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Czech Republic

Executive Summary

The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a supplement to the constitution, guarantees freedom of religious conviction and states everyone has the right to change, abstain from, and freely practice religion.  The Ministry of Culture (MOC) registered two religious groups in June; applications of three other groups and legal appeals by two other groups of registration denials remained pending at year’s end.  The High Court in Olomouc upheld a lower court conviction in absentia of Path of Guru Jara (PGJ) leader Jaroslav Dobes and another PGJ member and sentenced them to prison.  The high court also reversed and remanded the lower court’s convictions on seven other counts of rape involving PGJ; reportedly, the lower court later dismissed those charges.  The government stated that in the first nine months of 2017 it settled 638 claims by religious groups for property confiscated during the communist period.  President Milo Zeman awarded a medal to a nursing school head for “fighting intolerant ideology” after she barred a Somali student from wearing a hijab.  The opposition Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) campaigned on an anti-Muslim platform in October elections.

The nongovernmental organization (NGO) In IUSTITIA reported 17 religiously motivated incidents – 13 against Muslims and four against Jews – compared with 34 in 2017.  The government reported 27 anti-Semitic and three anti-Muslim incidents in 2017, compared with 28 and seven, respectively, in 2016.  A survey by the Median polling agency found 80 percent of citizens did not want Muslims as their neighbors.  The government reported an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric online.  A theater in Zlin received a letter stating Jews were unwanted immigrants who should “disappear abroad or in gas” after presenting a play on efforts to restore a Jewish cemetery in Prostejov.  The Ministry of Interior (MOI) reported 18 concerts in which participants expressed anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi views.

U.S. Embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues, such as property restitution for religious groups and religious tolerance, with government officials.  In June embassy officials and the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues (SEHI) discussed the welfare of Holocaust survivors and other issues of concern with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Embassy officials met with Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim religious leaders to reaffirm U.S. government support for religious freedom and tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.7 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2011 census, of the 56 percent of citizens who responded to the question about their religious beliefs, approximately 62 percent held none, 18 percent were Catholic, 12 percent listed no specific religion, and 7 percent belonged to a variety of religious groups, including the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, other Protestant churches, other Christian groups, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.  Academics estimate there are 10,000 Jews; the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC) estimates there are 15,000 to 20,000.  Leaders of the Muslim community estimate there are 10,000 Muslims, most of whom are immigrants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution does not explicitly address religious freedom, but the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a supplementary constitutional document, guarantees freedom of religious conviction and the fundamental rights of all regardless of their faith or religion.  It states every individual has the right to change religion or faith; to abstain from religious belief; and to freely practice religion, alone or in community, in private or public, “through worship, teaching, practice, observance.”  The charter defines religious societies, recognizing their freedom to profess their faith publicly or privately and to govern their own affairs, independent of the state.  It stipulates conscientious objectors may not be compelled to perform military service and that conditions for religious instruction at state schools shall be set by law.  The charter states religious freedom may be limited by law in the event of threats to “public safety and order, health and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.”

The law states the MOC Department of Churches is responsible for religious affairs.  While religious groups are not required by law to register with the government and are free to perform religious activities without registering, they have the option to register with the MOC.  The law establishes a two-tiered system of registration for religious groups.  The MOC reviews applications for first- and second-tier registration with input from other government bodies, such as the Office for Protection of Private Data and outside experts on religious affairs.  The law does not establish a deadline for the MOC to decide on a registration application.  Applicants denied registration can appeal to the MOC to reconsider its decision and, if again denied, to the courts.

To qualify for the first (lower) tier, a religious group must present the signatures of at least 300 adult members permanently residing in the country, a founding document listing the basic tenets of the faith, and a clearly defined structure of fiduciary responsibilities.  First-tier registration confers limited tax benefits, including exemptions from a tax on the interest earned on current account deposits and taxes on donations and members’ contributions, and establishes annual reporting requirements on activities, balance sheets, and use of funds.

