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Afghanistan

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam are free to exercise their faith within the limits of the law.  Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, which is punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property according to the Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.”  There were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy during the year, but converts from Islam to other religions reported they continued to fear punishment from the government as well as reprisals from family and society.  The law prohibits the production and publishing of works contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions.  The new penal code, which went into effect in February, includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam.  Shia leaders continued to state that the government neglected security in majority-Shia areas.  The government sought to address security issues in Western Kabul’s Shia Hazara Dasht-e Barchi area, a target of major attacks during the year, by announcing plans to increase Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) presence.  Media reported the government arrested 26 militants preparing attacks on the Shia community during the community’s observance of Ashura in Kabul.  According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils.  Representatives of minority religious groups reported the courts’ continued failure to grant non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims.  A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions.  The Independent Elections Commission (IEC) granted an extension on July 5 for the registration for a Sikh candidate to run in the October parliamentary elections following the death of the only Sikh candidate in a suicide attack in Jalalabad on July 1.  Shia Muslims continued to hold some major government positions; however, Shia leaders said the number of positions still did not reflect their demographics.

The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, again targeted and killed members of minority religious communities, and the Taliban again targeted and killed individuals because of their beliefs or their links to the government.  According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), consistent with trends observed in the past two years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras.  During the year, UNAMA recorded 22 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, causing 453 civilian casualties (156 deaths and 297 injured), all attributed to ISKP and other antigovernment elements.  The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam.  Taliban gunmen killed imams and other religious officials throughout the country.  On November 20, a suicide bomber killed more than 50 religious scholars gathered at a Kabul wedding hall to celebrate the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday.  No group claimed responsibility for the attack.  The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials and to punish residents in areas under Taliban control according to their interpretation of Islamic law, including stoning any person suspected of adultery or other “moral crimes.”  Insurgents claiming affiliation with the ISKP reportedly engaged in similar activities.  On February 27, in Tangi Wazir, Nangarhar Province, the ISKP stoned to death a man accused of engaging in extramarital sexual relations (zina), and subsequently issued a press statement about the killing.  In April the ISKP stoned to death a 60-year-old man accused of raping a woman in Darzab District, Jawzjan Province.  According to some religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISKP in their sermons.

Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported continued harassment from some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they were able to practice their respective religions in public.  Christian groups reported public opinion remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization.  Christians and Ahmadi Muslims stated they continued to worship privately to avoid societal discrimination and persecution.  Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering.  Observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine.  The authoritative body of Islamic scholars, known as the Ulema Council, announced plans to establish a special committee to oversee social reform to address government corruption and “moral corruption” in society that religious clerics deemed incompatible with the teachings of Islam.  According to minority religious leaders, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities.  Community leaders reported that 500 to 600 Sikhs and Hindus, representing almost half their numbers, fled to either India or Western countries during the year, particularly in the aftermath of the July 1 bombing in Jalalabad.  Hindu and Sikh groups also reported interference with their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, from individuals who lived near cremation sites.  On June 4, the Ulema Council convened approximately 3,000 religious scholars in Kabul to issue a propeace fatwa that also condemned discrimination based on religion.

U.S. embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and the protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials.  In October the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met with government officials and civil society leaders to promote religious tolerance.  To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism, facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, and create policies to foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met frequently with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC).  Embassy officials met regularly with leaders of major religious groups, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue.  The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify means and ways to counter violent religious extremism, and promote tolerance for religious diversity.  During the month of Ramadan, the embassy used social media platforms to share information on Islam in America, based on Department of State-created materials that profiled prominent Muslim-Americans and organizations.  The embassy also used social media to highlight the National Religious Freedom and International Religious Freedom Days.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and equality of all religions.  It also protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and practice religious rituals, provided these do not violate public order or public morality.  The law prohibits the government from interfering in religious activities, but it also states the government and citizens have a responsibility to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.”  The law specifies the government may dissolve religious organizations if they cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; proselytize in a way that “degrades human dignity”; or hinder secular education.  Following a July attack on the then head of the city of Ganja Executive Committee, security forces killed five and arrested more than 60 individuals whom authorities said were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” involving at least some members of the Muslim Unity Movement.  Local human rights groups and others stated that the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists.  The government had reportedly imprisoned 68 religious activists at the end of the year, compared with 80 in 2017.  Authorities detained, fined, or warned numerous individuals for holding unauthorized religious meetings.  According to religious groups, the government continued to deny or delay registration to minority religious groups it considered “nontraditional,” disrupting their religious services and fining participants.  Groups previously registered but which authorities required to reregister continued to face obstacles in doing so.  Authorities permitted some of these groups to operate freely, but others reported difficulties in trying to practice their faith.  The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials.  The courts fined numerous individuals for the unauthorized sale or distribution of religious materials, although some individuals had their fines revoked on appeal.  The government sponsored events throughout the country to promote religious tolerance and combat what it considered religious extremism.

Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated societal tolerance continued for “traditional” minority religious groups (i.e. those historically present in the country), including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics; however, citizens often viewed with suspicion and mistrust groups that many considered “nontraditional” (i.e., those organized in recent decades).

The U.S. Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers met regularly with officials from the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA) and other government officials and urged the government to address longstanding issues with the registration process for religious communities and to improve its treatment of religious groups still facing difficulties fulfilling the requirements for reregistration.  The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers engaged government officials to argue against the criminal prosecution for evasion of military service of Jehovah’s Witnesses who sought alternative service as stipulated in the constitution.  The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers also continued discussions on obstacles to registration and the importation of religious materials with religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  The Charge d’Affaires and embassy spokespersons publicly called for the government and society to uphold religious tolerance and acceptance.

Bangladesh

Executive Summary

The constitution designates Islam as the state religion but upholds the principle of secularism.  It prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality for all religions.  The government continued to provide guidance to imams throughout the country on the content of their sermons in its stated effort to prevent militancy and monitor mosques for “provocative” messaging.  In March police completed the investigation of the case involving the 2016 killing of 22 persons, most of them non-Muslims, at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka and forwarded it for prosecution.  Legal proceedings against the attackers continued through year’s end.  On March 30, led by a local political Awami League party leader, approximately 80 armed members of the Muslim community in Jamalpur District attacked members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community at an Ahmadiyya mosque, injuring 22 Ahmadis.  Despite government orders to the contrary, village community leaders, often working together with local religious leaders, continued using extrajudicial fatwas to punish individuals, mostly women, for perceived “moral transgressions.”  In April the government announced its intent to fund an approximately 76 billion taka ($904.76 million) project to construct madrassahs in every electoral constituency.  Various local organizations and media reports said the project was a political tactic by the government to use religion to influence voters during an election year.  Members of religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, who were sometimes also members of ethnic minorities, stated the government remained ineffective in preventing forced evictions and land seizures stemming from land disputes.  The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered possible targets for violence.

In June unidentified individuals killed self-described secular writer and activist Shahjahan Bachchu. Security forces stated Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)-linked individuals may have been responsible for killing Bachchu, a former leader of the Communist Party of Bangladesh and known for his secular beliefs and writings, for “offending Islam.”  In March unidentified individuals killed a Hindu priest in Chatmohar Upazila in Pabna District.  According to press reports, law enforcement suspected individuals with anti-Hindu sentiments may have killed the priest.  In February approximately 30 Muslims attacked a Christian home in Vatara District and injured three family members.  A police investigation continued at year’s end.  Human rights organization Odhikar documented one killing and 34 cases of violent attacks resulting in injuries targeting Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians.

In meetings with government officials and in public statements, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, and other embassy representatives spoke out against acts of violence in the name of religion and encouraged the government to uphold the rights of minority religious groups and foster a climate of tolerance.  The Ambassador and other embassy staff met with local government officials, civil society members, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious leaders to continue to underscore the importance of religious tolerance and explore the link between religion, religious freedom, and violent extremism.  The U.S. government provided more than $345 million in humanitarian assistance to overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic Rohingya who fled Burma.

