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Sri Lanka

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion.  The law recognizes four religions:  Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity.  The constitution and other laws give Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and commit the government to protecting it while respecting the rights of religious minorities.  According to representatives of religious minority communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government officials at the local level continued to engage in systematic discrimination against religious minorities, especially Muslims and converts to “free” (nondenominational and evangelical) Christian groups.  Local government officials and police reportedly responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated violence against Muslim and Christian minorities.  There were some reports of government officials being complicit in physical attacks on and harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship.  In March the government declared a 10-day nationwide state of emergency, restricted social media access, and arrested more than 100 persons in response to anti-Muslim riots in Kandy District in which mobs attacked Muslim civilians, shops, homes, and mosques, resulting in at least two deaths, 28 injured, and extensive property damage to Muslims’ houses, shops, and mosques.  According to the media, in February the government deployed police after at least five persons were wounded and several shops and a mosque damaged in anti-Muslim riots in Ampara District.  Evangelical and nondenominational Christian churches continued to state police harassed them and local government officials often sided with the religious majority in a given community.  Activists reported that on April 29, a group of Buddhists and Hindus forcibly entered the Sunday service of the Apostolic Church in Padukka in Colombo and threatened congregants.  Police demanded the Christians stop the worship service immediately.  According to activists, on July 8, a group of villagers and Buddhist monks disrupted a Living Christian Assembly service in Sevanapitiya, Polonnaruwa, stating it was a Hindu-majority village.  The police ordered the Christian group to stop holding services.  At year’s end, the government had not formally registered any free Christian groups as religious organizations.  Local police and government officials reportedly continued requiring places of worship to obtain approval to conduct religious activities, citing a 2011 government circular that was no longer in effect.  Police and local officials continued to cite a 2008 government circular to prohibit the construction of or to close down Christian and Muslim places of worship, despite the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs (Ministry of Buddha Sasana) determining in May that the circular only applied to Buddhist facilities.

Attacks on religious minorities continued.  As of October the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented 74 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services.  According to civil society groups, social media campaigns targeting religious minorities fueled hatred and incited violence.  Buddhist nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, Buddhist Power Force) continued to promote the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrate religious and ethnic minorities, especially via social media during the Kandy riots in March.  Civil society organizations continued efforts to strengthen the capacity of religious and community leaders to engage in peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees that were created following the end of the civil war in 2010 between the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority (mainly Hindu with a significant Christian minority).

The U.S. embassy repeatedly urged political leaders to defend religious minorities and protect religious freedom for all, emphasizing the importance of religious minorities in the national reconciliation process.  Embassy personnel met often with religious and civic leaders to foster interfaith dialogue.  The U.S. government also funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith and interreligious cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building.  In March the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities attended a conference led by the Religious Freedom Institute and engaged with the government and civil society leaders.  He met with religious and community leaders and senior government officials to discuss religious freedom.  The Ambassador publicly condemned the anti-Muslim violence in Kandy in March.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

According to the constitution, every person is “entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” including the freedom to choose a religion.  The constitution gives citizens the right to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, both in public and in private.  The constitution accords Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and requires the government to protect it, although it does not recognize it as the state religion.  A 2003 Supreme Court ruling determined the state is constitutionally required to protect only Buddhism, and other religions do not have the same right to state protection.  The same ruling also held that no fundamental right to proselytize exists or is protected under the constitution.

In 2017 the Supreme Court determined the right to propagate one’s religion is not protected by the constitution.

The law recognizes four religions:  Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity.  There is no registration requirement for central religious bodies of these four groups.  New religious groups, including groups affiliated with the four recognized religions, must register with the government to obtain approval to construct new places of worship, sponsor religious worker (missionary) visas/immigration permits, operate schools, and apply for subsidies for religious education.  Religious organizations may also seek incorporation by an act of parliament, which requires a simple majority and affords religious groups state recognition.

The government adheres to a 2008 ministerial circular, introduced by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, requiring all groups, regardless of their religion, to receive permission from the ministry to register and construct new places of worship.  In June 2017, a Supreme Court ruling effectively upheld the registration requirements.  In May the Ministry of Buddha Sasana ruled that the 2008 circular on registration and construction of religious facilities only applied to Buddhist religious sites.  According to some legal experts, however, there is no explicit basis in national law for compulsory registration of places of worship with the state.

Specific government ministers are responsible for addressing the concerns of each major religious community.  Departmental and ministerial assignments are based on the religion of the respective incumbent minister and change when a new minister of a different faith takes office – a customary political tradition that has spanned the past several governments.

Religion is a compulsory subject in both public and private school curricula.  Parents may elect to have their children study Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity, provided sufficient demand (at least 15 students) exists within the school for the chosen subject.  Students may not opt out of religious instruction.  All schools teaching the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus must use the Ministry of Education curriculum on religion, which covers the four main religions and is compulsory for the General Certificate Education Ordinary Level exams (equivalent to U.S. grade 12).  International schools not following the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus are not required to teach religious studies.

Matters related to family law, including divorce, child custody, and property inheritance, are adjudicated either under customary law of the ethnic or religious group in question or under the country’s civil law.  Religious community members, however, report the practice varies by region, and numerous exceptions exist.  Sharia and cultural practice typically govern marriages and divorces of Muslims while civil law applies to most property rights.  According to civil society groups in the Northern Province, civil law governs marriages while the Thesawalamai (Hindu) customary law often governs the division of property.  Civil law also governs most marriages of Sinhalese and Tamils of various religions, including mixed marriages or those of individuals who claim no religious affiliation.

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

Government Practices

On March 6, the government imposed a nationwide 10-day state of emergency, restricted access to social media, and deployed hundreds of police following several days of anti-Muslim attacks in Kandy District that left two dead and 28 injured.  According to media reports, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist gangs perpetrated the violence, which reportedly began after a group of Muslim men in the town of Digana was accused of killing a Sinhalese Buddhist over a traffic dispute.  The Muslim Council of Sri Lanka said rioters thoroughly damaged 33 houses, partially damaged 256 houses, and destroyed 163 shops and 47 vehicles.  In addition, a number of mosques were damaged in various locations.  Police arrested more than 100 persons.  According to some local activists and the media, however, police did not intervene in a timely fashion to stem the rioting.  On March 17, the Terrorism Investigation Division arrested Amith Weerasinghe, leader of Maha Sohon Balakaya, a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist group, in connection with the Kandy riots.  The Kandy High Court released Weerasinghe and five others on bail on October 29.  As of year’s end, police had made no more arrests, but many cases remained pending.

NCEASL said free Christian groups continued to state police and local government officials were complicit in physical attacks on and harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship.  Christian groups said officials and police often sided with the religious majority in a given community.

Christian religious freedom media outlets reported that, according to NCEASL, in October a group of unidentified persons abducted a pastor in Avissawella and held him for 24 hours.  The pastor was returning home by motorbike when a police officer flagged him down.  The media outlets stated the group beat him and administered electric shocks, threatened him, and told him to stop his religious worship activities in the area.

According to media reports, on February 27, the government deployed police to contain the situation after an anti-Muslim riot in Ampara District in the Eastern Province left at least five persons wounded and several shops and a mosque damaged.  The attack occurred after a group of Sinhalese accused a Muslim shop owner of incorporating “sterilization pills” into food.  The online news outlet reported President Maithripala Sirisena said such incidents were detrimental to reconciliation in the country, and that Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, leader of the opposition Tamil National Alliance party, condemned the attacks and called for “stern action” against the perpetrators.  Siraj Mashoor, a political activist based in Ampara District, told the media the police response was “rather slow.”

On April 29, according to local activists, a group of approximately 20 persons, including local Buddhists and Hindus, forcibly entered the Apostolic Church, Padukka, located in Colombo, during the Sunday service and threatened congregants.  Multiple individuals struck a female congregant and the owner of the home in which the church meets.  Police intervened and brought the attackers and congregants to the police station in Padukka.  According to members of the congregation, the police officer in charge demanded the Christians stop their religious worship activities immediately and told the others to file a complaint against the Christians if they continued.  He also reportedly scolded the pastor’s wife in what activists described as derogatory language and refused to accept a complaint regarding the assault on the owner of the premises.

On July 8, according to NGO reports, a mob from the surrounding villages and four Buddhist monks forcibly entered a Living Christian Assembly church in Sevanapitiya, Polonnaruwa.  One of the Buddhist monks pushed the pastor aside, physically assaulted a congregant, and seized two Bibles that were in the church and took them away.  The victims reportedly stated the mob claimed that Sevanapitiya was a Hindu-majority village and the pastor would not be allowed to enter the village and conduct services.  Later that day, according to NGO reports, the police officer-in-charge of the Welikande Police Station and a Buddhist monk came to the church and ordered the Christian group to stop holding services there.  The incident occurred on land under the jurisdiction of the Mahaweli Development Authority, which reportedly often prohibits unregistered congregations from worshiping on state land under its control without prior permission from officials.

In two separate instances in March and July the government paid compensation to the victims of 2014 anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama, in which, according to media reports, four persons died, 80 were injured, and 200 houses and 73 commercial buildings were damaged.  As of year’s end, some court cases were pending.

The Department of Christian Religious Affairs launched a public awareness campaign to encourage local congregations of nondenominational groups to register as religious organizations in 2016, but at year’s end the government had not registered any new groups because a political decision on whether or not the ministry would register these groups was still pending, according to officials.  Instead, unregistered free Christian groups continued to incorporate as commercial trusts, legal societies, or NGOs to engage in financial transactions, open bank accounts, and hold property.  Without formal government recognition via the registration process, however, nondenominational churches said they could not sponsor religious worker visas for visiting clergy and faced restrictions on holding meetings or constructing new places of worship.  According to free Christian groups, they experienced two major difficulties in complying with local officials’ registration requirements.  First, rural congregations often could not obtain deeds to land due to the degradation of hard copy Land Registry documentation and incomplete land surveys.  Second, without the consent of the majority of the local community or the local Buddhist temple, local councils often opted not to approve the construction of new religious buildings.  Church leaders said they repeatedly appealed to local government officials and the ministry responsible for Christian religious affairs for assistance, with limited success.

According to members of the Christian groups in question, local authorities sometimes demanded Christian groups stop worship activities or relocate their places of worship outside the local jurisdiction, ostensibly to maintain community peace.  Local police and government officials reportedly continued to cite a 2011 government circular requiring places of worship to obtain approval to conduct religious activities.  The Ministry of Buddha Sasana, however, revoked the 2011 circular in 2012.  Police also reportedly cited the 2008 circular on construction of religious facilities to prohibit, impede, and close down Christian and Muslim places of worship.

According to Christian and Muslim civil society groups, official harassment often happened in concert with harassment by local Buddhist monks and Buddhist nationalist organizations.  According to civil society sources, on January 12, the pastor of Jesus Evangelical Church in Kallady, Batticaloa received a letter from the Verugal divisional secretary instructing the pastor to cease conducting worship activities at his residence due to opposition from the villagers.

According to local sources, on January 19, the government land officer in the Ampara District Secretariat demanded the pastor of an Assemblies of God church stop worship activities immediately.  The land officer reportedly said the pastor had no constitutional right to engage in religious activities and the regulations of the Mahaweli Development Authority superseded constitutional protections afforded residents of other parts of the country.  The sources stated government officials threatened to seize the church’s land and tried to coerce the pastor into signing a letter promising not to hold Christian services at the site.  The pastor, however, refused to sign.  Later that same day, the pastor met with the additional district secretary (ADS), who he said forcibly took the pastor’s mobile phone to ensure that he would not record their conversation.  The ADS then reportedly reiterated the statements of the land officer and demanded the pastor stop conducting prayer meetings at his personal residence.  When the pastor refused, the ADS called a Buddhist monk in the area and told him the monks could now decide on a course of action.

According to NCEASL, on October 7 and 14, a crowd led by a Buddhist monk threatened a pastor of the Assemblies of God in Bulathkohupitiya in Kegala District and his family during Sunday worship services.  The monk demanded the pastor produce evidence of the church’s registration and a list of its congregants.  Police officers from the Bulathkohupitiya police station reprimanded and dispersed the crowd, stating everyone had the right to practice their religion freely.  The officer-in-charge, however, requested the pastor refrain from filing a formal complaint and convened a meeting on October 15 among all parties.  The pastor stated that during the meeting two Buddhist monks, the Bulathkohupitiya divisional secretary, and a neighbor living next to the church premises demanded the pastor stop holding services in the church.  The pastor, however, refused to comply and the police said he would need to attend another meeting at a later date.  The case remained pending at year’s end.

Civil society groups and local politicians continued to state the construction of Buddhist shrines by Buddhist groups and the military in the predominantly Hindu and Muslim Northern and Eastern Provinces constituted religious intimidation, as some shrines were built in areas with few, if any, Buddhist residents.  According to local politicians in the north, the military sometimes acted outside its official capacity and aided in the construction of Buddhist statues.

According to civil society reports, on September 5, local residents resisted an attempt by a group of Buddhists to place a statue of Buddha on Kurunthur Mountain in Kumilamunai, Mullaitivu.  The Buddhists stated there was an ancient Buddhist connection to the mountain.  Local residents said the mountain had only ever had a Hindu temple and disputed the historical existence of any Buddhist temple.  On October 5, Buddhist monks told the Mullaitivu Magistrate Court an official Buddhist archeological site was located on the site and requested the court permit construction of a shrine there.  The court refused to grant permission.  The government’s Archaeological Department told the court it had deputized local Buddhist monks to carry out an archeological site survey since the Archaeological Department was short of funds.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses community, the group continued to have difficulty obtaining approval to build houses of worship.  Local government officials cited the 2008 circular and forwarded all new Kingdom Hall construction applications to the Ministry of Tourism Development and Christian Affairs.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, during the year the ministry did not issue any approvals for building applications, even when local authorities had no objections.

Jehovah’s Witnesses said that the Madampe Chilaw local council in Puttalam District, Northwestern Province, rejected an application to build a Kingdom Hall, stating “the approval cannot be granted as this can cause religious disharmony in the area.”  The Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.  At a meeting convened by the Human Rights Commission on August 9, the council said the proposed building site was located in an area that had experienced violent clashes between Christians and Buddhists, and offered to approve a building application on a different piece of land.  The matter remained unresolved at year’s end.

On September 11, the Cabinet of Ministers approved a proposal submitted by the minister of Hindu religious affairs to enact legislation banning animal sacrifices at places of worship.  The bill, which was pending in parliament at year’s end, would prohibit the sacrifice of any animal, including birds, on the premises of or within a Hindu temple.

Although religious education remained compulsory in state-funded schools, not all schools had sufficient resources to teach all four recognized religions, and according to civil society groups, some students were forced to study religions other than their own.  Government schools frequently experienced a shortage of teachers, sometimes requiring available teachers to teach the curriculum of a faith different from their own.

Religious schools continued to receive state funding for facilities and personnel and to be under the purview of the central government and/or provincial ministry of education.  While the law requires government and semigovernment schools, some religiously affiliated, to accept students of all faiths, there were some reports of schools refusing students admission on religious grounds.  According to human rights groups, in August the principal of a Catholic school in Wattala refused to admit a child to school because she was a “non-RC (other than Roman Catholic) Christian.”


Executive Summary

The Interim National Constitution provides for freedom of religious creed and the rights to worship, assemble, and maintain places of worship.  Some laws and government practices are based on the government’s interpretation of a sharia system of jurisprudence, which human rights groups state does not provide protections for some religious minorities, including minority Muslim groups.  The law criminalizes apostasy, blasphemy, conversion from Islam to another religion, and questioning or criticizing the Quran, the Sahaba (the Companions of the Prophet), or the wives of the Prophet.  While the law does not specifically address proselytizing, the government has criminally defined and prosecuted proselytizing as a form of apostasy.  According to international reports, on October 13, a group of security agents raided the private home of Tajedin Yousif in South Darfur and arrested 13 Christian men who were participating in a series of prayer meetings.  Nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports stated that of the 13 persons arrested, 10 were of Darfuri origin and converts from Islam.  The reports said the individuals were abused in detention, threatened with apostasy charges, and forced to denounce Christianity.  Authorities released the detainees within two weeks and dropped the charges against them.  Human rights groups continued to accuse the government of interfering in internal religious community disputes over the sale of church lands to investors, including on cases related to the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) and the Sudan Church of Christ (SCOC), and to highlight the inability of these Christian groups to seek legal recourse.  According to church leaders, authorities continued to influence the internal affairs of churches through intimidation, harassment, and arrests of those opposed to government interference within evangelical Christian churches.  In February authorities demolished a church belonging to the SCOC in the Haj Youssef neighborhood of Khartoum North and confiscated the property of the church, including Bibles and pews.  As of year’s end, the government had not provided compensation for the damage nor provided an alternative space for worshipping, according to church leaders.  While the law does not prohibit the practice of Shia Islam, authorities took actions against Shia Muslims.  Some Shia Muslims reported authorities continued to prevent them from publishing articles about Shia beliefs.  According to multiple sources, authorities again regularly charged and convicted Christian and Muslim women with “indecent dress” for wearing pants and fined and lashed them.  The Ministry of Education for Khartoum State continued to mandate that Christian schools operate on Sundays in order to meet minimum required instruction hours.

Muslims and non-Muslims said a small and sometimes vocal minority of Salafist groups that advocated violence continued to be a concern.  Some Christian leaders noted the lack of representation of minority religious groups within government offices and the lack of a strong Council of Churches to advocate for the legal rights of churches and their members.

In high-level discussions with the government, U.S. officials encouraged respect for religious freedom and the protection of minority religious groups.  The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officials raised specific cases of demolitions of houses of worship and court cases against religious leaders with government officials, including officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  They also emphasized the government’s need to take concrete steps to improve religious.  Embassy officials stressed that respect for religious freedom is crucial to improved relations with the United States and a precursor to peace in the country.  In meetings with the minister of foreign affairs, the Charge d’Affaires raised the denial of licenses for new churches, the demolition of houses of worship without an alternative, the harassment of Muslim religious minorities, government interference in internal church affairs, and enforcement of “indecent dress” laws.  The embassy maintained close contact with religious leaders, faith-based groups, and NGOs, and embassy representatives monitored and attended many of the legal proceedings for those prosecuted in connection with their religious beliefs.  In May the embassy cohosted a workshop on interreligious dialogue with the Canadian embassy in Khartoum and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  In his opening remarks, the Charge d’Affaires stressed the importance of leaders from different faith backgrounds and professions ensuring that their laws and actions are in line with international guiding principles of religious freedom.

Since 1999, Sudan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.  On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated Sudan as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the restriction in the annual Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act on making certain appropriated funds available for assistance to the Government of Sudan, currently set forth in section 7042(i) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2018 (Div. K, P. L. 115-141), and any provision of law that is the same or substantially the same as this provision, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The Interim National Constitution, passed in 2004, provides for freedom of religious creed and worship, and grants individuals the right to declare their religious beliefs and manifest them through worship, education, practice, or performance, subject to requirements of laws and public order.  The constitution prohibits the coercion of individuals to adopt a faith they do not believe in or to engage in rites or services without consent.  The constitution also states that nationally enacted legislation shall be based on sharia.  The government has not amended the constitution to reflect the 2011 independence of South Sudan.

The law does not permit Shia Muslims to hold worship services; however, they are allowed to enter Sunni mosques to pray.

The constitution allows religious groups to establish and maintain humanitarian and charitable institutions, acquire property and materials related to their religious rites and customs, write and disseminate religious publications, teach religion, solicit public and private contributions, select their own leaders, observe days of rest, celebrate religious holidays, and communicate with constituents on matters of religion.

The constitution denies recognition to any political party that discriminates based on religion and specifically prohibits religious discrimination against candidates for the national civil service.  Constitutional violations of freedom of religion may be pursued in the Constitutional Court; however, cases of discrimination often originate and are addressed in lower courts.

National laws are based on a sharia system of jurisprudence.  The criminal code states the law, including at the state and local level, shall be based on sharia sources and include hudood, qisas, and diyah principles (specific serious crimes and related restitution and punishment).  The criminal code takes into consideration multiple sharia schools of jurisprudence (madhahib).  The Islamic Panel of Scholars and Preachers (Fiqh Council) determines under which conditions a particular school of thought will apply.  Other criminal and civil laws, including public order laws, are determined at the state and local level.

The president appoints the Fiqh Council, an official body of 40 Muslim religious scholars responsible for explaining and interpreting Islamic jurisprudence, to four-year renewable terms.  The council advises the government and issues fatwas on religious matters, including levying customs duties on the importation of religious materials, payment of interest on loans for public infrastructure, and determination of government-allotted annual leave for Islamic holidays.  The council’s opinions are not legally binding.  Muslim religious scholars may present differing religious and political viewpoints in public.