For second-tier registration, a group must have been registered with the Department of Churches for 10 years, have published annual reports throughout the time of its registration, and have membership equal to at least 0.1 percent of the population, or approximately 10,700 persons.  The group must provide this number of signatures as proof.  Second-tier registration entitles religious groups to government subsidies.  In addition, only clergy of registered second-tier religious groups may perform officially recognized marriage ceremonies and serve as chaplains in the military and at prisons.  Prisoners who belong to unregistered religious groups or groups with first-tier status may receive visits from their own clergy, outside of the prison chaplaincy system.

Religious groups registered prior to 2002 have automatic second-tier status without having to fulfill the requirements for second-tier registration.

There are 40 state-registered religious groups; 18 groups are first tier and 22 are second tier.

Unregistered religious groups are free to assemble and worship but may not legally own property.  Unregistered groups may form civic associations to manage their property.

The law authorizes the government to return to 17 religious groups (including the Roman Catholic Church, FJC, the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, and the Hussite Church) land and other property confiscated during the communist era and still in the government’s possession, the total value of which is estimated to be approximately 75 billion koruna ($3.42 billion).  It also sets aside 59 billion koruna ($2.69 billion) for financial compensation for property that cannot be returned, to be paid to these 17 groups over a period of 30 years, ending in 2043, according to a fixed timetable.  Using a mechanism prescribed by law based on an agreement among the religious groups concerned, the government allocates slightly more than 79 percent of the financial compensation to the Catholic Church.  Religious groups had a one-year window, which ended in 2013, to make restitution claims for confiscated land and other property, which the government is processing.  If the government rejects a property claim, the claimant may appeal the decision in the courts.  The law also contains provisions for phasing out direct state subsidies to second-tier religious groups over a 17-year period, ending in 2029.

The law permits second-tier registered religious groups to apply through the MOC to teach religion in state schools; 11 of the 22 second-tier groups have applied and received permission.  The teachers are supplied by the religious groups and paid by the state.  If a state school does not have enough funds to pay for its religious education teachers, teachers are paid by parishes or dioceses.  Although the law makes religious instruction in public schools optional, school directors must provide instruction in the beliefs of one of the 11 approved religious groups if seven or more students register for the optional class at the beginning of the school year, in which case the school provides the religious instruction only to the students who registered.

The government does not regulate instruction in private schools.

The penal code outlaws denial of Nazi, communist, or other genocide, providing for prison sentences of six months to three years for public denial, questioning, approval of, or attempts to justify the genocide committed by the Nazis.  The law also prohibits the incitement of hatred based on religion and provides for penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment.

Foreign religious workers from European Economic Area countries or Switzerland must obtain long-term residence and work permits to remain in the country for more than 90 days.  There is no special visa category for religious workers; foreign missionaries and clergy are required to meet the conditions for a standard work permit.

The law designates January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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

Government Practices

In June the MOC registered two religious groups – the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X and Theravada Buddhism – both of which had applied in 2016.  Registration applications by the Community of Baptist Congregations, which applied in January, and Ecclesia Risorum, which applied in March, remained pending at year’s end.

In March the Municipal Court in Prague, ruling on an appeal by the Cannabis Church, overturned the MOC’s December 2016 decision to halt that group’s registration application.  The court ordered the MOC to reopen the registration procedure.  The MOC asked the Cannabis Church to supplement the registration application with additional information.  The Cannabis Church’s application remained pending at year’s end.  An appeal filed in 2017 with the Municipal Court in Prague by the Lions of the Round Table – Order of the Lands of the Czech Crown, whose registration application the MOC rejected in 2016, remained pending at year’s end.  In January the Municipal Court confirmed with the PGJ its wish to continue its legal appeal against the MOC, which twice rejected the group’s application in 2017.  PGJ’s lawsuit against the government’s Office for Personal Data Protection, alleging an interrogative and abusive investigation of the PGJ’s registration application in 2017, remained pending at year’s end.

