An official website of the United States Government Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Laos

Executive Summary

The constitution provides citizens with “the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion.”  The government officially recognizes four religious umbrella groups – Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith – and generally requires other religious groups to affiliate with one of these four groups to operate legally.  A decree issued in 2016 with the stated intent of clarifying rules for religious practice defines the government as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities.  Under the decree, any religious group must register with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) and meet administrative requirements on an annual basis.  The decree includes provisions on how groups operate, establish houses of worship, and travel for religious purposes.  The government continued to disseminate implementing instructions and held several workshops to discuss the decree with provincial and local authorities.  Religious leaders said that the 2016 decree helped to delineate religious rights, but established requirements that were more onerous, unrealistic, and used to restrict religious practices.  According to some religious leaders, officials in urban areas and in some districts had a better understanding of laws that govern religious activities and promoted the concept of religious freedom more than in the past.  Conflicts and other incidents that restrict religious freedom remained prevalent in rural areas.  A representative from the National Assembly’s Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs said that the 2016 decree had “not reached all areas.”  Reports continued of authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting, detaining, and exiling followers of minority religions, particularly Christians.  There were reports of authorities warning citizens not to convert to Christianity, forbidding members to gather for religious services, and pressuring members of minority religions to renounce their faith.  Christian groups also reported longstanding problems registering and constructing churches in some areas, as well as with obtaining permission to travel within the country.  Reportedly, Christians who congregated in homes and other unregistered facilities for religious purposes were sometimes harassed by authorities.  Christians said authorities allowed them to conduct Christmas services in their churches or at their pastors’ homes, provided they did not preach against the government and law and they invited local officials to attend to guarantee “order and security.”

According to government and religious group sources, tensions continued in rural areas between animists and growing Christian communities.  Burial ceremonies were a point of contention, with some reports of animists and Buddhists interfering with Christian burials or not allowing Christians to be buried in public cemeteries.

U.S. embassy officials regularly raised specific religious freedom cases with the government and continued encouraging open dialogue and resolution of conflicts, including those associated with implementing the 2016 decree.  Embassy officials attended a government-organized workshop that discussed laws promoting religious freedom and encouraged the government to continue holding these workshops.  The embassy maintained regular contact with officials in MOHA and the Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), a mass organization of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party responsible for some administration of religious organizations, and discussed the challenges faced by religious groups and government plans to improve religious freedom.  Embassy officials were also in regular contact with religious leaders and laypersons from a wide variety of denominations and faiths to understand better the problems they faced in practicing their faiths.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Reports continued of authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting, detaining, and exiling followers of minority religions, particularly Christians.  The central government said it continued efforts to offer protections to religious groups as stipulated in the law, but stated this was a challenge in isolated areas.

In August a pastor with close connections to Christians throughout the country reported that district authorities in Mahaxsai District in Khammoune Province told a group of Christians to stop worshipping and then tried to extort money from them.  When the group did not give them any money, the authorities arrested the group leader and detained him for five days.

In September authorities detained seven members of the LEC for a week at a district jail in Champassack Province.  Before they were taken to jail, the village chief forced the LEC members into a vehicle belonging to the jail and reportedly drove them around the village, warning other villagers not to follow the LEC faith.  One of the detainees said local authorities released them in part because MOHA organized a workshop on Decree 315 in the same province that week.  The detainees were released after the workshop ended.

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported that on November 18 three police officers in Keovilia village, Vilabouly District, Savannakhet Province, arrested three men and one elderly woman for being Christian.  The report identified the woman as “Grandma Bounlam” and the three men by the surnames Duangtha, Khampan, and Ponsawan.  The officers who made the arrests were identified by their surnames as Don, a police major stationed at Vilabouly District, and two officers stationed in Vang District, Pim and No.  According to HRWLRF, the police held the men in handcuffs and feet stocks.  Police released the four, but evicted them from their homes and confiscated their property.  According to HRWLRF, police threatened them with unspecified criminal charges if they did not renounce Christianity.

Radio Free Asia and HRWLRF reported that in December five other Christians were arrested in Non Soung Village, Phin District, Savannakhet Province, including one pastor who had come from another village to help celebrate Christmas.  Radio Free Asia quoted an anonymous local who said that Christians were subject to restrictions and “are not allowed to teach from the Bible or to spread their religion to others because Christianity is the religion of the Europeans and Americans.”

According to Radio Free Asia, HRWLRF reported police in Nakanong village, Phin District, Savannakhet Province, arrested three church leaders and four other Christians on December 29 for conducting an “illegal” church service and held them for several days before releasing them.  HRWLRF reportedly said authorities also demolished the church stage, cut the power line, destroyed the sound system, and seized three mobile phones.

In some cases, church members reportedly were arrested for practicing their faith but charged with another crime.  In Houaphanh Province, three members of the LEC were arrested for traveling without proper documentation and were charged with illegally entering a forest.

According to Christian media outlet World Watch Monitor, in January local officials in Luang Prabang forced a Christian and his family to move to another part of the city and fined them the equivalent of $400.  According to a local source, the “family book” identification document of the family, necessary to move about freely, was kept by the local chief.  The family could not return to collect the book without incurring additional fines of up to $1200, the fine given to anyone who chooses to become a Christian in that area, according to the source.

Some local officials pressured Christians to renounce their faith or encouraged them to move elsewhere.  For example, in Huaython village in Luang Prabang Province, local officials told approximately 20 families belonging to the LEC to renounce their faith because they should not believe in a “foreign religion.”  One family renounced their religion and local authorities gave them approximately 50,000 Lao kip ($6) as a reward.  In Sone District in Houaphanh Province, district officials told nine families they would have to move to another province if they did not renounce their Christian faith.  Eight of the nine families opted to move to Bokeo Province.

A representative of the Seventh-day Adventist Church said village authorities in Khammouane Province forced Church members to sign a pledge, promising they would not gather for religious services.  According to the representative, the village authorities said that Church members could believe in a religion but could not gather to worship.

Leaders of the recognized minority religious groups said they were aware of fewer incidents of abuse of villagers who had converted to Christianity than in previous years; in most cases, those who were arrested were fined and released.  In some cases local officials reportedly threatened Protestants with arrest or expulsion from their villages if they did not comply with orders issued by the local authorities either to stop practicing their faith or not to join in community activities.

In discussing Decree 315 and other laws, religious leaders said officials in urban areas and in some districts had a strong understanding of laws governing religious activities, but conflicts and other incidents that restricted religious freedom remained prevalent in rural areas.  MOHA and LFNC officials continued to acknowledge some local officials were incorrectly applying regulations, were creating their own regulations contrary to national law, or simply were unaware of all provisions in Decree 315.  A representative from the National Assembly’s Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs said that Decree 315 had “not reached all areas.”

Religious officials said that while Decree 315 helped delineate religious rights, the decree established requirements many religious groups felt were onerous, unrealistic, and used to restrict religious practices.  According to some minority religious groups, both local and central government officials referred to the constitution, Decree 315 (or its predecessor, Decree 92), and social harmony as reasons for continuing to restrict and monitor religious activity, especially the activities of new or small Christian organizations among minority ethnic group members.