The criminal code does not explicitly mention proselytizing, but it criminalizes both conversion from Islam to any other faith (apostasy) and acts that encourage conversion from Islam.  Those who convert from Islam to another religion as well as any Muslim who questions or criticizes the teachings of the Quran, the Sahaba (the Companions of the Prophet), or the wives of the Prophet may also be considered guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death.  Those charged with apostasy are allowed to repent within a period decided by the court but may still face up to five years in prison.  The law does not prohibit individuals from converting to Islam from another religion.

The criminal code’s section on “religious offenses” criminalizes various acts committed against any religion.  These include insulting religion, blasphemy, disturbing places of worship, and trespassing upon places of burial.  The criminal code states, “whoever insults any religion, their rights or beliefs or sanctifications or seeks to excite feelings of contempt and disrespect against the believers thereof” shall be punished with up to six months in prison, flogging of up to 40 lashes, and/or a fine.  The article includes provisions that prescribe penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment and 40 lashes for any non-Muslim who curses the Prophet Muhammad, his wives, or members of his respective households.

The Ministry of Guidance and Endowments (MGE) regulated Islamic religious practice, including activities such as reviewing Friday sermons at mosques, supervised churches, and was responsible for guaranteeing equal treatment for all religious groups.  The MGE also provided recommendations to relevant ministries regarding religious issues government ministries encounter.  In September President Omar al-Bashir dissolved the previous government and established a restructured government that eliminated the MGE.  The next month Bashir created a Higher Council for Guidance and Endowments (HCGE) and appointed the former minister of the MGE to be the council’s chairperson.  The HCGE maintains the same mandate as the former ministry.

In October the government formed a new interagency committee to discuss religious coexistence and religious issues more broadly with a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs chairing the committee and members from the security services, HCGE, Human Rights Commission, Ministry of Education, and other bodies.

To gain official recognition by the government, religious groups must register at the state level with the HCGE, or a related ministry such as the Ministry of Culture, or the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), depending on the nature of the group and its activities.  The HAC oversees NGOs and nonprofit organizations.  Religious groups that also engage in humanitarian or development activities must register as nonprofit NGOs by filing a standard application required by the HAC for both local and international NGOs.  Only religious groups that register are eligible to apply for other administrative benefits, including land ownership, tax exemptions, and work permits.

The law does not permit Shia Muslims to hold worship services; however, they are allowed to enter Sunni mosques to pray.

The state-mandated education curriculum requires that all students receive religious instruction.  The curriculum further mandates that all schools, including international schools and private schools operated by Christian groups, provide Islamic education classes to Muslim students, from preschool through the second year of university.  The law does not require non-Muslims to attend Islamic education classes, and it mandates that public schools provide Christian students with other religious instruction if there are at least 15 Christian students in a class.  According to the Ministry of Education, following the separation of South Sudan, this number was not reached in most schools.  Non-Muslim students therefore normally attend religious study classes of their own religion outside of regular school hours to fulfill the religious instruction requirement.

The Ministry of Education is responsible for determining the religious education curriculum.  According to the ministry, the Islamic curriculum must follow the Sunni tradition.

The HCGE determines, along with the state-level entities responsible for land grants and planning, whether to provide authorization or permits to build new houses of worship, taking into account zoning concerns such as the distance between religious institutions and population density (the allocation of land to religious entities is determined at the state level).  The HCGE is mandated to assist both mosques and churches in obtaining tax exemptions and duty-free permits to import items such as furniture and religious items for houses of worship; the HCGE also assists visitors attending meetings sponsored by religious groups and activities to obtain tourist visas through the Ministry of Interior.  The HCGE coordinates travel for the Hajj and Umra.

Public order laws, based largely on the government’s interpretation of sharia, vary by state.  These laws prohibit “indecent” dress and other “offenses of honor, reputation, and public morality.”  Authorities primarily enforce such laws in large cities and enforce laws governing indecent dress against both Muslims and non-Muslims.  The criminal code states that an act is contrary to public decency if it violates another person’s modesty.  In practice, the special Public Order Police and courts, which derive their authority from the Ministry of Interior, have wide latitude in interpreting what dress or behaviors are indecent and in arresting and passing sentence on accused offenders.

Some aspects of the criminal code specify punishments for Muslims based on government interpretation of sharia punishment principles.  For example, the criminal code stipulates 40 lashes for a Muslim who drinks, possesses, or sells alcohol; no punishment is prescribed for a non-Muslim who drinks or possesses alcohol in private.  The criminal code stipulates if a non-Muslim is arrested for public drinking, or possessing or selling alcohol, he or she is subject to trial, but the punishment will not be based on hudood principles.  The penalty for adultery with a married person is hanging and for an unmarried person is 100 lashes.  An unmarried man could additionally be punished with expatriation for up to one year.  These penalties apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims.  Adultery is defined as sexual activity outside of marriage, prior to marriage, or in a marriage that is determined to be void.

Under the law, the justice minister may release any prisoner who memorizes the Quran during his or her prison term.  The release requires a recommendation for parole from the prison’s director general, a religious committee composed of the Sudan Scholars Organization, and members of the Fiqh Council, which consults with the MGE to ensure decisions, comply with Islamic legal regulations.

Under the law, a Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman (although most Sudanese sharia schools of thought advise that the non-Muslim women must be “people of the book,” i.e., either Christian or Jewish).  A Muslim woman, however, legally may marry only a Muslim man.  A Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim man could be charged with adultery.

Separate family courts exist for Muslims and non-Muslims to address personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and child custody, according to their religion.  By law, in custody dispute cases where one parent is Muslim and the other is Christian, courts grant custody to the Muslim parent if there is any concern that the non-Muslim parent would raise the child in a religion other than Islam.

According to Islamic personal status laws, Christians (including children) may not inherit assets from a Muslim.

Government offices and businesses are closed on Friday for prayers and follow an Islamic workweek of Sunday to Thursday.  The law requires employers to give Christian employees two hours off on Sundays for religious activity.  Leave from work is also granted to celebrate Orthodox Christmas, an official state holiday, along with several key Islamic holidays.

An interministerial committee, which includes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), and in some cases Military Intelligence, must approve foreign clergy and other foreigners seeking a residency permit.

The constitution’s bill of rights says all rights and freedoms enshrined in international human rights treaties, covenants, and instruments ratified by the country are integral parts of the constitution’s bill of rights.

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

Government Practices

According to international reports, on October 13, a group of security agents raided the private home of Tajedin Yousifa, a Christian pastor, in South Darfur and arrested 13 Christian men who were there for a series of prayer meetings.  Of those arrested, reports stated 10 were of Darfuri origin and converts from Islam.  NISS was reportedly monitoring the home and had two pickup trucks parked outside the home.  NISS agents reportedly took the individuals to an unknown NISS facility in Nyala, where they were interrogated.  NISS then transferred the detainees to a Nyala police station on October 18.  Authorities initially charged the men with disturbing public peace but released 12 of the detainees on October 21 with no charges.  All detainees were reportedly in poor health upon release and required medical attention for injuries sustained in police detention.  Authorities kept the pastor in detention for additional questioning.  Initial reports indicated that authorities also charged him with apostasy and crimes against the state, which carry a death sentence if convicted.  Authorities released the pastor on October 23 and dropped all charges.  Authorities stated they also considered the group to be supporters of the leader of an armed Darfuri rebel movement.

In August the Omdurman Criminal Court convicted Samson Hamad Al-Haras, a member of the government-backed Presbyterian Evangelical Community Committee (ECC), of murder in the killing of SPEC elder Yonan Abdullah during an April 2017 altercation between ECC supporters and opponents within SPEC over control of the SPEC-operated Omdurman Evangelical Church School.  Al-Haras was sentenced to death.  The other 60 or more SPEC leaders arrested in opposition to the ECC’s efforts to sell the school remained in various stages of prosecution.

On December 28, government security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at a group of 300-400 worshippers leaving a mosque associated with the opposition National Umma Party in Omdurman following Friday prayers.  The incident occurred on the 10th day of antigovernment demonstrations and protests of rising food prices, and activists had urged protesters to gather in large numbers following Friday prayers.

According to reports, the Public Order Police frequently charged women with “indecent dress” and “indecent behavior,” and there were numerous court convictions.  Religious leaders and government officials again reported the Public Order Police fined and lashed Muslim and Christian women on a daily basis in Khartoum for wearing pants and other dress the police considered indecent.  In November the Public Order Police arrested a Coptic singer after she performed at a concert for which the organizer had not received the proper permit.  The police searched the singer’s private phone while she was in custody and charged her with indecent behavior because of photographs they found on her phone.  A judge convicted her and sentenced her to 10 lashes and a fine of 5,000 Sudanese pounds ($110).  Authorities lashed her immediately following the conviction.

Minority religious groups, including Muslim minority groups and especially Shia Muslims, expressed concern they could be convicted of apostasy if they expressed beliefs or discussed religious practices that differed from those of the Sunni majority group.  Some Shia reported they remained prohibited from writing articles about their beliefs and religious issues remained a redline for news media to address.  Many individuals from Muslim minorities, such as Shia or Quranist groups, reported that their places of worship had remained closed since 2014.  According to lawyers working on the Quranists’ issues, the Constitutional Court dismissed the court case against them due to mounting international pressure and ordered that the group not gather again.  The lawyers also stated the Quranists needed to keep a low profile regarding their places of worship, as well as religious events and gatherings.

SPEC leaders continued to face lengthy and prolonged trials for charges including “criminal mischief” and “trespassing,” after they continued to use properties belonging to the SPEC.

In early July, the Pentecostal Cultural Centre, located in downtown Khartoum opposite Unity Catholic School, reopened.  The government had closed the center in 2014 and temporarily turned it into a NISS office after the government claimed the church did not have legal documentation proving ownership of the building.

In September an Omdurman court ruled the SCOC national leadership committee led by Moderator Ayoub Tilliano had ownership of the SCOC headquarters in Omdurman.  The leadership committee was engaged in a legal case over ownership of the property following a 2015 raid by security forces on SCOC headquarters, after which the security forces confiscated all their legal documents and brought charges against the leadership council for trespassing.  The committee received the legal documents back from security services on September 24.

Government security services were reported to continue to monitor mosques closely for Friday sermon content.  Multiple sources stated authorities provided talking points and required imams to use them in their sermons.  If an imam’s sermon diverged from the government-provided talking points, the imam would be removed from his position.  Some individuals from minority religious groups expressed concern that the Friday sermons encouraged discriminatory or hateful beliefs against the minority groups.

Prisons provided prayer spaces for Muslims, but sources stated that authorities did not allow Shia prayers.  Shia prisoners were permitted to join prayer services led by Sunni imams.  Some prisons, such as the Women’s Prison in Omdurman, had dedicated areas for Christian observance.  Christian clergy held services in prisons, but access was irregular.

The government continued to state it did not have non-Muslim teachers available to teach Christian courses in public schools.  Some public schools excused non-Muslims from Islamic education classes.  Some private schools, including Christian schools, received government-provided Muslim teachers to teach Islamic subjects, but non-Muslim students were not required to attend those classes.  Most Christian students attended religious education classes at their churches based on the availability of volunteer teachers from their own church communities.  Their families reported that the children’s schools did not usually recognize the classes, and students in those cases did not receive credit.

On February 11, authorities demolished the SPEC church in the Haj Youssef neighborhood of Khartoum North.  Police arrived at the scene following Sunday worship services and ordered congregants to vacate the premises immediately.  Police then confiscated the property inside the church, including the pews and Bibles, and razed the building with a bulldozer.  Church leaders said they had no advance warning of the demolition.  The church had already been seized by a local businessman, who claimed ownership of the church despite ownership deeds in the name of the church dating back to 1989.  At year’s end, the church was engaged in an appeal of the decision and the confiscation of the church’s property, but authorities repeatedly postponed court sessions.  At year’s end, church leaders had yet to receive compensation for damages or been given an alternative site for worship.

In May a Muslim human rights lawyer fled the country after he was arrested and interrogated by security services for his work advocating for minority religious groups.  He had already faced repeated incidents of harassment and intimidation from NISS, including two break-ins of his home the previous year.  Human rights activists expressed concern about the departure of the lawyer from their community, as he was a vocal proponent of religious freedom and worked to defend the rights of religious minorities.

According to various church representatives, the government continued to favor mosques over churches in the issuance of permits for houses of worship.  Some churches reported they were less willing to apply for land permits or to construct churches given the government’s previous repeated denials.  The government attributed its denial of permits to the churches not meeting government population density parameters and zoning plans.

Local parishioners reported that, compared to Islamic institutions, Christian places of worship continued to be disproportionately affected by zoning changes, closures, and demolitions.  The government said places of worship that were demolished or closed lacked proper land permits or institutional registration and that mosques, churches, schools, hospitals, and residences were all affected equally by the urban planning projects.  Sources estimated at least 24 churches, Christian schools, libraries, and cultural centers were “systematically closed,” demolished or confiscated by the government between 2011 and 2017.  During the year, only one church demolition was reported.  Government authorities also stated that mosques were affected and provided photographs of mosque demolitions; however, lack of detailed information on the alleged demolitions made it difficult to verify the information, according to observers.

The NISS noted the locations of churches and mosques it was tracking that were located on what the government referred to as “unplanned areas” in Khartoum State.  Christian leaders and lawyers said that gaining outright land titles remained very difficult given that the government legally owned all land, and thus the legal status of churches remained unclear.

During the year, 22 churches filed complaints with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) following an outreach campaign to Christian religious communities in the Khartoum area by the NHRC.  Most of the complaints related to land and administrative issues.  At year’s end, the commission was following up with the complaints and established a working group to investigate systematic issues related to the registration of and land permits for Christian places of worship.

Following a July 2017 order from the Ministry of Education for Khartoum State mandating that schools (except for Coptic schools) operate from Sunday to Thursday, non-Coptic Christian schools either continued to operate on Sundays to adhere to the national general education guidelines, or they increased instruction hours on other school days to avoid operating on Sundays.  Multiple members of the government, including the foreign affairs minister and the minister of education for Khartoum State, continued to publicly express concern that the order would damage the country’s international reputation and unnecessarily impeded individuals’ religious freedom.  Government officials stated, however, that they were unaware of how to overturn the order because its origins were unclear.

The government continued to restrict some religiously based political parties, including the Republican Brothers Party, which opposes the government’s use of sharia as a source of law.  The Political Parties Affairs Council, which oversees the registration of political parties, refused to register the party in 2014, and the party’s leader filed an appeal of the decision to the Constitutional Court in 2015, but the court refused the appeal.  A local community center and library associated with the party in Omdurman remained closed due to government restrictions on its operation.

Government officials continued to state Islamic principles should inform official policies and often pointed to sharia as the basis for the country’s legal framework.  President Bashir and other senior figures frequently emphasized the country’s Islamic foundation.  In a February speech responding to public opposition to subsidy cuts and a currency devaluation, Bashir said that anyone who protested the economic situation or his administration’s policies was an enemy of Islam and working against the Islamic faith.

The government denied Christian churches or their humanitarian institutions tax-exempt status, although the government granted this status to Muslim relief agencies.  Christian churches reported authorities required them to pay or negotiate taxes on items such as vehicles.

The government continued to restrict non-Muslim religious groups from operating or entering the country and continued to monitor activities and censor material published by religious institutions.  The MGE and the HCGE again said they had granted a limited number of Christian missionary groups permission to engage in humanitarian activities and promote Muslim-Christian cooperation.

Many officials from various churches reported the government refused to grant, or delayed renewing, work and residency visas to church employees of foreign origin, including missionaries and clergy, or to individuals the government believed would proselytize in public places.  Local members of the Catholic Church said these denials had a particularly negative impact on the Catholic Church, whose clergy are mostly of foreign origin, while most clergy of other Christian denominations are ethnically Sudanese or South Sudanese.  The government only granted residence permits with less than a year’s validity.  The government required clergy to pay a fine of 70 Sudanese pounds ($1) for every day they were not in residency status.

The government reportedly closely scrutinized those suspected of proselytizing and used administrative rationales, or other aspects of the law such as immigration status, to either deport or exert financial pressure on such individuals.

Some religious groups reported the government barred the import of unapproved religious texts and said most Christian denominations were unable to import teaching materials and religious texts as guaranteed by the constitution.  According to international reports, in September authorities released two shipping containers with Arabic-language Bibles destined for the Bible Society in Khartoum after they had been detained in Port Sudan for three years.

A small number of Christian politicians, the majority of whom were members of the Coptic Church, continued to hold seats in the government.

During the year, Christian groups called for a Christian director of the MGE Office of Church Affairs.  MGE officials said they agreed to appoint a Christian but had yet to do so because Christian communities could not agree on a representative.  Christian groups said the government never expressed a willingness to appoint a Christian, although government officials publicly stated such willingness on multiple occasions.  After the government dissolved the MGE and established the HCGE, the opportunities for non-Muslim representation were not clear.

In January the government convened a group of representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, former MGE, Inter-Religious Council, Ministry of Education, and others to discuss the state of religious coexistence.  The group identified several areas of concern, including religious education inequities, and resolved to establish an intragovernmental working group on religious coexistence.  In October the government formed a new higher-level interministerial group chaired by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the same structure and mandate.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion; both the constitution and the penal code prohibit discrimination based on religion.  Any violation may be brought before a court of justice.  Religious groups seeking financial support from the government must register with the Ministry of Home Affairs.  Limited government financial support remained available, primarily as a stipend for clergy.  The government continued to pay wages for teachers managed by religious organizations; however, its other designated subsidies for operational expenses of these schools were either late or not paid.  To cover the budgetary shortfall, schools managed by religious organizations introduced a school fee for the 2018-19 school year.  In September President Desire Delano Bouterse reinforced the commitment of the government to religious freedom in a public speech honoring the U.S. Ambassador.

The Inter-Religious Council (IRIS), an organization of the country’s different religious groups, including two Hindu and two Muslim groups, the Jewish community, and the Catholic Church, continued to discuss planned interfaith activities and positions on government policies and their impact on society.  The IRIS collaborated with nonmember religious organizations on efforts to promote religious freedom.  In October, as part of an interfaith effort to promote respect for the country’s religious diversity, IRIS, the Committee for Christian Churches (CCK), and various tribal leaders and dignitaries took part in a conference hosted by the Cultural Center of the Islamic Association in Suriname (SIV).  Islamic associations issued condemnations in response to a terror threat posted on Facebook in May in the name of ISIS, calling for respect for each other’s religion and ethnicity.

Embassy officials continued to highlight U.S. government policy on the importance of protecting religious freedom and tolerance in meetings with government officials.  The Ambassador wrote an op-ed article in a local newspaper in January in honor of Religious Freedom Day highlighting the importance of religious freedom in democracies.  Embassy officials met with members of the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian communities to encourage tolerance and discuss promotion of respect for religious diversity within their communities.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution states that everyone has freedom of religion, and individuals may not be discriminated against on the grounds of religion.  Individuals may choose to change their religion.  Any violation may be brought before a court of justice.

The penal code provides punishment for those who instigate hate or discrimination of persons based on religion or creed in any way; however, the law has not been enforced.  Those found guilty may be sentenced to a prison term of no longer than one year and a fine of up to 25,000 Surinamese dollars (SRD) ($3,300).  In cases where an insult or act of hatred is instigated by more than one person, as part of an organization, or by a person who makes such statements habitually or as part of work, the punishment can include imprisonment of up to two years and fines of up to SRD 50,000 ($6,600).

Religious groups must register with the Ministry of Home Affairs only if they seek financial support, including stipends for clergy, from the government.  To register, religious groups must supply contact information, a history of their group, and addresses for houses of worship.  Most religious groups are officially registered.

The law does not permit religious instruction in public schools.  The government funds teacher salaries and provides a stipend that partially covers maintenance costs to all elementary and secondary schools established and managed by various religious groups.  Religious groups must provide the remaining funding, which includes construction costs, funding for school furniture, supplies, and additional maintenance expenses.  Religious organizations manage approximately 50 percent of primary and secondary schools in the country.  The Catholic diocese, Moravian Church, and Hindu community manage the majority of private schools.  Through the Ministries of Education and Finance, the government provides a fee per registered child and pays teacher salaries to the religious organizations managing these schools.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to emphasize in government-hosted events and in the media its commitment to protecting religious freedom, including of religious minorities, and to fostering respect for religious diversity and promoting tolerance.  In a Washington Times article, religious tolerance was commonly referred to as a national strength by the country’s citizens and a frequent subject of speeches and articles from leading government, religious, and academic leaders, notably President Bouterse.  The article quoted President Bouterse stating, “Diversity is normal for us; it is simply the way things are here.”  Bouterse also said, “We eat, work, and celebrate together.  Muslims celebrate Christmas with their Christian friends, Jewish people share dinner with Muslims at the end of Ramadan, and all Surinamese traditionally celebrate the Hindu national holiday of Phagwa.  We are multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and singularly peaceful.”  On October 1, Bouterse again noted religious freedom in his annual State of the Republic speech:  “Our colorful ethnically and religiously structured society … live peacefully together and make our country an example …  The World Justice Project states that Suriname … is also prominently mentioned as a country where religious freedoms are largely recognized.”