According to local news media, on October 11, the High Court in Olomouc upheld the January conviction in absentia by the Regional Court in Zlin of PGJ leader Jaroslav Dobes and PGJ member Barbora Plaskova on one count of rape and sentenced them to prison terms of five and five and a half years, respectively, and ordered them to pay the victim 60,000 koruna ($2,700).  The high court voided convictions by the Zlin Regional Court of Dobes and Plaskova on seven other counts of rape and remanded the cases back to the Zlin court for retrial.  In January the Zlin Regional Court had sentenced Dobes and Plaskova to seven and a half years in prison each after convicting them in absentia on eight counts of rape involving six women.  Defense lawyers had appealed the verdict to the High Court in Olomouc.  On December 21, according to PGJ representatives, the Zlin Regional Court dismissed the remaining seven charges of rape against Dobes and Plaskova and halted all criminal proceedings.  Dobes and Plaskova reportedly remained in immigration detention in the Philippines.

The government provided 17 second-tier religious groups with approximately 3.3 billion koruna ($150.4 million), 1.2 billion koruna ($54.69 million) as a subsidy and 2.1 billion koruna ($95.71 million) as compensation for communal property in private and state hands that would not be returned.  Five of the 22 second-tier groups declined all state funding.  While accepting the state subsidy, the Baptist Union opted not to accept the compensation for unreturned property.  The MOC provided 2.8 million koruna ($128,000) in grants for religiously oriented cultural activities in response to applications from a variety of religious groups.

Throughout the year, the Communist Party (a supporter of the coalition government but not an official coalition member and holding no ministries) supported legislation (which it introduced in 2017) to tax the remaining portion of financial compensation for property that could not be returned, estimated at approximately 46 billion koruna ($2.1 billion).  The draft legislation, which some parliamentarians said they opposed, was scheduled to be voted on in 2019.

The government reported that, between January and September 2017, the most recent period for which data were available, it settled 446 claims with religious groups for agricultural property and 192 claims for nonagricultural property.  (An earlier government report had incorrectly cited a higher number of settled claims for agricultural and nonagricultural property in the first three months of 2017.)  At the end of this period, 66 agricultural and 89 nonagricultural property claims had not been adjudicated, and 1,318 lawsuits filed by religious groups in the courts to appeal government restitution decisions were pending.

In August the Supreme Court upheld the 2017 ruling by the South Moravian Regional Court in Brno that overturned a decision by the Brno Municipal Court earlier that year holding that the Brno Jewish Community (BJC) had legal title to a property in possession of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.  The Supreme Court and the South Moravian Regional Court both held the property belonged to the ministry.  The BJC had filed its claim in 2013 based on church restitution legislation, and the ministry had rejected the claim in 2014.

The city of Prostejov continued to oppose the restoration of a former Jewish cemetery by the Kolel Damesek Eliezer Foundation, a U.S. charity, and the FJC.  The cemetery, which along with its remaining tombstones the MOC designated as a cultural monument, was destroyed by the Nazis and later converted into a park.  Vladimir Spidla, who was an adviser to former Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, continued to mediate the dispute.

In July a district court in Prague convicted former SPD Party Secretary Jaroslav Stanik of hate speech after he stated publicly in November 2017 that Jews, Roma, and homosexuals should be shot right after birth.  The court issued a criminal order allowing for a suspended sentence up to one year or a fine if the defendant did not appeal it.  Stanik appealed the criminal order.  The Prague 1 District Court indefinitely postponed an appeals hearing scheduled for September for reasons of Stanik’s health.

In October President Zeman bestowed the Medal for Merits to the director of a state nursing school in Prague for “fighting intolerant ideology,” widely seen as a reference to Islam, after she barred a Somali student from wearing a hijab at school.

During municipal and senate elections in October, the SPD Party and its leader Tomio Okamura ran on an anti-Islam platform, posting notices on billboards reading “No to Islam, No to Terrorists.”  The party did not win any senate seats and attained 155 out of 61,892 seats in municipal assemblies.

