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols. In addition to the attacks on Ahmadi places of worship in Sialkot in May and in Faisalabad in August, NGOs reported attacks by angry crowds on churches in Burewala and Yousafwala, Punjab, in March, as well as in Kasur, Punjab, on August 2.
IN THIS SECTION: CHINA | TIBET (BELOW) | XINJIANG | HONG KONG | MACAU
The United States recognizes the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan autonomous prefectures and counties in other provinces to be part of the People’s Republic of China. The constitution of the People’s Republic of China states citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” Central government regulations implemented February 1 stipulate religious activity “must not harm national security” and place new restrictions on religious schools, donations, and travel. In the TAR and other Tibetan areas, authorities continued to engage in widespread interference in religious practices, especially in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries. There were reports of forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, prolonged detention without trial, and arrests of individuals due to their religious practices. Travel restrictions hindered traditional religious practices and pilgrimages. Repression increased around politically sensitive events, religious anniversaries, and the Dalai Lama’s birthday, according to numerous sources. Self-immolations leading to death in protest of government policies continued, and four individuals reportedly set themselves on fire and died during the year. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), reported in May torture, including sexual abuse of Tibetan Buddhist nuns, took place in a re-education camp in the TAR. According to TCHRD, authorities also subjected inmates to collective punishment, food and sleep deprivation, prolonged wall standing and beatings. According to local sources, during the year authorities continued an ongoing multi-year project to evict approximately 3,000 monks and nuns from Buddhist institutes at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, destroying as many as 1,500 of their residences and subjecting many of them to “patriotic and legal re-education.” Authorities often justified their interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by saying the religious institutions engaged in separatist or pro-independence activities, and undermined the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The government routinely denigrated the Dalai Lama, whom most Tibetan Buddhists revered as their most important spiritual leader, and forbade Tibetans from venerating him and other religious leaders associated with him.
Some Tibetans continued to encounter societal discrimination when seeking employment, engaging in business, and traveling for pilgrimage, according to multiple sources. Because expressions of Tibetan identity and religion were closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religion.
The U.S. government repeatedly pressed Chinese authorities to respect religious freedom for all people and to allow Tibetans to preserve, practice, teach, and develop their religious traditions and language without interference from the government. In July during the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, the Vice President and Secretary of State met with Kusho Golog Jigme, a former Tibetan political prisoner, to highlight continued U.S. government support for religious freedom in Tibet. U.S. government officials expressed concerns to the Chinese government at senior levels about the severe restrictions imposed on Tibetans’ ability to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom and cultural rights. Embassy and other U.S. officials urged the Chinese government to re-examine the policies that threaten Tibet’s distinct religious, cultural, and linguistic identity, including the continuing demolition campaign at the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute. U.S. officials underscored that decisions on the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should be made solely by faith leaders and also raised concerns about the continued disappearance of the Panchen Lama. While diplomatic access to the TAR remained tightly controlled, four U.S. visits occurred.
Section I. Religious Demography
According to official data from China’s most recent census in November 2010, 2,716,400 Tibetans make up 90 percent of the TAR’s total population. Han Chinese make up approximately 8 percent. Other ethnicities comprise the remainder. Some experts, however, believe the number of Han Chinese and other non-Tibetans living there is significantly underreported. Outside the TAR, official census data show Tibetans constitute 24.4 percent of the total population in Qinghai Province, 2.1 percent in Sichuan Province, 1.8 percent in Gansu Province, and 0.3 percent in Yunnan Province, although the percentage of Tibetans is much higher within jurisdictions of these provinces designated as autonomous for Tibetans.
Most Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, although a sizeable minority practices Bon, a pre-Buddhist indigenous religion; small minorities practice Islam, Catholicism, or Protestantism. Some scholars estimate there are as many as 400,000 Bon followers across the Tibetan Plateau who follow the Dalai Lama, and some of whom consider themselves Tibetan Buddhist. Scholars also estimate there are up to 5,000 Tibetan Muslims and 700 Tibetan Catholics in the TAR. Other residents of traditionally Tibetan areas include Han Chinese, many of whom practice Buddhism (including Tibetan Buddhism), Taoism, Confucianism, traditional folk religions, or profess atheism; Hui Muslims; and non-Tibetan Catholics and Protestants.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because expressions of Tibetan identity and religion are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religion. Tibetans, particularly those who wore traditional and religious attire, regularly reported incidents in which they were denied hotel rooms, avoided by taxis, and discriminated against in employment opportunities or business transactions.