Religious groups said they were concerned the government had not yet implemented the decree fully in practice.  If the government attempted to enforce all aspects of the decree, one church official said, “We won’t be able to do anything.”  Baha’i representatives said the decree was a positive development and reflected the government’s “sincerity” to promote religious freedom.  They also said the decree was not overly restrictive, but needed more clarity.  They recommended the government devote more resources to implementing it at the district level.

A number of nonprofit associations (NPAs) and some religious groups called for the repeal of the Decree on Associations No. 238, which they said had the potential to restrict operations of nonprofit organizations.  While the decree pertains to NPAs, Voice of the Martyrs, an international Christian NGO, stated local Christians were concerned authorities could use the decree to shut down religious activity and religious expression.  Mission Network News said the decree threatened Christians’ right to meet.  There were no reports from other local religious groups the decree had been used to regulate religious activity.

Some minority religious groups, including the Catholic Church, LEC, Baha’i Faith, and Seventh-day Adventists, successfully met the annual administrative requirements outlined in Decree 315, such as providing information on the number of members, religious texts, and plans for services during the year.  Other groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, were still waiting for the government to approve their registration applications at year’s end.  A MOHA official stated the registration process was not easy and said that during the review process MOHA consulted with other religious groups to discuss the registration application in an attempt to minimize conflicts between established and new religious groups.  The MOHA official said some Christian groups questioned whether another group wishing to register was Christian.

The LEC, the second largest religious group after Buddhists, continued to serve as an umbrella group for all registered Christian denominations other than Catholics and Seventh-day Adventists, as religious leaders reported applications for recognition of new Christian groups were too difficult.  Several unregistered religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, continued their efforts to register independently from the LEC due to differences in doctrinal beliefs; their applications remained pending at year’s end.

Although the law prohibits members of religious groups not registered with MOHA or the LFNC from practicing their faith, members of several groups reportedly did so quietly without interference.

Religious leaders reported various incidents throughout the country related to obtaining travel permission.  Some religious officials were detained even with proper travel authorization; most cases were resolved within hours of occurrence.  An official with the Seventh-day Adventist Church said if a member of the Church needed to travel to another province, he or she must submit an application to MOHA in advance and needed approval at the national and provincial levels, and it could take up to 20 days to get approval.  An official at MOHA said it tried to approve travel plans within 10 days, and encouraged religious groups to submit annual travel plans.

In March an official with the Catholic Church in Vientiane said the LFNC reportedly gave his local church permission to hold a religious service on April 1 for Easter.  Local authorities, however, stopped a church official who was traveling on March 31 to participate in the service and told him he could only travel on April 1.

Religious leaders said the Christmas season presented challenges, especially involving detention of Christians traveling without permission to attend religious events outside of their normal locales.  Members of the LEC said they submitted travel plans for the Christmas season to all appropriate levels of government but did not receive all the required approvals.

According to Radio Free Asia, in December an LFNC official from Xiengkhouang Province said authorities allowed Christians to conduct Christmas services in their churches or at their pastors’ homes provided they did not preach against the government and law and they invited local officials to attend to guarantee “order and security.”  Radio Free Asia also reported that, according to a Christian in Vientiane, Christians conducted Christmas services in the capital with government authorities present for “security and protection.”

According to Muslim community leaders, Muslims continued to worship at the two active mosques in Vientiane, the only mosques in the country.  According to the Muslim Association, its leaders met regularly with LFNC and MOHA officials and maintained an effective working relationship with the government.  The government permitted individuals from Thailand to conduct Islamic lessons.

While animists generally reported little governmental interference, the government continued to discourage animist practices it deemed outdated, dangerous, or illegal, such as the practice in some tribes of killing children born with defects or burying the bodies of deceased relatives beneath homes.

Representatives of Baha’i communities in urban areas, including Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang, reported local authorities generally were “comfortable” with Baha’i practitioners and did not interfere with or restrict their activities.

Christian religious leaders said authorities continued to enforce a ban on proselytizing in public.  Some religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, said they relied on word-of-mouth to attract new members.  Authorities continued to enforce rules requiring programs or activities conducted outside houses of worship receive prior approval from local or higher officials.

The government strictly enforced a prohibition on proselytizing by foreigners.  Several religious groups said they welcomed foreign members to visit the country but needed to be cautious about the kinds of activities foreigners engaged in.  The Church of Jesus Christ had an agreement with MOHA that allowed two missionaries in the country but the missionaries were allowed only to teach English and could not engage in religious discussions.

Authorities continued to control imports of religious materials but several religious groups said they could find most religious texts and documents online so they did not need government permission.  MOHA officials said they coordinated with religious groups to review imported materials to help ensure they were in line with the organization’s beliefs.

Several religious groups reported problems with building places of worship.  An official with the LEC said there were approximately 600 LEC churches throughout the country.  He said the LEC had more than 1,000 “unofficial” churches where worship services were conducted in homes, in part due to the difficulties of obtaining building permits from local authorities.  An official with the Catholic Church said it had encountered challenges building churches as well.  During the year, the Church asked for permission to build churches in several villages but only received vague responses.  The LFNC Religious Affairs Department continued to urge that designated church structures replace house churches whenever possible.  Local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal and told villagers they needed a permit to worship at home, although Christian groups said local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal even with a permit.  Religious group representatives said the building permit process began at the local level and then required district, provincial, and ultimately central-level LFNC and MOHA permission.  Christian groups said the government would not issue permits to build new churches, and local officials used the process to block construction of new churches.  There were reports, however, of authorities permitting the construction of new churches, for example in the city of Vang Vieng and in Attapeu Province.

Many religious leaders said they continued to experience lengthy delays in obtaining permits for church construction, and generally received no response to requests.  Some religious leaders said that Decree 315 had neither clear guidelines nor clear timelines for construction of religious buildings.  A Christian religious official said the government used bureaucratic delays to halt construction as long as possible in order to keep minority religious groups from expanding.  According to the director general of the National Assembly’s Ethnic and Religious Affairs Department, many of the delays involved legal matters concerning construction, or in some cases, a cluster of Christian families in a village wished to build two or three churches in their village, which would result in more churches than authorities believed necessary for the number of Christians.

At year’s end, the Catholic Church continued to discuss plans with the LFNC to reacquire land adjoining the Sacred Heart Cathedral in central Vientiane that the Church previously owned before the Communist Party came to power in 1975.  The Catholic Church has tried to reacquire the land since 2001.  In November 2017, the government announced plans to build a school on that land with funding from China and did not inform the Church of these plans.

According to MOES, there was no Buddhist curriculum taught as religion in any public schools.  The government, however, promoted the teaching of Buddhist practices in public schools as part of national culture.  Mandatory cultural sessions included lessons taught in Buddhist temples and, in order to advance to the next grade level, educational authorities required all students pray in Buddhist temples.  Christian students reported discomfort with the requirement.  MOES said it allowed parents to remove their children from the classes if they were dissatisfied with the program.  In several provinces, however, lessons in Buddhism remained mandatory to pass to the next grade level.  This was especially true in areas where temples provided education because the government was unable to support a public school.  A number of private schools affiliated with various religious groups existed throughout the country and accepted students from any religious denomination.