Government officials continued to raise these themes at the highest levels, including during government events celebrating the country’s various national heritage days.  The president, vice president, and minister of home affairs, whose portfolio includes religion, publicly emphasized the government’s support for religious freedom and tolerance during different events throughout the year.  President Bouterse reiterated the country’s commitment to religious plurality, freedom, and tolerance in a speech during a farewell event for the U.S. Ambassador.

All schools, including public schools, celebrated various religious holidays that are also national holidays, including Christmas, Easter, Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali, and Phagwa, but the government continued to ban public schools from allowing prayer groups during breaks.  Schools managed by religious groups included religious instruction in the curriculum.  All students attending schools run by religious groups were required to take part in religious instruction, regardless of their religious background.  Parents were not permitted to homeschool children for religious reasons.

According to the Federal Institute for Special Education in Suriname, the government continued to pay wages for teachers managed by religious organizations; however, its other subsidies for operational expenses of these schools were either late or not paid.  To cover the budgetary shortfall, all schools managed by religious organizations introduced a school fee for the 2018-19 school year.  Starting with the 2018-19 school year, religious primary school tuition cost approximately SRD 250 ($33) per year, while public primary-level education cost approximately SRD 35 ($5).  At the lower secondary level (ages 12-16), tuition at private religious schools cost SRD 275 ($37), compared with SRD 70 ($9) per year at public schools.  Religious organizations did not run manage higher secondary schools (ages 16-19).

The armed forces continued to maintain a staff chaplaincy with Hindu, Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic clergy available to military personnel.

On January 23, the government cosponsored a seminar in honor of World Religion Day, focusing on the principles guiding religious freedom and tolerance in the country to resolve other societal issues such as domestic violence, sexual violence, child neglect, and poverty.

Minister of Home Affairs Mike Noersalim issued statements on behalf of the government in honor of World Prayer Day in March and throughout the year ahead of different religious holidays such as Phagwa, Divali, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and Christmas.  The statements emphasized the importance of religious harmony for a prosperous society.


Executive Summary

The constitution protects “the freedom to practice one’s religion alone or in the company of others” and prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The government more than doubled security funding for religious organizations.  Christian organizations stated the Migration Agency denied asylum to Christians fleeing religious persecution.  One Christian committed suicide in September after authorities denied his asylum application.  The government gave funding to 43 religious groups and facilitated revenue collection for 17 of them.  The prime minister and other politicians condemned anti-Semitism and other religious intolerance.  There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim remarks by members of the Sweden Democrats and other political parties, and party members proposed bills to prohibit the Muslim call to prayer, nonmedical circumcision of boys, and students and teachers from wearing the hijab in school.  The Social Democratic Party, Sweden Democrats, and Left Party proposed bans on independent religious schools.

There was a report of an attack against a Christian convert seeking asylum and reports of threats, harassment, and discrimination against Jews and Muslims and attacks on their property.  An Uppsala University survey released in June found 52 percent of 106 Muslim congregations responding had received threats, and 45 percent reported at least one attack against their properties in 2017; 15 percent reported more than 10 incidents.  Jewish-owned houses were set on fire on two occasions in Lund.

The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy representatives continued to meet with the Ministries of Justice and Culture, parliament, the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities (SST), police, and local government on religious freedom issues, welcoming government efforts to improve security for religious groups and highlighting threats to member of some religious minorities, including immigrants.  Embassy officials spoke about religious tolerance with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives in Malmo and Stockholm.  The Department of State Senior Advisor for Combating Anti-Semitism met with government officials and Jewish and Muslim leaders in Stockholm and Malmo, calling for more efforts to protect religious groups.  The embassy hosted a function at which grandchildren of a Nazi SS officer and a Holocaust survivor spoke about religious tolerance.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution provides “the freedom to practice one’s religion alone or in the company of others.”  The law mandates there be no limitation of rights or freedoms on the grounds of religious opinion.

The constitution instructs public institutions to combat discrimination based on religious affiliation.  According to law, complaints about discrimination for religious reasons in the private sector, in the government, or by a government agency or authority must be filed with the Discrimination Ombudsman.  The ombudsman investigates each case and issues a decision that is not legally binding.  The decision includes recommendations to prevent future discrimination.  The ombudsman takes some cases to court each year, in part to create legal precedent.  The ombudsman can represent the individual making a complaint in the event of legal proceedings if he or she requests it.

The constitution states, “The opportunities of religious minorities to preserve and develop a cultural and social life of their own shall be promoted.”  No one is obliged to belong to a religious community or “divulge religious beliefs in relations with public institutions.”

There is no requirement in the law for religious groups to register or otherwise seek recognition.  Faith communities registering with the SST, however, receive tax exemptions similar to those of nonprofit organizations and are eligible to receive government funding.  To register with the SST, a religious group must submit an application to the Ministry of Culture demonstrating the group fulfills certain requirements, including that it be stable and have operated in the country for at least five years, have a clear and stable structure, be able to function on its own, serve at least 3,000 persons (with exceptions), and be present in different locations in the country.

According to the law, animal slaughter must be preceded by stunning and/or the administration of anesthetics to minimize the animal’s suffering.

The law stipulates that male circumcision may be performed only by a licensed doctor or, for boys under the age of two months, by a person certified by the National Board of Health and Welfare.  The board certifies mohels (individuals who conduct ritual Jewish circumcisions) to perform the operations on boys younger than two months but requires the presence of a medical doctor, who must administer anesthesia to the infant.

The government facilitates fundraising by religious groups by offering them the option of collecting contributions through the Tax Agency in exchange for a one-time fee of 75,000 Swedish kronor ($8,400) and an annual fee of 21 kronor ($2) per member per year.  The Church of Sweden is exempted from the annual fee because it, unlike the other religious groups participating in the scheme, does not receive financial support from the SST.  Only religious groups registered with the SST may participate in the scheme.  Religious groups freely choose what percentage of members’ annual taxable income to collect, with a median collection rate of 1 percent.  The Tax Agency subtracts a percentage of the member’s gross income and distributes it to the religious organization.  The member’s contribution is not deductible from income tax.  Seventeen religious organizations participate in the scheme, including the Church of Sweden, Roman Catholic Church, four Muslim congregations, and two Syriac Orthodox churches.

The government provides publicly funded grants to registered religious groups through the SST, which is under the authority of the Ministry of Culture.  The grants are proportional to the size of a group’s membership.  Registered religious groups may also apply for separate grants for specific purposes, such as security expenses.

The military offers food options compliant with religious dietary restrictions.  Each military district has a chaplain.  According to the law, chaplains may be of any religious affiliation, but all chaplains seconded to the armed forces belong to the Church of Sweden.  Regardless of religious denomination, chaplains are required to perform religious duties for other faiths or refer service members to spiritual leaders of other faiths if requested.  The law specifically exempts Jehovah’s Witnesses from national military service.  Other conscientious objectors may apply for nonarmed military service but are in practice not inducted into the military.  Armed forces guidelines allow religious headwear.  Individuals serving in the military may observe their particular religious holidays in exchange for not taking leave on public holidays.

Religious education is compulsory in public and private schools.  Teachers use a curriculum that encompasses lessons about the major world religions without preference for any particular religious group.  Parents may send their children to independent religious schools, which the government supports through a voucher system and which must adhere to government guidelines on core academic curricula, including religious education.  Such schools may host voluntary religious activities outside the classroom, but these activities may not interfere with government guidelines on core academic curricula.

Hate speech laws prohibit threats or expressions of contempt for persons based on several factors, including religious belief.  Penalties for hate speech range from fines to a sentence of up to four years in prison, depending on the severity of the incident.

Law enforcement authorities maintain statistics on hate crimes, including religiously motivated hate crimes, issuing them every two years.  Law enforcement authorities may add a hate crime classification to an initial crime report or to existing charges during an investigation.  Prosecutors determine whether to bring hate crime charges as part of the prosecution, and the defense has an opportunity to rebut the classification.  In cases where the criminal act involves a hate crime, the penalties increase.

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

Government Practices

Several Christian organizations – including the Christian Council of Sweden, which represents 27 Catholic, Free Church, Lutheran, and Orthodox Churches, with 6.5 million members – criticized the Migration Agency for rejecting asylum applications of Christians – primarily converts – who said they risked religious persecution in their home countries.  In addition, these critics said the methods used by the agency to evaluate asylum seekers’ Christian status required the applicants to demonstrate unreasonable knowledge of scripture and did not sufficiently take into account their participation in religious activities and references from their clergy.

In September an Afghan asylum seeker in Jonkoping who converted to Christianity in the country in 2016 committed suicide after authorities rejected his application for asylum on the grounds of religious persecution in his home country.  The man’s pastor, Chatrine Carlson, told the newspaper Dagen that “his Christian faith was not deemed to be genuine.  The authorities concluded, therefore, that he faced no risks upon his return and that he did not have a legitimate asylum claim.  But he was open and clear about his Christian faith and he was part of our congregation’s network for converts.”  Ulrik Josefsson, the chair of the man’s church in Jonkoping, told the same newspaper, “We have seen this guy participate in our activities.  If his faith was not genuine, then my faith is not genuine.”

As part of its continuing “National Plan to Combat Racism, Similar Forms of Hostility, and Hate Crimes,” the government more than doubled its allocation from 2017 – to 22 million kronor ($2.46 million) per year in 2018 and 2019 and 15 million kronor ($1.68 million) annually thereafter – to improve the security of religious organizations and civil society.  The government moved the responsibility of dispensing the funding from the SST to the Legal, Financial, and Administrative Services Agency.  The move enabled a wider range of civil society organizations, including religiously oriented nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) not registered with the SST, to apply for funding to improve their security, for example, by purchasing security cameras and hiring security guards.

In October Chairman of the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities Aron Verstandig stated he welcomed the government’s increased allocation of funds in support of religious organizations’ security measures.  He projected the initiative would ease the financial burden of security spending currently borne by the country’s Jewish congregations.  In an interview with Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom in September, Verstandig described the nationalist right in the country as an indirect but palpable threat to the Jewish community and called on politicians to rein in neo-Nazis and their activities.

The Police Authority spent an additional 10 million kronor ($1.12 million) to prevent and investigate hate crimes.

Some Christian leaders stated the government largely ignored cases of persecution against Christian asylum seekers and refugees during the year.  Deputy Secretary-General of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance Jacob Rudenstrand and Director of the Christian NGO Open Doors Sweden Peter Paulsson said that Christian refugees faced persecution, particularly from Muslim refugees, that they were not safe in the country, and that the government needed to take measures to ensure the Christians’ safety.

Some Muslim groups and the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities continued to state they considered the law requiring stunning of and/or administration of anesthetics to animals prior to slaughter to conflict with their respective religious rituals.  The Muslim community remained divided over whether the requirement conformed to halal procedures.  The Jewish community reported the law effectively prevented the production of kosher meat.  Most halal and all kosher meat was imported.

In August the country’s labor court ruled in favor of a Muslim woman who had filed a complaint via the Discrimination Ombudsman of anti-Muslim discrimination in the workplace.  At a job interview in 2016, the woman refused to shake hands with a male supervisor, stating physical contact with nonfamily members of the opposite sex was contrary to her religious beliefs.  As a result, she said she was no longer considered for employment.  The labor court ruled the company violated her rights protected under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and ordered the company to pay her 40,000 kronor ($4,500).

There were multiple reports that representatives of the Sweden Democrats – the country’s third largest political party, which received 17.6 percent of the vote in the September parliamentary elections – made denigrating comments about religious minorities.

In response to criticism by Center Party leader Annie Loof for earlier comments he had made about minorities in the country, Sweden Democrats Member of Parliament (MP) and then-Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament Bjorn Soder repeated in an op-ed in the newspaper Dagens Industri in August his belief that there was a distinction between Jews and Swedes, because “the Sweden Democrats believe nationally recognized minorities should be exempted from our general goal of assimilation.”  Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities Chairman Verstandig wrote in response in the same newspaper that the Sweden Democrats’ policies “would make Jewish life in Sweden practically impossible.  For example, the party wants to ban circumcision of newborn boys and make it illegal to import kosher meat.”  Political leaders, such as Prime Minister Stefan Lofven and Minister for Rural Affairs Sven-Erik Bucht, also condemned Soder’s comments.

On August 31, the newspaper Expressen stated a number of Sweden Democrats candidates in the September 9 general election had made anti-Semitic comments on social media.  Martin Sihlen, a candidate for the municipal government in Orkelljunga, questioned the number of persons killed in the Holocaust, referred to the “Jewish plague,” and wrote online that “Hitler did not lie about the Jews,” and “Hitler was not bad.”  Per Olsson, a candidate for the municipal government in Oskarshamn, shared an image of Anne Frank wearing a shirt reading “Coolest Jew in the Shower Room,” as well as a photograph of Adolf Hitler.  Raghu Jacobsen, a candidate for the municipal government in Stenungsund, wrote, “As long as the Rothschilds run the economy, and as such modern slavery on this planet, there will be anti-Semitism.”  He also shared an image stating, “What’s the difference between a cow and the Holocaust?  You can’t milk a cow for 70 years straight.”  The Sweden Democrats expelled the three candidates in response to media reports about their activities online, and none of them was elected.

According to a June 19 article in Expressen, Mikael Bystedt – a staffer for the Sweden Democrats in parliament, candidate for local and parliamentary elections, and deputy party chair in Taby – made anti-Muslim comments on social media.  He compiled a list of measures “to save Sweden” that included “destroying all traces of Islam, mosques, etc.,” “stopping all immigration of Muslims,” and “using military force and expulsion of all Muslims who object to this.”  In response to reports of arson attacks against mosques in London, Bystedt stated, “Damn good work!  Let us hope this spreads to Sweden like wildfire.”  The Sweden Democrats subsequently expelled Bystedt from the party, and he was not elected.

Chairman of the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities Verstandig said in September he was concerned by the gains the Sweden Democrats made in the September parliamentary elections.  He also described the nationalist right in the country as an indirect but palpable threat to the Jewish community and called on politicians to rein in neo-Nazis and their activities.

Members of other political parties also made negative remarks about religious minorities.  A Christian Democrats candidate for the local election in Sundbyberg, Erik Ivarsson, wrote on social media, “The Muslims are raping our nations.  Time to bring back the death sentence?” reported Expressen in July.  The Christian Democrats subsequently expelled Ivarsson, and party leader Ebba Busch Thor called his statement “completely unacceptable.”  Ivarsson was not elected.

Daniel Bystedt, a Liberal Party candidate for the local election in Linkoping, made a number of denigrating statements about Muslims and Islam on social media, according to a report by Expressen in July.  He wrote, “Islam is the greatest threat of our time.  The only solution is to send back every Muslim.  Our civilization will perish if we do not,” “Islam is a poison that is destroying our society,” “Any sound Swede dislikes everything connected to Islam,” and “I cannot understand how a woman can voluntarily become a Muslim.  It must be caused by some psychological disorder.”  Bystedt subsequently renounced his membership in the Liberal Party, and he was not elected.

Expressen reported in August there were ties between the Left Party and Grupp 194, an NGO based in the Skane region the report said spread anti-Semitic images online.  For example, the group posted a cartoon of a Jew drinking blood and eating a child.  The leader of Grupp 194 ran unsuccessfully as a Left Party candidate for parliament in the September general election, and Left Party leader Jonas Sjostedt spoke in at least two Grupp 194 events in 2012 and 2014.  The Left Party’s Skane branch responded to Expressen that “the party had no formal cooperation with Grupp 194, but some members of Grupp 194 were also active in the Left Party.  We both support a free Palestine and oppose anti-Semitism.”

In August Expressen also reported the municipality of Malmo gave Grupp 194 and two other NGOs 132,000 kronor ($14,800) from public funds in 2017 for a project to promote public safety on the city’s streets.  A city councilman for the Sweden Democrats, Nima Gholam Ali Pour, stated the municipal government should not have funded Grupp 194 because, among other things, it had spread anti-Semitic images.

During the campaign for the September elections, the Social Democratic Party, the Left Party, and the Sweden Democrats Party campaigned for a proposal to ban independent religious schools.  The Liberal Party advocated a prohibition on establishing new, or expanding existing, independent religious schools.  “We consider it a given that no student should be impacted by religion at school.  Every child should choose freely whether or not to have faith,” said Anna Ekstrom, Social Democratic Minister for High Schools on the party’s website.  “I grew up in a country in which religious influence and gender segregation were part of every school.  I will never accept that the oppression I and many others have fled finds its way into Sweden’s schools,” said Iranian-born Minister for Civil Affairs Ardalan Shekarabi, a Social Democrat, also on the party website.  Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders expressed concern about the proposals, arguing such measures would constitute an infringement on religious freedom.

On March 10, the government launched a nonbinding study to recommend, according to then-Minister of Education Gustaf Fridolin, new laws and regulations on religious activities in all schools, including independent religious schools.  The government instructed the civil servant authors of the study to present their results by May 31, 2019.

The Sweden Democrats continued to advocate local and national bans on the Muslim call to prayer.  After police in Vaxjo granted a mosque permission to conduct a call to prayer on Fridays, the party’s Vaxjo branch launched a petition for a referendum to ban the call to prayer in the municipality.  By year’s end, Vaxjo had not held the referendum and the mosque continued its call to prayer.  Sweden Democrats MP and Party Spokesperson for Justice Affairs Adam Marttinen stated in May “Not only will we appeal the decision to permit the call to prayer in Vaxjo, it should be made impossible in the entire country.”  In October Sweden Democrats MPs Richard Jomshof, Robert Stenkvist, and Carina Stahl Herrstedt introduced a bill in parliament to institute a national ban, which was defeated in committee.

Christian Democrats party leader Ebba Busch Thor and then-Member of the European Parliament Lars Adaktusson stated in an op-ed in Expressen on March 15 that “Regular and institutionalized [Islamic] calls to prayer are not compatible with our values.  …We can under no circumstances accept calls to prayer in Sweden.”  Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities Chairman Verstandig and Catholic Cardinal Anders Arborelius separately criticized the Christian Democrats for opposing the Islamic call to prayer.

Sweden Democrats MP and Party Secretary Richard Jomshof introduced a bill in parliament in October that would prohibit circumcision of boys for nonmedical purposes.  “I ask myself how people can talk about freedom of religion while forcing a religious identity on the child, violating its integrity, and exposing the child to an irreversible procedure that causes lifelong harm,” Jomshof wrote in the bill.  Parliament defeated the bill in committee.

Jomshof introduced another bill in parliament in October that would ban “the use of Muslim veils in Swedish schools up to ninth grade, applicable to both teachers and students.”  He wrote in the bill that “the Muslim veil is an Islamic symbol of religious subservience and forced separation of men and women … [it] goes against everything our gender equal, democratic, and secular society stands for.”  Parliament defeated the bill in committee.

On June 25, the Gothenburg District Court convicted three men of “serious unlawful threats” and “inflicting gross damage” for throwing Molotov cocktails at a local synagogue in December 2017.  The court sentenced two of the men to two years in prison and the other one to 15 months.  The three were part of a larger group that threw the incendiary weapons but were the only ones authorities were able to identify.  The court ruled the incident a hate crime intended to “threaten, harm, and violate the Jewish people,” and handed down more severe sentences as a result.  Chairman of the Jewish congregation of Gothenburg Allan Stutzinsky welcomed the verdict, stating, “It was important that the case was tried and that we have a verdict written down from which others can learn.”

The three perpetrators of the attack on the synagogue were asylum seekers, two from Syria and one from the Palestinian Territories.  The district court ordered the Palestinian deported but judged Syria too unsafe to expel the two other men there.  On September 12, the Court of Appeal for Western Sweden cancelled the deportation of the Palestinian, arguing that “given Israel’s possible interest in the case and the uncertain situation… there is good reason to believe the basic human rights of [the perpetrator] would not be guaranteed should he be deported to Palestine.”  The Ambassador of Israel to Sweden, Ilan Ben-Dov, expressed his “deep concern” with the decision, arguing that it “excuses, and therefore legitimizes, the actions of a violent anti-Semite as acceptable political criticism by stating that his hostility is not towards Jews in general but due to his vengeful attitude towards Israel.”  In October the prosecutor-general appealed the decision not to extradite the Palestinian to the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court agreed in late October to hear the case but had not done so by year’s end.