According to local sources, in November 13 monks from Kirti Monastery were in Chengdu for scheduled medical examinations, but they missed the appointment. Taxi drivers were not willing to serve them because they were Tibetan monks. Young Tibetan entrepreneurs in Chengdu reported Chinese companies often denied them employment opportunities once the employers identified them in person as ethnic Tibetans, despite prior offers of employment when discussions had taken place solely by phone.
Many Han Buddhists continued to demonstrate interest in Tibetan Buddhism and donated money to Tibetan monasteries and nunneries, according to local sources in such monasteries and nunneries. Tibetan Buddhist monks frequently visited Chinese cities to provide religious instruction to Han Buddhists. In addition, a growing number of Han Buddhists visited Tibetan monasteries, although officials sometimes imposed restrictions that made it difficult for Han Buddhists to conduct long-term study at many monasteries in Tibetan areas.
IN THIS SECTION: CHINA | TIBET | XINJIANG (BELOW) | HONG KONG | MACAU
This separate section on Xinjiang is included given the scope and severity of reported religious freedom violations specific to the region this year.
Multiple media and NGOs estimated the government detained at least 800,000 and up to possibly more than 2 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other Muslim groups, mostly Chinese citizens, in specially built or converted detention facilities in Xinjiang and subjected them to forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity since April 2017. There were reports of deaths among detainees. Authorities maintained extensive and invasive security and surveillance, in part to gain information regarding individuals’ religious adherence and practices. The government continued to cite concerns over the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as grounds to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Muslims in Xinjiang. The reported intensification of detentions accompanied authorities’ implementation of a Xinjiang counterextremism regulation, enacted in March 2017, which identified many of the behaviors deemed “extremist,” as well as continued implementation of the National Counterterrorism Law, revised during 2018, which addressed “religious extremism.” In October the Standing Committee of the 12th People’s Congress in Xinjiang revised its regulation to insert guidance on “vocational skill education training centers.” Authorities in Xinjiang punished schoolchildren, university students, and their family members for praying and barred youths from participating in religious activities, including fasting, during Ramadan. The government sought the forcible repatriation of Uighur Muslims from foreign countries and detained some of those who returned.
Uighur Muslims reported severe societal discrimination in employment and business opportunities. In Xinjiang, tension between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese continued.
Embassy officials met with government officials regarding the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. According to a statement issued at the July 24-26 U.S. government-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, “We are particularly troubled by reports of the Chinese government’s deepening crackdown on Uighurs and members of other Muslim minority groups… [including] the detention of hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, in facilities ranging from makeshift holding centers to prisons, ostensibly for political re-education,” in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. There are reports of deaths in these facilities. We call on the Chinese government to release immediately all those arbitrarily detained.” On September 21, the Secretary of State said, “Uighurs are held against their will in so-called reeducation camps where they’re forced to endure severe political indoctrination and other awful abuses. Their religious beliefs are decimated.” On December 21, in discussing why China remained a Country of Particular Concern, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom said what is happening to Muslim Uighurs is one of the “worst human rights situations in the world.” In October the then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations said, “In China, the government is engaged in the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities that is straight out of George Orwell.” She added, “It is the largest internment of civilians in the world today” and “It may be the largest since World War II.”
Section I. Religious Demography
A 2015 report on Xinjiang issued by the State Council Information Office (SCIO) states Uighur, Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities constitute approximately14.2 million residents in Xinjiang, or 61 percent of the total Xinjiang population. Uighur Muslims live primarily in Xinjiang.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because the government and individuals closely link religion, culture, and ethnicity, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of societal discrimination as being solely based on religious identity. Muslims in Xinjiang faced discrimination in hiring and retaining their positions.
In Xinjiang, policies discriminating against Uighurs, as well as greater access to economic opportunities for Han Chinese, exacerbated tensions between Uighur Muslims and both the Han Chinese and the government.