With advance permission and a requirement there be no open proselytizing, government authorities permitted Lao and expatriate Christians to organize a public, open-air religious music event for the second year in a row.  The Vientiane International Gospel Music Festival took place November 2-4 at the Vientiane Center shopping mall, with performances by local and foreign artists and bands.  LEC officials said, however, the government told the organizers it would be the last time they received a permit to hold the festival.  The LEC officials also said that the word “gospel” was not translated into Lao and only appeared in English-language materials.

A Christian pastor said that in limited cases, provincial government officials continued to ask religious leaders not to report grievances to foreigners to avoid unwanted publicity.  He added the LEC did not want to embarrass the government or jeopardize its relatively strong relationship so the Church often chose not to publicize incidents related to religious freedom.  One religious official said the government blamed religious groups for publicizing grievances and giving the country a bad reputation.  According to religious groups, in some instances local authorities continued efforts to keep individuals who had been arrested, banished, punished, marginalized, or had otherwise been the victim of abuses due to their religious beliefs out of sight of international observers.

An official with the Catholic Church said government officials who are Catholic were promoted at a slower rate than their Buddhist counterparts and needed to take precautions to not be seen attending church services.  Other religious groups noted it was hard for their members to join the government or advance to higher-level positions, or to become village chiefs.  Religious groups stated they were aware of no openly non-Buddhist or non-animist government officials in higher-level posts at the provincial or national levels, although a Baha’i official said there were three Baha’i village chiefs.

Religious officials said that during the year, a man with mental health issues caused disruptions in a village.  Local authorities blamed minority religious groups for the disruptions, claiming the man was a member of both the LEC and the Seventh-day Adventists, even though he was not a registered member of either church.  Other religious officials said local authorities at times used religion as a scapegoat for domestic violence or other issues within a family.

In dealing with local conflicts regarding religious problems, officials at MOHA reported they first waited for local authorities to resolve an issue before getting involved.  One MOHA official said the ministry did not have the resources to respond to every conflict.

The LFNC and MOHA stated they continued to visit areas where religious freedom abuses had reportedly taken place to instruct local officials on government policy and law.  LFNC and MOHA officials said they frequently traveled out of the capital to encourage religious groups to practice in accordance with the country’s laws and regulations.  They also hosted training workshops for local officials to explain officials’ obligations under the constitution and the right to believe or not to believe in religion.  During these sessions, central authorities provided training to provincial LFNC and MOHA officials on Decree 315 and other laws governing religion and held workshops with local officials and religious leaders that reviewed the basic tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, the Baha’i Faith, and Islam.  With support from an international NGO, MOHA held seven workshops in six different provinces during the year with nearly 400 officials in attendance, including a four-day workshop on religious freedom in Bolikhamxai Province in October.  The LFNC offered seven workshops in four provinces with more than 250 participants.  The government directly funded one workshop, and religious groups contributed some funding for the workshops.  Officials said the workshops provided a forum for MOHA and LFNC to explain the different aspects of Decree 315 and hear about the challenges that minority religious groups encounter under it and other provisions of the law.

In collaboration with the LFNC, an international NGO continued to conduct training for provincial and district officials and local religious leaders throughout the year.  The training was designed to help the officials and religious leaders understand the law and each other better.

In October the National Assembly organized a three-day workshop that included officials from the four recognized religions and assembly members from all 18 provinces.  The religious organizations presented their beliefs, administration, and contributions to the country, while MOHA and MOPS discussed aspects of the new decree.  Assembly members also had the opportunity to ask questions of the religious officials.

The officially recognized religious groups and the government continued to print and distribute the decree and its implementation guidelines.

The Church of Jesus Christ organized study tours to Utah for government officials.  These and similar trips required approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Latvia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides every person the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and specifies the separation of church and state.  By law, eight “traditional” religious groups receive rights and privileges other groups do not.  Three new religious groups registered during the year.  Pursuant to a Supreme Court ruling in April, religious groups registered in the country for less than 10 years no longer had to reregister every year.  The government again did not take any steps to restitute property to victims of Nazi persecution in accordance with the 2009 Terezin Declaration.  Several senior politicians, including the president and prime minister, spoke against anti-Semitism during the year or participated in Holocaust memorial ceremonies.

On March 16, approximately 250 persons, including 10-15 veterans of the Nazi Waffen SS, five members of the All for Latvia Party, and a member of the National Alliance coalition, participated in the annual march for Latvian Legionnaires who fought alongside the Waffen SS against the Soviet Union in World War II (WWII).  Attendance was similar to recent years.  NGO Freedom House said support for the event continued to decline.  Police said they detained two persons protesting the march.  Various groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Latvian Anti-Nazi Committee, and politicians from the Latvian Russian Union, again condemned the march.  Jewish and Muslim groups again cited instances of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate speech on the internet.

The U.S. embassy engaged with government officials, including representatives from the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Office of the Ombudsman, Department of Religious Affairs, and parliamentarians on the importance of restoring expropriated property to the Jewish community, religious tolerance, and Holocaust education.  It also engaged with nongovernmental organization (NGO) MARTA and representatives of various religious groups, including Baptists, the Jewish community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims, on the role they could play in promoting religious tolerance and acceptance in the country.  The embassy funded three projects designed to address Holocaust issues.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The MOJ approved the applications of three religious groups that applied to register for the first time:  evangelical Christian Church Kingdom of God, spiritual center Rebirth, and evangelical Christian Church Grace of Christ.

Pursuant to the Constitutional Court’s ruling, effective in April, religious groups registered in the country for fewer than 10 years no longer had to register every year.  In December parliament amended the law on religious organizations to bring it into compliance with the Constitutional Court’s ruling.

The government again did not take any steps to restitute property in accordance with the 2009 Terezin Declaration, which called for measures to provide assistance, redress, and remembrance for victims of Nazi persecution.  There continued to be differing views among the government and Jewish community groups about the number of properties that remained to be restituted.  Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told media in May restitution of Jewish property remained on the agenda and would be addressed in the next parliament, elected in October.

According to a report on the country issued in 2018 by the NGO National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ), the government had made significant progress in recognizing Jewish issues and commemorating the Holocaust, adding that problems remained with regard to property restitution and vandalism of Jewish sites.

Authorities continued to monitor Muslim activities according to the annual report of the security police.  In November Islamic Cultural Centre in Latvia (ICCL) leader Janis Hamza Lucins stated privately he had had no negative interaction with the security police during the year and was unaware of any actual or threatened violence against the Muslim community by government actors or private individuals during the same period.  In October Muslim community leader Zufars Zainullins said privately he did not view government monitoring of Muslims to be discriminatory or a violation of their rights.

The new prayer center of the ICCL remained unopened.  ICCL leader Lucins stated the ICCL was not currently focused on opening the new prayer center and had no timeline for opening the facility.  Lucins and Muslim community leader Zainullins said the ICCL’s unopened status did not involve anti-Muslim animus on the part of the government.

