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Belize

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 386,000 (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2010 census, the Roman Catholic Church is the largest religious group, accounting for 40 percent of the population.  Protestants make up 32 percent, including Pentecostals (8 percent), Seventh-day Adventists (5 percent), Anglicans (5 percent), Mennonites (4 percent), Baptists (4 percent), Methodists (3 percent), and the Church of the Nazarene (3 percent).  Jehovah’s Witnesses make up 2 percent of the population, while other religious groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Rastafarians, The Salvation Army, and Baha’is, together constitute 11 percent.  Approximately 15 percent of the population does affiliate with a listed religious organization.

No religious group is a majority in any of the country’s six districts.  Catholics reside throughout the country.  Mennonites and Pentecostals reside mostly in the rural areas of the Cayo and Orange Walk Districts.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom to change religion or belief, and freedom – either alone or in community with others – to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance.  It states that no one may be compelled to take an oath contrary to one’s religion or belief.  The constitution stipulates that religious groups may establish places of education and states that “no such community shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for persons of that community.”  Discrimination on religious grounds is illegal.

The preamble to the constitution acknowledges “the supremacy of God.”  The Council of Churches, a board including representatives from several major Christian denominations, and the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches (BAEC), together appoint one individual to the senate with the governor general’s concurrence.  The two groups together include the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches, the Salvation Army, the Chinese Christian Mission, the Church of Christ, Assembly of God Church, the Seventh-day Adventists, and other evangelical Protestant groups.  They do not include, however, the National Evangelical Association of Belize (NEAB), which split from the BAEC in 2015 over political differences, or any non-Christian denominations.  The current “church” senator was appointed in November 2015.  Senate transitions typically occur with a change in administration.

An unenforced law limits speech that is “blasphemous or indecent.”

The law requires all religious groups to register with the official Companies Registry in the Ministry of the Attorney General in a process similar to that of a business.  Registration permits the religious organization to operate legally in the country; receive state recognition; negotiate, sue, and be sued; own property; hire employees; and lend or borrow money.  There is a one-time registration fee of 295 Belize dollars ($150) and a yearly fee of five Belize dollars ($3).  Requirements for registration include a memorandum of association with the government delineating the group’s objective and mission, an article of association, and a letter from the central bank if the organization has foreign financial contributors.  The government may shut down the facilities of groups that fail to register.

The government does not levy property taxes on churches and other places of worship.  Other church-owned buildings occupied on a regular basis, such as clergy residences, are not tax-exempt.  Religious organizations may also partner with the state to operate schools, run hospitals and other charity organizations, and, depending on funding availability, receive financial assistance from the government.

The public school curriculum includes weekly nondenominational “spirituality” classes incorporating morals and values.  Government-aided church-run schools are allowed to teach lessons on world religions for students from kindergarten through sixth grade.  While there is no official rule that governs a student’s ability to opt out of these sessions, parents may decide their children will not attend.  The constitution prohibits any educational institution from obligating a child to attend any religious ceremonies or observances.  Christian churches manage most public elementary schools, high schools, and some colleges.  Schools routinely observe Catholic and other Christian holidays at the schools’ discretion.  Non-Christian religious groups run a few schools, such as the Muslim Community Primary School in Belize City.

The law grants respect for inmates’ religious beliefs, and as such, inmates may participate in religious activities in prison.  Religious leaders may request use of the chapel inside the facility and offer religious services to inmates.  Prison authorities avoid requiring unnecessary work by prisoners on Sunday and other major Christian religious holidays (Christmas and Good Friday), and by prisoners recorded as belonging to other religions on their recognized day of religious observance.  The law allows religious scriptures and other books of religious observance be made available to prisoners.

To enter the country and proselytize, foreign religious workers need a multi-entry visa, which costs 100 Belize dollars ($50) and is valid for one year.  Applicants must also purchase a religious worker’s permit, costing 50 Belize dollars ($25).  The visas are renewable on an annual basis.  Visa requirements include information on intended length of stay, location, funding for activity, and specific purpose.  Members of all religious groups are eligible to obtain visas.  While a group does not need to be locally registered, recommendation by a locally registered religious group lends more credibility to the visa request, according to local authorities.

The Belize Defense Force retains a nondenominational chaplain and space for religious observance.  With the prior consent of authorities, any religious group may use the space for worship.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to engage religious groups on fostering tolerance for religious minorities, protecting religious freedom, and ensuring equal protection under the law.  Government engagement included meetings with the Council of Churches, Church Senator Ashley Rocke, and several other religious leaders.

The government-owned and financed central prison continued to run under the administration of a Catholic NGO, the Kolbe Foundation, providing policing and security, and helping ensure all prisoners had the right to practice their religion.  Religious leaders from varying denominations visited the prison to hold services at a nondenominational chapel in the prison.  Kolbe reported the prison continued to respect dietary restrictions for prisoners from various religious backgrounds.  Several religious groups, including Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Seventh-day Adventists, Nazarenes, Mennonites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Baptists, and the Church of Jesus Christ, continued to make frequent use of the access to clergy granted by the prison administration.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local religious groups, especially from Protestant denominations, continued to affiliate with international NGOs and religious partners from the United States and Canada to carry out missionary work in the country.  They held joint conferences and outreach activities to address health, poverty, and education issues.

Thirteen registered religious-based radio stations continued to operate in the country.  Some sources said evangelical Protestant groups continued to own and run most of the stations.  Other stations included one Catholic, two Mennonite, and one Pentecostal radio station.

The interfaith BCS, which promotes respect for religious diversity and includes representatives from Methodist, Catholic, Anglican, Salvation Army, Chinese Christian Mission, Presbyterian, and Pentecostal Churches, as well as Muslim and Baha’i leaders, promoted several initiatives.  These initiatives included counselling services for relatives of crime victims, with the objective to provide professional, multifaith, compassionate pastoral care to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of the public.  BCS offered services to the central prison and the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital staff, patients, and relatives.  BCS ran the chapel at the hospital, offering weekly Sunday services and Muslim prayers on Friday.

Benin

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.3 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2013 census, 48.5 percent of the population is Christian, 27.7 percent is Muslim (mostly Sunni), 11.6 percent practice Voodoo, 2.6 percent are members of indigenous religious groups, 2.6 percent are members of other religious groups, and 5.8 percent declare no religious affiliation.  The largest Christian denominations are Roman Catholicism with 25.5 percent of the population, and Celestial Christians with 6.7 percent.  Other smaller religious groups include Methodists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is, Baptists, Pentecostals, the Family Federation of World Peace and Unification, the Very Holy Church of Jesus Christ of Baname, and Eckankar followers.

Many individuals who identify themselves as Christian or Muslim also practice Voodoo or other traditional religions.

Most Muslims are concentrated in northern regions.  The few Shia Muslims are primarily foreign residents.  Southern regions are predominantly Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes a secular state, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of religious thought, expression, and practice, consistent with public order as established by law and regulations.

The Ministry of Interior and Public Security has the authority to deploy the Republican Police to intervene in conflicts between religious groups to ensure public order and social peace, provided the intervention complies with the principle of state neutrality in religious affairs.

Persons who wish to form a religious group or establish a religious affiliation must register with the Ministry of Interior.  Registration requirements include submission of administrative materials (including the applicant’s birth certificate, police record, request letter, copy of identification, and the group’s internal rules) and payment of a registration fee of 50,000 CFA francs ($88).  If a group is not registered, the Ministry of Interior orders the closing of its religious facilities until the group registers.

By law, public schools may not provide religious instruction.  Religious groups may establish private schools with authorization from the state and may benefit from state subsidies.

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

Government Practices

Observers stated that religious groups continued to hold political influence and their influence extended into other aspects of society.  Local politicians regularly sought the support of religious leaders in addressing social issues.  President Talon met with leaders of the Catholic Church on February 7, the Protestant Methodist Church of Benin (EPMB) on February 14, the Islamic Union of Benin (UIB) on February 22, and the Group of the Evangelical Church Association of Benin (CAEEB) on March 1.  During these meetings, the leaders discussed government reforms and ways to defuse social discord triggered by a labor dispute involving the health, justice, and education sectors.  Each religious group proposed solutions for defusing the social crisis.

Authorities released on bail four detained priests of the Baname Church charged with manslaughter.  The priests were charged and jailed following a 2017 incident in which five followers of the Baname Church died from asphyxiation and several were hospitalized after church leaders told followers to shut themselves in their prayer rooms and burn incense and charcoal.  Bail for the detainees ranged from 10 to 20 million CFA francs ($17,600 to $35,200) and the case remained pending at year’s end.

Government officials continued to attend inductions, funerals, and other religious ceremonies organized by various groups.  State-owned television often broadcast these events.  Police continued to provide security for any religious event upon request.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On February 12, Bishop Sabi Bio of Natitingou in the northwest donated furniture, teaching materials, and hardware to private French-Arabic primary and secondary schools in the city.  The bishop stated the donation aimed to contribute to students’ educations and to encourage interreligious dialogue.

Uzbekistan

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 30 million (July 2018 estimate).  Uzbek government statistics estimate the country’s population at 33 million.  According to U.S. government estimates, 88 percent of the population is Muslim, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates 93-94 percent of the population is Muslim.  Most are Sunni of the Hanafi School.  The government states approximately 1 percent of the population is Shia of the Jaafari School, concentrated in the provinces of Bukhara and Samarkand.  Approximately 3.5 percent of the population is Russian Orthodox, according to reports, and Russian migration statistics indicate this number continues to decline as ethnic Russians and other ethnic Slavs emigrate.  The government states the remaining 3 percent includes small communities of Catholics, ethnic Korean Christians, Baptists, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and atheists.  According to members of the Jewish community, the population, a mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardic (Bukharian) Jews, numbers fewer than 10,000.  There are approximately 6,000 Ashkenazi and fewer than 2,000 Bukharian Jews, concentrated in Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, and the Fergana Valley.  The Jewish population continues to decline because of emigration.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the freedom of religion or belief, including freedom of not professing any religion.  According to the constitution, these rights may not encroach on lawful interests, rights, and freedoms of other citizens, the state, or society.  The law allows for restricting religious activities when necessary to maintain national security, the social order, or morality.  The constitution establishes a secular framework providing for noninterference by the state in the affairs of religious communities, separates the state and religion from each other, and prohibits political parties based on religious principles.