In February the government granted asylum to eight Chinese Christians and rejected asylum applications of 70 others.  The Chinese Christian applicants had all applied in 2016 on the grounds of religious persecution in China.  Fourteen other applicants withdrew their applications before the government announced its decisions.  The 70 applicants whom the government rejected remained in the country at year’s end while they appealed their cases.

In April then-Deputy Chairman (later Chairman) of the Senate Jaroslav Kubera again sponsored and participated in an annual march and concert against anti-Semitism.  The march opened the government-funded 15th annual Culture against Anti-Semitism Festival.  Festival-goers signed a petition against anti-Semitism initiated by Senator Daniela Filipiova.  Approximately 600 people attended the event.

The government funded religiously oriented cultural activities, including the Night of Churches held in several cities, the annual National Pilgrimage of St. Wenceslaus, KRISTFEST (a festival of seminars, workshops, and musical performances on religious themes), the Concert in Memory of Holocaust Victims, the annual Hussite Festival (commemorating the religious teaching of reformation leader Jan Hus), and the Romani Pilgrimage, organized by the Catholic Diocese of Olomouc.

The MOI said it continued to cooperate with the Jewish community on protection of Jewish sites in Prague and across the country, but did not provide details.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to NGO In IUSTITIA, there were reports of 17 religiously motivated hate crimes during the year, 13 against Muslims and four against Jews, compared with 34 such cases in 2017.  In IUSTITIA did not provide details of the incidents.

In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, the MOI reported 27 criminal offenses with anti-Semitic motives, compared with 28 cases in 2016.  The MOI reported three crimes with anti-Muslim motives in 2017, compared with seven in 2016.  The MOI did not provide details of the incidents.

In March press reported police had arrested a 70-year-old man who in 2017 caused two trains to derail near Mlada Boleslav, approximately 40 miles north of Prague, and left Arabic messages at the scene in what authorities described as an attempt to provoke a reaction against Muslims.  According to state attorney Marek Bodlak, the man left leaflets “containing linguistically garbled threatening texts to evoke that they were written by a jihadist.”  Bodlak told newspaper Lidove noviny, “The accused is a native Czech citizen, motivated by the effort to raise concerns among the population about the Muslim migration wave and the commission of terrorist attacks.”  The man’s trial was pending at year’s end.

According to a July survey of more than 800 persons by the Median polling agency, 35 percent said they did not mind interacting with Muslims in public places, but 80 percent did not want them as neighbors or want a mosque in their neighborhood, and 81 percent said they would be bothered if their child had a relationship with a Muslim.  Citizens with less education and over the age of 45 were more likely to cite fear of Muslims.  Respondents with greater interactions with Muslims reported more positive attitudes towards them.

In March the Municipal Theatre in Zlin received an anonymous anti-Semitic letter after it presented a play based on local developments following the efforts to restore the former Jewish cemetery in the nearby city of Prostejov.  The letter stated, “The Jews are unwanted immigrants who have the obligation to immediately disappear abroad or in gas.”  Police were investigating the case at year’s end.

The MOI reported 18 private “white power” music concerts took place in the country, where participants expressed anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi views.  The MOI estimated approximately 50 to 100 persons attended a typical “white power” concert.

According to press reports, at a soccer match on November 4 between the Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague clubs, fans of the former shouted anti-Semitic taunts at Slavia, including “Jude Slavia,” alluding to the club’s supposed Jewish links.  An interior ministry spokesperson said the chant was not motivated by “hatred towards a group of people for their alleged or actual race, ethnic group…” and that the football association should address the issue.  Pavel Stingl, a documentary filmmaker, organized an exhibition, titled “Football:  A Century of Fouls,” examining the sport’s relationship with fascism when the country was under Nazi occupation and highlighting the involvement of Jews in soccer’s development in the country.  Stingl said he was motivated by the failure of government and soccer officials to address the problem of anti-Semitism among fans and because Sparta fans had posted anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi messages on social media.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric on the internet increased, according to the MOI.  Discussions on social networks or in the comments sections under news articles featured anti-Muslim hate speech.  For example, a discussion under an online series of articles on the Muslim community in the country published by mainstream newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes included anti-Islamic posts, including one stating that “Islam is a cancer on democracy.”  In contrast to the previous year, there were no reports of demonstrations protesting against Islam or the acceptance of refugees from Muslim countries.