President Raimonds Vejonis and other senior government officials, including Speaker of the Parliament Inara Murniece, Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis, and Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, attended or spoke at Holocaust memorial events, including International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Latvian Holocaust Memorial Day, and the Rumbula Forest Massacre Memorial.  In July at a commemoration of the burning in 1941 of the Great Choral Synagogue together with those inside, Murniece said, “Thousands of lives were wiped out …  it was hell on earth,” adding that local henchmen were also involved in the mass executions that took place in the country during WWII.  In his speech at the same event, President Vejonis said Jews were an integral part of the country and that “intolerance to those who are different find[s] a fertile soil in society and public space.  Those who remember the horrible events of the past are today’s hope.”

On the July 4 Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, officials unveiled a memorial in Riga dedicated to Hungarian Jewish women who were deported to labor and concentration camps in Latvia during the 1944 Nazi occupation, where they perished or were killed.

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

Lebanon

Executive Summary

The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and guarantees the free exercise of religious rites for all religious groups provided they do not disturb the public order.  The constitution also states there shall be a “just and equitable balance” in the apportionment of cabinet and high-level civil service positions among the major religious groups, a situation reaffirmed by the Taef Agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and mandated equal representation between Christians and Muslims in parliament.  Parliamentary elections in May resulted in the confessional balance of parliament remaining unchanged.  The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion.  On July 19, the cybercrime unit interrogated online activist Charbel Khoury when one of his Facebook posts raised public controversy for allegedly mocking a popular Maronite Christian saint.  On May 15, a judge dropped all criminal charges against poet Ahmad Sbeity for reportedly insulting the Virgin Mary in an online post.  According to Human Rights Watch, some municipal governments of largely Christian cities have, since 2016, forcibly evicted mostly Muslim Syrian refugees and expelled them from localities.  Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid.  Government officials repeatedly and publicly reiterated the country’s commitment to religious freedom and diversity.  At least 30 cases of interreligious civil marriage remained pending following the government’s continuation of the halt on their registration.  Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, continued to exercise control over territory, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut and southern areas of the country, both of which are predominantly Shia.

There was one report of a religiously motivated killing when a Sunni sheikh and his two brothers allegedly killed another Sunni man on August 25 over a blasphemy allegation.  Muslim and Christian community leaders reported the continued operation of places of worship in relative peace and security and said relationships among individual members of different religious groups continued to be amicable.  Once again, the Jewish Community Council reported acts of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in Beirut and Sidon.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to encourage tolerance and mutual respect among religious communities, and to highlight the importance of combating violent religious extremism.  The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with religious leaders and members of civil society to engage in dialogue on religious tolerance and the role of confessional dynamics in the country’s society and politics, and also investigated claims of religious discrimination in the provision of assistance to Iraqi Christian refugees.  Embassy public outreach and assistance programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious groups; these included projects to counter violent extremism related to religion, and interfaith summer exchange programs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion.  On July 19, the Internal Security Force’s cybercrime unit interrogated online activist Charbel Khoury when one of his Facebook posts generated public controversy for allegedly mocking a popular Maronite Christian saint.  The judge in the case ordered Khoury to sign a pledge to abstain from his Facebook account for one month and not to criticize religions.  On May 15, a judge dropped all criminal charges against poet Ahmad Sbeity for a Facebook post that reportedly insulted the Virgin Mary.  In September government censors banned the screening of the U.S. film The Nun for insulting Christianity.  For the third year in a row, there was no judicial action on the lawsuit filed in 2015 by Member of Parliament Ziad Aswad of the Free Patriotic Movement against “You Stink” activist Assad Thebian for “defamation and contempt of religion” for comments he made about Christianity.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in April that, since 2016, some municipal governments engaged in forcibly evicting Syrian refugees from their homes and expelling them from their localities to other locations in Lebanon.  The HRW report stated that religious affiliation was among several reasons for the evictions.  Most of those interviewed by HRW said that their eviction was due, in part, to their religious identity.  According to UNHCR, the municipalities identified as being involved in forcibly evicting and expelling Syrian refugees were predominantly Christian.  Monthly community tension reports prepared jointly by the UN Development Program (UNDP) and UNHCR along with NGO and implementing partners using population survey data from UNDP, however, did not identify religious discrimination as the key driver of tension between refugees and host communities.  NGOs and international organizations, including the UNDP, UNHCR, and other UN agencies, also reported that perceptions of competition for jobs, resources, and land were the predominant factors driving refugee evictions, along with security concerns and Lebanon’s history with Syria.

Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and members of nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups in government records in order to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid.  Many Baha’is said they chose to list themselves as Shia Muslims in order to effectively manage civil matters officially administered by Shia institutions.

The government again failed to take action to approve a request from the Jewish community to change its official name to the Jewish Community Council from the Israeli Communal Council (the group’s current officially recognized name).  Additionally, the Jewish community faced difficulty importing material for religious rites, as customs agents were reportedly wary of allowing imports of any origin containing Hebrew script given the ban on trade of Israeli goods.

Following the May 6 parliamentary elections, non-Maronite Christian groups reiterated criticism that the government made little progress toward the Taef Agreement’s goal of eliminating political sectarianism in favor of “expertise and competence.”  Members of these groups, which include Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, and Chaldeans, among others, said the fact that the government allotted them only one of the 64 Christian seats in parliament, constituted government discrimination.  The Syriac League continued to call for more representation for non-Maronite and non-Greek Orthodox Christians in cabinet positions, parliament, and high-level civil service positions, typically held by members of the larger Christian religious groups.

Members of all confessions serve in all military, intelligence, and security services, including in high-ranking positions.

During his September 26 remarks to the UN General Assembly in New York, President Michel Aoun repeated his call to make Lebanon a regional hub for religious dialogue.  During the July 24-26 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil reiterated the government’s commitment to religious freedom and pluralism, stating that religious diversity strengthened the country.

During the year, there was no movement on the 30 or more cases of civil marriage that awaited registration with the Ministry of Interior since 2013.  The cases remained unresolved, with no evidence of forthcoming action.

Lesotho

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, including the freedom to change religion or belief and to manifest and propagate one’s religion.  The government continued to provide extensive support for schools operated by religious groups, including paying and certifying all teachers.

On June 1, Christian and Muslim leaders participated in the National Day of Prayer on Reforms and Reconciliation (NDPRR).  The Christian Council of Lesotho (CCL) participated in a national forum aimed at future reforms in key national sectors.

The U.S. embassy continued to discuss religious freedom with the government and maintained regular contact with religious leaders.  The Ambassador attended the NDPRR in June and met with the Chairman of the CCL, Archbishop Tlali Lerotholi, in September.  A senior embassy officer met with the CCL Secretary General and other CCL officials in August.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Churches owned and operated 83 percent of all primary and 66 percent of secondary schools.  The Roman Catholic Church, Lesotho Evangelical Church, Anglican Church, and, to a lesser extent, Methodist Church were the primary operators of religious schools, which were publicly funded.  In practice, in any school offering religious education – including all religious schools and some secular schools – the subject was mandatory.  Despite the constitution granting the ability for students to opt out, there were no reports of students electing to do so.