The 1998 law on religion details the scope of and limitations on the exercise of the freedom of religion or belief.  The law criminalizes unregistered religious activity; requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution and storage of religious publications; and prohibits proselytism and other missionary activities.

In June the parliament approved a new law “On Countering Extremism.”  The legislation states it aims to provide for individuals’ security, protect the society and the state, preserve the constitutional order and the territorial integrity of the country, retain peace, and provide for multiethnic and multireligious harmony among citizens.  The law provides a framework of basic concepts, principles, and directions for countering extremism as well as extremist activities.

The criminal code distinguishes between “illegal” groups, which are unregistered groups, and “prohibited” groups viewed as “extremist.”  It criminalizes membership in organizations banned as terrorist groups.  It is a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of four million to eight million som ($480 to $960), to organize or participate in an illegal religious group.  The law also specifically prohibits persuading others to join illegal religious groups, with penalties of up to three years in prison.  The criminal code provides penalties of up to 20 years in prison for organizing or participating in the activities of religious extremist, fundamentalist, separatist, or other prohibited groups.  Charges against alleged members of religious extremist groups may include the stated offenses of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and terrorism.

By law, all religious groups must register with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).  The law states a religious organization may carry out its activities only after the MOJ registers it.  The law lists a series of requirements, including having a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units for central registration; presenting a membership list of at least 100 citizens ages 18 years or older belonging to the group; and providing a charter with a legal, physical address to the local MOJ branch.

Religious groups applying to register in a specific locality require the concurrence of the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), which reports to the Cabinet of Ministers and the neighborhood (mahalla) committee.  They must submit “letters of guarantee” from the regional branches of the Ministry of Construction, the State Sanitary and Epidemiological Service, and the Department of the State Fire Safety Service under the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The law requires notarized documents stating the leading founding members have the religious education necessary to preach their faith, the group’s sources of income, and CRA concurrence to register.  The law also requires that local governments (khokimiyats) concur in registration of groups in their areas and that the group presents notification from khokimiyat authorities stating the legal and postal addresses of the organization conform to all legal requirements, including obtaining authorization certificates from the main architectural division, sanitary-epidemiological services, fire services, and locally selected mahalla committees.  After checking the submitted certificates, khokimiyats grant registration permission and then send the documents to the CRA for review.  By law, the MOJ may take one to three months to review a registration application.  The MOJ may approve or deny the registration, or cease review without issuing a decision.

The law states registered religious groups may expand throughout the country and have appropriate buildings, organize religious teaching, and possess religious literature.

The law limits the operations of a registered group to those areas where it is registered.  The law grants only registered religious groups the right to establish schools and train clergy.  Individual clergy members receive accreditation from the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan.

The CRA oversees registered religious activity.  The Council for Confessions, under the CRA, includes ex-officio representatives from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish groups.  It discusses ways of ensuring compliance with the law, the rights and responsibilities of religious organizations and believers, and other issues related to religion.

The law criminalizes unregistered religious activity.  Any religious service conducted by an unregistered religious organization is illegal.

The law restricts the activities of NGOs, the government classification for religious congregations.

The government must approve religious activities outside of formal worship, as well as religious activities intended for children under 16 years old without parental permission.

The law requires registered religious organizations to inform authorities 30 days in advance of holding religious meetings and other religious ceremonies at the group’s registered address(es).  The administrative code requires all registered religious organizations to seek permission from local authorities and then inform the CRA and MOJ representative 30 days before holding religious meetings, street processions, or other religious ceremonies to occur outside of a group’s registered building(s), including those activities involving foreign individuals or worshippers from another region.  Unregistered groups are prohibited from organizing any religious activity.

The law punishes private entities for leasing premises or other property to, or facilitating gatherings, meetings, and street demonstrations of religious groups without state permission.  The law also criminalizes unauthorized facilitation of children’s and youth meetings, as well as literary and other study groups related to worship.  The administrative penalty for violating these provisions ranges from fines of 9,215,000 to 18,430,000 som ($1,100 to $2,220) or up to 15 days imprisonment.

The administrative code requires all religious organizations to inform the CRA, local magistrate, and the local MOJ representative one month in advance of religious meetings, street processions, or other religious ceremonies that are to occur outside of a group’s registered building(s), including those activities involving foreign individuals or worshippers from another region.

Under the law, state bodies, including mahalla committees and nonstate and noncommercial public organizations, have wide-ranging powers to combat suspected “antisocial activity” in cooperation with police.  These powers include preventing the activity of unregistered religious organizations, ensuring observance of rights of citizens to religious freedom, prohibiting propagation of religious views, and considering other questions related to observance of the law.

The law prohibits all individuals except clergy and individuals serving in leadership positions of officially recognized religious organizations from wearing religious attire in public places.  The government does not enforce this section of law; individuals may appear in public places in religious attire.

The law prohibits proselytism and other missionary activities.  The criminal code punishes proselytism with up to three years in prison, and proscribes efforts to draw minors into religious organizations without parental permission.

The law requires religious groups to obtain a license to publish or distribute religious materials.  The law requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution and storage of religious publications.  Materials include books, magazines, newspapers, brochures, leaflets, audiovisual items including CDs and DVDs, and materials posted to the internet describing the origins, history, ideology, teachings, commentaries, and rituals of various religions of the world.  To receive a Bible, individuals must complete a “Bible application,” which is subject to government clearance before the group or individual may purchase a government-authorized version of the Bible.

The administrative code punishes “illegal production, storage, import, or distribution of materials of religious content” with a fine of 20 to 100 times the minimum monthly wage (3,686,000 to 18,430,000 som – $440 to $2,200) for individuals.  The fine for government officials committing the same offense is 50 to 150 times the minimum monthly wage ($1,100 to $3,300).  The administrative code permits the confiscation of the materials and the “corresponding means of producing and distributing them.”  Courts issue fines under the administrative code.  In instances where an individual is unable to pay the fine, courts will issue an order garnishing wages.  The criminal code imposes a fine of 100 to 200 times the minimum monthly wage (18,430,000 to 36,860,000 som – $2,200 to $4,400) or “corrective labor” of up to three years for individuals who commit these acts subsequent to a judgment rendered under the administrative code.  In practice, criminal code violations for religious literature are rarely applied.

The state forbids banned “extremist religious groups” from distributing any type of publications.  Individuals who distribute leaflets or literature deemed extremist via social networks are subject to criminal prosecution and face prison terms ranging from five to 20 years.  According to the law, individuals in possession of literature by authors the government deems to be extremist, or of any literature illegally imported or produced, are subject to arrest and prosecution.

The law prohibits private teaching of religious principles.  It limits religious instruction to officially sanctioned religious schools and state-approved instructors.  Children may not receive optional religious education in public schools, except for some classes providing religious information or “lessons of enlightenment” (the study of national culture) in the curriculum.

Religious education establishments acquire the right to operate after registering with the MOJ and receiving the appropriate license.  Individuals teaching religious subjects at religious educational establishments must have a religious education recognized by the state and authorization to teach.  These provisions make it illegal for laypersons to teach others any form of religion or belief, or for government-approved religious instructors to teach others outside the confines of an approved educational institution.

The law permits only religious groups with a registered central administrative body to train religious personnel and conduct religious instruction.  Nine madrassahs, including one for women, and a Russian Orthodox and a Protestant seminary have official approval to train religious personnel and provide secondary education.  The Cabinet of Ministers considers madrassah-granted diplomas equivalent to other diplomas, enabling madrassah graduates to continue to university-level education.

The law requires imams to have graduated from a recognized religious education facility and registered for a license with the government.  The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan assigns a graduate to a particular mosque as a deputy imam before he may subsequently become an imam.  According to government officials, clerics from various religions, including the Shia Muslim and Jewish communities, who obtained their qualifications abroad may officiate within licensed premises.

The law allows individuals objecting to military service based on their religious beliefs to perform alternative civilian service.

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

Government Practices

According to the report issued in February by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed, who visited the country in October 2017, freedom of religion or belief was subject to excessive government regulations that prioritized security over freedom.  The rapporteur stated the government continued to constrain the rights of its citizens to freely speak of, publicly profess, or share their religion, faith, or belief with others in defiance of its own laws and international obligations.  He said the various criminal code provisions addressing extremism captured a wide range of activities and could restrict activities protected under international law.  He also said the government imposed strict penalties on those worshipping outside an authorized location.  The special rapporteur provided a list of 12 recommendations, which included revising the 1998 Law on Religion, simplifying registration procedures, and allowing religious education for children.

In May the parliament approved the “Roadmap to ensure freedom of religion or belief” in an effort to implement all 12 recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur Shaheed.  The roadmap also included the mechanisms needed for their implementation, suggested deadlines for these actions, responsible agencies, and the expected results.  In May and September the government reduced the fee for registration of religions organizations from 100 to 20 times the minimum monthly wage (from 18,430,000 to 3,686,000 som – $2,200 to $440); reduced organizational reporting requirements from four times per year to once; and adopted the practice of suspending a religious organization’s activity only at the organization’s discretion or by a court decision.  The government established a consultative body – the Council of Faiths under the Religious Affairs Committee – including representation from the Committee on Religious Affairs and providing a platform for 16 participating religious groups registered in the country, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, to develop recommendations on religious freedom for the committee.

According to the government, 1,503 persons convicted of engaging in terrorist and extremist activities, or those belonging to what the government called religious fundamentalist organizations, were serving sentences in the country’s detention facilities.  President Shavkat Mirziyoyev pardoned 185 individuals who had been previously convicted of membership in movements the government labeled extremist, compared with 399 in 2017.  NGO representatives stated they could not independently verify the numbers of such individuals who remained in detention.

Civil society groups expressed concern that the law’s definition of extremism remained too broad.  NGO representatives said the government continued torture of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of “religious extremism” or of participating in underground Islamic activity.

On September 19, the government issued a presidential decree creating a procedure for citizens to apply for release of criminal liability for joining terrorist, extremist or other banned organizations.  In accordance with the decree, citizens would be exempted from criminal liability if they had not undergone military training, did not participate in terrorism financing, or distributed information promoting terrorism.  The decree established the Republican Interdepartmental Commission to review cases.

Media reported authorities closely observed social gatherings where religious issues were discussed, particularly among men, and arrested several individuals based on their participation in such gatherings.  Religious groups and human rights activists reported armed law enforcement officers continued to raid meetings of unregistered groups and detain their members.  Courts continued to sentence members of minority religious groups to administrative detention following searches, at times without valid search warrants, of homes and offices.