The SST continued to conduct a series of courses around the country open to all faiths, including religious groups not registered with the SST, aimed at strengthening the civil engagement capacity of minority religious communities and promoting interfaith cooperation.  New course topics included family law for religious leaders, female empowerment for minority women, and NGO management and accountability.  The SST also conducted interfaith scriptural reasoning courses, including sessions for women only, in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims read and discussed passages from their respective scriptures together.

The SST continued to fund, publish, and promote publications aimed at educating the public about religious minorities, including books on the history of Islam in the country and on the country’s Alawite, Alevi, Druze, Mandaean, and Yazidi communities.  In addition, the SST held lectures on denominations within Islam, targeted at academics and government officials.

The Media Council initiated a No Hate Speech Movement campaign, which included targeted efforts to stop anti-Semitic conspiracy theories by teaching youths to be critical of information posted online and by providing teachers with material to use in the classroom.  The government allocated five million kronor ($559,000) annually for 2018-20 to strengthen opportunities for study visits to Holocaust memorial sites, which allowed more students and teachers to visit them.  The government also said it would invest 15 million kronor ($1.68 million) on projects over three years to raise awareness about Nazi crimes against Jews and other groups.  “Nazism and racism are growing and spreading.  We are therefore launching this investment so that more youth can be equipped with knowledge to tackle the antidemocratic forces that are growing in Sweden,” then-Culture Minister Alice Bah Kuhnke said in a statement.

The government continued to fund the Living History Forum, a public authority “commissioned to work with issues related to tolerance, democracy, and human rights, using the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity as its starting point.”  The government allocated 46 million kronor ($5.15 million) to the forum, a more than threefold increase over the previous year, which provided lesson plans, books, and other resources for teachers.  Topics covered included anti-Semitism, Holocaust remembrance, ethnic and religious conflicts in the Balkans, and critical reading of history.

Schools continued to sponsor visits to Holocaust sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau as educational tools.  Students participated in such trips regardless of religious background.  According to a study the Living History Forum released in June, 44,000 Swedes visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2017, the most on record.  The study concluded most of these visitors were likely students and other young people.  The Living History Forum provided education material and guidance for teachers to facilitate visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau and similar locations.

The SST distributed 82 million kronor ($9.17 million) in grants to 43 religious groups during the year for operating expenses, theological training, spiritual care in hospitals, building renovations, and refugee assistance.  In addition, the SST distributed funds for specific projects in response to grant requests, which different religious groups often carried out jointly.

The Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society (MUCF) provided grants to civil society organizations working to combat religious intolerance.  Grants included 925,000 kronor ($103,000) to the Jewish Youth Association for the project Ung Dialog, which fights anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiments through interfaith dialogue.  MUCF also gave 2,728,375 kronor ($305,000) to the Expo Foundation to combat intolerance and racism, including religious intolerance.

Members of the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), widely described as a neo-Nazi group, ran as a political party in the general election in September.  The organization received 2,106 votes, or 0.03 percent, in the parliamentary elections and failed to gain any seats in local elections.  The organization carried out a large number of rallies and public meetings around the country.

Prime Minister Lofven commemorated the Holocaust in a speech in the Stockholm synagogue on January 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  In addition to condemning the Holocaust and present-day anti-Semitism and paying tribute to those killed, Lofven stated, “I want each and every one of you to know this:  Ensuring your safety – as well as your constitutional right to practice your religion, embrace your culture, be who you are, live openly, safely, and freely with your children and those you love – is the foremost task facing me and this country…Anti-Semitism will be fought using all the power of Swedish society.”

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


Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of faith and conscience, and it and the penal code prohibit discrimination against any religion or its members.  The constitution delegates regulation of the relationship between government and religious groups to the 26 cantons.  Voters in St. Gallen Canton approved a referendum on new legislation barring the wearing of facial concealments in public.  Basel Canton prohibited all court officials from wearing publicly visible religious symbols in court.  Lausanne authorities denied a Muslim couple Swiss citizenship after they refused to shake hands with officials of the opposite sex during their citizenship interview.  The Federal Court upheld a 2017 ruling by the Cantonal Parliament of Valais that invalidated a referendum that called for a ban on wearing headscarves in schools.  The number of Muslim burial plots and sites increased, as did funding for education and awareness efforts aimed at improving the protection of religious minorities, notably Jews and Muslims.

The government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and Jewish and Muslim groups reported religiously motivated incidents against Jews and Muslims increased in 2017, the most recent year for which data were available.  There were four physical altercations against Jews and a rise in anti-Semitic incidents by right-wing individuals and on social media.  Incidents against Muslims were primarily verbal.  Muslim representatives attributed an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment to the increasing politicization of Islam and negative media reporting.  Two research studies reported evidence of anti-Muslim sentiment and discrimination in society and media.  There was repeated vandalism of a kosher butchery in Basel, and an activist in Ticino Canton established a “Swiss Stop Islam Award,” giving a prize of 2,000 Swiss francs ($2,000) to each of the first three recipients.

U.S. embassy officials discussed religious freedom with the federal government, focusing on its projects aimed at promoting religious freedom and tolerance, and with cantonal government officials regarding cantonal recognition of minority religions, especially Islam.  Embassy officials met with NGOs and civil society and with religious leaders from the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities and other religious minorities, eliciting their views on the nature and extent of religious discrimination.  The embassy hosted an iftar and a Rosh Hashanah celebration that included discussions of religious tolerance and religious diversity.  The embassy cohosted a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony with the chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and the embassy of Israel on January 29.  Embassy staff spoke about the importance of religious freedom and tolerance at an iftar organized by an association working to strengthen religious dialogue, at a Baha’i festival, and during a visit to a Hindu temple.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

In its preamble, the constitution states it is adopted in the name of “Almighty God.”  It guarantees freedom of faith and conscience, states each person has the right to choose his or her religion and to profess it alone or with others, and prohibits religious discrimination.  It states the confederation and cantons may, within the scope of their powers, act to preserve peace between members of different religious communities.

The federal penal code prohibits any form of “debasement,” which is not specifically defined, or discrimination against any religion or religious adherents.  Inciting hatred or discrimination, including by electronic means and on the basis of religion, is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine.  The law also penalizes anyone who refuses to provide a service because of someone’s religion; organizes, promotes, or participates in propaganda aimed at degrading and defaming adherents of a religion; or “denies, justifies, or plays down genocide or other crimes against humanity.”

The constitution delegates regulation of relations between the government and religious groups to the 26 cantons.  The cantons offer legal recognition as public entities to religious communities that fulfill a number of prerequisites and whose applications for recognition are approved in a popular referendum.  The necessary prerequisites include a statement acknowledging the right of religious freedom; the democratic organization of the religious community; respect for the cantonal and federal constitutions and rule of law; and financial transparency.

The cantons of Basel, Zurich, and Vaud also offer religious communities legal recognition as private entities.  This gives them the right to teach their religions in public schools.  Procedures for obtaining private legal recognition vary; for example, Basel requires approval of the Grand Council (the cantonal legislature).

There is no law requiring religious groups to register in a cantonal commercial registry.  However, religious foundations, characterized as institutions with a religious purpose that receive financial donations and maintain connections to a religious community, must register in the commercial registry.  To register, the foundation must submit an official letter of application to the relevant authorities and include the organization’s name, purpose, board members, and head office location as well as a memorandum of association based on local law, a trademark certification, and a copy of the organization’s statutes.

Tax-exempt status granted to religious groups varies from canton to canton.  Most cantons automatically grant tax-exempt status to religious communities that receive cantonal financial support, while all other religious communities must generally establish they are organized as nonprofit associations and submit an application for tax-exempt status to the cantonal government.

All of the cantons, with the exception of Geneva, Neuchatel, Ticino, and Vaud, financially support at least one of four religious communities that the cantons have recognized as public entities – Roman Catholic, Christian Catholic, Reformed Evangelical, or Jewish – with funds collected through a mandatory church tax for registered church members and, in some cantons, businesses.  Only religious groups recognized as public entities are eligible to receive funds collected through the church tax, and no canton has recognized any other religious groups as public entities.  The church tax is voluntary in the cantons of Ticino, Neuchatel, and Geneva, while in all others an individual who chooses not to pay the church tax may have to formally leave the religious institution.  The canton of Vaud is the only canton that does not collect a church tax; however, the Reformed Evangelical and Roman Catholic Churches are subsidized directly through the cantonal budget.

The constitution prohibits the construction of minarets.  The prohibition does not apply to the four existing mosques with minarets established before the constitution was amended to include the ban.  New mosques without minarets may be built.

The constitution sets education policy at the cantonal level, but municipal school authorities have some discretion in implementing cantonal guidelines.  Most public cantonal schools offer religious education, with the exception of schools in Geneva and Neuchatel.  Public schools normally offer classes in Catholic and/or Protestant doctrines, with the precise details varying from canton to canton and sometimes from school to school; a few schools provide instruction on other religions.  The municipality of Ebikon, in Lucerne Canton, and the municipality of Kreuzlingen, in Thurgau Canton, offer religious classes in Islamic doctrine.  In some cantons, religious classes are voluntary, while in others, such as in Zurich and Fribourg, they form part of the mandatory curriculum at the secondary school level, although schools routinely grant waivers for children whose parents request them.  Children from minority religious groups may attend classes of their own faith during the religious class period.  Minority religious groups must organize and finance these classes and hold them outside the public schools.  Parents may also send their children to private religious schools at their expense or homeschool their children.

Most cantons require general classes about religion and culture in addition to classes in Christian doctrines.  There are no national guidelines for waivers on religious grounds from religion classes not covering doctrine, and practices vary.

A federal animal welfare law prohibits ritual slaughter of animals without prior anesthetization, effectively banning kosher and halal slaughter practices.  Importation of traditionally slaughtered kosher and halal meat is legal, and such products are available.

Religious groups of foreign origin are free to proselytize, but foreign missionaries from countries not members of the European Union (EU) or the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) must obtain a religious worker visa to work in the country.  Visa requirements include proof the foreigner does not displace a citizen from a job, that he/she has completed formal theological training, and that he/she will be financially supported by the host organization.  Nonrecognized religious groups must also demonstrate to cantonal governments that the number of their foreign religious workers is not out of proportion to the size of the community when compared to the relative number of religious workers of cantonally recognized religious communities.

Foreign missionaries must also have sufficient knowledge of, respect for, and understanding of national customs and culture; be conversant in at least one of the three main national languages; and hold a degree in theology.  The law requires immigrant clerics with insufficient language skills or knowledge of local culture and customs, regardless of religious affiliation, to attend mandatory courses to facilitate their integration into society.  In some instances, the cantons may approve an applicant lacking this proficiency by devising an “integration agreement” that contains certain goals the applicant must try to meet.  The host organization must also “recognize the country’s legal norms” and pledge it will not tolerate abuse of the law by its members.  If an applicant is unable to meet these requirements, the government may deny the residency and work permits.

The law also allows the government to refuse residency and work permits if a background check reveals an individual has ties to religious groups deemed “radicalized” or that have engaged in “hate preaching,” defined as publicly inciting hatred against a religious group, disseminating ideologies intended to defame members of a religious group, organizing defamatory propaganda campaigns, engaging in public discrimination, denying or trivializing genocide and other crimes against humanity, or refusing to provide service based on religion.  The law authorizes immigration authorities to refuse residency permits to clerics the government considers “fundamentalists” if authorities deem internal security or public order is at risk.

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

Government Practices

In September voters in St. Gallen Canton approved a referendum on new legislation barring the wearing of facial concealments in public if the concealment posed “a threat to public security or religious and/or societal peace.”  Voters petitioned to hold the referendum after the cantonal parliament enacted legislation in 2017 prohibiting the wearing of facial concealments.  The law, which states threats will be determined on a case-by-case basis and does not specify penalties for violators, was scheduled to come into effect in January 2019.  While the legislation does not specifically mention types of facial covering, political discussions about the law predominantly focused on Islamic garb, including the burqa and niqab.

In August Lausanne city authorities denied a Muslim couple citizenship after the couple refused to shake hands with officials of the opposite sex during their citizenship interview.  Officials stated the rejection was not based on the couple’s religion, but due to the couple’s failure to integrate and respect gender equality by refusing to shake hands.  Lausanne Deputy Mayor Pierre-Antoine Hildbrand told local press that “the constitution and equality between men and women are of greater importance than religious intolerance.”

In May in a nationwide first, the canton of Basel’s Council of Courts, which represents all cantonal courts, prohibited all judges, law clerks, and court trainees from wearing publicly visible religious symbols in court after a female Muslim lawyer submitted an application for a traineeship at the cantonal court that contained a photo of herself wearing a headscarf.  Cantonal authorities stated the decision was based on the court’s “obligation to independence and religious neutrality.”  The Muslim applicant remained on a waiting list for a traineeship as of May.  A Basel-based lawyer objected to the ruling in June by submitting a complaint to the Federal Court, where the case remained pending at year’s end.

According to the justice department of Ticino Canton, the city of Locarno had not fined any Muslim women for wearing the niqab since the 2016 enactment of the canton’s law banning face coverings in public.

In September the Federal Court rejected an appeal by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) of a December 2017 ruling by the Cantonal Parliament of Valais that declared a people’s initiative (a type of referendum) by the SVP that called for a ban on the wearing of headscarves in schools invalid.  The Federal Court held regulations aimed at prohibiting the wearing of headscarves in public schools violated religious freedom.

In June the Liebenfeld cemetery of Baden in Aargau Canton inaugurated 170 new Islamic burial plots in coordination with the Aargau Muslim Association.  As of September the Witikon cemetery in Zurich city allowed Muslims of neighboring municipalities to bury their deceased in its Islamic burial sites.  Muslims were able to bury their dead according to Islamic rites in 10 of the 26 cantons.

In July the federal government allocated 500,000 Swiss francs ($508,000), and stated it would do so annually, to education and awareness efforts aimed at improving the protection of religious minorities, primarily the Jewish and Muslim communities.  The decision followed an October 2017 report by the Ministry of Interior, in which the government described the protection of Jewish institutions as an “issue of national importance.”  An interdepartmental working group the government established to assess potential security gaps in the protection of religious groups and prepare an action plan had not issued the protection plan by year’s end.

In March the High Court of Adelfingen in Zurich Canton sentenced the former President of the Swiss Democrats Party, Willy Schmidhauser, to a suspended fine (i.e., he was found guilty but did not have to pay the fine) of 1,400 Swiss francs ($1,400) after he published several texts critical of Muslims in the magazine Schweizerzeit and on the website of the Swiss Democrats between 2009 and 2011.  In one of the publications, he called for the “mass deportation of Muslims,” who he said would otherwise “destroy our people.”  The Adelfingen High Court ruled that the statements accused Muslims and Islam of having “a compulsion towards crime.”  Schmidhauser appealed the verdict.  The case was pending in the Federal Court at year’s end.

The government continued to grant visas primarily to religious workers who intended to replace individuals serving in similar functions in the same religious community.  Turkish nationals applying for short- and long-term religious worker visas needed to show they were associated with the Turkish Central Authority for Religious Affairs.

Pursuant to past court decisions, the government continued not to issue religious visas to missionaries of certain denominations, such as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, because they did not possess a theology degree.  Church of Jesus Christ missionaries from EU and EFTA countries could work, however, because they did not require visas to enter the country.

As of November the Federal Service for Combating Racism, which is responsible for matters related to religious discrimination, had provided 40,000 Swiss francs ($40,700) to fund three projects focusing on religious freedom, including combating religious prejudice against Muslims, particularly Muslim women, and educating the public about the history of the Holocaust.  One project, titled “Different Customs, Different People? – Muslims Belong to Switzerland,” encouraged greater cultural awareness and understanding between Zurich police and the Muslim community to prevent what it described as racial profiling by hosting meetings and maintaining a continuing dialogue.

Although not a requirement, schools continued to include Holocaust education as part of their curriculum and to participate in the annual Holocaust Day of Remembrance on January 29.

On January 29, Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr, then-Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Benno Baettig, and the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affair Historical Services, Francois Wisard, again attended an official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at the Yehudi Menuhin Forum in Bern.  In a speech at the ceremony, Baettig stated the accounts of remaining Holocaust survivors were central in keeping alive the memory of the atrocities of the Holocaust and in raising awareness of the consequences of racism, discrimination, and anti-Semitism.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and chaired the organization during the year ending in March.  In January at the federal government’s initiative, Lausanne’s University of Teacher Education introduced Holocaust study topics in its curriculum.


Executive Summary

The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.”  There is no official state religion.  Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees, including by imprisonment or death.  A new law passed on April 2 allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” that will be slated for reconstruction; multiple reports indicated the government planned to utilize the law to reconfigure religious demographics in certain areas at the expense of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims.  There were continued media reports the government and its Shia Muslim militia allies (consisting mostly of foreigners) killed, arrested, and physically abused members of opposition groups which were predominantly Sunni Muslim.  According to multiple observers, the government continued to employ tactics aimed at bolstering the most violent elements of the Sunni Islamist opposition in order to shape the conflict with various resistance groups so it would be seen as one in which a religiously “moderate” government was facing a religiously “extremist” opposition.  As the insurgency continued to be identified with the Sunni population, the government reportedly targeted opposition-held towns and neighborhoods for siege, mortar shelling, and aerial bombardment, including the bombardment of East Ghouta and Daraa, and an April chemical weapons attack against the Damascus suburb of Douma, resulting in mostly Sunni casualties.  The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented 67 attacks by government forces against places of worship during the year.  According to nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, Iran further exacerbated the conflict in areas that remained under its influence by continuing to recruit Shia Afghan refugees and migrants from Iran to travel to Syria and assist the government in its conflict against majority Sunni opposition forces.  The government continued to monitor sermons, close mosques between prayer times, and limit the activities of religious groups, and to say the armed resistance comprised “extremists” and “terrorists.”  According to international media reports, a number of minority religious groups viewed the government as their protector against violent Sunni extremists.  According to multiple human rights groups, the government continued its widespread and systematic use of unlawful killings, including through the repeated use of chemical weapons, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, including civilians, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims.

The United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) and numerous independent sources reported nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the UN, U.S. and other governments, such as ISIS and al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the areas of the country they controlled throughout the course of the conflict.  ISIS lost the vast majority of the territory it once controlled and was reduced largely to a small area in the eastern part of the country by the end of the year.  As a result, ISIS witnessed a significant decline in its ability to target religious groups.  ISIS claimed credit for a wave of suicide attacks against the majority Druze-inhabited city of Sweida in late July.  The attacks left over 250 people dead, and resulted in the capture of more than 30 Druze hostages by ISIS fighters, one of whom was executed by ISIS.  Until military operations largely removed ISIS from control of the country’s territory, ISIS killed hundreds of civilian men, women, and children through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and cursing God.  ISIS continued to hold thousands of enslaved Yezidi women and girls kidnapped in Iraq and trafficked to Syria because of their religious beliefs to be sold or distributed to ISIS members as “spoils of war.”  While many Yezidi women were liberated when coalition forces and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated ISIS-held territory, thousands remained missing.  ISIS punished individuals with floggings or imprisonment for what ISIS said were religious offenses, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammad or failing to comply with standards of grooming and dress.  ISIS required Christians to convert, flee, pay a special tax, or face execution.  It destroyed churches, Shia shrines, and other religious heritage sites, and used its own police force, court system, and a revised school curriculum to enforce and spread its interpretation of Islam.  HTS replaced governmental courts with sharia councils in areas it controlled, authorizing discrimination against members of religious minorities.  HTS also continued to indoctrinate children with its interpretation of Salafi-jihadist ideology, including through schools and youth training camps.  In January the Turkish Army, along with Turkish-sponsored opposition groups, including elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), launched an air and ground campaign against the enclave of Afrin, held by the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Unit (YPG), displacing approximately 167,000 people, including Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians.  According to media reports, displaced Yezidis said FSA forces in Afrin rounded up Yezidis, forced them to convert to Islam, and destroyed Yezidi places of worship.