The government continued to permit families to send their children to schools run by a religious group other than their own, and some families chose this option.  Others went to public schools or secular private schools.

The government declared June 1 a National Day of Prayer on Reforms and Reconciliation; in a ceremony at Setsoto Stadium in Maseru, King Letsie III asked citizens to “hold the kind of peace they are renowned of” and advised them to “forget and forgive each other.”  The CCL chairman, Catholic Archbishop Tlali Lerotholi, in his address called on God to make the country “a peace driven and focused nation.”  The government continued to invite the CCL regularly to open government ceremonies and meetings.

Liberia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state and stipulates all persons are entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, except as required by law to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights of others.  It also provides for equal protection under the law and prohibits religious tests for office and the establishment of a state religion.  Christian and Muslim organizations called upon the government to pay greater attention to interfaith dialogue and the needs of the Muslim community, while Muslim organizations continued to call for official recognition or observance of Islamic holidays, a greater role in official ceremonies, and accommodation in government institutions.  Tribal organizations called upon the government for help in dealing with cases of purported witchcraft, while human rights organizations called upon the government to help prevent some harmful practices associated with indigenous beliefs.

Some religious groups continued to advocate for official recognition of the country as a “Christian nation,” while many others opposed the initiative.  Numerous religious groups worked toward interfaith dialogue and conflict resolution.

The Ambassador and embassy officials engaged with government officials, to include the Human Rights Division of the Ministry of Justice, members of the legislature, and others, in support of efforts to preempt religious tensions during the change of administrations and to stress U.S. government support of religious freedom and tolerance in connection with the continued campaign to declare the country a “Christian nation.”  The Ambassador and embassy officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance across government and society through outreach to religious leaders and communities.  The embassy hosted an iftar with participants from different faith communities during Ramadan.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

A number of religious organizations, Christian and Muslim, cited the government’s perceived indifference to the interests of the Muslim community as having the potential to fuel long-term grievance and instability.

A number of Muslim organizations continued to express concern over the government’s reluctance to recognize or observe major Islamic religious holidays, while continuing to recognize Christmas as a public holiday and the second Friday in April as Fast and Prayer Day, the latter sometimes coinciding with Good Friday.  Muslim organizations credited the administration of President George Weah, which took office in January, with granting one day of leave to government employees celebrating Eid al-Fitr in June but continued to advocate making Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha national holidays.  Muslim organizations have requested to make Eid al-Fitr a national holiday since 1995.  The Baha’i community also submitted a petition before the 1999-2003 civil war to recognize its religious holidays, and their organization’s leadership reaffirmed interest in the matter but did not resubmit the petition.

The government, through city ordinances and presidential proclamations, required businesses and markets, including those owned or operated by Muslims, to close on Sundays and Christmas for municipal street cleaning.  Some Muslim business owners said they viewed the regular street cleaning as an excuse for the government to close all businesses in honor of the Christian Sabbath.

Members of the Muslim and Baha’i communities working in government or public positions said government agencies continued to be reluctant to grant time off to observe religious holidays.

The inauguration of President Weah and the July 26 Independence Day celebration included opening and closing prayers from Christian clergy; representatives from the Muslim community were invited to attend as guests but not to participate in the official ceremony.

According to Muslim religious leaders, the government employed a disproportionate number of Christian chaplains in comparison to Muslim chaplains to serve in government institutions when compared to the religious demographics of the country.  The government reportedly employed only two Muslim chaplains – one in the armed forces and one in the Supreme Court.  The legislature and many other government institutions exclusively employed Christian chaplains, who frequently read Christian prayers before starting official business.

In May the inspector general of the Liberia National Police met with the country’s chief imam and Muslim communities and assured the Muslim community of his administration’s commitment to their safety during Ramadan.

In March President Weah appointed two religious advisors, both Christians, as part of the new administration.  Representatives of Muslim organizations said they viewed them as gatekeepers rather than intermediaries, controlling access to the president rather than facilitating outreach.  Representatives of Muslim religious organizations said they hoped to see a Muslim religious advisor or a more direct link between the Office of the President and the Muslim community.

The government continued to subsidize private schools, most of which were affiliated with Christian and Muslim organizations.  The government provided subsidies proportionally, based on the number of students, but Muslim leaders said the subsidies disproportionately favored Christian schools.

Before leaving office in January, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed an executive order on domestic violence banning the practice of female genital mutilation.  The order would remain in force for one year unless extended.  Some observers saw the order as a repudiation of traditional secret societies, which combine religious and cultural practices, and engaged in the practice as part of their indoctrination ceremonies.  Others complained the order was not enforced, leading to an increase in reported cases.  In December the National Traditional Council promised to halt Poro and Sande society activities during the academic year, so as not to prevent young inductees from attending school.  The council also undertook an inventory of all existing chapters of the secret societies, also called “bushes” or “groves,” and the head of the council requested local chiefs to refrain from opening new chapters.

In October a news report noted that the head of a traditional council of chiefs in Nimba County called upon the government to intervene in cases of persons injured through practices described as witchcraft, and it accused police and prosecutors of failing to intervene.  The report, and others, reported an increase in cases of trial by ordeal, also known as “sassywood,” in which those accused of witchcraft undergo painful or dangerous experiences in an attempt to prove their innocence.

Libya

Executive Summary

The interim constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia the principal source of legislation.  It accords non-Muslims the freedom to practice their religion and bans discrimination based on religion.  The activities of non-Muslims remained curtailed by legal prohibitions on the distribution or publication of information aimed at changing Libya’s “social structure,” which were used to prohibit circulation of non-Islamic religious materials, missionary activity, or speech considered “offensive to Muslims.”  Human rights activists said freedom of conscience for converts to Christianity, atheists, and Sunni Muslims who deviated from Salafist interpretations of Islam was not respected in practice, particularly in areas of the country controlled by Salafist groups.  The internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) remained in office, but it did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the South and East.  The GNA relied on armed groups to provide security and administer some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a heightened risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape than other migrants and refugees.  In the West, the Tripoli-based Rada Special Deterrence Force (SDF), a GNA-aligned Salafist armed group integrated into the Ministry of Interior by GNA decree in May, was involved in several arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law.  Some detainees reported they were tortured and abused.  In February the SDF arrested a woman it accused of practicing sorcery.  According to a Refugees International Field Report, an Ethiopian Christian woman said she and other Christians hid their crosses from police in the detention center where they were being held “because the Libyan police working in that place didn’t appreciate Christians.”  According to the same report, a 26-year-old Christian refugee who was held in a detention center in central Tripoli said guards provided better treatment to migrants from majority-Muslim Morocco than others.  Domestic human rights activists continued to report a restrictive environment, including efforts designed to prevent women from traveling alone outside the country.  In Tripoli some militias associated with the GNA reportedly imposed restrictions on women’s dress and movement and punished men for behavior they deemed un-Islamic.  A draft constitution issued by the Libyan Constitutional Drafting Assembly in 2017, not yet passed by the House of Representatives and put to a referendum, would prohibit non-Muslims from serving in high offices of state.