During the year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses recorded 114 episodes of “hostile acts” by authorities against their members, affecting 233 persons, ranging from interrogations to physical abuse in police detention and threats of physical violence against family members, to home raids, unlawful searches and seizures of personal property, and employment discrimination.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses recorded 240 episodes of such acts affecting 480 persons in 2017.

According to unregistered evangelical Baptist Congregation representatives, in August the city court in Chust, Namangan Region, sentenced Pastor Alisher and his assistant Abror to 10 days of administrative detention.  Judge Bokhodir Kazakov found them and six women guilty of “illegal religious activity” for gathering at Alisher’s home.  Authorities fined the women one million som ($120) each and confiscated their mobile phones.

According to human rights groups, in August and September police and secret police officers detained up to nine bloggers in at least five regions of the country.  The bloggers had discussed a range of religious and other themes, including calls for women to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to pray in mosques.  Courts assessed fines and jail terms of up to two weeks.  One of the Tashkent-based bloggers, Adham Olimov (also known as Musannif Adham), was fined and jailed for 15 days.  According to independent local news agencies, the bloggers were released on September 6-11.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists website and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)’s Uzbek Service, blogger Ziyodilla Kabirov (also known as Ziyovuddin Rahim) was sentenced to 10 days’ administrative arrest and fined 184,300 som ($22).  Blogger Otabek Usamov, who wrote commentaries for the religious website Azon.uz, was sentenced to 15 days’ administrative arrest.

According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, on July 17, a Fergana court overturned a district court decision giving Muslim scholar and human rights activist Musajon Bobojonov a three-year suspended prison term on charges of disseminating “extremist material” and using religion to disturb public order.  According to RFE/RL, Bobojonov heads the Ezgulik (Compassion) human right group’s branch in the eastern city of Andijon.

In February two Muslim sisters, Zulhumor and Mehrinisso Hamdamova, were released after spending more than eight years in prison.  Authorities arrested them in 2009 for holding unauthorized religious meetings.  In a closed trial in 2010, the Kashkadarya Regional Criminal Court sentenced the sisters to between six and one-half and seven years in prison.  Authorities convicted both sisters under sections of the criminal code regarding attempting to change the constitutional order, holding materials threating public security and public order, and participation in religious extremist, separatist, fundamentalist, or other banned organizations.

According to Forum 18, in March Zuboyd Mirzorakhimov, a Tajik citizen, was released after serving most of a five-year sentence for possessing an electronic copy of the Quran and Islamic sermons on his mobile phone while transiting through Tashkent.  A court convicted Mirzorakhimov in 2013 under the section of the criminal code covering smuggling material to “propagandize religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism.”

According to Forum 18, on January 8, in the Parkent District of Tashkent Region, a court fined Yevgeni Kupayev, his wife Natalya Kupayeva, and seven other Jehovah’s Witnesses 1,843,000 som ($220) for distributing religious literature on the street.  According to Forum 18, on February 25, police officers in Parkent District, led by Senior Lieutenant Khozhiyev, arrested Kupayev and Natalya Kupayeva, along with Aliya Sadikova and Elmira Davletshina, at a bus stop when they were returning home from sharing their religious beliefs with persons in the village of Karakalpak.  They were all released immediately after questioning.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum 18 that police physically forced them into a patrol car and took them to the police station, where police questioned them and a male officer conducted a body search of all four individuals, including the three women.  Sadikova and Davletshina were not charged.  On March 14, prosecutors opened a criminal case against Kupayev and Kupayeva for “illegal manufacture, storage, import or distribution [of] religious materials.”  On November 9, a Tashkent court ordered their telephones confiscated and fined Kupayev and Kupayeva 10 times the monthly minimum wage each, – 1,843,000 som ($220).

In January Jehovah’s Witnesses Dilbar Odinayeva and Turabek Asadov were summoned to the Samarkand police station and interrogated.  A police officer threatened them and demanded they convert to Islam, according to congregation sources.  Authorities subsequently released them without charges.

In February Jehovah’s Witness Radjabbanu Khodzhayeva reported that mahalla representatives and four police officers in Bukhara came to her home.  They questioned her about her beliefs and demanded she start reading the Quran.

In February Jehovah’s Witness Iroda Razikovna reported that Tashkent police searched her home and interrogated her.  Police demanded she write an explanation of her beliefs and reason for leaving Islam.

Law enforcement officers raided meetings and detained participants of unregistered religious groups and social gatherings where participants discussed religious issues.  According to multiple sources, police continued to raid unregistered religious group meetings, conduct legal and illegal searches, and seize outlawed religious materials from private residences.  One raid was reported following the government’s announcement in December it would halt raids on religious groups.

According to the 2018 Jehovah’s Witnesses Country Report, on March 28, police in the village of Uzinavo in Karshi District interrupted a peaceful religious meeting of six Witnesses in a private home.  The officers conducted what the Witnesses said was an unlawful search of the house and seized a Bible and other religious literature in the Uzbek language.  Police interrogated the group at the police station until 1:30 a.m.  According to the report, police ignored requests for medical assistance from two of the women who suffered from high blood pressure.  Police released the accused after questioning and did not pursue criminal charges.

According to Forum 18 news service, on November 25, 40 plainclothes officials, including members of the National Guard, the State Security Service secret police, the MOJ, and Yashnobod District police, raided Baptist Sunday worship services in the Yashnobod District of Tashkent.  The congregation was part of the unregistered Baptist Council of Churches.  Officials searched the building and confiscated approximately 7,800 items of literature and DVDs.  Forum 18 reported police took 14 individuals, including a 14-year-old boy, to the Yashnobod police station and made them wait outside in the cold while officials tried to force them to sign statements admitting to participating in “an unauthorized meeting.”  When they refused, police interrogated them for nine and a half hours.  According to Forum 18, police recorded names, addresses, workplaces, and other personal details of all the individuals present at the service and on November 27 came to the home of one of the participants for a “passport check.”  Authorities later released all individuals without charges and returned the confiscated literature.

Forum 18 reported that on November 23, police raided the home of Sharofat Allamova in Urgench where she, her two daughters, and four friends, including the pastor of her church Ahmadjon Nazarov, were having dinner.  Police searched the home without a warrant and confiscated a New Testament.  According to Forum 18, police filmed everyone present and recorded their personal details and addresses.  On November 24, Captain Mukhammad Rakhimov, head of the Urgench Police Struggle with Extremism and Terrorism Department, brought one of the dinner participants to the mahalla committee and tried to pressure her to accuse the host and the pastor of holding “unauthorized religious meetings” by threatening to take away her two children.  According to Forum 18, when the woman refused to sign a statement about what one officer called “illegal Christian Wahhabi activity,” police brought her mother-in-law to the station and ordered her to beat the daughter-in-law until she signed.  Forum 18 also stated police tried to pressure Nazarov to sign a statement but he refused.

According to Forum 18, on September 30, police in Tashkent raided a group of 40 Protestants meeting at a private home for a meal and Bible study.  Without a search warrant, police detained the group and confiscated Bibles and other literature, including DVDs and CDs, the group had purchased legally from the state-registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.  Forum 18 said police applied “psychological pressure” to the group; one woman and a five-year-old girl were subsequently hospitalized.

According to local congregation members, in July in Urgench, police officers detained seven Christian teenagers who were decorating greeting cards.  Ten security officials entered the apartment of the leader of a local evangelical Christian community, Akhmed Nazarov, where Nazarov’s wife, Elena, and the teenagers were the only individuals present.  Police confiscated a calendar with popular proverbs, six greeting cards, a notebook that contained Christian music, another notebook with Uzbek-language quotes from the Bible, and two pieces of paper with handwritten scripture.  Authorities charged Nazarov with holding an unauthorized religious meeting and destroyed all the confiscated materials.  In the entire Khorezm Region, where Urgench is located, according to Nazarov, there was one registered Protestant religious organization, commonly known as “the Korean Church.”  Nazarov told Fergananews.ru that he collected the necessary number of signatures for registration, but an employee of the regional department of the Ministry of Justice told him, “Uzbeks will not be registered.”

In April in Chimbay City, Karakalpakstan Region, local police raided an all-Christian birthday party, according to congregation members.  Police took the participants to the local police station and charged them with holding an “illegal religious meeting.”  Police released them early the next morning.  On July 13, a local judge found all the individuals who had been present except the minors guilty of engaging in illegal religious activity.  The judge sentenced all the women to pay penalties of 1,254,000 to 1,672,000 som ($150 to $200) each, and the owner of the house to pay 8,360,000 som ($1,000).  The 11 men involved were sentenced to five to seven days of administrative detention.  Later, the Superior Court of Karakalpakstan vacated the fines and returned all confiscated possessions.

The government continued to ban Islamic groups it defined as “extremist” and criminalized membership in such groups, which included 22 religious organizations.  Groups the government labeled “extremist” were unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecutions.  The government stated its actions against persons or groups suspected of religious extremism were not a matter of religious freedom, but rather a matter of preventing the overthrow of secular authorities and precluding incitement of interreligious instability and hatred.

According to human rights activists and religious community representatives, the government continued to review the content of imams’ sermons as well as the volume and substance of Islamic materials published by the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan (Muftiate, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in the country).  The sources said the government ensured its control over the Muftiate through the CRA by selecting the Muftiate’s staff and circulating approved sermons for prayer services.  The government did not legally limit the volume of public calls to prayer, although many mosques voluntarily did so, according to media sources.

In September the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan dismissed Imam Fazliddin Parpiev from his position at Tashkent’s Omina Mosque after Parpiev posted a video appeal to the president asking him to allow more religious freedom, including lifting the country’s ban on women’s Islamic headscarves and on men’s beards.  In his Friday sermon, Parpiev also addressed the right to mosque attendance and religious education for youth.  While the state-backed Muslim Board of Uzbekistan did not specifically mention the reasons for dismissing Parpiev, the imam told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that shortly prior to his dismissal, an official of the state’s religious affairs department had told him that “You shouldn’t have deviated from the script” – an apparent reference to his questioning state policy on Islam.  The dismissal letter, signed by four top officials of the Muslim Board, said the board’s ethics commission made the decision to terminate Parpiev’s contract.  Parpiev subsequently left the country, according to media reports.