There were reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, exacerbated by government actions, ISIS and HTS targeting of religious groups, and sectarian rhetoric.  Alawites reportedly faced attacks because other religious groups believed government policy favored Alawites; sectarian conflict was one of the driving factors of the insurgency, according to observers.  Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence, including kidnappings, at the hands of violent extremist groups.  Once religiously diverse neighborhoods, towns, and villages were increasingly segregated between majority Sunni neighborhoods and communities that comprised religious minority groups, as displaced members of religious groups relocated seeking greater security and safety by living with coreligionists.  There were more than 6.1 million internally displaced Syrians and more than 5.48 million Syrian refugees.

The U.S. President and the Secretary of State stressed the need for a political transition in the country leading to an inclusive government that would respect the right of all persons to practice their religion freely.  The Secretary of State highlighted that ISIS was guilty of genocide against religious groups during his remarks in July at the Department of State-sponsored Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.  Although the U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012, the Special Representative for Syria Engagement, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Levant, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, and other senior U.S. officials continued to meet elsewhere with leaders of minority religious groups to discuss assistance to vulnerable populations and ways to counter sectarian violence.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The legal framework described in this section remains in force only in those areas controlled by the government, and even in these areas there is often a breakdown in law and order, leaving militias, often sectarian in nature, in a dominant position.  In areas of the country controlled by opposition or terrorist groups, irregular courts and local “authorities” apply a variety of unofficial legal codes with diverse provisions relating to religious freedom.

The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these do not disturb the public order.  There is no official state religion, although the constitution states the religion of the president of the republic is Islam.  The constitution states Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.

The constitution states “[issues] of personal status of the religious communities shall be protected and respected,” and “the citizens are equal in rights and duties, without discrimination among them on grounds of gender, origin, language, religion, or creed.”  Citizens have the right to sue the government if they believe it has violated their rights.

According to law, membership in certain types of religiously oriented organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees.  This includes membership in an organization considered by the government to be “Salafist,” a designation the government associates with Sunni fundamentalism.  Neither the government nor the state security court have defined the parameters of what constitutes “Salafist” activity.  Affiliation with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death or imprisonment.

The government bans Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “politically-motivated Zionist organization.”

The law restricts proselytizing and conversion.  It prohibits the conversion of Muslims to other religions as contrary to Islamic law.  The law recognizes conversion to Islam.  The penal code prohibits “causing tension between religious communities.”

By law all religious groups must register with the government.  Registered religious groups and clergy – including all government-recognized Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups – receive free utilities and are exempt from real estate taxes on religious buildings and personal property taxes on their official vehicles.

According to a Washington think tank, in October the government issued a law regulating the structure and functions of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf).  The new law grants the Awqaf additional powers, including the establishment of a Jurisprudential and Scholarly Council with the power to define what religious discourse is appropriate and the authority to fine or penalize individuals who propagate extremist or deviant thought.  The law also charges the council with monitoring all fatwas (religious decrees) issued in the country and with preventing the spread of views associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or “Wahhabism.”  The law concentrates a range of offices and institutions within the ministry, centralizing the government’s role in and oversight over the country’s religious affairs.

All meetings of religious groups, except for regularly scheduled worship, require permits from the government.

Public schools are officially government-run and nonsectarian, although the government authorizes the Christian and Druze communities to operate some public schools.  There is mandatory religious instruction in public schools for all students, with government-approved teachers and curricula.  Religious instruction covers Islam and Christianity only, and courses are divided into separate classes for Muslim and Christian students.  Members of religious groups may choose to attend public schools with Muslim or Christian instruction, or attend private schools that follow either secular or religious curricula.

For the resolution of issues of personal status, the government requires citizens to list their religious affiliation.  Individuals are subject to their respective religious groups’ laws concerning marriage and divorce.  A Muslim woman may not legally marry a Christian man, but a Christian woman may legally marry a Muslim man.  If a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she is not allowed to be buried in an Islamic cemetery unless she converts to Islam.  If a Christian wishes to convert to Islam, the law states the presiding Muslim cleric must inform the prospective convert’s diocese.

The personal status law on divorce for Muslims is based on an interpretation of sharia implemented by government-appointed religious judges.  In interreligious personal status cases, sharia takes precedence.  A divorced woman is not entitled to alimony in some cases; a woman may also forego her right to alimony to persuade her husband to agree to the divorce.  Additionally, under the law, a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach the age of 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family.

The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance laws for all citizens except Christians.  According to the law, courts may grant Muslim women up to half of the inheritance share of male heirs.  In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less.  When a Christian woman marries a Muslim, she is not entitled to an inheritance from her husband unless she converts to Islam.

An individual’s birth certificate records his or her religious affiliation.  Documents presented when marrying or traveling for a religious pilgrimage also list the religious affiliation of the applicant.  There is no designation of religion on passports or national identity cards, except for Jews, who are the only religious group whose passports and identity cards note their religion.

Law No. 10, passed on April 2, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction.  Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state.  If an individual does not claim ownership successfully during the one-year period, as amended by Law No. 42, the property reverts to the local government.  An individual can prove ownership in person or through designated proxies.

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

Government Practices

There were continued reports that the war waged by the Alawi dominated government against opposition forces and terrorist groups resulted in significant casualties among the majority Sunni population.  The government continued its widespread and systematic use of unlawful killings, including through the repeated use of chemical weapons, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, including civilians, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims.

According to some analysts, religious and sectarian factors were present on all sides of the civil war, but there were also other factors underlying the violent competition for political power and control of the central government in Damascus, and violence committed by the government against opposition groups and civilians inherently had sectarian and nonsectarian elements.  According to many observers, including academic experts, the government’s policy, aimed at eliminating opposition forces threatening its power, was sectarian in its effects, although it was not motivated primarily by sectarian ideology.

According to the COI, multiple human rights organizations, and media reports, the government and progovernment forces used weaponry incapable of adequately discriminating between civilian and military targets in densely populated areas, used chemical weapons, and deliberately denied humanitarian aid.  In April the government and progovernment forces launched a massive assault on the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, culminating in the government’s recapture of an area it had besieged since 2013.  SNHR compiled a list of 1,473 civilians killed in the offensive, most of whom were Sunni Muslims.  During the battle for East Ghouta, according to UN and press reports, the government resumed chemical weapons attacks on civilians, with bombing in the predominantly Sunni Damascus suburb of Douma involving the possible use of sarin that killed at least 70 civilians.  The government and progovernment forces subsequently launched an assault on opposition-controlled areas of Daraa Province and reasserted government control in July.  The government’s military victories in the Damascus suburbs of East Ghouta and Daraa resulted in the forced displacement of mostly Sunni residents.  The government forced them to relocate primarily to opposition-held Idlib Province due to its suspicion that they were supportive of the opposition.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Commission of Inquiry, SNHR, and Syrian human rights activists reported government-affiliated forces and militias continued to seize the homes of Sunnis with the explicit intention of permanently displacing these individuals and thus altering the demographics of areas held by the regime.  Analysts said this was evidenced by population shifts in Homs.  Groups such as SNHR said the government’s displacement operations were sectarian in nature.

According to numerous reports, government and partner forces, including Iranian-backed Shia militias composed mostly of foreigners, killed, arrested, and physically abused individuals in attacks on opposition-held territory as part of their effort to defeat the armed insurrection mounted by opposition groups, as well as terrorist groups, and to intimidate Sunni communities that might support opposition groups.  According to SNHR, the civilian death toll for 2018 was 6,964, including 4,162 killed by government forces and Iranian militias.  The COI stated Sunnis accounted for the majority of civilian casualties and detainees.

Human rights organizations and civil society groups reported the government continued to arbitrarily detain tens of thousands of citizens without due process.

The SNHR report noted that arbitrary arrests of individuals have been made in the country on a daily basis since the start of the conflict for “exercising one of their basic rights such as the freedom of opinion and expression, or because they were denied a fair trial, or because they were detained after their punishment had ended.”

Human rights groups and opposition activists stated the majority of detainees the government took into custody were Sunni Arabs.  The UN and human rights organizations reported the continued detention and disappearance of individuals who appeared to be predominantly Sunni Muslims.  According to an SNHR report, the government used “enforced disappearance” and secretly arrested more than 95,000 Syrians since 2011.  The report stated that detainees were subject to torture intended to “inflict serious physical damage or cause severe pain for numerous purposes, whether to extract information, for retaliation, or to cause panic among detainees.”  According to the report, 13,608 individuals died from torture between March 2011 and August 2018.  The vast majority of tortured and executed prisoners were Sunni Muslims, whom analysts stated the government targeted believing they were members of the opposition, or likely to support the opposition.  The SNHR report stated that at least 7,706 arbitrary arrests were made in 2018.

The SNHR report stated that the government was responsible for at least 87 percent of all arbitrary arrests; nonstate actors also engaged in this practice.  In most cases, victims’ families could not accurately identify the entity that made the arrest, since Iranian militias, the predominantly Shia Lebanese Hezbollah, and all other progovernment forces were able to engage in arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances.

Over the course of the summer, government officials released death notices of prisoners held in government detention facilities.  SNHR stated that the number of detainees certified as dead was unknown, but it was estimated to be in the thousands.  The SNHR noted the government delayed announcing those detainees certified dead until years later as a way to punish the victims’ families.  In its review of the notifications, the Washington Post wrote that the notices were of detainees who died between 2013 and 2015, with the overwhelming majority of them Sunni Muslim.

Some opposition groups and terrorist groups identified themselves explicitly as Sunni Arab or Sunni Islamist groups in statements and publications and drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis, giving government targeting of the opposition a sectarian element.  NGO sources also stated the government tried to mobilize sectarian support by branding itself as a protector of religious minorities from Sunni extremist groups, while simultaneously bolstering radical Sunni groups and controlling the activities of religious groups.  As a result, a number of minority religious groups viewed the government as protecting them from violent Sunni extremists, according to international media reports.

In May Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the government’s adoption of Law No. 10 would lead to confiscation of property without due process or compensation and would create a major obstacle for refugees and IDPs to return home.  HRW said it would be nearly impossible for thousands of refugees and IDPs to claim their property and that the procedural requirements of the law, coupled with the political context, created significant potential for abuse and discrimination, particularly toward the Sunni population.  Subsequent to the law’s passage in April, an October report by HRW detailed how the government began preventing mostly Sunni displaced residents from former antigovernment-held areas in Darayya and Qaboun from returning to their properties, including by demolishing their properties without warning and without providing alternative housing or compensation.

According to multiple press reports and human rights organizations, the vast majority of refugees and displaced were Sunni and viewed with suspicion by the government.  Other human rights organizations joined with HRW in observing that the government could potentially use Law No. 10 to engage in abuse and discriminatory treatment of mostly Sunni displaced residents and residents from areas previously held by opposition forces.  They stated they feared Law No. 10 would be used to reconstruct religious demographics.  According to the Carnegie Endowment of Peace, significant numbers of the Syrian refugee population indicated that they were unlikely to return if they were unsure of being able to repossess their house or property.  According to refugee and human rights organizations, 70 percent of refugees lacked the basic identity documents needed to claim property.  The organizations stated that mostly Sunni displaced individuals without the proper documents required to claim property ownership feared persecution, arbitrary arrest, or mistreatment by the security services.

According to HRW, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continued to recruit Shia Afghan refugees and migrants residing in Iran to assist the government in its conflict against armed opposition groups.  HRW reported Iran had supported and trained thousands of Afghans to fight in the country as part of the Fatemiyoun Division since 2013.  HRW and other sources estimated the size of the division to be up to 14,000 fighters.  The Washington Post reported most Afghan fighters of the Fatemiyoun Division were refugees or migrants living in Iran, and hundreds came from poor, ethnic Hazara communities near the Iranian border, as well as other regions of Afghanistan.  According to analysts, the use of Shia fighters from as far as Afghanistan as soldiers in an armed conflict against a mostly Sunni opposition further exacerbated sectarian divisions.

According to human rights groups and religious communities, the government continued to monitor and control sermons and to close mosques between prayers.  It also continued to monitor and limit the activities of all religious groups, including scrutinizing their fundraising and discouraging proselytizing.

Despite the relatively small indigenous Shia community in the country, Shia religious slogans and banners remained prominent in Damascus, according to observers and media reports.  In addition, Hezbollah and other pro-Iran signs and banners remained prevalent in some government-held areas.

The government continued its support for radio and television programming related to the practice and study of a form of Islam it deemed appropriate.  State media allowed only those clerics it approved to preach on the air, and booksellers were prohibited from selling literature that the government deemed was against the government’s interpretation of Islam.

According to academic experts, religion remained a factor in determining career advancement in the government.  The Alawite minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military and security services, according to media and academic reports; however, the senior officer corps of the military reportedly continued to include individuals from other religious minorities.  The government continued to exempt Christian and Muslim religious leaders from military service based on conscientious objection, although it continued to require Muslim religious leaders to pay a levy for exemption.

Media and academic experts said the government continued to portray the armed resistance in sectarian terms, saying opposition protesters and fighters were associated with “extreme Islamist factions” and terrorists seeking to eliminate the country’s religious minority groups and its secular approach to governance.  The official state news agency Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported on the government’s fight against “takfiri terrorist organizations” throughout the year (a group is defined as takfiri if it declares another Muslim or a Muslim group as apostate).  An August 14 SANA article, referring to a Roman-era historic site destroyed in the civil war, was titled “Zein El-Abidine Palace in Daraa stands witness to Takfiri terrorist crimes.”

According to international media reports, leaders from a number of minority religious groups, such as representatives of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities as well as prominent Druze activists, continued to state the government had their support because it protected them from violent Sunni extremists.

The government continued to warn the Sunni population against communications with foreign coreligionists that it described as communication for the purpose of political opposition or military activity.  For most other religious groups, the government did not prohibit links between citizens and coreligionists in other countries or between citizens and the international religious hierarchies governing some religious groups.  It continued to prohibit, however, contact between the Jewish community and Jews in Israel.

Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons.  SANA frequently reported on the “Zionist enemy” and accused the opposition of serving “the Zionist project.”  The government repeated its claim a “Zionist conspiracy” was responsible for the country’s conflict.  In response to an alleged Israeli airstrike in July, the government stated “the Zionist enemy returned in its desperate attempts to support defeated terror organizations in Daraa and in Quneitra.”

The government continued to allow foreign Christian faith-based NGOs to operate under the auspices of one of the historically established churches without officially registering.  It continued to require foreign Islamic NGOs to register and receive approval from the Awqaf to operate.  Security forces continued to question these organizations on their sources of income and to monitor their expenditures.  The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor continued to prohibit religious leaders from serving as directors on the boards of Islamic charities.

SNHR reported the government continued to conduct indiscriminate aerial and artillery attacks, which at times resulted in damage or destruction of places of worship and religious cultural property, including numerous churches and mosques.  Additionally, the government conducted targeted attacks against places of worship the regime claimed were occupied by armed actors.  SNHR documented 67 attacks by government forces against places of worship during the year.  On January 31, for example, government helicopters dropped barrel bombs near al Omrai al Kabir Mosque in Kafr Amim village, causing moderate damage to the mosque and its furnishings.  On February 27, government forces shelled Um Habiba Mosque in Douma city, partially destroying the mosque and putting it out of operation.  The government continued to state the mosques it targeted were being utilized by opposition forces for military purposes.

Jews generally were barred from government employment and did not have military service obligations.

The COI and numerous independent sources reported nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the UN, the U.S., and other governments, such as ISIS and HTS, targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the areas of the country they controlled throughout the course of the conflict.

As of the end of the year, forces comprised of a coalition of 79 partners and the SDF liberated the vast majority of Syrian territory that ISIS once controlled and governed.  Until military operations largely removed ISIS from control of the country’s territory, ISIS killed hundreds of civilian men, women, and children through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and cursing God.

ISIS was reduced to a small area in the eastern part of the country by the end of the year; it no longer governed large populations, and was limited in its ability to subjugate religious groups and subject them to harsh treatment.  It continued, however, to operate and target individuals on the basis of religion on a smaller scale.  ISIS and HTS targeted religious minorities, including Shia and Ismaili Muslims, Christians, Alawites, and Yezidis, and members of the majority Sunni community who violated their strict interpretations of Islamic law.  In late July, for example, ISIS claimed credit for a wave of suicide attacks against the majority Druze population in the city of Sweida.  The attacks left more than 250 people dead and resulted in the capture of more than 30 Druze hostages by ISIS fighters, one of whom was later executed.  Al-Qaeda affiliated groups also lost significant territory, and at year’s end were mostly limited to the Idlib Governorate and had limited ability to target religious groups outside of their areas of control.  On September 7, al-Qaeda-linked rebels fired several missiles at the predominately Christian town of Mhardeh, according to multiple press reports.  The missiles killed at least 10 civilians and seriously wounded 20 others.  The charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reported that on January 22 rebels bombed Bab Touma, the Christian district in Damascus, leaving 12 dead and 35 injured.  ACN also reported that in early January shelling by rebels caused damage to the Syriac Orthodox patriarchate office in Bab Touma.

Many rebel groups self-identified as Sunni Arab or Sunni Islamist and drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis.  Armed groups continued to convene ad hoc sharia courts in areas under their control, where each group reportedly implemented its own interpretation of Islamic law.  Religious offenses ISIS deemed punishable by death included blasphemy, apostasy, and cursing God.  ISIS punished individuals with floggings or imprisonment for other religious offenses, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammad or failing to comply with standards of grooming and dress.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), as of June, Hezbollah had between 7,000 and 10,000 fighters in Syria, its largest deployment outside of Lebanon.  CSIS reports stated the bulk of Hezbollah’s forces and proxy militias were deployed along the Lebanese-Syrian border, where there were large numbers of Shia communities and shrines – and near Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon.  Hezbollah also deployed fighters around Damascus and Homs, and as far east as the Deir al-Zour Governorate in the Middle Euphrates River valley.

Hezbollah participated in the military campaigns against the mostly Sunni Damascus suburbs of East Ghouta and Daraa, which resulted in thousands of casualties.  Sources reported that Syrian soldiers and government-affiliated militias seized homes in these areas after “reconciliation” agreements forcefully displaced previous inhabitants, who were mostly Sunni Muslims.  The May COI report detailed a practice in which, after hostilities ceased and local truces were implemented, government and progovernment forces required individuals from the previously besieged areas to undergo a “reconciliation process” as a condition for remaining in their homes.  The option to reconcile reportedly often was not offered to healthcare personnel, local council members, relief workers, activists, dissidents, and family members of fighters.  In effect, the COI assessed that the “reconciliation process” induced displacement in the form of organized evacuations of those deemed insufficiently loyal to the government and served as a government strategy for punishing those individuals.

ISIS regularly targeted and massacred Shia Muslims, and used its media arms to target, demonize, and incite violence against Shia.

Numerous sources stated ISIS also targeted Christians throughout the country.  Activists, media, and ISIS sources reported ISIS continued to force Christians and other minorities in areas under its control to pay a protection tax – 164,000 Syrian pounds ($320) per person, according to a Christian organization – convert to Islam, flee, or be killed.

Starting in 2014, ISIS abducted thousands of Yezidi women from Iraq, as well as numerous Christian and Turkmen women, and brought them to the country to be sold as sex slaves in markets or given as rewards to ISIS fighters as “spoils of war” because of the captives’ religious beliefs.  According to numerous sources, ISIS fighters held the women as slaves and subjected them and other captured women and girls to repeated sexual violence, systematic rape, forced marriages, and coerced abortions.  While many Yezidi women were liberated when coalition forces and the Kurdish-dominated SDF liberated ISIS-held territory, thousands remained missing.

According to ISIS statements and other sources, in areas once under its control, ISIS police forces continued to administer summary punishments for violations of the ISIS morality code.  Men and women continued to face public beatings and whippings for smoking, possessing alcohol, listening to music, having tattoos, conducting business during prayer times, not attending Friday prayers, fighting, and not fasting during Ramadan.

HTS continued to characterize its fight against the government in derogatory terms aimed at delegitimizing and dehumanizing government supporters on the basis of their Alawite religious identity.  HTS and other rebel groups also used sectarian language to describe the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and SDF.  HTS replaced government courts with sharia councils in areas it controlled, authorizing discrimination against religious minorities.

In January the Turkish army, along with Turkish-opposition groups, including elements of the FSA, launched an air and ground campaign against the YPG-held enclave of Afrin.  The attack allegedly was designed to clear out Kurdish YPG fighters from the border region.  According to the United Nations, the press, and human rights organizations, approximately 167,000 people, mostly Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians, were displaced.  According to media reports, displaced Yezidis said FSA forces in Afrin rounded up Yezidis and forced them to convert to Islam and destroyed Yezidi places of worship.  In the aftermath of the conflict, Turkish forces implemented a resettlement policy by moving displaced Sunni opposition forces and their families into the empty homes that belonged to displaced people, comprised mostly of religious minorities.