In May the state prosecutor’s office in Ceske Budejovice halted the prosecution of Martin Konvicka, leader of the Block Against Islamization Party (BPI), whom it had charged in 2016 with incitement of hatred and suppression of rights and freedoms.  The prosecutor’s office dropped the charges due to a failure to secure evidence in a timely fashion from the online social network in which it alleged Konvicka posted statements calling for the creation of concentration camps for Muslims and their physical annihilation.  The BPI held no seats in parliament.

In January the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of a regional court in Jihlava that sentenced well-known anti-Semitic blogger Adam Bartos to a conditional sentence of one year in prison with two years of probation (meaning he would serve the prison sentence if found guilty of another crime during the two-year probation period) for incitement to hatred and defamation in March 2017.  The verdict concerned a note Bartos wrote in 2015 supporting an 1899 Jewish blood libel trial.  In June the Prague 1 District Court convicted Bartos of incitement to hatred and Holocaust denial on the internet, in public speeches, and books and sentenced him to a conditional sentence of two years in prison.  Bartos appealed the verdict.  In November the Municipal Court in Prague upheld the decision.  Bartos appealed to the Supreme Court, where the case remained pending at year’s end.

In May the Czech Bar Association fined bar member Klara Samkova 25,000 koruna ($1,100) for publicly cursing the Turkish ambassador in June 2016.  Samkova compared Islam to Nazism in a statement read in front of the Turkish embassy.

The government-funded Endowment Fund for Holocaust Victims, established by the FJC, again contributed 4.5 million koruna ($205,000) to 13 institutions providing health and social care to approximately 500 Holocaust survivors.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. embassy continued to engage government officials from the MOC, especially the Department of Churches, on issues such as property restitution to religious groups and religious tolerance.  In June SEHI and embassy representatives met with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reiterate continued support for the goals of the Terezin Declaration, the welfare of Holocaust survivors, and issues of concern to them and others, including property restitution, eligibility for state pensions, and the status of the Prostejov Jewish cemetery.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim groups to reaffirm U.S. commitment to religious tolerance and to hear the groups’ views on interfaith relations.

Republic of Korea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for religious freedom and prohibits discrimination based on religion.  On June 28, the Constitutional Court overturned its previous 2004 and 2011 rulings and found unconstitutional a provision of the law that calls for up to three years in prison for those who refuse to serve in the military without “justifiable” reasons, arguing that it failed to provide alternative service options for conscientious objectors.  The ruling required the government to amend the law by December 31, 2019 to provide alternative service options for conscientious objectors.  On November 1, the Supreme Court ruled “conscience or religious beliefs” a justifiable reason for refusing mandatory military service, while overturning a lower court ruling in which a Jehovah’s Witness was sentenced to 18 months in prison.  On November 30, press reported the government decided to release on parole 58 conscientious objectors who had been imprisoned prior to the Supreme Court ruling.  According to Watchtower International, a Jehovah’s Witnesses-affiliated nongovernmental organization (NGO), 57 conscientious objectors were released on parole and eight Jehovah’s Witnesses remained in prison as of December for conscientious objection to military service, down from 277 the previous year.  It also reported 938 pending such cases in the courts as of December including 89 cases in the Supreme Court and 37 cases under investigation.  The number of conscientious objectors on trial was the highest in 11 years, while the number of conscientious objectors in prison was the lowest in 11 years, according to the NGO.  In December the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) granted temporary one-year humanitarian permits to 412 of 500-plus Yemenis, most or all of whom were Muslim, who applied for asylum after entering Jeju Province on a visa-free program.  Yemenis were excluded from the visa-free program in June.