Egypt

Executive Summary

The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine (i.e. Abrahamic) religions is a right regulated by law.”  The constitution states that citizens “are equal before the Law,” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.”  The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.”  The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship.  In February authorities launched a military campaign, “Sinai 2018,” in the Sinai Peninsula against ISIS in part to respond to the November 2017 attack on a mosque in North Sinai that killed over 300 individuals; the mosque was reportedly targeted because it was frequented by Sufis.  In November a court sentenced an alleged supporter of ISIS to death for the fatal stabbing of an 82-year-old Christian doctor in September 2017.  In April a military court sentenced 36 people to death for Coptic church bombings in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta in 2016 and 2017 that killed more than 80 persons.  According to multiple sources, prosecutors employed charges of denigrating religion to arrest anyone who appeared to criticize Islam or Christianity, with a disproportionate number of all blasphemy charges brought against the country’s Christian population.  Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having issued 783 licenses to existing but previously unlicensed churches and related support buildings out of 5,415 applications for licensure, and authorized the building of 14 new churches since September 2017.  Local authorities frequently responded to sectarian attacks against Christians through binding arbitration sessions rather than prosecuting perpetrators of violence, leading to complaints by members of the Coptic community.  In December President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree creating the Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents, tasked with devising a strategy to prevent sectarian incidents and to address them as they occur, applying all relevant laws.  The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications to imams, and register and license all mosques.  In May, based upon a 2015 policy, the ministry announced a ban on imams from Friday preaching at 20,000 small prayer rooms (zawiyas) used as mosques.  In October the ministry announced the government had successfully “regained” control over 95 percent of public Islamic discourse.  In January Minister of Awqaf Mokhtar Gomaa affirmed the protection of churches was “as legitimate as defending mosques,” and said that those who died in the defense of a church are “martyrs.”  On August 30, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed two Christian governors, including the country’s first-ever female Christian to hold the position, the first such appointments since April 2011.

On November 2, armed assailants attacked three buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a monastery in Minya in Upper Egypt, killing seven and wounding 19.  Attacks continued on Christians and Christian-owned property, as well as on churches in the Upper Egypt region.  On May 26, seven Christians were injured in the village of Shoqaf while attempting to defend a church from an attack by Muslim villagers.  Reports of anti-Semitic remarks on state-owned media, as well as sectarian and defamatory speech against minority religious groups, continued during the year.  Al-Azhar, the country’s primary institution for spreading Islam and defending Islamic doctrine, held conferences on interfaith dialogue, and gave statements condemning extremism and supporting improved relations between Muslims and Christians.

The President discussed religious freedom and the treatment of the Coptic community during his meeting with President al-Sisi during the UN General Assembly meetings in September.  U.S. officials, including the Vice President, the Secretary of State, Charge d’Affaires, visiting senior-level delegations from Washington, and embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law.  In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice, Awqaf, and Interior, embassy and consulate general officers and visiting U.S. officials emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.

Indonesia

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right to worship according to one’s own beliefs but states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and to satisfy “just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society.”  In separate incidents, four persons received prison sentences ranging from 16 months to five years for violations of blasphemy laws.  In Medan, a court sentenced an ethnic Chinese woman to 18 months in prison after she complained about the loudspeaker volume of a neighborhood mosque.  In July the Constitutional Court dismissed a petition brought by members of the Ahmadi Muslim religious community to revoke the blasphemy law.  In Aceh, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations, such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs.  The governor issued a directive to end canings in public, over the strong objections of others in the government and society.  The directive remained in effect, but no districts enforced it, due in part to the arrest and detention of the governor.  Some local governments imposed local laws and regulations restricting religious freedom, such as local regulations banning Shia or Ahmadi Islamic practice.  Ahmadi Muslims again reported incidents of forced conversion and discrimination.  Media and human rights groups reported in December that Jakarta’s Prosecution Office launched a smartphone app called Smart Pakem allowing citizens to file heresy or blasphemy reports against groups with what the government considers unofficial or unorthodox religious practices.  Religious groups outside the six government-recognized religions (Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam, the latter widely interpreted by the government and society to mean Sunni Islam), reported issues with identifying their religion on their national identification cards (KTPs), although a 2017 Constitutional Court ruling allows for such a listing.  There were again instances in which local governments and police acceded to the demands of groups, such as the Islam Defender’s Front (FPI), Islamic Community Forum (FUI), Islamic Jihad Front (FJI), and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI), called “intolerant groups” in the media, to close houses of worship for permit violations or otherwise restrict the rights of minority religious groups.  In September large protests erupted in Jambi, Sumatra, after officials there closed three Christian churches for not obtaining the appropriate permits.  Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority religious groups, and elected politicians from religious minorities served in majority Muslim districts.  There was one Shia member of the national legislature.

In May a family of suicide bombers attacked three Christian churches in Surabaya within minutes of each other, killing 13 persons and injuring 40 others.  In February a man with a machete attacked a Catholic congregation in Yogyakarta and injured four persons, including the church priest.  Also in May a mob destroyed several houses and attempted to expel the Ahmadi community from a village in West Nusa Tenggara.  In March an unknown group vandalized a Catholic church in Sumatra.  Many prominent civil society representatives, including religious organizations from all faiths, worked to counter religious intolerance and promote pluralism and tolerance of minority religious groups.

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

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