The East operated under a separate, unrecognized governmental administration, with security provided by the “Libyan National Army” (LNA) and LNA-aligned Salafist armed groups.  Nonstate actors and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country, including in Benghazi, parts of Tripoli, and Derna, where there were numerous reports of armed groups restricting religious practices, enforcing compliance with sharia according to their interpretation, and targeting those viewed as violating their standards.  According to the Christian rights advocacy group Open Doors USA, Islamic militant groups and organized crime groups targeted religious minorities, including Christian migrants, converts to Christianity, and foreign residents for physical attacks, sexual assaults, detentions, kidnappings, and killings.  Salafist and Islamist groups aligned with the GNA and the unrecognized government in the East took on law enforcement functions.  U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations that included Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM), and ISIS continued to operate within the country.  Human Rights Watch reported that on January 23, an unidentified armed group or groups detonated two car bombs in front of the Baya’at al-Radwan Mosque in Benghazi as worshippers were leaving after evening prayers, killing at least 34 males, including three children, and wounding more than 90 others.  In December the Reuters news service reported local authorities said they had exhumed from a mass grave near Sirte the bodies of 34 Ethiopian Christians executed by ISIS in 2015.

According to international media, former Muslims faced intense social and economic pressure to renounce their faith to return to Islam.  Sources also reported converts to other religions, as well as atheists and agnostics, were threatened with violence or dismissal from employment because of their beliefs.  According to an atheist from Benghazi, he had to reaffirm publicly faith in Islam (which contradicted his private beliefs) due to threats against his person by coworkers and Salafist militia groups.

The U.S. Embassy to Libya continued to operate from Tunis, Tunisia.  The U.S. government continued to raise issues of religious freedom in conversations with the GNA, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other interlocutors.  U.S. officials raised these issues in the context of confronting violent extremist groups such as ISIS, as well as condemning acts of physical mistreatment of religious minorities in detention; destruction of religious property; and calling for ending discrimination in the religious education curriculum, particularly discrimination against religious minorities.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Due to the fact that religion, politics, and security are often closely linked in the country, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

The internationally recognized GNA remained in office, but did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the East and South.

The United Nations Development Program reported the judicial system was functioning, albeit at different levels depending on the location of the courts within the country.  Human Rights Watch, however, said key institutions, “most notably, law enforcement and the judiciary,” were dysfunctional or had stopped working in most parts of the country.  The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) reported courts in the areas controlled by the GNA continued to sentence defendants to corporal punishment in accordance with its interpretation of sharia, including flogging for adultery and amputations for theft; however, according to UNSMIL, the government did not routinely carry out these punishments in practice.

According to international NGOs working in the country, a variety of groups – revolutionary brigades, tribal militias, and local strongmen – provided security in and around courts.  The GNA incorporated several of these armed groups into the Ministry of Interior, but observers said the GNA’s control over these groups remained limited.  Christian groups operating in the country identified the SDF as among the Islamic militant groups involved in the harassment of Christians.  The GNA’s response to instances of violence against members of minority religious groups was limited to condemnations of acts of violence.  For instance, in September, the GNA condemned clashes that broke out between armed groups in Tripoli that caused the displacement of thousands of non-Libyan migrants in the capital.

The SDF, while formally a counterterrorism force, also engaged in other functions including policing on moral and religious issues.  According to human rights activists, SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law.  Detainees reported torture and abuse at the hands of the SDF while being held in official and extrajudicial detention facilities.  Christian groups pointed to the example of a Coptic Christian man who said that in 2017, the SDF detained him at Mitiga Airport Prison facility in Tripoli for two weeks.  The man said he was flogged twice a day during his detention.

According to media reports, on February 22, the SDF arrested a Moroccan woman, Ghizlane Soukane, in Tripoli, on charges of practicing sorcery and magic.  There was no update on her whereabouts or the status of her case at year’s end.

The National Committee for Human Rights in Libya reported that in October, following the committee’s intervention, an Egyptian Coptic resident, Kirlus Hani Abdulmalik, was released from detention at the SDF-run Mitiga Airport Prison facility.  Abdulmalik, a pharmacist, was detained since December 2016 without charge, reportedly because SDF forces believed it was illegal for Abdulmalik to practice medicine and provide treatments to Libyans because he was non-Muslim.

On February 26, the Office of Islamic Endowments and Islamic Affairs in Misrata, a regional affiliate of the GNA’s MEIA, arrested Abdulaziz al-Siawi, a member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood’s Shura Council, for explicitly calling for terrorist operations in Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, in response to those governments’ anti-Muslim Brotherhood policies.  Earlier in February a surreptitiously recorded video was released of a December 2017 Friday sermon al-Siawi delivered at the Mosque of Al-Sheikh Mohammad in Misrata in which he said “Let me say [clearly] that I want to call for terrorism.”  On March 2, members of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, together with members of the Council of Elders and Shura, which is headed by Ibrahim bin Ghashir, demonstrated at the courtyard of the Sheikh Amhamed Mosque against the decision of the GNA to prohibit al-Siawi from delivering sermons.  Authorities subsequently released al-Siawi.

The GNA relied on armed groups to provide security and administer some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a higher risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape, than other migrants and refugees.  According to the Refugees International Field Report published in April, a 23-year-old Ethiopian Christian woman identified as Sara said she and other Christians hid their crosses from police in the detention center where they were being held “because the Libyan police working in that place didn’t appreciate Christians.”  In the same report, a 26-year-old Christian refugee from South Sudan identified as David, who was held in a detention center in central Tripoli, said guards provided better treatment to migrants from majority-Muslim Morocco than to others.

In September seven Christian migrants who, along with 173 others were repatriated to Nigeria on August 30, told Black Christian News Network One they had been detained in Osama Prison in Zawiya.  One of the men said guards hung him in chains overnight and left him to die.  In the morning they took his body to a shallow grave in the forest, but, upon discovering he was still alive, brought him back to the prison, and put him in solitary confinement.  Authorities returned the men to Nigeria following the intervention of the International Organization for Migration.

The government permitted religious scholars to form organizations, issue fatwas, and provide advice to followers.  The fatwas did not have legal weight but conveyed considerable social pressure, according to Libyan tribal and religious leaders.  The GNA, however, did not exercise effective administrative control of mosques and supervision of clerics outside the limited areas under its control.

In Tripoli, according to civil society contacts, women’s rights activists, and human rights NGO officials, some militias, such as the GNA-associated SDF and the Nawasi Brigade, imposed restrictions on women’s dress and movement and punished men for behavior they deemed “un-Islamic.”  There continued to be no laws, however, imposing restrictions on dress.

In August the Ministry of Education issued a decree suspending admission to special religious schools, including the Religious Academy in Tajoura.  During the suspension, the ministry conducted a review of the curriculum at these schools to ensure its interpretation of the Quran and Islamic hadith did not contain hateful or incendiary language toward other religions.  Former Grand Mufti of Libya Al-Sadiq Abdulrahman al-Ghiryani and Salafist religious figures condemned the suspension, which remained in place at year’s end.  The Ministry of Education worked with the U.S. embassy to promote religious tolerance in the country through the dissemination of new civil education curricula for grades four to nine that promote inclusivity and tolerance.  The curricula aimed to replace previous material containing discriminatory language directed at non-Muslims.