The government stated it did not review mahalla committee decisions and activities related to religious freedom, including local registration decisions, but reports continued to state that there was ongoing coordination.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the new registration rules adopted in May and September contained many of the same obstacles to registration for all groups as the 1998 law.  According to the CRA, by year’s end the country had 2,260 registered religious organizations representing six different faiths.  Muslim religious groups operated 2,052 Sunni mosques, four Shia mosques, 15 scientific centers, and 12 educational institutes.  According to the CRA, the total number of mosques reached 2,056, compared with 2,043 in 2017, and the highest number since 1998.  The 177 non-Muslim groups include 36 Orthodox churches, five Catholic churches, 50 Pentecostal churches, 22 Baptist churches, nine Adventist churches, three New Apostol churches, two Lutheran churches, one Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, one Voice of God church, 27 Korean Protestant churches, two Armenian churches, eight Jewish communities, six Baha’i centers, one Hari Krishna temple, and one Buddhist temple.  There was also a registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that, despite continued efforts to engage with the government, they had no success in registering new congregations, despite their growing numbers.  At year’s end, they had only one registered site, on the outskirts of Tashkent, which they stated did not adequately meet their needs.

Many religious group representatives reported they were unable to meet the government’s registration requirements, which included the need for a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units to acquire central registration, and application by 100 members for registration in a specific locality.  Their inability to register left them subject to harassment by local authorities and criminal sanction for engaging in “illegal” religious activities.

In October Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed to mahalla committees in Fergana and Karshi for permission to open a Kingdom Hall, one of the first steps of a multistep process in receiving government registration.  In Fergana, the mahalla committee categorically refused the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ request, responding “the Jehovah’s Witnesses are dangerous to young persons because of their radical views…have violated the law among Christians…[and are] forbidden in many countries.”  In Karshi, the mahalla committee noted in its rejection that there were already two registered Christian churches (a Korean Evangelical Church and Russian Orthodox Church) in the city and recommended the Jehovah’s Witnesses use those church facilities for their services.

As in previous years, the MOJ continued to explain denials of registration by citing failures of religious groups to report a valid legal address or to obtain guarantee letters and necessary permits from all local authorities.  Some groups stated they did not have addresses because they continued to be reluctant to purchase property without assurance the government would approve their registration application.  Other groups stated local officials arbitrarily withheld approval of the addresses because they opposed the existence of Christian churches with ethnic Uzbek members.  In response, some groups reported providing congregation membership lists with only Russian-sounding surnames.

Churches that previously attempted to register reportedly remained unregistered.  These included the Bethany Baptist Church, Life Water Church, Tashkent Presbyterian Church, Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, Uyushma Church, and Anapa Church in Tashkent; the Pentecostal church in Chirchik; Emmanuel Church and Mir (Peace) Church, United Church, and a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in Nukus, Karakalpakstan; Hushkhabar Church in Gulistan; Association of Independent Churches and Union Evangelical Church in Urgench; Pentecostal Church in Andijan; and a Seventh-day Adventist church, Greater Grace Christian Church, Central Protestant Church, Miral Protestant Church, Samarkand Presbyterian Church, Our Brotherhood Church, and a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in Samarkand.  Catholic congregations in Navoi and Angren remained unable to register their churches after 12 years of unsuccessful attempts.

In April Jehovah’s Witness Fazliddin Tukhtayev reported visiting the Shekhonchi mahalla committee in Bukhara to seek the committee’s approval to register a Kingdom Hall.  Tukhtayev provided a presentation kit about Jehovah’s Witnesses to the committee to explain the mission of the organization and its activities.  Following the presentation, mahalla council officials filed an official complaint with police.  Subsequently, Tukhtayev was charged with production, storage, importation, and distribution of religious materials, and fined 1,722,400 som ($210).

For the first time in eight years, the government registered a church, Svet Miru, a Presbyterian religious community in Chirchick, approximately 50 kilometers north of Tashkent.  The government offered to register a central office for the Jewish community, but members declined the offer, citing lack of funds and community interest to sustain a central office.

According to anecdotal reports, a small number of unregistered “neighborhood mosques” continued to function for use primarily by elderly or disabled persons who did not live close to larger, registered mosques.  The neighborhood mosques remained limited in their functions, and were not assigned registered imams.

Non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious groups reported they continued to have particular difficulties conducting religious activities in Karakalpakstan in the northwest part of the country because all non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious communities continued to lack legal status there.  There was only one registered church, a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church, in all of Karakalpakstan, which has a population of approximately two million persons.

Despite the Jewish community’s efforts to obtain recognition for additional rabbis, the MOJ accredited only one rabbi, a Bukharian, in 2014, and none since.  The Ashkenazi Jewish community continued to lack a rabbi.  Members of the Jewish community said the lack of rabbis limited faith practices, religious interest, and growth of the community.  Jews continued to be concerned about the future of their congregations as the current generation of adherents either emigrated or died.

Representatives of minority religious groups stated the government continued to prohibit peaceful gatherings for worship and other religious activities in communities where a registered house of worship did not exist and imposed strict penalties on those worshipping outside an authorized location.

In some cases, Christians remained separated from an authorized gathering place by more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and gathered in private “house churches,” leaving them vulnerable to police harassment and abuse since such gatherings remained illegal.

Authorities continued to fine representatives of registered religious groups, or representatives of groups that had unsuccessfully attempted to register, for engaging in religious activities, including fining members of Jehovah’s Witnesses for congregating in a place other than their sole registered house of worship in Tashkent Region.

In July authorities fined Tashkent resident Yulduz Baltaeva 10,334,400 som ($1,200), for carrying out illegal religious activity.  Baltaeva accompanied three deaf adult men to Chirchik, the location of the only registered Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregation in the country, for a religious convention.  Because the CRA did not approve the convention, the CRA determined that Baltaeva’s attendance and her assistance to others to attend constituted illegal religious activity.

Media reported security services continued to film participants at Friday prayer services at local mosques.  Parishioners at Catholic masses also reported surveillance and said authorities continued to prohibit a summer camp for children in the Fergana Valley, citing security threats.  Other communities, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, reported surveillance of their facilities.

In September Tashkent District’s department head of public education sent a letter to schools to prevent schoolchildren from attending Friday prayers and instructed that additional school events should be planned for Fridays, according to RFE/RL’s Ozodlik Uzbek Service.  According to the report, Muslims said police had begun cordoning mosque entrances and performing identity checks on youth, as well as prohibiting admission to anyone younger than 18.  Media reported police broadly implemented these measures in the Fergana Valley, Bukhara, and Samarkand.

On October 17, human rights activist Shukhrat Ganiyev told Forum 18 that police and the State Security Service in Bukhara openly monitored individuals who went to mosques, especially during Friday prayers.  According to Ganiyev, authorities paid particular attention to young men and boys under the age of 18.  Ganiyev stated that after they were identified, police would visit their parents’ homes to pressure them into stopping their children from attending mosques.  Ganiyev told Forum 18 that he knew of approximately 50 such cases involving men and boys from July to October.  Ganiyev said officials in Bukhara Region put less pressure on Muslim young men attending mosques during the year than in 2017.

Mahalla committees and imams continued to identify local residents who could potentially become involved in extremist activity or groups, including those who prayed daily or otherwise demonstrated active devotion.  Muftiate authorities stated they and mahalla committee members regularly made home visits in the mahalla’s district to check on what they characterized as a family’s spiritual needs.

The government stated most prisons continued to set aside special areas for inmates to pray, and prison libraries had copies of the Quran and the Bible.  Family members of prisoners said, and UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief Shaheed also stated during his October 2017 visit to the maximum security Jaslyk Prison, that prison authorities did not allow prisoners suspected of religious extremism to practice their religion, including reading the Quran or praying privately.  According to Shaheed, authorities did not permit inmates to pray five times a day and refused to adjust work and meal schedules for the Ramadan fast.  These restrictions remained in place at year’s end.

The government continued to provide logistical support, including charter flights, for Muslims to participate in the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, although pilgrims paid their own expenses.  As in 2017, the government allowed 7,200 Hajj pilgrims, approximately a third of the country’s allotment allowed by Saudi Arabia.  Religious authorities continued generally to limit access to the Hajj to persons over 40 years old.  Local mahalla committees, district administrations, the State Security Services, and the state-run Hajj Commission, controlled by the CRA and the Muftiate, reportedly were involved in vetting potential pilgrims.  According to human rights groups in the Fergana Valley and Karakalpakstan, it remained exceedingly difficult to participate in the Hajj without resorting to inside contacts and bribery.  A commission established in 2017 continued to review participation eligibility.  New regulations require that pilgrims apply to local mahalla committees, which submit a list to the khokimiyats.  The CRA uses the khokimiyats’ lists to coordinate national air carrier flights to Jeddah.  During the year, the government allowed 18,000 pilgrims to travel for the Umrah, compared with 10,000 in 2017.  Beginning in September, the government removed all restrictions on the number of Muslim pilgrims who wish to travel for Umrah.

Representatives of a registered Christian group and of the Baha’i community stated children were able to attend community-sponsored activities, including Sunday school, and services with the permission of their parents, such as Sunday school.  Eyewitnesses continued to report large numbers of children in attendance at both places of worship.

Large, government-operated hotels continued to furnish a limited number of rooms with Qurans and Bibles.  The government reported that 1,000 Qurans were made available for hotels.  Upon advance request, hotels also provided other holy books, prayer mats, and Qiblas, which indicate the direction of Mecca.  All airports and train stations had small prayer rooms on their premises.

According to civil society observers, authorities allowed Muslims for the second year in a row to celebrate Ramadan openly and the number of public iftars was greater than in the previous year.

The government sponsored multi-stage Quranic recitation competitions among men and women followed by Hadith (a collection of Islamic traditions containing sayings of Muhammad) competitions.

In September the minister of education issued a dress code regulating the length of hair and dress, the color of uniforms, and the type of shoes for all pupils in both public and private schools.  The government expressly forbade religious symbols of all types, such as skullcaps and crosses.  The policy continued the ban on students wearing hijab.  In September, at the beginning of the school year, authorities forced more than 100 girls at the Tashkent International Islamic Academy to remove their hijabs under threat of expulsion, according to the BBC Uzbek service.

According to some Muslims, the ban on teaching religious principles in private resulted in the government detaining and fining members of religious communities for “illegally teaching one’s religion to another.”  They said the ban included meetings of persons gathered to discuss their faiths with each other or to exchange ideas on matters of religion.  Some Muslims said religious discussions were considered taboo because no one wanted to risk punishment for “proselytism” or teaching religious principles in private.