The influx of Yemeni asylum seekers to Jeju spurred protests against the country’s special visa-free entry program for Yemenis and certain other nationals.  The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) reported 21 cases alleging religious discrimination as of December.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged with senior government officials, NGO representatives, and religious leaders on issues related to religious freedom, including the imprisonment of conscientious objectors.  The Ambassador met with the President of the Constitutional Court to discuss the court’s ruling on conscientious objectors and the positive effect the ruling would have on the ability of religious minorities to express their religious beliefs and act according to their faith.  The Ambassador also met with leaders of the Anglican, Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic communities to discuss and underscore the U.S. commitment to religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 51.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2016 census conducted by the Korea Statistical Information Service, of the 44 percent of the population espousing a religion, 45 percent are Protestant, 35 percent Buddhist, 18 percent Roman Catholic, and 2 percent “other.”  The census counts members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church) as Protestants.  Followers of “other” religious groups, including Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Jeongsando, Cheondogyo, Daejonggyo, Daesun Jinrihoe, and Islam, together constitute less than 2 percent of the population.  According to the only rabbi in the country, there is a small Jewish population of approximately 1,000, almost all expatriates.  According to the Korean Muslim Federation, the Muslim population is estimated at 135,000, of which approximately 100,000 are migrant workers and expatriates mainly from Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution states that all citizens have freedom of religion, and that there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social, or cultural life because of religion.  Freedoms in the constitution may be restricted by law only when necessary for national security, law and order, or public welfare, and restrictions may not violate the “essential aspect” of the freedom.  The constitution states that religion and state shall be separate.

The law requires active military service for virtually all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 40, followed by reserve duty training.  The Ministry of National Defense reported that starting in October the length of compulsory military service would gradually shrink from 21-24 months to 18-22 months, depending on the branch of service.  The law currently does not allow for alternative service options for conscientious objectors, who are subject to a maximum three-year prison sentence for refusing to serve in the military.  Conscientious objectors sentenced to more than 18 months in prison are exempt from military service and reserve duty obligations and are not subject to additional sentences or fines.

Those who complete their military service obligation and subsequently become conscientious objectors are subject to fines for not participating in mandatory reserve duty exercises.  The reserve duty obligation lasts for eight years, and there are several reserve duty exercises per year.  The fines vary depending on jurisdiction but typically average 200,000 Korean won ($180) for the first conviction.  Fines increase by 100,000 to 300,000 won ($90 to $270) for each subsequent conviction.  The law puts a ceiling on fines at 2 million won ($1,800) per conviction.  Civilian courts have the option, in lieu of levying fines, to sentence individuals deemed to be habitual offenders to prison terms or suspended prison terms that range from one day to three years.

In June the Constitutional Court ruled that the government must provide alternative service options for conscientious objectors by December 31, 2019.  On November 1, the Supreme Court ruled that conscientious objection was a valid reason to refuse mandatory military service.  The rulings did not address the status of conscientious objectors already convicted and serving time in prison.  While the Constitutional Court has the authority to rule on the constitutionality of national laws, the Supreme Court decides how these laws would apply to individual cases.

According to regulation, a religious group that has property valued at over 300 million won ($269,000) may become a government recognized religious organization by making public internal regulations defining the group’s purpose and activities, meeting minutes of the group’s first gathering, and a list of executives and employees.

To obtain tax benefits, including exemption of acquisition or registration taxes when purchasing or selling property to be used for religious purposes, organizations must submit to their local government their registration as a religious and nonprofit corporate body, an application for local tax exemption, and a contract showing the acquisition or sale of property.  Individual religious leaders previously were eligible to receive tax benefits on earned yearly income.  A revision to the Income Tax Act, which took effect in January, eliminated tax exemptions on earned income for all clergy.  Education, food, transportation, and childcare expenses remain exempt from taxation for clergy.  Individual practitioners remain eligible for income tax benefits upon submitting receipts of donations made to religious organizations.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools.  Private schools are free to conduct religious activities.