Government officials at airports throughout the country continued to prevent women from traveling alone outside the country without a male guardian, although there was no law or government regulation restricting such travel.  NGOs with local staff reported women often had male relatives accompany them to the airport and carried written permission from their male guardians to enable them to leave the country.

According to human rights activists, the role of Islam in policymaking remained a major point of contention among supporters and opponents of political Islam, Salafist groups, and those who wished for a greater separation between religious practice and political issues.  The draft constitution would maintain sharia as “the source of legislation.”  The draft constitution would also ban non-Muslims from key offices of state including the presidency, legislature, and prohibit non-Muslims from being appointed cabinet ministers.

Liechtenstein

Executive Summary

The constitution stipulates everyone is free to choose his or her faith.  It makes the state responsible for “protecting the religious…interests of the People” and establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion.  It stipulates other religions may practice their faith within the bounds of morality and public order.  There are criminal penalties for public incitement to hatred towards a religious group, religious discrimination, or “debasement” of any religion.  Muslims said they remained unable to obtain local authorities’ permission to establish their own cemetery and the government had been unresponsive to their requests to build a proper mosque and denied a residency permit for a new imam.  The government said it had neither received any requests for a mosque nor identified a successor imam.  On January 30, government officials and the Liechtenstein Friends of Yad Vashem again held a public service to remember the victims of the Holocaust.  President of Parliament Albert Frick spoke on the importance of rejecting anti-Semitism and honoring art produced during the Holocaust.

In contrast with previous years, there were no reports of statements hostile to religious minorities by members of groups considered to be extremist.  A representative of the Muslim community said Muslim women suffered job discrimination because they wore headscarves.

The U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, which is responsible for diplomatic relations with the country, continued to encourage the promotion of religious freedom in discussions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, focusing primarily on access to religious education and the establishment of religious infrastructure, such as a mosque or Muslim burial sites.  Embassy staff discussed religious freedom issues, such as the extent of societal discrimination, with the Liechtenstein Friends of Yad Vashem and the state-subsidized, nonprofit Liechtenstein Institute.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

All religious groups, including Muslims, were allowed to bury their dead in cemeteries owned by municipalities.  Muslims said they had still not been able to obtain permission from local authorities to establish an Islamic cemetery in the country.  The Liechtenstein Institute stated in 2017 that societal skepticism and apprehension towards Islam were the likely reasons for the difficulties the Muslim community experienced in trying to establish a cemetery.

Speaking to the student newspaper of the German Zeppelin University in September, a representative of the Turkish Association stated the community’s wish to construct a proper mosque and establish a Muslim burial site continued to “fall on deaf ears,” and that officials showed “no interest” in these issues.  In September a local Muslim woman told the same newspaper the Muslim community wished to have more government support, especially with respect to establishing an Islamic cemetery.  The government stated it received no official requests to construct a mosque or to remodel existing buildings into a mosque during the year.  Government officials also said construction of cemeteries fell under the jurisdiction of municipalities.

Public primary schools in five municipalities offered Islamic education twice each month to a total of 65 students between the ages of six and 12.

Public schools continued to include Holocaust education as part of their curriculum and held discussion forums on the Holocaust to mark the Day of Remembrance on January 27.  In January on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Liechtenstein Grammar School invited Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin from the neighboring Swiss canton of St. Gallen to discuss whether remembrance of the Holocaust served to prevent anti-Semitism and racism.  Students also discussed the meaning of exile with the rabbi.  Classes at a high school in Eschen again reflected on the lessons of the Holocaust while discussing the current European migration crisis.

Funding for religious institutions continued to derive mainly from the municipalities.  The municipalities provided Catholic and Protestant Reformed churches annual contributions in proportion to membership.

The government immigration and passport office continued to issue religious workers residency permits, valid for five years, instead of visas.  Religious workers from Schengen member countries did not require permits or visas.  A representative of the Turkish Association stated that the most recent imam to reside in the country left during the year to pursue another position and was not replaced.  According to the representative, the government denied the Turkish Association’s chosen successor for unknown reasons.  According to government officials, the government had not yet found a successor by year’s end.  There were no reports that the government issued resident permits to clergy from other groups during the year.

According to the foreign ministry, the government’s Office for Social Services and the government-supported Liechtenstein Human Rights Association, a consortium of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), functioned as the main bodies responsible for the integration of Muslims.  The foreign ministry continued to invite Muslim representatives to its annual dialogue with NGOs to address issues of concern and interest to the Muslim community.

On January 30, in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the President of Parliament, Albert Frick, together with the Liechtenstein Friends of Yad Vashem, invited government officials and the public to the Liechtenstein National Museum in Vaduz for a presentation on “Art During the Holocaust – Acts of Faith and Defiance” held by the art curator of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg.  In his speech, Frick emphasized the need for government and society not to turn away from injustice and to insist on accountability and resolution to protect present and future generations from similar atrocities.

Lithuania

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom of religious practice, and state recognition of religious organizations, provided they do not contradict the constitution or the law.  The government extends special benefits to nine “traditional” religious groups and more limited benefits to four “recognized” religious groups.  Religious groups must register with the government to gain legal status.  Parliament had not yet considered the recognition application by the indigenous religious group Romuva, following a favorable recommendation by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), and again did not vote on the recognition application of the United Methodist Church, pending since 2001.  The government allocated funds to begin the conversion of a Soviet-era sports palace built atop a Jewish cemetery into a conference center.  The Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC) supported the project, but its Vilnius branch and other Jewish groups issued a statement against it and two other projects on former Jewish cemetery sites.  Parliament removed the ombudsman for academic ethics amid allegations of anti-Semitism.  The government again paid 3.62 million euros ($4.15 million) to the Foundation for the Disposal of Good Will Compensation for the Immovable Property of Jewish Religious Communities (Good Will Foundation) as compensation for nationalized Jewish communal property and 1.2 million euros ($1.38 million) to traditional religious groups.  Senior government officials participated and spoke at Holocaust remembrance events.

Some participants at a nationalist march of 1,000 persons in March wore fascist symbols and carried banners of Lithuanian partisans who critics said were Nazi collaborators.  Some participants at another nationalist march of 300 persons in February carried a banner with a picture of a World War II (WWII)-era anti-Semite, Kazys Skirpa.  Anonymous anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim internet postings in response to articles about Jewish or Muslim issues were common; media portals generally removed them.

U.S. embassy officials and the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues) met with government officials, including a vice chancellor, vice ministers at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture, members of parliament (MPs), and the head of the LJC to discuss ways to combat intolerance and anti-Semitism and to encourage resolution of remaining issues of compensation for Jewish private property seized during the Nazi and Soviet eras.  Embassy officials discussed Jewish heritage preservation with local government officials.  In September the Ambassador spoke on the importance of religious tolerance in remarks at the Symposium for Diplomats Who Saved Jewish Lives.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On May 25, the MOJ submitted to parliament an application from the Romuva for state-recognized religious association status.  Minister of Justice Eimutis Misiunas supported the proposal, stating the Romuva’s commitment to reviving national culture was important for the country’s national identity and that Romuva was the country’s fastest growing religious community.  The parliamentary committee on human rights was reviewing the proposal at year’s end.  An application for religious association status by the United Methodist Church of Lithuania, which the MOJ submitted to parliament, with a favorable recommendation, in 2001 remained pending.  According to the MOJ, it was incumbent on the United Methodist Church to advocate for its application in parliament, but the group had not done so.