The CRA continued to prohibit and penalize religious groups in possession of religious literature uncensored by the CRA.  Officials continued to search homes, offices, and spaces belonging to members of minority religious groups, at times without valid search warrants, and courts sentenced members of such groups to administrative detention or fines, including for possession of Bibles.  The government continued to limit access to certain Islamic publications deemed extremist and arrested individuals attempting to import or publish religious literature without official permission.  It also continued to arrest individuals in possession of literature deemed by the government to be “extremist.”

The government continued to control access to Islamic publications and to require a statement in every domestic publication indicating the source of its publication authority.  According to marketplace shoppers, it remained possible, although uncommon, to obtain a few imported works in Arabic from book dealers in second hand stores or flea markets, but any literature not specifically approved by the CRA was rare.

According to a Jehovah’s Witness, a number of government entities, including the Ministry of Interior, NSS, Customs Service, and local police, continued to confiscate, and in some cases destroy, religious literature and the equipment used to produce it.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 26 in Jizzakh, Director of the Counter Terrorism and Extremism Department Bobur Boymurodov interrogated Jehovah’s Witness Muborak Abdurakhmanova about possessing and sharing religious content.  Officials seized her mobile phone, found e-copies of religious literature and videos, and initiated administrative charges against her.  According to the report, on May 31, police officers separately detained and interrogated three Jehovah’s witnesses:  Dilyafruz Sheralyeva, Nasiba Umarova, and Sarvinov Esonkilieva.  Police inspected their mobile phones and pressured them to write statements admitting to communicating with Abdurakhmanova about religious content.  On June 3, police interrogated Jamshid Umatov and told him to provide a statement admitting that he had received religious content from Abdurakhmanova through his mobile phone.  On June 4, police also interrogated Jamshid’s sister, Dilnavoz Umatova, and told her to provide a statement.

According to congregation members, in April and May authorities raided Jehovah’s Witnesses worship meetings in private homes in Samarkand and Fergana, and twice raided a home in Karshi.  Authorities also raided Jehovah’s Witnesses homes for religious literature in Urgench and in the Yangiyul District of Tashkent Region.  After the Yangiyul search, a court fined two members of the local community 921,500 som ($110) under an article in the administrative code that prohibits production, storage, importation, and distribution of religious materials.

Forum 18 reported that on July 17, a Tashkent court upheld Gayrat Ziyakhojayev’s June 12 conviction for sharing texts that the lower court said contained “a threat to public security and public order,” even though he downloaded the texts from an Uzbek website that was not banned.  The court ordered his phone and computer destroyed.  Ziyakhojayev was immediately released.  According to BBC journalists, the court summoned him again prior to year’s end.

According to congregation members, in July an administrative judge in the Uchkuduk district court of Navoi Region fined Baptists Igor Zherebyatnikov and Iskhok Urazov for possessing various Christian materials, including three Bibles, one copy of “Bible Stories,” and one copy of “Stories from the Holy Scripture.”  The judge ordered the materials destroyed.

According to congregation members, in October approximately 20 officers of the Bostanlyk District police in Tashkent Region raided a group of 40 Protestants, including members of an ethnic Korean church and other Protestant churches, meeting at a Protestant center in Kyzl-Su.  Police searched the center and confiscated numerous items of church property, including a laptop computer, guitar, overhead projector, loudspeaker, three microphones, three electric kettles, music stands, a writing board, and two Christian books.  Police provided no formal record of the confiscations.

According to Forum 18, police fined persons suspected of storing authorized versions of the Bible, purchased from government stores, and confiscated them.  Forum 18 stated that on November 19, police in Pap, in eastern Namangan Region, raided a group of Protestants meeting for a meal and Bible reading in a private home.  Police confiscated Bibles, booklets, and DVDs and CDs containing Christian films, songs and sermons.  Forum 18 reported all of the confiscated literature had been purchased from the state-registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.  Police arrested the eight individuals and took them to Pap Police Station, where police questioned them until 3 a.m. the next morning.  The report stated police forced most of the Protestants to sign statements admitting guilt and said they might prosecute them for illegal possession of religious literature.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses online news service JW.org, between March and November the Supreme Court reversed four lower court decisions that resulted in fines for possessing Bible-based literature and electronic versions of the Bible.  According to the web site, the court of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan also reversed a lower court decision finding an individual guilty of possessing religious material and imposing a fine.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 2, police in Samarkand raided a private home where seven Witnesses had gathered for a religious meeting.  Police inspected the personal belongings of all those present and confiscated an Uzbek-language book of Proverbs from one person and a mobile phone containing electronic religious publications from another.  On May 22, a court found the two Witnesses liable under an article in the administrative code and fined each of them 861,200 som ($100).

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 24, police in Samarkand raided a private home where nine Witnesses had gathered for a religious meeting and seized a phone that contained electronic copies of Jehovah’s Witnesses literature.

The CRA continued to block the importation of both Christian and Islamic literature.

According to worshippers, authorities continued to confiscate, and in some cases destroy, religious literature in the Uzbek and Russian languages imported legally or produced in country, as well as religious items such as prayer beads or incense.

Members of registered minority religious communities reported authorities continued to seize religious literature for alleged customs violations.

The government continued to block access to several websites containing religious content, including Christian- and Islam-related news sites, and to websites run by Forum 18.

The government continued to allow the following groups to publish, import, and distribute religious literature upon review and approval by the CRA:  the Bible Society of Uzbekistan, the Muftiate, Tashkent Islamic University, Tashkent Islamic Institute, and the offices of the Russian Orthodox, Full Gospel, Baptist, and Catholic Churches.

Christian groups stated they needed more than the single authorized version of the Bible in Uzbek to practice their faith.  Religious leaders said they continued to lack access to other important religious materials and texts to explain the teachings and tenets of their faiths in the Uzbek language.

According to Muslim representatives, some official imams said they could not teach Islam to children because the government forbade all religious education not controlled by the state.  In 2017 the government approved fee-based courses on the Arabic language and Quranic studies for the public, but in June it limited participation to adults.

According to the television channel Uzbekistan 24, during the first half of the year, the staff of the State Security Service uncovered 116 illegal Islamic educational institutions (hujras).  Uzbekistan 24 reported that for calendar year 2017, the comparable number uncovered was 33 hujras.  Authorities raided and closed each establishment.  In the summer, the government released a film on what it said were the dangers of underground mosques that featured a number of organized underground hujras.  According to media reports, in Andijan Region, Nosirbek Turgunov created a religious school in the basement of his house where boys 5-6 years of age studied religion.  According to the film, Turgunov locked pupils in a cramped room, deprived them of food, and applied corporal punishment.  According to the film, an investigation revealed Turgunov had had no formal study of theology.  He said his knowledge of Islam came from his parents.

The government continued to fund an Islamic university and the preservation of Islamic historic sites.  No Islamic religious institutions in the country could receive private funding because of a government prohibition.  In April a presidential decree established the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan.  The academy’s stated goals were to provide the country’s religious educational institutions (universities and madrassahs) with highly trained teachers and mentors, improve the research and professional skills of scholars, educate graduate students in the fields of Quranic studies, Islamic law, the science of hadith and kalam (Islamic doctrine), and engage in research, teaching, and public outreach.

The government continued to prohibit separate training of Shia imams inside the country and did not recognize training received outside the country.

At a July 25 event in Washington, D.C., Minister of Justice Ruslanbek Davletov stated the country’s “new religious policy fully acknowledges the adherence to the international standards and treaties,” but that under these treaties “religious rights are not absolute…  when it comes to public security, public order, or moral of the rights, and of the other citizens[.]”  He said religious missionary work and proselytism would continue to be banned under the new laws being created under the road map because such activities could lead to “disagreements in society” that threatened religious peace and could incite hatred among religions in his country.  At a December event in Washington, Uzbek Ambassador to the United States Javlon Vakhabov said there were “some difficulties with the implementation of our [religion] laws, especially at the regional and local level, but they are all reduced to a few incidents and are not systematic in nature.”  Vakhabov also stated Uzbekistan had committed to ceasing raids on unregistered religious organizations as well as simplifying registration procedures.

State-controlled and -influenced media continued to accuse missionaries of posing a danger to society and sowing civil discord.

In the March 29 edition of progovernment newspaper Khordik Plus, an article entitled, “Oh, miserable people … Religion is worship, not a crime!” the author said, “What about the various missionary societies?  We have not forgotten how many young people unable to distinguish between the white and the black, were fraudulently lured by them.”

An article in the June 9 edition of Khordik Plus described police officers searching the house of Anna Mologina (a Jehovah’s Witness) and her mother, Svetlana Mologina (not a Jehovah’s Witness).  Police officers seized printed literature, and authorities opened a criminal case.  The article stated that any illegal missionary activity in Uzbekistan was subject to penalty.

The March 29 edition of Khordik Plus noted that Jehovah’s Witness Matyakubova Zamira, “propagandizes” among her fellow believers.  That article stated that there would be consequences for missionary activity.

The online Russian news magazine Sputnik reported in a July 26 article entitled, “The Minister of Justice helps in ensuring interreligious peace in the country,” that Minister Davletov said missionary activity and proselytizing would lead to a comparison of religions and to social tensions and controversies.  The minister also stated, “Many foreign visiting experts say that we should remove this ban.  But this is a matter of principle for us.”

RFE/RL reported the government banned a “flash-mob protest” set for September 5 in Tashkent at which the singer known as Young Zapik had planned to debut his song “Beautiful Girl in Hijab.”  Young Zapik subsequently released the song on social media.

In October the government rescinded an order issued in March to demolish a Buddhist temple in Tashkent, the only active Buddhist temple in Central Asia and the country’s only legal place of worship for the small, mostly Korean, Buddhist community.  City authorities earmarked the temple, a tourist destination and point of interest for visiting religious officials, including the chief Buddhist monks of Burma and Thailand, for demolition to widen a city road.  The government’s reversal came after members of the Buddhist community registered a protest on the president’s virtual portal and with local area diplomats and journalists.

At year’s end, there were three public Islamic universities in the country:  the Tashkent Islamic Institute, Tashkent Islamic University, and Mir-i-Arab Madrassah in Bukhara.  According to official figures, 593 persons were studying at Islamic universities (509 in Tashkent and 84 in Bukhara).