The law provides government subsidies to historic cultural properties, including Buddhist temples, for their preservation and upkeep.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (MCST) Religious Affairs Division works with major religious groups on interfaith solidarity and interactions between religious organizations and the government.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to detain and imprison conscientious objectors to military service.  Most conscientious objectors refused military service for religious reasons, and most were sentenced to 18 months in prison.  While absolved of any military obligation after serving time in prison, conscientious objectors still had a criminal record that could affect future employment opportunities, including limitations on holding public office or working as a public servant.

On November 30, press reported that the government would release on parole 58 conscientious objectors who had been imprisoned.  Those individuals were eligible for parole because they had finished one-third of their sentence.  Watchtower International said that 57 conscientious objectors were released on parole and reported in December eight Jehovah’s Witnesses remained in prison for conscientious objection to military service.  The total number of such prisoners declined from 277 in the previous year.

As of June Watchtower International estimated that more than 19,350 conscientious objectors had been imprisoned since 1950.  The organization reported 938 cases pending in the courts, including 89 cases in the Supreme Court and 37 cases under investigation as of December.  Another 46 Jehovah’s Witnesses were under investigation for refusing to participate in reserve forces training.  The number of conscientious objectors on trial was at its highest in 11 years, while the number of conscientious objectors in prison was at its lowest in 11 years.

As of December the lower courts had issued 85 “not guilty” decisions in conscientious objection cases, in contrast to 44 in 2017, seven in 2016, and six in 2015.

On June 28, the Constitutional Court, after deliberating for nearly three years, ruled that a provision of the law on conscription was unconstitutional since it failed to provide for alternative service options for conscientious objectors.  In 2004 and again in 2011, the Constitutional Court had deemed the conscription law constitutional.  The new court ruling required the government to amend the law by December 31, 2019 to provide alternative service options for conscientious objectors.  The Ministry of National Defense began drafting a bill for conscientious objectors after the ruling.

On August 30, the Supreme Court heard several cases of conscientious objectors.  On November 1, it ruled that conscientious objection was a valid reason to refuse mandatory military service while overturning a lower-court ruling in which a Jehovah’s Witness was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

On November 22, Seoul Central District Court convicted Lee Jae-rock, the pastor of a megachurch, of raping eight women dozens of times and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.  He had told the women that he was carrying out “an order from God.”

In July police arrested Shin Ok-ju, head pastor of the Grace Road Church, as well as three other senior members, on charges of forced confinement and physical assault in conjunction with a 400-member Church-owned compound in Fiji.  Former members of the Church said they were instructed to beat each other in order to get rid of evil spirits and were not free to leave the compound.  The Church denied the accusations.  As of the end of the year, the investigation was ongoing.

Religious organizations continued to express concern that a new tax law, which went into effect in January, imposed income tax on specified benefits for religious leaders that were not actual income.  Organizations were also concerned about distinguishing taxation on religious activities from taxation on religious leaders as individuals.

Media sources reported the Seoul city government spent 200 million won ($179,000) to provide prayer rooms at popular tourist destinations in order to attract more Muslim tourists.

The MCST’s Religious Affairs Division supported various religious events, co-hosted by religious leaders, including the Korean Religious and Cultural Festival in November and North Jeolla Province’s World Religious and Cultural Festival in September.  During the year, the ministry spent a total of 5.7 billion won ($5.11 million), with 2.2 billion won ($1.97 million) for Buddhist events, 1.3 billion won ($1.17 million) for Confucian cultural activities, 872 million won ($782,000) for Cheondogyo events, 733 million won ($658,000) for Christian events, and 483 million won ($433,000) for Won Buddhist events.  According to the Korea Conference of Religions for Peace (KCRP), the MCST had little to no collaboration hosting events with the Jewish Community during the year.