ISIS, HTS, and some Islamist opposition groups continued to call for establishing a Sunni theocracy in press statements and media interviews.

HTS and affiliated groups continued to use schools, youth training camps, and other means to teach children their Salafi-jihadi philosophy in areas under their control.  In “proselytization sessions,” a term used by HTS, the group invited children to participate in games whose content was based on al-Qaida’s religious beliefs.

In September multiple news outlets reported that the SDF shut down 14 Syriac Christian schools in the cities of Qamishli, Hasakeh, and Al-Malikiyeh for their refusal to implement a new school curriculum that required courses to be taught in the Kurdish language.  The schools were administered by the Syriac Orthodox Church diocese and had been in operation since 1935, serving Assyrian, Armenian, Arab, and Kurdish communities in the area.  School officials accused the SDF of attempting to “erase” Syriac history and culture and imposing a Kurdish nationalist curriculum.  In September journalist Soulman Yousph was arrested and detained for five days following an article he wrote criticizing the SDF for closing down Chaldean Catholic Church and Syriac Orthodox Church private schools.  The Kurdish authority and the local Syriac Orthodox archbishopric eventually reached a deal that allowed the schools to reopen.  Samira Haj Ali, head of the Kurdish authority’s education authority, said the agreement ensured students in the first two grades followed a Syriac version of the Kurdish region’s curriculum.  In exchange, the agreement allowed students in classes three to six to follow the Damascus education curriculum with extra Syriac language classes available.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief.  In October a parliamentary committee suspended consideration of a new law on “religious autonomy” after criticism it would put religions above the law.  Domestic service workers and caretakers are not covered under the labor standards law and are therefore not legally guaranteed a weekly rest day.  Due to this exclusion, many domestic workers are not able to attend religious services.  Authorities continued to state they viewed the domestic service workers’ inability to attend religious services as a religious freedom issue that is part of a broader labor issue.  Tibetan Buddhist monks reported they continued to be unable to obtain resident visas for religious work, which authorities said was due to general rules governing foreigners who use travel permits instead of passports.  A Muslim association objected to the relocation of remains from a Muslim cemetery in Kaohsiung, which Kaohsiung City authorities developed into a park.  The association said Kaohsiung City authorities did not follow Islamic practices during the relocation of the remains.  Kaohsiung City authorities stated they worked with the imam of the Kaohsiung Mosque and relocated the remains in accordance with Islamic tenets.  City authorities also stated the majority of the Muslim community agreed to the move.

A Tibetan Buddhist group said a local Buddhist organization, which reportedly was Chinese-funded and which stated Tibetans were not true Buddhists, had yet to publish an apology as directed by the Supreme Court.

Staff of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) regularly met with authorities as part of its efforts to promote religious freedom and tolerance.  AIT representatives consulted with Taiwan authorities and lawmakers, including on the issues of Tibetan Buddhist practitioners and labor rights, as they affect domestic service workers’ ability to attend religious services.  AIT representatives also met with religious leaders and representatives of faith-based social service organizations to promote religious tolerance.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution provides for the free exercise and equal treatment under the law of all religions, which “shall not be restricted by law” except as necessary for reasons of protecting the freedoms of others, imminent danger, social order, or public welfare.

Religious organizations may voluntarily obtain an establishment permit from the MOI.  The permit requires organizations to have real estate in at least seven administrative regions valued at 25 million new Taiwan dollars (NT$) ($817,000) or more and possess at least NT$5 million ($163,000) in cash.  Alternatively, the organization may register if it possesses cash in excess of NT$30 million ($981,000).  The organization may also apply for an establishment permit from local authorities to receive local benefits, which have lower requirements than the island-wide level.

More than 20 religious organizations have establishment permits from Taiwan authorities.  An organization may register with the courts once it obtains the establishment permit.  The organization must provide an organizational charter, list of assets, and other administrative documents to register.  Registered religious organizations operate on an income tax-free basis, receive case-by-case exemptions from building taxes, and must submit annual reports on their financial operations.  Nonregistered groups are not eligible for the tax advantages available to registered religious organizations.

Many individual places of worship choose not to register and instead operate as the personal property of their leaders.  The Falun Gong is registered as a sports organization and not as a religious organization.

Authorities permit religious organizations to operate private schools.  Authorities do not permit compulsory religious instruction in any Ministry of Education-accredited public or private elementary, middle, or high school.  High schools accredited by the ministry may provide elective courses in religious studies, provided such courses do not promote certain religious beliefs over others.

Because of its unique status, Taiwan is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but it enacted a domestic law in 2009 to adhere voluntarily to the covenant.

Government Practices

In October a legislative committee suspended consideration of a new law on religious freedom.  According to press reports, under the draft bill, religious groups would have “religious autonomy,” which would have exempted them from oversight in a variety of areas ranging from land use and education to financial and personnel management.  It would have also banned courts from interfering with religious groups’ doctrines and personnel appointments.  Critics reportedly said passing the law could lead to corruption, environmental degradation, religious discrimination, and other human rights violations in the name of religion.  The Gender Equality Education Platform, established in June to raise public awareness of gender equality education, said the bill would allow religious groups to refuse to hire nonbelievers or those who do not conform to their doctrines, including lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender persons or women who have had abortions.  The bill’s sponsor withdrew the bill and many lawmakers withdrew their endorsements.

The labor law does not guarantee a day off for domestic workers and caregivers, which continued to limit their ability to attend religious services.  This problem continued to be particularly salient among the island’s 253,600 foreign caregivers and household workers, predominately from Indonesia and the Philippines, who include a number of Muslims and Catholics wanting to attend religious services on a certain day of the week.  Authorities viewed the domestic service workers’ inability to attend religious services as a religious freedom issue that is part of a broader labor issue.  Amendments to the labor law during the year did not address the issue of domestic service workers’ ability to attend religious services, and religious leaders said they were skeptical Taiwan would amend labor laws to resolve this issue in the near future.

The Chinese-Muslim Association objected to the relocation of remains from a Muslim cemetery in Kaohsiung, which Kaohsiung City authorities developed into a park.  The association said the Kaohsiung government in 2014 agreed the land could house both a cemetery and a park, but ultimately decided to move the cemetery.  According to the association, the Kaohsiung government also did not move the remains in accordance with Islamic tenets requiring that only Muslims may handle Muslim remains.  The association stated it was worried that the Kaohsiung government’s actions could set a precedent.  The Kaohsiung City government said it held two public hearings and actively communicated with the Muslim community in Kaohsiung and stated the majority agreed to the move.  The Kaohsiung government said it exhumed graves and moved the remains in accordance with Islamic tenets.  To prepare for the relocation, the heads of Kaohsiung City Government’s Civil Affairs Bureau and the Mortuary Services Office led a delegation to Malaysia in June 2017 to learn how to relocate properly Islamic cemeteries.  The Kaohsiung government said the imam of the Kaohsiung Mosque also helped with the relocation.

The Tibet Religious Foundation reported Tibetan Buddhist monks continued to be unable to obtain resident visas for religious work it said the authorities typically granted to other religious practitioners.  The monks had to fly to Thailand every two months to renew their visas.  The monks did not have passports and instead traveled using Indian Identity Certificates (ICs) issued to Tibetans who reside in India but do not have Indian citizenship and reportedly were valid for travel to all countries.  The foundation stated the authorities continued to deny resident visas in accordance with Taiwan’s visa regulations.  Taiwan authorities said they issued temporary religious visas to IC holders.  They said a comprehensive evaluation on a case-by-case basis, using rules established by multiple ministries, determined the validity period and the period of stay.  Authorities said they denied religious residence visas to IC holders based on general rules governing foreigners who use travel permits, which are not attributable to the religious purpose of the IC holders’ applications.

The Chinese-Muslim Association said authorities were making significant progress in improving rights for Muslims.  The number of halal-certified restaurants and hotels increased from 120 to 160 during the year.  Local authorities in Taoyuan, Taichung, Yunlin, Chiayi, and Yilan held Eid al-Fitr commemorations.  Authorities built new prayer rooms at train stations, libraries, and tourist destinations.

MOI and city- and county-level governments were responsible for accepting complaints from workers who believed government or individuals violated their rights and interests for religious reasons.  The MOI again said it did not receive any complaints of religious discrimination from workers.

Vice President Chen Chien-jen attended the canonization of Pope Paul VI and six other Catholic figures at St. Peter’s Basilica during a trip to the Vatican in October.  Chen said, “As a beacon of religious freedom and tolerance, Taiwan is committed to further strengthening ties with the Holy See via substantive cooperative initiatives spanning democracy, religious freedom, and human rights.”


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the right, individually or jointly with others, to adhere to any religion or to no religion, and to participate in religious customs and ceremonies.  The constitution states both that “[t]he citizen shall have the right to participate in the creation of political parties, including parties of democratic, religious and atheistic character” and, separately, that “[r]eligious organizations shall be separate from the state and shall not interfere in state affairs.”  The law restricts Islamic prayer to specific locations, regulates the registration and location of mosques, and prohibits persons under 18 from participating in public religious activities.  Amendments to the religion law, which came into effect in January, require religious organizations to report all activity to the state, require state approval for the appointments of all imams, and increase control over religious education within the country and on those traveling abroad for religious education.  The amendments allow restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of foundations of the constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country.  The government Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies (CRA) maintains a very broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature.  A Khujand city court sentenced Abdullo Saidulloev, former imam of Sari Sang mosque in Khujand to six years’ imprisonment for promulgating Salafi ideas.  Since 2016, authorities sentenced approximately 20 imams to prison in Sughd Region for membership in banned extremist organizations.  A Khujand city court sentenced Shukrullo Ahrorov, former imam of Ikhlos Mosque, to five years in prison for involvement in an extremist organization.  Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at mosques.  Officials continued to prevent members of minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, from registering their organizations.  Both registered and unregistered religious organizations continued to be subject to police raids, surveillance, and forced closures.  On October 5, the State National Security Services (SNSS) detained a group of 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including minors, who were leaving a private home in Dushanbe after a religious service.  After holding 10 of the members for most of the day, the SNSS released them but threatened they soon would be charged and prosecuted.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a separate incident on January 21, when authorities summoned a male Jehovah’s Witness to the police station in Khujand; the police had raided his home in 2017.  During the four-hour interrogation, Jehovah’s Witnesses sources stated that a police officer beat the individual so severely that he suffered a concussion and sought immediate medical treatment.  Authorities continued a pattern of harassing women wearing hijabs and men with beards, and government officials again issued statements discouraging women from wearing “nontraditional or alien” clothing, including religious dress.  According to the NGO Forum 18, on September 28, authorities set up a roadblock on the outskirts of the capital to stop cars carrying men with beards and women in hijabs.  Police forced the bearded men into a barber’s shop to have their beards shaved off and forced the women to take off their hijabs and wear shawls showing their necks.

A group pledging allegiance to ISIS claimed responsibility for the July killing of four foreign tourists, including two Americans, and the injuring of three others when the attackers drove a car into a group of cyclists.  Authorities said the leader of the attack was a member of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, which the government outlawed in 2015.  Members of the Christian community reported that cemeteries in southern Khatlon Region were desecrated, with fences, crosses, memorial plates, and tomb ornaments looted for the value of their metal.  Citizens generally remained reluctant to discuss societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, and some individuals who converted from Islam reported they experienced social disapproval.

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy staff encouraged the government to adhere to its commitments to respect religious freedom.  Embassy officers also raised concerns about government restrictions on religious practices, including the participation of women and minors in religious services; rejection of attempts of minority religious organizations to register; restrictions on the religious education of youth; harassment of those wearing religious attire; and limitations on the publication or importation of religious literature.  Embassy officers met with religious leaders and civil society groups to address the same issues and discuss concerns over government restrictions on the ability of minority religious groups to practice their religion freely.

On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a Country of Particular Concern (“CPC”) under section 402(b) of the Act, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  The Secretary also announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution declares the country a secular state and “religious associations shall be separate from the state and shall not interfere in state affairs.”  According to the constitution, everyone has the right individually or jointly with others to profess any religion or no religion, and to take part in religious customs and ceremonies.

The establishment and activities of religious associations promoting racism, nationalism, enmity, social and religious hatred, or calling for the violent overthrow of constitutional order and organizing of armed groups is prohibited.  The constitution states, “The citizen shall have the right to participate in the creation of political parties, including parties of democratic, religious and atheistic character.”  The constitution prohibits “propaganda and agitation” encouraging religious enmity.  In accordance with provisions of the constitution, no ideology of a political party, public or religious association, movement, or group may be recognized as a state ideology.

The law prohibits provoking religiously based hatred, enmity, or conflict, as well as humiliating and harming the religious sentiments of other citizens.

The law defines extremism as the activities of individuals and organizations aimed at destabilization, subverting the constitutional order, or seizing power.  This definition includes inciting religious hatred.

The law defines any group of persons who join for religious purposes as a religious association.  The government subdivides associations formed for “conducting joint religious worship” into religious organizations and religious communities, which also are defined by law.  In order to operate legally, both are required to register with the government, a process overseen by the CRA.

A religious association is a voluntary association of followers of one faith, with the purpose of holding joint worship and celebration of religious ceremonies, religious education, as well as spreading religious beliefs.  In order to register a religious association, a group of at least 10 persons over the age of 18 must obtain a certificate from local authorities confirming adherents of their religious faith have lived in a local area for five years.  The group must then submit to the CRA proof of the citizenship of its founders, along with their home address and date of birth.  The group must provide an account of its beliefs and religious practices and describe its attitudes related to education, family, and marriage.  It must also provide documentation on the health of its adherents.  A religious association must provide information on its religious centers such as mosques, central prayer houses, religious educational institutions, churches, and synagogues.  The group must specify in its charter the activities it plans to undertake, and once registered as a religious association, must report annually on its activities or face deregistration.

A religious community is a voluntary and independent association of citizens, formed for the purpose of holding joint worship and the satisfaction of other religious needs.  Types of religious communities include Friday mosques, five-time prayer mosques, prayer houses, and places of worship.  A religious community functions on the basis of a charter, after registering with the CRA without forming a legal entity.  The nature and scope of its activities are determined by the charter.  Religious communities are required to register both locally and nationally and must register “without the formation of a legal personality.”  A religious community must adhere to the “essence and limits of activity” set out in its charter.

A religious organization is a voluntary and independent association of citizens, formed for the purpose of holding joint worship, religious education, and spreading of religious faith.  Types of religious organizations include the Republican Religious Center, central Friday mosques, central prayer houses religious education entities, churches, and synagogues.  Religious organizations are legal entities and function on the basis of charters.  They can be a district, city, or national organization.

The law provides penalties for religious associations that engage in activities contrary to the purposes and objectives set out in their charter, and assigns responsibility to the CRA for handing down fines for such activities.  The law imposes fines for carrying out religious activities without state registration; violating its provisions on organizing and conducting religious activities; providing religious education without permission; performing prayers, religious rites, and ceremonies in undesignated places; and performing activities beyond the purposes and objectives defined by the charter of the religious association.  For first-time offenses, the government fines individuals 350 to 500 somoni ($37 to $53), heads of religious associations 1,000 to 1,500 somoni ($110 to $160), and registered religious associations, as legal entities, 5,000 to 10,000 somoni ($530 to $1,100).  For the same offenses repeated within a year of applying first fines, fines are increased to 600 to 1,000 somoni ($64 to $110) for individuals, 2,000 to 2,500 somoni ($210 to $270) for heads of religious associations, and 15,000 to 20,000 somoni ($1,600 to $2,100) for registered religious associations.  If a religious association conducts activities without registering, local authorities may impose additional fines or close a place of worship.

In late 2017 parliament amended the Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, which entered into force in January.  According to these amendments, restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion are allowed only to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of foundations of the constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country.

The amended law states that freedom of conscience and worship may only be restricted for reasons such as ensuring the rights of others, maintaining public order, ensuring state security, defending the country, upholding public morality, promoting public health, and safeguarding the country’s territorial integrity.  The amendments also stipulate that no party, public or religious association, movement or group may be recognized as state ideology.  Religious activities that promote racism, nationalism, hostility, social and religious hatred, or calling for violent overthrow of the constitutional order or the organization of armed groups are prohibited.  The amended law also says that the state maintains control over the order of religious education in order to prevent illegal training, propaganda, and the dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and hostility.

The amendments broadly empower the CRA to create regulations to implement state policies on religion, such as establishing specific guidelines for the performance of religious ceremonies.  The CRA maintains a very broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature.

The state controls activities of religious associations related to the performance of religious rites, and developing and adopting legal acts aimed at the implementation of a state policy on the freedom of conscience and religious associations.  Religious associations must submit information on sources of income, lists of property, expenditures, numbers of employees and payments of wages, paid taxes, and other information upon request by an authorized state body for religious affairs.

The law recognizes the “special status” of Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence with respect to the country’s culture and spiritual life.

The CRA is the government body primarily responsible for overseeing and implementing all provisions of the law pertaining to religion.  The Center for Islamic Studies, under the Executive Office of the President, helps formulate the government’s policy toward religion.

The law restricts Islamic prayer to four locations:  mosques, cemeteries, homes, and shrines.  The law regulates the registration, size, and location of mosques, limiting the number of mosques which may be registered within a given population area.  The government allows “Friday” mosques, which conduct larger Friday prayers as well as prayers five times per day, in districts with populations of 10,000 to 20,000 persons; it allows “five-time” mosques, which conduct only daily prayers five times per day, in areas with populations of 100 to 1,000.  In Dushanbe, authorities allow Friday mosques in areas with 30,000 to 50,000 persons, and five-time mosques in areas with populations of 1,000 to 5,000.  The law allows one “central Friday mosque” per district or city, and makes other mosques subordinate to it.

Mosques function according to their self-designed charters in buildings constructed by government-approved religious organizations or by individual citizens, or with the assistance of the general population.  The law states the selection of chief khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders at a central Friday mosque), imam-khatibs (prayer leaders in a Friday mosque, who deliver a sermon at Friday noon prayers) and imams (prayer leaders in five-time mosques) shall take place in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.”  The CRA must approve the imam-khatibs and imams elected by the founders of each mosque.  Local authorities decide on land allocation for the construction of mosques in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.”  The CRA regulates and formulates the content of Friday sermons.

The law regulates private celebrations, including weddings, funeral services, and celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.  The law limits the number of guests and controls ceremonial gift presentations and other rituals.  The law states mass worship, religious traditions, and ceremonies must be carried out according to the procedures for holding meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and peaceful processions prescribed elsewhere in the law.  The law bans the traditional sacrifice of animals at ceremonies marking the seventh and fortieth day after a death and celebrating the return of Hajj travelers.

According to the law, “Individuals and legal entities are obliged to protect the values of the national culture, including the state language, and national dress.”  According to customary interpretation, “national dress” does not include the wearing of the hijab.  The Code of Administrative Violations does not list the wearing of a beard, hijab, or other religious clothing as violations.

The law allows registered religious organizations to produce, export, import, and distribute religious literature and materials with religious content with the advanced consent of appropriate state authorities.  Only registered religious associations and organizations are entitled to establish enterprises to produce literature and material with religious content.  Such literature and material must indicate the full name of the religious organization producing it.  The law allows government authorities to levy fines for the production, export, import, sale, or distribution of religious literature without permission from the CRA.  According to the law, violators are subject to confiscation of the given literature, as well as fines of 1,500 to 3,500 somoni ($160 to $370) for individuals; 2,500 to 7,500 somoni ($270 to $800) for government officials; and 5,000 to 15,000 somoni ($530 to $1,600) for legal entities, a category including all organizations.

The law prohibits children and youth under 18 from participating in “public religious activities,” including attending worship services at public places of worship.  Children may attend religious funerals and practice religion at home, under parental guidance.  The law allows children to participate in religious activities that are part of specific educational programs in authorized religious institutions.

The law requires all institutions or groups wishing to provide religious instruction to obtain CRA permission, but in practice such permission is not granted.  Central district mosques may operate madrassahs, which are open only to high school graduates.  Other mosques, if registered with the government, may provide part-time religious instruction for younger students in accordance with their charter and if licensed by the government.

With written parental consent, the law allows minors between the ages of seven and 18 to obtain religious instruction provided by a registered religious organization outside of mandatory school hours.  According to the law, this may not duplicate religious instruction that is already part of a school curriculum.  The CRA is responsible for monitoring mosques throughout the country to ensure implementation of these provisions.

According to the CRA, parents may teach religion to their children at home provided they express a desire to learn.  The law forbids religious instruction at home to individuals outside the immediate family.  The law restricts sending citizens abroad for religious education and establishing ties with religious organizations abroad without CRA consent.  To be eligible to study religion abroad, students must complete a higher education degree domestically and be enrolled at a university accredited in the country in which it operates.  The law provides for fines of 2,500 to 5,000 somoni ($270 to $530) for violating these restrictions.