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Activists and human rights groups reported there was social pressure among the majority Muslim population against conversion from Islam.  Religious community members said ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity faced harassment and discrimination.  Some said social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials and that Muslims in the community forced them to bury individuals in distant cemeteries or allowed burials only with Islamic religious rites.

In February, according to witnesses, a father removed his daughter from a religious meeting at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Chirchik.  The Witnesses said the woman’s father humiliated and beat her in public, demanding that she return home and return to Islam.  According to congregation members, her parents threatened other relatives who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and other fellow believers.  Police officers interrogated her and had a conversation with her regarding her religious convictions.

Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christian, Baptist, and Pentecostal Christian Churches, stated they continued to face societal scrutiny and discrimination.  They said their neighbors regularly called police to report their activities.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses members, in May the counterterrorism police unit detained Lazizbek Isomov and Ilvos Ashrapov in Bukhara, along with their supervisor, after coworkers lodged complaints against them for sharing a religious video.  Police seized their mobile phones and searched their homes for Jehovah’s Witnesses publications.  A judged fined both Isomov and Ashrapov 516,720 som ($62), for sharing the video.

Vietnam

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 97 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to statistics released by the Government Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), 26.4 percent of the population is categorized as religious believers:  14.91 percent is Buddhist, 7.35 percent Roman Catholic, 1.09 percent Protestant, 1.16 percent Cao Dai, and 1.47 percent Hoa Hao Buddhist.  Within the Buddhist community, Mahayana Buddhism is the dominant affiliation of the Kinh (Viet) ethnic majority, while approximately 1.2 percent of the total population, almost all from the ethnic minority Khmer group, practices Theravada Buddhism.  Smaller religious groups that combined constitute less than 0.16 percent of the population include a devotional form of Hinduism, mostly practiced by an estimated 70,000 ethnic Cham in the south-central coastal area; approximately 80,000 Muslims scattered throughout the country (approximately 40 percent are Sunnis; the remaining 60 percent practice Bani Islam); an estimated 3,000 members of the Baha’i Faith; and approximately 1,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).  Religious groups originating within the country (Buu Son Ky Huong, Tu An Hieu Nghia, Minh Su Dao, Minh Ly Dao, Tinh Do Cu Si Phat Hoi, Phat Giao Hieu Nghia Ta Lon) comprise a total of 0.34 percent.  A small, mostly foreign, Jewish population resides in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The Law on Belief and Religion and implementing Decree 162, which came into effect on January 1, serve as the primary documents governing religious groups and their activities.  At year’s end, a decree prescribing penalties for noncompliance with the new law had yet to be finalized.  The law reiterates citizens’ rights to freedom of belief and religion and that individuals may not use the right of belief and religious freedom to undermine peace, national independence, and unification; incite violence or propagate wars; proselytize in contravention of the state’s laws and policies; divide people, nationalities, or religions; cause public disorder; infringe upon the life, health, dignity, honor and/or property of others; impede the exercise of civic rights and performance of civic obligations; or conduct superstitious activities or otherwise violate the law.

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

The law provides for government control over religious practices and permits restrictions on religious freedom in the interest of “national security” and “social unity.”

The new law reduced the waiting period for a religious group, and its affiliate group or groups, to obtain recognition from 23 years to five years and for the first time specifies that recognized religious organizations and their affiliates are noncommercial legal entities.  The law also specifies that religious organizations be allowed to conduct educational, health, social protection, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with the relevant laws, but it does not specify which law prevails in instances in which the law may contradict other laws, or where other laws do not have clear provisions, such as the Law on Education.

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

By law, forcing others to follow or renounce a religion or belief is prohibited.

The law requires “religious practices” to register with communal authorities where the “lawful premises for the religious practice is based” and prescribes two stages of institutionalization for religious organizations seeking to gather at a specified location to “practice worship rituals, pray, or express their religious faith.”  The first stage is “registration for religious operation” with the provincial- or national-level CRA, depending on the geographic extent of the group’s activities.  A registration for religious operation allows the group to organize religious ceremonies and religious practice; preach and conduct religious classes at approved locations; elect, appoint, or designate functionaries; repair or renovate the headquarters; engage in charitable or humanitarian activities; and organize congresses to approve its charter.  To obtain this registration, the group must submit a detailed application package with information about its doctrine, history, bylaws, leaders, and members and proof it has a legal meeting location.  The relevant provincial CRA office or the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), depending on whether the group in question is operating in one or more provinces, is responsible for approving a valid application for registration within 60 days of receipt.  The relevant provincial CRA office or the MHA is required to provide any rejection in writing.

The second stage of institutionalization is recognition.  A religious group may apply for recognition after it has operated continuously for at least five years since the date of receiving the “registration for religious operation.”  The religious group is required to have a legal charter and bylaws, leaders in good standing without criminal records, and to have managed assets and conducted transactions autonomously.  To obtain such recognition, the group must submit a detailed application package to the provincial or national level CRA, depending on the geographic extent of the organization.  The application dossier must include a written request specifying the group’s structure, membership, geographical scope of operation and headquarters location; summary of history, dogmas, canon laws and rites; list and resumes, judicial records, and summary of religious activities of the organization’s representative and tentative leaders; charter; declaration of the organization’s lawful assets; and proof of lawful premises to serve as a headquarters.  The relevant provincial people’s committee or the MHA is responsible for approving a valid application for recognition within 60 days of receipt.  The relevant provincial people’s committee or MHA is required to provide any rejection in writing.  Recognition allows the religious group to conduct religious activities in accordance with the religious organization’s charter; organize religious practice; publish religious texts, books, and other publications; produce, export, and import religious cultural products and religious articles; renovate, upgrade, or construct new religious establishments; and receive lawful donations from domestic and foreign sources, among other rights.

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

The law provides a separate process for unregistered, unrecognized religious organizations or groups of individuals to receive permission for specific religious activities by submitting an application package to the commune-level people’s committee.  Current regulations require the people’s committee to respond in writing to such an application within 20 working days of receipt.  The law specifies that a wide variety of religious activities require advance approval or registration from the authorities at the central and/or local levels.  These activities include “belief activities” (defined as traditional communal practices related to ancestor, hero, or folk worship); “belief festivals” being held for the first time; the establishment, split, or merger of religious affiliates; the ordination, appointment, or assignment of religious administrators (or clergy with administrative authority); establishment of a religious training facility; conducting religious training classes; holding major religious congresses; organizing religious events, preaching or evangelizing outside of approved locations; traveling abroad to conduct religious activities or training; and joining a foreign religious organization.

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

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

The law specifies that religious organizations must follow numerous other laws for certain activities.  Religious organizations are allowed to conduct educational, health, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with the relevant laws, but the law does not provide clarification as to which activities are permitted.  In addition, construction or renovation of religious facilities must be undertaken in accordance with relevant laws and regulations on construction and foreigners participating in religious activities must abide by immigration law.

The law states that publishing, producing, exporting, or importing religious texts must be in accordance with laws and regulations related to publishing.  Publishing legislation requires all publishers be licensed public entities or state-owned enterprises.  Publishers must receive prior government approval to publish all documents, including religious texts.  By decree, only the Religious Publishing House may publish religious books.  Any bookstore may sell legally published religious texts and other religious materials.

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

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

In practice, if a religious organization has not obtained recognition, members of the congregation may acquire a land-use title individually, but not corporately as a religious establishment.

The renovation or upgrade of facilities owned by religious groups also requires notification to authorities, although it does not necessarily require a permit, depending on the extent of the renovation.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public and private schools.  Private schools are required to follow a government-approved curriculum, which does not allow for religious instruction.  The government does not permit religious groups to run private schools; however, some religious groups, such as Catholics and Buddhists, run kindergartens, and some Christian churches have seminaries.

The law no longer requires individuals to specify their religious affiliation on national identification cards.

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

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

Government Practices

On February 9, a court in An Giang Province sentenced six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists – Bui Van Trung, Bui Van Tham, Nguyen Hoang Nam, Le Thi Hong Hanh, Le Thi Hen, and Bui Thi Bich Tuyen – to two to six years in prison on charges of “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties.”  Bui Van Trung was additionally charged with “causing public disorder.”  Le Thi Hen’s sentence was later suspended due to health concerns, and authorities had not yet forced Bui Thi Bich Tuyen to report to prison.  According to the indictment by the People’s Procuracy of An Phu District in November 2017, the defendants “disturbed the public order and impacted the safety and order of the traffic, causing a traffic jam on national route 91C by hindering, obstructing, pushing, and screaming to provoke and denounce transportation police.”  According to Radio Free Asia, the basis of the charges against Trung was that in April 2017 family members and friends attempted to hold an unregistered death anniversary commemoration in Trung’s home prayer hall.

On April 5, a court in Hanoi sentenced independent Hoa Hao follower and religious freedom and human rights activist Nguyen Bac Truyen and Protestant Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton to 11 years and 12 years in prison, respectively, for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the administration.”  Both had been associated with a group called the Brotherhood for Democracy and were tried with several other prominent human rights activists.  Truyen ran the Vietnamese Political and Religious Prisoners Friendship Association and, among other activities, advocated for the rights of independent and unregistered Hoa Hao followers.  Ton was a long-time advocate for human rights and religious freedom.  He had been a member of Interfaith Council in Ho Chi Minh City, a group composed predominately of representatives of unregistered religions.

The family members of Ma Seo Sung, a H’mong Protestant man who died in police custody in 2017, were forced by local authorities to leave their homes during the year after repeated harassment, including threats of arrest, from local authorities in Buon Ma Thuot, Dak Lak Province, after they publicized details of Ma Seo Sung’s death, according to individuals close to the family.  The family said commune police arrested Ma Seo Sung in 2017 under suspicion of “searching for a new Christian homeland.”

On April 12, a court in Thai Nguyen Province sentenced four Falun Gong practitioners to a total of nine years’ imprisonment for theft.  According to independent media, local authorities confiscated their assets (including drums, loudspeakers, and drumsticks) when they practiced spiritual exercises in a park.  Subsequently, the four practitioners reportedly came to the authorities’ office and took back their assets without consent.

Many independent and unsanctioned religious leaders who participated in the 2018 Southeast Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference in Thailand reported they faced harassment upon their return to Vietnam, including Chang A Do, a local leader and member of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam who was harassed and threatened with arrest in October by Communist Party representatives from the central and local governments, and by police and plainclothes individuals in Doan Ket Village, Dak Ngo Commune, Tuy Duc District, Dak Nong Province, according to a nongovernmental organization (NGO).  Government officials also prevented several from leaving the country to attend the event.