Between January and May 552 Yemenis, most or all of whom were Muslim, arrived on a visa-free program to Jeju Province and then applied for asylum.  On June 1, the government enacted a ban on additional visa-free entry for Yemenis to Jeju and on travel to the mainland.  By December the MOJ granted temporary one-year humanitarian permits to 412 of the asylum-seeking Yemenis.  It rejected 56, of which 14 were dismissed because the applicants withdrew their appeals or violated immigration rules.  Two were granted asylum.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The NHRCK reported 21 cases alleging religious discrimination as of December.  The NHRCK did not provide details on cases under investigation.

Muslim groups reported some discrimination, including a general societal view associating Muslims with terrorist activities, and instances in which women wearing hijabs were denied job interviews.

An influx of Yemeni asylum seekers to Jeju Province spurred protests against the country’s special visa-free entry program for Yemenis and certain other nationals, resulting in the government excluding Yemenis from the program in June.  Some groups working with asylum seekers said local media were unfairly associating Yemenis with terrorist activities because of their religion.  A web survey of 605 Koreans conducted in November by the Lowy Institute of Australia found the strongest negative response to a question on accepting the Yemenis when the question added their religion.  Some Protestant ministers have encouraged Koreans to accept and help the refugees, and criticized “baseless Islamophobia.”

According to local media, on October 19, authorities reversed their prior decision and granted refugee status to an Iranian teenager who had converted from Islam to Catholicism while in the country.  He was supported by a large number of classmates as well as a Catholic cardinal.

Media sources reported the Korea Tourism Organization cancelled plans to build two mobile prayer rooms for use during the Winter Olympics after approximately 58,000 individuals signed an online petition stating taxpayer money should not be used for a particular religion and that Koreans should be wary of “extremist Muslims.”

In January, following reports that parents killed their daughter while attempting to force her to convert from what the parents viewed as a cult to their own Christian denomination, 120,000 citizens gathered in Seoul and elsewhere to protest against coercive conversion, reportedly conducted by some Christian pastors.  The protestors criticized the government and churches for remaining silent on the issue and demanded action.

According to a poll conducted by Korea Gallup on May 15-16 at the request of the Korean Association of Church Communications, 73.4 percent of respondents were in favor of alternatives to military service.

Prominent religious leaders regularly met under government auspices to promote religious freedom, mutual understanding, and tolerance.  Throughout the year, the KCRP hosted religious leaders from multiple faiths at religious events including seminars, exhibitions, arts and cultural performances, and interfaith exchanges to promote religious freedom, reconciliation, and coexistence.  While Islam is not one of the seven religious groups represented in the KCRP, which is comprised of the National Council of Churches of Korea, the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the Catholic Church, Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Cheondogyo, and the Association of Korean Native Religions, the KCRP hosted seminars in June on Experience of Different Religions and Special Experience of Ramadan and Iftar at the Korean Muslim Federation where approximately 60 Muslims, Catholics, and Won Buddhists attended.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officers regularly engaged the government – including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MCST, MOJ, and National Assembly members – on religious freedom and tolerance, including urging the government to provide legal provisions for conscientious objection to military service on religious grounds.  The Ambassador met with the President of the Constitutional Court to discuss the court’s ruling on conscientious objectors and the positive effect the ruling would have on the ability of religious minorities to express their religious beliefs and act according to their faith.

The Ambassador also met with leaders of the Anglican, Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic communities to discuss religious freedom issues and underscore the U.S. commitment to religious freedom.  Other embassy officials met with members of various religious groups and NGOs, including associations representing Jehovah’s Witnesses, and indigenous religions, to discuss the state of religious tolerance and concerns about the imprisonment of conscientious objectors.

The embassy highlighted the U.S. commitment to religious freedom via social media, including by posting the Ambassador’s meeting with the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism in November to discuss human rights and social issues.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future