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

Government Practices

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on January 21, authorities summoned a male Jehovah’s Witness to the police station in Khujand; the police had raided his home in 2017.  During a four-hour interrogation, Jehovah’s Witnesses sources stated that a police officer beat the individual so severely that he suffered a concussion and sought immediate medical treatment.  A police officer followed him, pressured the hospital staff not to provide medical test results, and compelled the doctor to write a false statement denying the injuries.  On February 1, the chief of the Police Department and the chief of the Criminal Investigation Department summoned the victim and his wife for interrogation.  The police ordered the couple to write a statement declaring they were Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Fearing for their safety, the couple moved to another city.

According to April 22 media reports, the Khujand city court sentenced Abdullo Saidulloev, former imam-khatib of the Sari Sang five-time prayer mosque in Khujand, to six years’ imprisonment.  Authorities charged him with promulgating Salafi ideas.  He had studied in a Saudi Arabia madrassah from 2004 to 2006, and after returning started working in the clergy.  Police detained him in October 2017 after law enforcement seized 200 copies of banned literature from his home, which was described as extremist by the authorities.

Since 2016, the government sentenced approximately 20 imams to prison in Sughd Region for membership in banned extremist organizations.  Most received religious education abroad.  Local and international human rights organizations, however, said the government suppressed opposition figures under the aegis of combating terrorism and extremism.

On April 30, Radio Ozodi, part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported Khujand city court sentenced Shukrullo Ahrorov, former imam of Ikhlos Mosque, to five years in prison for involvement in Ikhvon-al-Muslimin, which the government banned in 2006 as an extremist organization.  The court ruling also stated that Ahrorov preached extremist ideas to worshipers at the mosque in 2015.  The court said law enforcement officers seized illegal religious literature from Ahrorov’s home.  Police charged Ahrorov with the article of the criminal code that covers participation in the activities of political parties, public associations, and religious or other organizations banned by the court.  Ahrorov’s relatives stated he might appeal.

In December police arrested Mukhtadi Abdulkodyrov shortly after he returned to the country after working for four years in Saudi Arabia.  Sources stated that police arrested him for his ties to Salafi Islam, which the Supreme Court banned from the country in 2009.  Prior to his return from Saudi Arabia, the Interior Ministry contacted him through social media promising to drop all charges against him if he agreed to abandon Salafism.  Abdulkodyrov agreed and wrote a “repentance letter” to the ministry, but still faced a possible eight-year prison sentence.

In September Belarusian border guards arrested Parviz Tursunov, a former soccer player, based on an extradition request from the government.  The government sought his extradition for being a member of a Salafi Muslim group.  He and his family crossed into Belarus from Ukraine in an attempt to reach Poland and apply for asylum.  In November Belarusian officials rejected the extradition request and released Tursunov back into Ukraine.  Tursunov remained in Ukrainian custody at the end of the year.

Bakhrom Kholmatov, former pastor of the Sunmin Sunbogym Protestant Church in Khujand, remained in prison and continued to refuse to undertake a second appeal of his sentence.  His wife stated that she had visited him and he appeared well, but said prison authorities would not allow her to visit for months at a time and they did not give him letters of encouragement written to him from Christians around the world.  After Forum 18 contacted prison authorities about the letters, they said that Kholmatov was now receiving them.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on October 5, the SNSS detained a group of 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including minors, who were leaving a private home in Dushanbe after a religious service.  The police released eight young women, but detained the rest of the group, comprised of both men and women, for questioning before releasing all 10 late in the day.  The SNSS reportedly threatened that they shortly would be charged and prosecuted.  On January 24 and 30, Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that police in a settlement near Khujand summoned and interrogated more than a dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses “for converting from Islam to Christianity.”  The police demanded that they renounce their faith.

On October 2, media reported that Daniil Islomov, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was sent to a military unit in Bokhtar city (formerly Qurghonteppa), after completing a six-month prison sentence for evading military conscription.  The government also denied Islomov an opportunity to perform alternative civilian service, although he was soon discharged from the army.  Stefan Steiner, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, told the media that authorities had effectively punished Islomov twice:  first with a prison sentence and second by forcing him to wear a military uniform.  In addition to his prison sentence, Islomov spent six months in pre-trial detention.  At year’s end, Islomov was in the process of filing a complaint with the UN Human Rights Council about his arrest and imprisonment.

In November an eight-year-old elementary school student and member of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the northern city of Konibodom was reported to school authorities for refusing to sing the national anthem or wear the school uniform tie which contained national symbols.  He was labeled a “traitor” and threatened with expulsion.  On November 28, after complaints from school officials, police reportedly took him to a local police station without parental notification and showed him a jail cell.  The city prosecutor’s office also threatened to take action against the boy’s mother for “raising him in an unacceptable way.”  Soon after the incident, Konibodom city police opened a criminal case against the mother, but did not explain what crime she allegedly committed.  On December 11, police presented her with a written summons for questioning, but she refused to comply with the summons.

On August 21, media reported that after Eid al-Adha prayers, police detained several young men with beards near a mosque in Obi Garm town.  There was no information on the identity of those detained.

In November police detained three residents of Ruknobod village in Panjakent District, including two teenagers, on charges of cooperating with extremist groups.  Residents of the village said these three individuals were arrested for clicking the “like” button on “extremist” social media posts.

Officials continued to prevent members of minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, from registering their groups as associations with the government.

Media reported that the government denied religious funerals for approximately 50 prisoners killed in a November Khujand prison camp riot.  The mother of one of the dead prisoners stated that authorities brought the body to a cemetery in Khujand and quickly buried it, forbidding family members to approach the coffin or perform religious rituals.  She said that police claimed the ritual had already been carried out in prison.

Government officials continued to take measures they stated would prevent individuals from joining or participating in what they considered extremist organizations and continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or supporting such banned opposition groups.  Those groups included Hizb ut-Tahrir, al-Qaida, Muslim Brotherhood, Taliban, Jamaat Tabligh, Islamic Group (Islamic Community of Pakistan), Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan, Islamic Party of Turkestan (former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – IMU), Lashkar-e-Tayba, Tojikistoni Ozod, Sozmoni Tablighot, Salafi groups, Jamaat Ansarullah, and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).

On April 21, media reported on an April 11 public meeting in Dushanbe between General Sharif Nazarzoda, chief of the city’s Department of Internal Affairs and imam-khatibs of local mosques.  Nazarzoda warned the imam-khatibs to be vigilant about congregants’ behavior and pay attention to those worshipers who did not observe Hanafi belief or practices.  Nazarzoda also reproached the clergy for not cooperating sufficiently with law enforcement agencies in the fight against extremism.  Nazaroda reportedly reinforced his words by showing the photographs of 20 imam-khatibs in Sughd Region sentenced to long prison terms on charges of extremism.

At an August 2 press conference in Sughd, Suhrob Rustamzoda, head of the regional Department on Religious Affairs and Regulation of National Traditions, announced the dismissal of 16 imam-khatibs.  Rustamzoda stated they did not pass certification.  At the same time, he noted that the government preferred imams who were graduates of local universities.  Rustamzoda also noted that operations in all five madrassahs in Sughd Region remained suspended until the Ministry of Education and Science (MES) granted them permission to operate and they had rectified shortcomings in their documentation.  They have not been in operation since 2013.

On January 4, media reported that dozens of imams did not pass annual certification.  A commission including CRA representatives and the government-supported Ulema Council conducted examination of imam-khatibs.  The report did not specify the exact number of those dismissed.  According to the report, the government has been requiring such an annual certification for the last nine years.  Some imam-khatibs who did not pass the certification stated their dismissal was improper.  CRA stated that some imam-khatibs could not answer questions on basic rules of performing prayers in accordance with the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, and could not differentiate between theology and Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh).  At a July 25 press conference, head of the department on religious associations of the CRA Husein Shokirov said that 35 imam-khatibs did not pass certification and were dismissed from their duties at mosques.  Authorities suspended the imam-khatibs from their jobs because they could not answer the questions of the certification commission; all questions were sent to the clergy 20 days in advance of the certification, Shokirov said.

Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at mosques.

NGOs reported authorities put restrictions on imam-khatibs, such as centrally selecting and approving sermon topics, as well as prohibiting some imam-khatibs from performing certain ceremonies.

On August 30, media reported police officers stopped women wearing hijabs and men with beards in Dushanbe’s Shohmansur district.  Authorities demanded that the women remove their hijabs and men shave their beards.  According to Forum 18, on September 28, authorities set up a roadblock on the outskirts of the capital to stop cars carrying men with beards and women in hijabs.  Police forced the bearded men into a barbershop to have their beards shaved off and forced the women to take off their hijabs and wear shawls showing their necks.  Forum 18 also reports hijab-wearing women were consistently refused medical care and employment.  Tajik State Pedagogical University in Dushanbe announced on September 30 that female students wearing a traditional shawl covering the head could not attend lectures.

On March 2, Radio Ozodi reported that Fathullo Nazriev, imam-khatib from a five-time prayer mosque in Rasht District, sent an open letter to the country’s president in which he stated that police officers in Rasht Valley pressured him to sign a statement accusing Junaidullo Khudoyorov of being a member of an illegal Salafi group.  Khudoyorov previously criticized local authorities on social media and was arrested on January 22.

Media reported that the CRA dismissed an imam of a mosque in Panjakent for not knowing the national anthem.  Naqibkhon Qoriev, a resident of the Yori District of Panjakent who was imam of the mosque early in the year, went through certification procedures in Dushanbe in early June.  He told media on August 27 he was notified only then about the reason for his dismissal and that as a result, authorities appointed another clergyman in his place.  He stated he was flustered during the certification procedure and could not fully read a verse about rules of performing pilgrimage, but stated he knew the anthem and recited part of it.  Officials at the local Department of Religious Affairs confirmed that Qoriev was dismissed, stating he did not know the anthem and also had difficulties answering a question on rules for reading namaz (Islamic prayer).  Saidjon Shodiev, head of the Religious Affairs Department, said that Qoriev failed on two occasions to pass the certification procedures and he could again apply for certification and be reinstated in his position.

Multiple sources reported on the conversion of mosques into other facilities.  During a press conference on January 24, Chairman of Isfara city Dilshod Rasulzoda said that during 2017 the government closed down 45 mosques in Isfara due to poor sanitation.  According to the official, local residents devised a proposal to convert the mosques into social facilities, kindergartens, and medical clinics.  At a January 30 press conference, Chairman of Bobojon Ghafurov District Zarif Alizoda stated that authorities closed down 46 mosques operating without authorization in his district in 2017.  Ghafurov said the government was converting what he termed “illegal” mosques into social service centers, sewing workshops, crafts training centers, trading centers, and other types of public facilities.

During a July 25 press conference, CRA Chairman Sulaymon Davlatzoda stated that some previously closed mosques would be allowed to reopen.  According to Davlatzoda, an interdepartmental working group had been set up to review closure cases and facilitate the reopening of mosques.  “There are mahallas (neighborhoods) where two or three mosques are registered, and there are mahallas and settlements where there is not a single mosque or religious association.  The interdepartmental working group is studying all these issues, and on the results of the group’s work, appropriate decisions will be made,” stated Davlatzoda.  He also stated that when the parliament in late 2017 amended the religion law, “all religious associations had to be reregistered, but some failed to do so out of negligence… which led to the closure of some mosques.”

At a February 5 press conference, CRA officials stated that the government had converted 1,938 mosques that were functioning without authorization into cultural spaces, medical centers, kindergartens, teahouses, or residences for needy families.  Authorities often closed mosques for lack of appropriate documentation, because many mosques were not registered at relevant offices as religious organizations after they were built.  The government gave mosques a deadline to obtain proper documentation and those that failed to meet the deadline were shut down and public facilities set up at their location.  Another 231 mosques were given time to formalize all relevant documents.  According to CRA data, as of the end of 2017, 48 central Friday mosques, 326 Friday mosques, 3528 five-time prayer mosques, 67 non-Islamic religious associations, one Islamic center, and three prayer houses – a total of 3,973 religious associations, were registered in the country and all of them were functioning in accordance with the law and satisfying the religious needs of citizens.

Forum 18 stated the 2017 amendments to the Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations allowed the state to restrict manifestations of freedom of religion based on a wide range of grounds not permitted under international human rights obligations, increased religious organizations’ requirements to report all activity to the state, required state approval for the appointments of all imams, and increased state control on both religious education at home, and on those traveling abroad for religious education.  Separately, representatives of a church group said the newly amended law transferred some authority from the Ministry of Justice to the CRA, which now had the right to register religious associations, control their activities, collect financial and other data, and adopt bills that could restrict (or expand) a religious association’s activity.

The government stated that it controlled religious education both domestically and of its citizens abroad in order to prevent “illegal education, propaganda and dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and enmity.”  There were reports of governmental action against students studying abroad.  At a February 5 press conference, CRA Chairman Davlatzoda said 3,694 citizens had been studying abroad at religious educational institutes.  According to the CRA, 3,377 people had returned to the country; 88 of them returned to their former places of education.  According to Davlatzoda, they went back abroad under the pretext of labor migration but in fact resumed religious studies.  Some were working again but were also studying “illegally” on the side.  Davlatzoda stated that 405 citizens were studying illegally at religious institutions in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan.  According to 2017 CRA data, 60 individuals returned home from foreign madrassahs, with some of them continuing education inside the country.

On May 12, during a meeting with civil society representatives, President Emomali Rahmon stated that more than 3,400 citizens who had studied religion outside the country without authorization had returned to the country.  He said parents and relatives should actively work to prevent their children from falling prey to destructive radical, terrorist, and extremist forces.  He also noted that one of the main reasons youth attended religious educational institutions abroad in violation of the law was because some parents did not want them to have a purely secular education.

NGOs reported authorities continued to enforce the ban on “nontraditional or alien” clothing.  On February 9, the Tajikistan Times published an op-ed by journalist Abdumudassir Ahmadov criticizing the decision of the National Library of Tajikistan to prevent the entrance of bearded men.  Ahmadov said that in the past he had argued about beards with the members of the banned IRPT and asked them not to make beards a religious issue.  He stated that now he was doing the same with state agencies to stop politicizing the issue of whether or not men wore beards.

On February 26, the Khovar state-run news agency reported that the Ministry of Culture (MOC) had proposed guidelines for national dress, which were awaiting government approval.  An official from the MOC told the media the reason for creating clothing guidelines was “to prevent the impact of foreign cultures” on national traditions.  Minister of Culture Shamsiddin Orumbekzoda told journalists during a February 7 press conference that the ministry would soon publish a book about the “ethics of wearing clothes.”  He said the book was a recommendation aimed at presenting national culture and national and historical values so that citizens adequately represented their country.  He noted the book would take into account norms of both national and European clothing and that throughout the world there were certain rules and “ethics of wearing clothes.”

On March 19, the Asia Plus news agency reported that the MOC issued recommendations on women’s clothing.  The ministry published a book with sketches of female models entitled “Instruction on recommended clothes for girls and women in the Republic of Tajikistan” with guidance on how to dress for work in state agencies, for national and state holidays such as Navruz and Mehrgon, as well as for brides at weddings and family celebrations.  It also described clothing not recommended for girls and women, which included forms of Islamic dress such as hijabs.

The government continued to restrict distribution of religious literature; reportedly scheduled a major exam on a date widely anticipated to be designated Eid al-Adha; limited the numbers of those allowed to go on the Hajj; and defined acceptable practices for children attending mosques and for funeral observances.  The government continued to close for one-day national holidays in observance on both Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.

On June 6, the Ulema Council refuted media reports stating that the MES had decided to hold exams on June 16, the Eid al Fitr holiday.  On the following day, June 7, the Ulema Council declared that Eid al Fitr would be June 15.

On August 27, Asia Plus news agency reported that authorities set new restrictions on acceptable dimensions for graves “to prevent pomposity and the material well-being of citizens.”  CRA representatives and local authorities are responsible for enforcing the decree.

On July 3, media reported that Imam of Nuri Islom Mosque in Khujand Ibodullo Kalonzoda proposed introducing Islam into the school curriculum strictly as an academic subject.  Speaking at a roundtable entitled “Countering Terrorism and Extremism – the Main Factor in creating a Democratic and Legal society” held in Guliston in July, Kalonzoda noted that offering such a subject in high schools would be a way to counteract “distorted perceptions” of Islam.

On July 3, the Radio Ozodi website reported that the court of Norak town fined cleric Abdukarim Saidov 350 somoni ($37) for providing illegal religious education.  Authorities charged him with organizing religious education for eight children between six and 16 years old beginning in June 2017.  The children’s parents had paid Saidov 300 to 500 somoni ($32 to $53) a month along with groceries as payment.  Saidov, a graduate of the Islamic Institute of Tajikistan, told the media he did not know it was illegal to organize religious lessons for children at home.

On July 8, Akhbor news agency reported that Khairullo Najmiddinov, Mahmadayub Junaidov, and Husein Rizoev, three imams from Tojikobod District, were fined 500 somoni ($53) each for establishing an illegal madrassah at home.  The government also fined the children’s parents.

On May 17, Radio Ozodi reported that imam-khatibs in mosques throughout the country were ordered to watch the play “Obu Otash” (“Water and Fire”) by writer and playwright Mansur Surush, which, according to proponents, promoted tolerance and mocked religious fanaticism.


Executive Summary

The constitutions of the union government and of the semiautonomous government in Zanzibar both prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of religious choice.  Since independence, the country has been governed by alternating Christian and Muslim presidents.  Sixty-one members of Uamsho, an Islamist group advocating for Zanzibar’s full autonomy, remained in custody without a trial since their arrest in 2013 under terrorism charges.  In May the Office of the Registrar of Societies, an entity within the Ministry of Home Affairs charged with overseeing religious organizations, released a letter ordering the leadership of the Catholic and Lutheran Churches to retract statements that condemned the government for increasing restrictions on freedoms of speech and assembly, and alleged human rights abuses.  After a public outcry, the minister of home affairs denounced the letter and suspended the registrar.  The Zanzibar Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources destroyed a church being built on property owned by the Pentecostal Assemblies of God after the High Court of Zanzibar ruled the church was built on government property.  This followed a protracted court battle in which Zanzibar courts ruled the church was allowed on the property.

Vigilante killings of persons accused of practicing witchcraft continued to occur.  As of July, the government reported 117 witchcraft-related incidents.  There were some attacks on churches and mosques throughout the country, especially in rural regions.  Civil society groups continued to promote peaceful interactions and religious tolerance.

The embassy launched a three-month public diplomacy campaign in support of interfaith dialogue and sponsored the visit of an imam from the United States to discuss interfaith and religious freedom topics with government officials and civil society.  Embassy officers continued to advocate for religious tolerance in meetings with religious leaders in the country.  The Charge d’Affaires hosted iftars and interfaith roundtables with religious leaders to promote and highlight the country’s religious diversity.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitutions of the union government and Zanzibar both provide for equality regardless of religion, prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, and stipulate freedom of conscience or faith and choice in matters of religion, including the freedom to change one’s faith.  The union government constitution allows these rights to be limited by law for purposes such as protecting the rights of others; promoting the national interest; and safeguarding defense, safety, peace, morality, and health.  The Zanzibar constitution allows the rights to be limited by law if such a limitation is “necessary and agreeable in the democratic system” and does not limit the “foundation” of the right or bring “more harm” to society.

The law prohibits religious groups from registering as political parties.  To register as a political party, an entity may not use religion as a basis to approve membership, nor may the promotion of religion be a policy of that entity.

The law prohibits any person from taking any action or making statements with the intent of insulting the religious beliefs of another person.  Anyone committing such an offense is liable to a year’s imprisonment.

On the mainland, secular laws govern Christians and Muslims in both criminal and civil cases.  In family-related cases involving inheritance, marriage, divorce, and the adoption of minors, the law also recognizes customary practices, which could include religious practices.  In such cases, some Muslims choose to consult religious leaders in lieu of bringing a court case.

Zanzibar, while also subject to the union constitution, has its own president, court system, and legislature.  Muslims in Zanzibar have the option of bringing cases to a civil or qadi (Islamic court or judge) court for matters of divorce, child custody, inheritance, and other issues covered by Islamic law.  All cases tried in Zanzibar courts, except those involving Zanzibari constitutional matters and sharia, may be appealed to the Union Court of Appeals on the mainland.  Decisions of Zanzibar’s qadi courts may be appealed to a special court consisting of the Zanzibar chief justice and five other sheikhs.  The President of Zanzibar appoints the chief qadi, who oversees the qadi courts and is recognized as the senior Islamic scholar responsible for interpreting the Quran.  There are no qadi courts on the mainland.