On October 3 and 4, commune and district police in Krong Pac District, Dak Lak Province, convened a public denunciation of Ksor Sun, Pastor Y Nuen Ayun, and Y Jon Ayun, all members of the Evangelical Church of Christ, according to an NGO.  Police accused the individuals of going against the government and the Communist Party of Vietnam.  Police reportedly said these individuals should be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison, and if they wanted to remain in the community, they must leave the Church of Christ.

In June staff working for the warden of Gia Trung Prison, Mang Yang District, Gia Lai Province, beat Pastor A Dao of the Evangelical Church of Christ, who advocated for religious freedom for his fellow church members in the Central Highlands, according to an NGO report.

Members of various ethnic minority groups in the Central Highlands collectively known as Montagnards stated government officials continued to assault, monitor, interrogate, arbitrarily arrest, and discriminate against them, in part because of their religious practices.  Officials stated that “Degar” Christians incited violent separatism by ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands from 2001 through 2008.  State-run media published articles cautioning individuals that Degar Protestantism aimed to undertake antigovernment activities.

In some cases, Montagnards stated ongoing social and religious persecution drove them to flee to Cambodia and Thailand, where some sought asylum.  Several such asylum seekers in Thailand reported local-level (communal) Vietnamese authorities continued to harass them remotely, through social media and by harassing, intimidating, and in some cases threatening and physically assaulting family members back home.

In Song Ngoc Catholic parish, Vinh Diocese, Nghe An Province, there were multiple incidents of plainclothes individuals harassing parishioners and priests, assaulting parishioners, and damaging church property and the property of parishioners, according to Catholic representatives and NGOs.

In April plainclothes individuals assaulted parishioners of Dong Kieu parish at Dien My Commune, Nghe An Province, according to Catholic representatives and NGOs.

On December 25, police from Nan San Commune, Si Ma Cai District, Lao Cai Province in the Northwest Highlands, reportedly stopped a Christmas celebration of the H’mong Gospel Missionary Church and assaulted adherent Hang Seo Pao for holding an unsanctioned gathering.  Church members said they had applied to local authorities for permission to hold the gathering but were denied.

Throughout the year, local authorities in Trung Lap Ha Commune, Cu Chi District, Ho Chi Minh City, told members of the UBCV Lien Tri home pagoda to stop praying and to remove all banners and UBCV Buddhist flags.  The authorities said persons attending the ceremony could continue to gather but could not give offerings, pray, or administer rituals, as their location was unregistered.  According to one adherent, in August and September plainclothes police surveilled the pagoda and prevented monks from leaving.

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

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

Authorities continued to deny some prisoners and detainees the right to religious practice.  Officers at the Nam Ha detention facility, Phu Ly District, Ha Nam Province, continued to refuse to allow a priest to visit Catholic prisoner Ho Duc Hoa, according to Hoa’s family.  Prison authorities stated this was due to the lack of appropriate facilities inside the prison for the priest to perform services.  Other prisoners continued to report they were allowed to read the Bible or other religious materials and practice their beliefs while incarcerated.  According to an NGO, independent Hoa Hao adherent Bui Van Trung was able to have a censored version of the Hoa Hao scripture in prison.

Registered Protestant, Buddhist, and Cao Dai leaders reportedly did not face the same difficulties as independent or unregistered Protestant, Buddhist, and Cao Dai leaders.  Media carried reports of registered religious groups celebrating festivals without impediment.

On December 18, Joseph Vu Van Thien was installed as the new Archbishop of Hanoi at a ceremony attended by Catholic leaders from Vietnam and the Vatican and by members of the diplomatic corps.  The prime minister also received a high-level Vatican delegation on December 18.

On September 24, local and central authorities permitted a Cao Dai festival commemorating the Holy Goddess Mother to be held at the Cao Dai Holy See.  The festival drew the participation of hundreds of thousands of adherents and pilgrims, including foreign religious representatives, foreign diplomats, and international academia.  Senior officials of Tay Ninh Province and the CRA also attended the festival.

The government stated it continued to monitor the activities of certain religious groups because of their political activism and invoked national security and solidarity provisions in the constitution and penal code to override laws and regulations providing for religious freedom.  For example, the government impeded some religious gatherings and blocked attempts by religious groups to proselytize certain ethnic groups in border regions deemed sensitive, including the Central Highlands, Northwest Highlands, and certain Mekong Delta provinces.

Government treatment of foreigners seeking to worship or proselytize varied in practice from locality to locality.  Foreigners were generally able to meet and conduct services.  Municipal officials allowed multiple foreign religious congregations to meet.  Some foreign religious congregations said they could conduct charitable activities with tacit, but not official, permission.

State-run media and progovernment websites sometimes equated particular Christian denominations and other religious groups with separatist movements, blaming them for political, economic, and social problems, particularly in remote areas in the Northwest and Central Highlands where there was a high concentration of ethnic minorities.  Progovernment websites repeatedly accused these groups of being “cover” for or “tools” of “hostile forces to act against the state,” “disrupt the great solidarity” or “destroy the [Vietnamese] culture” and warned the public not to be “fooled.”  Many progovernment websites and blogs criticized various religious groups and believers who were critical of the authorities or engaged in any activities that the authorities deemed sensitive, including protests against China, the cybersecurity law, land confiscation, or various social and economic issues.  Groups attracting the most vociferous criticism on these sites included priests and Catholics in the central part of the country, particularly in Nghe An Province, Falun Gong practitioners, and Protestants in the Central Highlands.

Catholic priests in the central part of the country continued to help organize a series of demonstrations calling for stronger environmental protection.  Many Catholic churches in these provinces held demonstrations in June to protest draft laws on special administrative economic zones and a new restrictive cybersecurity law.  Priests continued to assist parishioners in filing complaints and lawsuits against the government for financial compensation for losses suffered in the aftermath of a 2016 industrial disaster in the region.  State-run media and progovernment blogs continued to publish material defaming priests who assisted activists and victims of the 2016 Formosa incident in which a steel mill discharged toxic waste into the sea, leading to a massive fish kill in the central part of the country.  Priests who helped victims were reportedly pressured by authorities to leave their parishes.  In February the Bishop of Vinh Diocese transferred Father Dang Huu Nam, who had served in Phu Yen Parish near the steel mill for three years.  State-run media quoted the bishop as saying he was not pressured to make this decision.

Progovernment blogs published multiple articles criticizing Catholic priests and parishioners who were vocal in their opposition to the government on a variety of issues, including a cybersecurity law that human rights groups and others said could lead to violations of freedom of expression and other human rights, accusing them of receiving money from and “colluding with hostile forces with the purpose of inciting public disorder and acting against the Communist Party and State.”

In August police and local authorities in Hue surrounded the local UBCV temple and reportedly harassed, intimidated, and intercepted members of the Buddhist Youth Movement as they organized the movement’s annual summer camp.

Multiple Buddhist clergy of the recognized Vietnam Buddhist Sangha who supported land rights activists or were outspoken about suspected corruption within the organization reported local authorities continued to harass them and members of their pagodas, including in Bac Giang Province and in Hanoi.  They said harassment included intimidation of monks and nuns, expulsion by force of clergy from their buildings, suspected plainclothes police breaking into religious buildings, the destruction of pagoda property, and theft of cash donations from villagers.  Central government authorities agreed to allow at least one of these individuals, a Sangha nun, to return to her pagoda if she ceased petitioning the government.

In November UBCV Supreme Patriarch Thich Quang Do stated he left the government-sanctioned Thanh Minh Monastery in Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City, of his own accord to travel to his home province to bless a pagoda for his family.  Do subsequently returned to Ho Chi Minh City and took up residence in the UBCV-affiliated Tu Hieu Pagoda, the first time he had been able to live in a UBCV pagoda since 1998.  Earlier reports, primarily on social media, said Do’s superior monk, Thich Thanh Minh, had been pressured by authorities and asked Do to leave because his presence caused political and economic problems for the monastery.

Other UBCV leaders stated the government continued to monitor their activities and restrict their movements, although they were able to meet with some foreign diplomats, visit other UBCV members, and maintain contact with associates overseas.  General Secretary Le Cong Cau of the UBCV reported local police closely watched him and prevented him from traveling outside Hue.

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

State media reported authorities at different levels in the Northwest Highlands, including Cao Bang, Tuyen Quang, Bac Can, and Thai Nguyen Provinces, continued to state the Duong Van Minh religious group was a threat to national security, political stability, and social order.  Authorities said eliminating membership in the group was a priority.  During the year, authorities in Cao Bang, Tuyen Quang, and Bac Can collectively reportedly destroyed 38 structures used to store funerary objects used by the Duong Van Minh group and burned the funerary objects inside.  Authorities in these provinces and Thai Nguyen also reportedly encouraged schoolchildren not to follow the Duong Van Minh religion.

Throughout the year, there were numerous reports of harassment of H’mong Protestants in the Northwest and Central Highlands.  Local officials in several provinces in the Central Highlands, including Doan Ket Village, Dak Ngo Commune, Tuy Duc District, Dak Nong Province, denied household registration, which is necessary for all Vietnamese citizens, to approximately 700 H’mong Christian individuals who had migrated there in recent years, according to an NGO and H’mong Protestant sources.  As a result, many of their children were unable to go to school.

Some registered and unregistered Protestant groups continued to report local authorities, particularly in the Central Highlands, pressured newer congregations to affiliate with older, well-established congregations.  Pastors said this practice was widespread in ethnic minority villages in Gia Lai and Kon Tum Provinces.  Authorities reportedly also pressured smaller Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) congregations, some with as many as 100 followers, to combine into larger groups of up to 1,500 in order to be registered.  Church leaders again stated such requests were unreasonable, saying many of the congregations were composed of a variety of ethnic minority groups with different languages and incongruent worship practices.  Mountainous terrain and lack of infrastructure in the rural highlands prevented other SECV churches from sustaining the required minimum number of followers necessary to qualify for local registration.

Religious leaders expressed mixed views on the new Law on Belief and Religion.  Some religious groups and experts continued to state the new law was a step forward in certain areas for religious freedom, including the reduced registration/recognition time and granting legal personality to religious groups.  Some religious groups and experts expressed concern that a more precise legal approach and registration process could make the operations of religious groups – including registration of meeting points and clergy, expansion, and proselytization – more difficult.  Religious leaders and experts continued to emphasize that the two implementing decrees, one still in draft form, and actual implementation of the law, particularly at the local level, would be critical, and expressed frustration at the uneven implementation to date.