Religious groups must register with the Registrar of Societies at the Ministry of Home Affairs on the mainland and with the Office of the Registrar General on Zanzibar.  Registration is required by law on both the mainland and in Zanzibar, but the penalties for failing to comply with this requirement are not stated in the law.

To register, religious groups must provide the names of at least 10 members, a written constitution, resumes of their leaders, and a letter of recommendation from the district commissioner.  Such groups may then list individual congregations, which do not need separate registration.  Muslim groups registering on the mainland must provide a letter of approval from the National Muslim Council of Tanzania (BAKWATA).  Muslim groups registering in Zanzibar must provide a letter of approval from the mufti, the government’s official liaison to the Muslim community.  Christian groups in Zanzibar may register directly with the registrar general.

On the mainland, BAKWATA elects the mufti.  On Zanzibar, the President of Zanzibar appoints the mufti, who serves as a leader of the Muslim community and as a public servant assisting with local governmental affairs.  The Mufti of Zanzibar nominally approves all Islamic activities and supervises all mosques on Zanzibar.  The mufti also approves religious lectures by visiting Islamic clergy and supervises the importation of Islamic literature from outside Zanzibar.

Public schools may teach religion, but it is not a part of the official national curriculum.  School administration or parent-teacher associations must approve such classes, which are taught on an occasional basis by parents or volunteers.  Public school registration forms must specify a child’s religious affiliation so administrators can assign students to the appropriate religion class if one is offered.  Students may also choose to opt out of religious studies.  Private schools may teach religion, although it is not required, and these schools generally follow the national educational curriculum unless they receive a waiver from the Ministry of Education for a separate curriculum.  In public schools, students are allowed to wear the hijab but not the niqab.

The government does not designate religious affiliation on passports or records of vital statistics.  Police reports must state religious affiliation if an individual will be required to provide sworn testimony.  Applications for medical care must specify religious affiliation so that any specific religious customs may be observed.  The law requires the government to record the religious affiliation of every prisoner and provide facilities for worship for prisoners.

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

Government Practices

Sixty-one members of Uamsho, an Islamist group advocating for Zanzibar’s full autonomy, remained in custody following their arrest in 2013 on terrorism charges.  The cases were not brought to trial during the year, and the investigation continued.  Those charged remained imprisoned on mainland Tanzania.  They were initially arrested and detained in Zanzibar, which has an independent court system.  In January 24 of the Uamsho members were separately sentenced to six months in prison for public indecency after they protested their detention and poor prison conditions by undressing before entering a court chamber.  This charge was separate from and in addition to their original terrorism charge.

In January unknown persons kidnapped five members of the Uamsho movement in Zanzibar and held them for seven days before releasing the captives.  One kidnapping victim alleged they were abducted by state police in retaliation for their support for families of the imprisoned Uamsho leaders.

In May the Ministry of Home Affairs sent a letter to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania and the Tanzania Episcopal Conference (which represents the Catholic bishops) threatening legal action after the churches issued statements that criticized the government’s perceived repression of basic freedoms.  The letter gave a 10-day ultimatum to denounce the criticism of the government.  The government letter was leaked on social media and went viral.  After strong public backlash against perceived government interference in religious affairs, the government disowned the letter and suspended the registrar of religious communities and societies, who had signed the letter.

In September the Department of Immigration deported seven Islamic clerics from Pakistan who had arrived two weeks earlier in Kilwa, a Muslim-majority region on the southeast coast.  Department officials stated the clerics did not have permission to enter the country from the head Mufti of BAKWATA, although a Kilwa legislator, Suleiman Bungara, said the clerics had a letter from BAKWATA.  The English-language daily newspaper The Citizen reported that Bungara’s efforts to resolve the issue with Minister of Home Affairs Kangi Lugola were unsuccessful and Bungara questioned whether BAKWATA or the Immigration Department had the authority to approve international religious visitors.

In August a court in Mwana Kwerekwe acquitted and freed a Pentecostal pastor in Zanzibar accused of abusing a Muslim girl in 2014, ending a protracted court case.  The court originally closed the case in 2015, with charges against the pastor twice dropped for lack of evidence.  Christian leaders in Zanzibar stated that the government later reopened the case as a pretext for jailing the pastor, and that Christians found it difficult to obtain a fair court hearing in Zanzibar.

In March the Zanzibar Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources confiscated and destroyed a church being built on property which the Pentecostal Assemblies of God stated it owned, but the High Court of Zanzibar ruled the church was built on government property.  After opponents to the construction demolished several temporary church structures between 2004 and 2007, the group had completed approximately half the construction of a stone building in 2009 when local Muslims filed suit, arguing the church was being built illegally.  A lower court ruling in 2011 in favor of the church had allowed the construction to move forward, although the court later decided the party who originally sold the property to the church was not the rightful owner.  According to Christian media, church leaders stated the court ruled due to religious bias and threatened the survival of the congregation on the island.

During the year, the Tanzanian Revenue Authority (TRA) announced religious organizations would no longer receive automatic tax exemptions for charitable in-kind donations.  Religious groups must hereafter submit individual requests to the TRA to receive tax exemptions on donations.

The government used various public forums to emphasize that religious organizations should be self-funded and not rely on international donors.


Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious belief and protects religious liberty.  The law officially recognizes five religious groups:  Buddhists, Muslims, Brahmin-Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians.  The Ministry of Justice allows the practice of sharia as a special legal process, outside the national civil code, for Muslim residents of the “Deep South” for family law, including inheritance.  In September the Bangkok Criminal Court found nine Muslims from the Deep South guilty after they confessed in connection with what authorities said was a plan for bombings in Bangkok in 2016.  Defendants reportedly said they were tortured in prison before confessing, but the court found the accusations baseless.  As part of what the government said were broader immigration raids, authorities arrested and detained hundreds of suspected illegal immigrants, including persons from a number of vulnerable religious minority groups, some of whom had or were applying for asylum or refugee status from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  The government stated these arrests were not motivated by religious affiliation and that members of a multitude of different religious groups were detained.  A nongovernmental organization (NGO) said the detainees included Christians and Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan, who fled for religious reasons, and 181 Christian Montegnards from Vietnam, whom the NGO said had asylum or refugee status.  The NGO said the Montegnards were detained on August 28 and the adults were sent to an immigration detention facility, while approximately 50 children were sent to children’s shelters.  The Ministry of Education amended a 2008 regulation to stipulate that when attending schools located on Buddhist temple property, students must wear the uniform agreed to by the school and temple.  The Sangha Supreme Council issued an order prohibiting the use of temple land for political activities, rallies, meetings, or seminars for purposes that violate the law or impact national security, social order, or public morals.  Following the marriage of a 41-year-old Malaysian man to an 11-year-old Thai girl in the Deep South, the Central Islamic Council issued a regulation setting 17 years old as the minimum age for marriage.

Insurgency-related violence continued in the Malay Muslim-majority Deep South, where religious and ethnic identity are closely linked in a longstanding separatist conflict.  On August 1, a gunman reportedly shot and killed a Muslim teacher, Adul Sima, as he left prayers in a mosque in Pattani’s Mai Kaen District.  The Election Commission and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand signed a cooperation agreement to educate, train, empower, and develop the capacity of Catholic communities, networks, schools, and students on democracy-related issues.

Embassy and consulate general officials met with government ministries, religious leaders, academics, and elected officials to promote religious pluralism and reconciliation and discuss complex religious issues in society, including ethnic identity and politics.  The embassy and consulate general organized workshops on peace and facilitated the presentation of speakers from the United States on interfaith dialogue and conflict resolution.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution states that all persons are equal before the law regardless of religious belief and allows all persons to profess, observe, or practice any religion of their choice, as long as the exercise of these freedoms are not “harmful to the security of the State.”  The constitution empowers the state to patronize and protect Buddhism as well as other religions, but it also provides for special promotion of Theravada Buddhism through education, propagation of its principles, and the establishment of measures and mechanisms “to prevent the desecration of Buddhism in any form.”

A special order issued by the military government in 2016 guarantees the state’s promotion and protection of “all recognized religions” in the country but mandates all state agencies to monitor the “right teaching” of all religions to ensure they are not “distorted to upset social harmony.”  A law specifically prohibits the defamation or insult of Buddhism and Buddhist clergy.  Violators may face up to one year’s imprisonment, fines of up to 20,000 baht ($620), or both.  The penal code prohibits the insult or disturbance of religious places or services of all officially recognized religious groups.  Penalties range from imprisonment for one to seven years, a fine of 2,000 to 14,000 baht ($62 to $430), or both.

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

Religious groups associated with one of the five officially recognized religions may register to receive state benefits that include access to state subsidies, exemption from property and income taxes, and preferential allocation of resident visas for the registered organization’s foreign officials.  Registration as a religious group is not mandatory, and religious groups may still operate without government interference whether or not they are officially registered or recognized.  Under the law, the RAD is responsible for registering religious groups, excluding Buddhist groups, which the National Buddhism Bureau, an independent state agency under direct supervision of the prime minister, oversees.

The RAD may register a new religious denomination within one of the five recognized religious groups only if it meets the following qualifications:  the national census indicates the group has at least 5,000 adherents, it possesses a uniquely recognizable theology, it is not politically active, and it obtains formal approval in a RAD-organized meeting of representatives from the concerned ministries and the five recognized umbrella religious groups.  To register with the RAD, a religious group’s leader also must submit documentation on its objectives and procedures, any relationship to a foreign country, a list of executive members and senior officials, and locations of administrative, religious, and teaching sites.

The constitution prohibits Buddhist priests, novices, monks, and other clergy from voting in an election or running for seats in the House of Representatives or Senate.  According to the National Buddhism Bureau, as of September there were more than 41,000 Buddhist temples in the country with approximately 335,000 clergy who are thus ineligible to vote or run for office.  Christian clergy are prohibited from voting in elections if they are in formal religious dress.  Except for the chularajmontri (grand mufti), imams are not regarded as priests or clergy and are thus allowed to vote in elections and assume political positions.

The Sangha Supreme Council serves as Thai Buddhism’s governing clerical body.  In July the National Legislative Assembly amended the law to give the king full authority to unilaterally appoint or remove members from the Sangha Supreme Council irrespective of the monk’s rank and without consent or consultation with the supreme patriarch.

In June the Ministry of Education amended a 2008 regulation, which permitted students to dress in accordance with their religious belief, to stipulate that when attending schools located on Buddhist temple property, students must wear the uniform agreed to by the school and temple.   

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

According to the NGO Deep South Watch, insurgency-related violence from January to August resulted in at least 146 deaths – among them 128 Muslims and 18 Buddhists.  Deep South Watch also reported 196 persons were injured during that period – 91 Muslims and 105 Buddhists.  For all of 2017, Deep South Watch reported 187 Muslims, 64 Buddhists, and 12 unidentified persons were killed in the insurgency.  Local NGOs reported insurgents often considered teachers, along with their military escorts, as affiliated with the state and hence legitimate targets.  According to Deep South Watch, a Muslim teacher was killed, a Buddhist teacher was injured, and six Muslim students were injured as of August.

In September the Bangkok Criminal Court found nine Muslims from the Deep South guilty of belonging to an underground criminal group and conspiracy and sentenced each to four years’ imprisonment.  One was also found guilty of illegal possession of explosive devices and given an additional two years.  Their original sentences were halved because they confessed.  Five defendants were acquitted.  According to a human rights group, at least seven of the defendants said they were tortured in prison, including being beating and being doused with water and left in cold rooms before confessing, but the court found the accusations baseless and without evidence.  The cases arose from arrests in 2016 in connection with what authorities said was a plan for bombings in Bangkok.

There were reports authorities continued to use the emergency decree and martial law provisions in effect in the Deep South since 2005 and 2004, respectively, that give military, police, and civilian authorities significant powers to restrict certain basic rights, including pretrial detention and searches without warrant.  Authorities delegated certain internal security powers to the armed forces, often resulting in accusations of unfair treatment.

In August online newspaper Prachatai reported an unidentified unit arrested five Malay Muslims, two of whom were activists campaigning for peace in the Deep South.  The arrestees’ relatives were not informed of the charges, but authorities told them the five were arrested under “a special law.”

According to human rights groups, a portion of the country’s refugee and asylum seeker population was fleeing religious persecution elsewhere.  According to UNHCR, many of them lived in the country without legal permission to stay and as a result, as with the entire refugee and asylum seeker population, they faced the possibility of arrest, detention, and deportation regardless of whether they had registered with the agency.  During the year, immigration authorities reported conducting a series of raids targeting any person living illegally in the country.  As part of those operations, thousands were arrested, including some UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers.  UNHCR reported that those detainees who were registered with them were released shortly after arrest.  The government said the raids did not target any specific religious group, and they arrested individuals with various religious affiliations.  Media coverage consistently highlighted that the arrests were part of the broader immigration crackdown and not motivated by religion.  The government and UNHCR stated the government did not deport any UNHCR-registered refugees or asylum seekers from these raids and allowed UNHCR access to these individuals.  In September the NGO International Christian Concern said more than 70 Pakistani Christians were confined to the Bangkok Immigration Center in what were described as “degrading, unclean, and overcrowded” conditions.  The same NGO said that on August 28, 181 mostly Christian Montegnards (or Degar) refugees from Vietnam were arrested and the adults were detained at the Bangkok facility, while more than 50 children were separated from their parents and sent to three shelters.

Human rights and migrant assistance groups reported difficulties among Muslim and South Asian migrants in obtaining legal status, especially after a new decree came into effect early in the year.  Muslim migrants from Burma, many of whom reportedly fled persecution, said they were unable to acquire the necessary documentation from Burma.  In April the Thai labor minister stated more than 250,000 migrants would have to leave the country.

Activists, including Human Rights Watch, expressed concerns about how the government might react to requests from China to extradite Chinese dissidents, including those associated with religious groups banned in China.  No members of banned religious groups were forcibly deported to China during the year.  Tourist police in March arrested seven Chinese nationals for distributing Falun Gong documents and fined them for overstaying their visas.

In what the government said was a move against corruption, in the spring it arrested six leading monks, including elderly monks on the Sangha Supreme Council, two senior abbots at Bangkok’s Golden Mount Temple, and Phra Buddha Issara, a monk who had previously urged the government to act against corrupt monks.  One press report described the act as an effort to assert the government’s authority over temples, while the prevailing view among close observers was that the arrests were politically motivated and designed to curry favor before the 2019 elections with voters who were concerned about reported corruption among monks.

In September police shut down a forum organized by foreign journalists to discuss whether senior military officers in Burma should face justice for alleged human rights abuses committed by their forces against Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities.  According to press reports, approximately one dozen police arrived ahead of the scheduled panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand and ordered the panelists not to speak.

Since 1984 the government has not recognized any new religious groups.  Despite the lack of formal legal recognition or registration, civil society groups continued to report unregistered religious groups operated freely, and the government’s practice of not recognizing or registering new religious groups did not restrict their activities.  Although registration provided some benefits, such as visas with longer validity, religious groups reported that being unregistered was not a significant barrier to foreign missionary activity, and many unregistered missionaries worked in the country without government interference.

On October 10, a group of monks petitioned the Election Commission to amend the laws restricting monks’ political rights.

In February a group of female Buddhist monks submitted a petition to the National Human Rights Commission to follow up on a February 2017 petition to amend the law to recognize female monks.  No action had been taken as of September.  The Sangha Supreme Council continued to prohibit women from becoming monks; women wishing to join the monkhood usually travelled to Sri Lanka to be ordained.  Of the 360,000 Buddhist clergy in the country, 229 were women.  Since a gender equality law exempts cases involving “compliance with religious principles,” female monks (bhikkhunis) were excluded from gender equality protection by the government.  Officials continued to neither formally oppose nor support female ordination.  Officials allowed bhikkhunis to practice and establish monasteries and temples.  Without official recognition, however, monasteries led by women continued to be ineligible for any of the government benefits received by other sanctioned Buddhist temples, primarily tax exemptions, free medical care, and subsidies for building construction and running social welfare programs.  Unlike male monks (bhikkhus), bhikkhunis received no special government protection from public verbal and physical attacks that sometimes involved male monks opposing the ordination of female monks.

In August the Sangha Supreme Council issued an order prohibiting the use of temple land for political activities or rallies, meetings, or seminars for purposes that violate the law or impact national security, social order, or public morals.  The order also reiterated the prohibition against monks and novices participating in political activity.

The Central Islamic Council in August issued a regulation setting 17 years as the minimum age for marriage.  According to the law, the minimum legal age for marriage, regardless of religion, is 17.  The regulation followed in the wake of the May marriage of a 41-year-old Malaysian man to an 11-year-old Thai girl in the Deep South.  The girl was returned to her family in August.

The only government-certified Islamic university in the Deep South, Fatoni University, continued to teach special curricula for Muslim students, including instruction in Thai, English, Arabic, and Bahasa Malayu; a mandatory peace studies course; and the integration of religious principles into most course offerings.  As of September 30, approximately 3,300 students and 480 academic personnel were affiliated with the school.

In January the governor of Narathiwat Province in the Deep South mandated the addition of monarchy studies – a course focused on Thai history and the relationship between Thai kings and their subjects – to the curriculum taught at pondoks.

In May the Education Ministry selected 13 committee members to develop Buddhist-only teaching for schools.  At present, more instruction time is dedicated to teaching Buddhism than other religions.

The June Ministry of Education amendment on students wearing the uniform agreed to by the school and temple was the result of a controversy that arose in May, when the director of a public school located on the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Pattani Province in the Deep South refused a request from a group of Muslim students’ parents to allow their children to wear a headscarf to school.  The school’s student body is 40 percent Muslim; however, the school dress code required students to wear a uniform, without accommodation for religious attire.  On October 29, the Songkhla Administrative Court, which had jurisdiction over Pattani Province, issued an injunction banning the school from penalizing students for wearing Islamic dress.

According to the association and faculty at a prominent university in the Deep South, scrutiny of Muslim professors and clerics continued to decline; however, the military continued to scrutinize Muslim teachers at private schools.

Duay Jai, a local human rights advocacy group in the Deep South, reported in February that a group of military officers went to a tadika in Pattani Province and demanded a list of students and photographs of teachers’ identity cards.  According to press reports, the government said the school committed financial fraud and funneled funds to a militant.  The school remained open as the investigation continued.  There were reports that security officials searched several Islamic schools on allegations of corruption and possible connection to insurgency funding.

Starting with the October 1, 2017-September 30, 2018 fiscal year, the government transferred the management of the approximately 410 million baht ($12.67 million) budget for non-Buddhist initiatives from the RAD to the Ministry of Interior (MOI).  Approximately 333 million baht ($10.29 million) of that allocation went to strategic planning for religious, art, and cultural development.  The budget included grants of approximately 18 million baht ($556,000) for the maintenance and restoration of non-Buddhist religious sites of the five officially recognized religious groups and 240,000 baht ($7,400) for the chularajmontri’s annual per diem.  The Muslim community reportedly said that it preferred the MOI to manage the budget as it was easier to navigate, and the MOI had more capacity to manage the budget.

The National Buddhism Bureau, funded separately from the RAD, received 4.9 billion baht ($151.47 million) in government funding, 1.9 billion baht ($58.73 million) of which went to empowerment and human capital development projects.  A total of 1.6 billion baht ($49.46 million) was allocated for personnel administration, 1.2 billion baht ($37.09 million) for education projects, including scripture and bookkeeping instruction for monks and novices, and 256 million baht ($7.91 million) for Deep South conflict resolution and development projects.

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

Religious groups continued to proselytize without reported interference.  Thai Buddhist monks working as missionaries were active, particularly in border areas among the country’s tribal populations, and received some public funding.  According to the National Buddhism Bureau, there were 5,426 Buddhist missionaries working nationwide.  Buddhist missionaries needed to pass training and educational programs at Maha Makut Buddhist University and Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University before receiving appointments as missionaries by the Sangha Supreme Council.  Per government regulations, no foreign monks were permitted to serve as Buddhist missionaries within the country.

During the year, there were 11 registered foreign missionary groups with visas operating in the country:  six Christian, one Muslim, two Hindu, and two Sikh groups.  There were 1,357 registered foreign Christian missionaries.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), which is not an officially recognized Christian group, continued to exercise its special quota for 200 missionaries through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Security Council.  Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus had smaller numbers of missionaries in the country.  Many foreign missionaries entered the country using tourist visas and proselytized without the RAD’s authorization.  Non-Buddhist missionaries did not receive public funds or state subsidies.