The government organized multiple conferences and training sessions on the new law throughout the year at the local, provincial, and national levels, including a public presentation in May for Hanoi-based diplomats and government implementers.  Religious leaders in remote areas of An Giang Province stated they had received training on the new law and that it had been translated into local languages.  Religious leaders continued to note existing laws and regulations on education, health, publishing, and construction were restrictive toward religious groups and would need to be revised to allow religious groups greater freedom to conduct such activities in practice.

Religious leaders and academics said the new law continued to enshrine in the country’s legal framework significant restrictions and bureaucratic controls over religious activity.  Many religious leaders expressed concern the law continued to give significant discretion to the government regarding approving or denying various types of applications.  Some observers continued to say the new law was not in place to protect religious freedom but rather to serve and cater to the rules of the Communist Party.  Groups also stated the law should allow religious organizations to conduct activities without the need for government approvals.

Registered and unregistered religious groups continued to state government agencies sometimes did not respond to registration applications or approval requests for religious activities within the stipulated time period, if at all, and often did not specify reasons for refusals.  Some groups reported they successfully appealed local decisions to higher-level authorities through informal channels.  Several religious leaders reported authorities sometimes asked for bribes to facilitate approvals.  Authorities attributed the delays and denials to the failure of applicants to complete forms correctly or provide complete information.  Religious groups said the process to register groups or notify activities in new locations was particularly difficult.

Churches affiliated with the ECVN had difficulty registering with local authorities in Quang Binh, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh, and Hoa Binh Provinces.  The ECVN stated that more than 1,000 affiliates and a total of 500 of its meeting points were recognized, although there were many more it wished to register.  Church leaders said that local authorities permitted individuals to gather without incident at unregistered meeting points in numerous provinces.  Numbers were not available for the south.

Local authorities continued to cite general security concerns, such as political destabilization or potential conflict between followers of established ethnic or traditional religious beliefs and newly introduced Christian beliefs, as reasons to deny approval.

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

Hoa Binh authorities continued to deny Luong Son parish’s application to become a parish-affiliate of Hoa Binh Diocese and did not respond to a similar request from Vu Ban parish, Catholic representatives reported.  Authorities said the Long Son application was not complete and Vu Ban was a new parish, which the Church continued to dispute, according to Catholic authorities.

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

On November 9, plainclothes police in Lam Dong reportedly set fire to a storage room at the coffee plantation of Hua Phi, an unregistered Cao Dai master, the day after he met with foreign diplomats in Ho Chi Minh City.  The storage room was completely destroyed, but no casualties were reported.

On September 11, the CRA granted a “certificate of registration for religious activities” to Vietnam Full Gospel Denomination at a ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City.  On December 14, the CRA granted a “certificate of registration for religious activities” to the Vietnam United Gospel Outreach Church, also in Ho Chi Minh City.

The ECVN and the unregistered Vietnam Baptist Convention both reported increased difficulty gathering in well-established meeting points during the year, including in Bac Giang and Thanh Hoa Provinces.  In their rejections of applications and disruptions of religious services, local authorities noted that they viewed prior gatherings as illegal and explained the meeting points had not fulfilled requirements for organizing and conducting religious gatherings.  For example, they had “no legal representatives who coordinate with the authorities in exercising the state management of religious activities in line with the law” or failed “to meet order and safety requirements.”

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

On April 18, public security officials in Ko M’Leo Hamlet, Hoa Thang Commune, Buon Ma Thuot City, Dak Lak Province, came to a house church of the unregistered Evangelical Church of Christ, interrogated adherents about their religious activities, and told them not to worship in a group or teach the Bible because the church was not registered, according to an NGO.  On April 27, public security officials in Ea Yong A Hamlet, Ea Yong Commune, Krong Pac District, Dak Lak Province, reportedly “invited” a churchgoer to the ward official’s office for interrogation on his religious activities and the unregistered Evangelical Church of Christ.  The officials forbade him to worship at home, attend services of the Evangelical Church of Christ, or attend other unregistered Protestant churches.  During May and June public security officials in Tot Bioch Village, Chu Se Town, Gia Lai Province, and in Buon Ho Town, Dak Lak Province, monitored suspected evangelical Christians, interrogated them about their religious activities, and told them to recant their faith, according to an NGO.

Leaders and members of unregistered congregations reported police harassment, such as being detained for questioning, undergoing increased surveillance, and having their cell phones and Bibles confiscated.  There were reports of severe harassment in Dak Lak, Kon Tum, Gia Lai, Binh Phuoc, Tra Vinh, and Phu Yen Provinces, among others.

In Muong Khuong District, Lao Cai Province, local authorities continued to prevent Catholic priests from conducting services in certain areas.  A priest stated that authorities targeted him and his parishioners on July 31 after they visited parishioners in Cao Son and La Pan Tan Village at unregistered meeting points.  Before the visit, the priest said he filed a registration request with the local authorities but received no response.

Although the law prohibits publishing of all materials, including religious materials, without government approval, in practice some private, unlicensed publishing houses continued to unofficially print and distribute religious texts without active government interference.  Other licensed publishers printed books on religion.  Publishers had permission to print the Bible in Vietnamese and a number of other languages, including Chinese, Ede, Jarai, Banar, M’nong, H’mong, C’ho, and English.  Other published texts included, but were not limited to, works pertaining to ancestor worship, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Cao Dai.

On March 2, authorities permitted a showing of the film “Walk With Me,” a documentary on the doctrine of Zen Buddhism master Thich Nhat Hanh.  The film was reportedly shown in more than 60 theaters throughout the country.

Some Protestant church leaders, Montagnards, and followers of Duong Van Minh stated that local authorities seized their land or property partly due to their religious beliefs or that they received less compensation for seized land than others not affiliated with these groups.  Provincial authorities routinely dispersed religious gatherings and directed officials to organize public renunciations of Degar Christianity or other “unauthorized Christian beliefs” among ethnic minority communities.

In July 2017, the Thua-Thien Hue Provincial People’s Committee met representatives of the Thien An Monastery and Catholic Archdiocese of Hue to try to resolve a nearly 20-year-old land dispute related to the Thien An Monastery.  At the end of the year, the dispute remained unresolved; both sides stated they welcomed the opportunity for dialogue.

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

On November 9 in Da Nang City, Son Tra District authorities in Da Nang City demolished the unregistered An Cu house pagoda, affiliated with the UBCV, after three years of land-use negotiations failed.

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

On September 19, the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Natural Resources and Environment announced the city had granted land-use certificates to more than 800 religious entities consisting of a total area of more than 200 hectares (500 acres).  The city reportedly aimed to issue land-use certificates to all local religious groups by the end of 2019.  Local authorities granted the Kon Tum Archdiocese a land-use certificate during the year.

The government continued to restrict the number of students permitted to enroll in Catholic and Protestant seminaries.  The churches’ leadership said the numbers allowed were inadequate to meet demand.  ECVN leaders said 23 students graduated from their Bible school in the last five years.  The government continued to permit them to recruit new students every two years.

On December 17 in Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnam Seventh-day Adventist Church organized the opening ceremony of its first domestic Christian Bible College.

Authorities permitted Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Baha’i, and Buddhist groups to provide religious education to adherents in their own facilities, and religious leaders noted increased enrollment in recent years.  Students continued to participate in training sessions on fundamental Buddhist philosophy organized at pagodas nationwide during summer holidays.

Some religious leaders faced travel restrictions, and leaders and followers of certain religious groups faced restrictions on movement by government authorities.  On May 14, border guards in Bo Y Border Gate, Kon Tum Province, prohibited Catholic Redemptorist Father Dinh Huu Thoai from exiting the country without providing justification for his travel.

In January, February, and May, independent Cao Dai follower Hua Phi reported local authorities did not allow him to leave Lam Dong Province for travel to Ho Chi Minh City for medical treatment.  He said he was allowed to seek treatment later in the year.

During the year, authorities lifted travel restrictions on certain religious leaders.  Authorities again permitted Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to visit Danang and Hue, his second annual visit after a decade outside the country.  Hanh resided at Tu Hieu Pagoda in Hue at year’s end, and adherents reported no difficulties visiting him.

Protestant and Catholic groups continued to report that legal restrictions and lack of legal clarity on operating faith-based medical and educational facilities made them wary of attempting to open hospitals or parochial schools, despite government statements welcoming religious groups to expand participation in health, education, and charitable activities.  Catholic representatives said the government refused to return hospitals, clinics, and schools seized from the Catholic Church in past decades, although Catholic leaders noted modest progress with local authorities in land disputes around the country.  The majority of educational facilities owned and run by religious groups continued to be kindergartens and preschools.

In several cases, local authorities permitted religious organizations to operate social services and to gather for training.  For example, in Hanoi and surrounding areas, city officials continued to allow Protestant house churches to operate drug rehabilitation centers, and a church affiliated with the Full Gospel Church in Quoc Oai, a district of Hanoi, noted progress in dealing with local authorities and expanding drug treatment operations following authorities’ acceptance of the Full Gospel Church’s Registration of Religious Operation.  The registration had eased the affiliated church’s operations in areas outside Quoc Oai as well, according to the church leader.

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were several reports of registered Cao Dai adherents preventing adherents of the unsanctioned Cao Dai from performing certain religious rituals.  Registered Cao Dai members prevented the family of unsanctioned Cao Dai adherent Le Van Nha from burying him in the Cuc Lac Thai Binh Cemetery on January 7, according to a report prepared by the unregistered Cao Dai.  Unregistered Cao Dai also accused the registered group of demolishing graves of unregistered Cao Dai in the Cuc Lac Thai Binh Cemetery.  The group also reported that in January registered Cao Dai adherents prevented an unregistered Cao Dai follower from conducting the ninth-day posthumous rites for her husband unless she used a clergy member from the registered group in Ninh Phuoc Village, Ninh Thanh Ward, Tay Ninh City, Tay Ninh Province.

There continued to be some incidents of harassment of Catholics by the progovernment Red Flag Association, although the group reportedly dissolved itself in March.  On February 23, social media carried reports that members of the Red Flag Association at an elementary school at Dien Doai Commune, Dien Chau District, Nghe An Province, intimidated and beat Catholic parents meeting with the school’s leadership to get more information about the expulsion of their children after they refused to pay additional school fees.

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

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