In April Minister of Economy Virginijus Sinkevicius introduced in parliament an amendment that would ban the sale of material that “distorts historical facts” about the nation, which was met by criticism from many quarters.  Parliament’s legal department concluded it failed to ensure human rights.  The LJC said it “raise[d] well-founded concerns and recall[ed] the dark times of government censorship… and ha[d] given rise to anger, with foundation, in the international Jewish community.”  Lithuanian and international media also reacted negatively, with some viewing the proposed amendment as a response to the publication in 2016 of a controversial book by Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite and a representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center citing participation by Lithuanians in the Holocaust.  The proposal never reached a final vote in parliament, and Sinkevicius withdrew it in May.

In October media reported that the Ministry of Finance had proposed allocating 28.3 million euros ($32.45 million) for the reconstruction of the Vilnius Sports Palace, which the Soviets built on the Snipiskes cemetery, Vilnius’s oldest Jewish cemetery, in 1971.  The plans were to convert the buildings into a conference center, with design work scheduled to begin in 2019, construction in 2020, and an opening by 2021.  In November the government approved the budget allocation.  On August 29, the Vilnius Jewish Community, one of 33 regional branches of the LJC, and other local Jewish groups issued a statement protesting the Sports Palace renovation, as well as other renovation projects of Soviet buildings located on the site of former Jewish cemeteries in Kaunas and Siauliai.  The proposed renovations at the latter two sites remained pending.  The national LJC supported the Vilnius Sports Palace project.  The government stated it would undertake the project in accordance with the August 26, 2009 agreement between the LJC, the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, and the Lithuanian Department of Cultural Heritage, and would protect the area of the cemetery at the Sports Palace and its buffer zone, as well as other related areas.  The LJC and Vilnius municipality said that, in recognition of the sensitivity of the issue, they had installed vehicle barriers and 10 information plaques around the Sports Palace, noting it had once been a Jewish cemetery and that all of the human remains had been removed.  Initially, Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis said he backed a proposal to convert part of the new complex into a Jewish museum or cultural center; the government was still considering other proposals aimed at commemorating the legacy of the Snipiskes Jewish cemetery at year’s end.

The government again disbursed 3.62 million euros ($4.15 million) to the Good Will Foundation, in accordance with its agreement with that institution.

The government provided 1.2 million euros ($1.38 million) to traditional religious groups to reconstruct religious buildings and to support other religious community activities.  Of this total, it granted one million euros ($1.15 million) to the Roman Catholic Church (some of which was to assist with preparations for the visit of Pope Francis in September) and 61,100 euros ($70,100) to the Russian Orthodox community.  The remaining 139,000 euros ($159,000) was divided among the Old Believer, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Sunni Muslim, Karaite and other Jewish, and Greek Catholic communities.

On March 15, parliament removed Vigilijus Sadauskas from the government-appointed position of ombudsman for academic ethics and procedures amid allegations of anti-Semitism.  Sadauskas, affiliated with Gedimino Technical University, had offered a reward to students who submitted a research thesis about Jewish crimes in the 20th century.

The OEO ombudsperson received five complaints of discrimination based on religion.  Two concerned public schools holding graduation ceremonies at Catholic churches.  Another concerned the content of the mission statement of a kindergarten operated by a religious community.  A fourth involved the establishment of the position of police chaplain, a move that the petitioner stated favored Christianity.  The OEO ombudsperson found these four complaints fell outside of the jurisdiction of the OEO office.  The fifth complaint was from a prisoner who charged authorities did not allow him to participate in Christmas Mass.  The ombudsperson ruled the incident did not constitute religious discrimination.

The government and civil society organizations continued to work together to promote Holocaust education and tolerance in schools.  In July the Ministry of Culture sponsored a summer camp in Cekiskes to teach high school students about Jewish history and the preservation of Jewish culture.  The program included tours, lectures, concerts, exhibitions, and conferences in Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipeda, Kedainiai and other cities.  On August 24, Prime Minister Skvernelis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended a ceremony at the Paneriai Memorial, which is located less than 11 miles from central Vilnius and marks the site where the Gestapo, the SS security service, and the Vilnius Special Squad executed approximately 70,000 Jews between July 1941 and 1944.  Prime Minister Skvernelis referred to the Holocaust as the “worst episode” in the country’s history and said the government was responsible for ensuring that this chapter not be hidden from the world.  In September the nongovernmental organization Lithuanian Human Rights Center, in cooperation with local municipalities, installed eight new memorials known as “stumbling stones” to commemorate Holocaust victims in Alytus, Ukmerge, Plunge, and Kuliai.

On September 19, Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevicius called on authorities to remove a memorial plaque located on the side of the library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences in central Vilnius honoring Jonas Noreika, a Lithuanian military officer known as Generolas Vetra (General Storm).  Faina Kukliansky, head of the LJC, also called for the removal of the plaque.  The appeals came after The New York Times published an article in early September citing a descendant of Vetra, who said Vetra had been complicit in the killing of Jews during the Holocaust.  By year’s end, the library had not removed the plaque.

Government officials continued to participate in ceremonies to commemorate the Holocaust.  On January 26, Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius delivered a speech on International Holocaust Remembrance Day; he referred to the role of Lithuanian collaborators during the Holocaust as a “scar” on Lithuania’s history.  On May 4, Prime Minister Skvernelis, Speaker of Parliament Viktoras Pranckietis, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a new museum in Seduva commemorating the country’s extinct Jewish shtetl communities.  Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius, the President’s Advisor on Foreign Policy, the Israeli ambassador, and the LJC participated in the annual March of the Living on May 23, to memorialize the killing of 70,000 Jews in Ponary, on the outskirts of Vilnius, during the Nazi occupation.

On September 21, government and nongovernmental bodies organized events to mark the country’s 75th Holocaust Memorial Day.  Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius, Vice Chancellor Deividas Matulionis, Mayor of Vilnius Remigijus Simasius, MPs, Catholic Archbishop of Vilnius Gintaras Grusas, the LJC, and foreign dignitaries attended the unveiling of a memorial stone in Vilnius to honor the country’s Righteous Among the Nations – individuals recognized by Israel as risking their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust.  In opening remarks, Minister of Foreign Affairs Linkevicius said, “Jews were killed by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators.  We can never forget this.  But when there are tragic events and trials, there are also people to whom truth and justice is more important than their own lives.”  On September 22, President Dalia Grybauskaite stated, “In a country brutalized by both Nazi and Stalinist crimes, many people stood up to rescue Jews because they saw humanity as the ultimate good.”

On September 23, the anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto, Speaker of Parliament Pranckietis, Minister of Culture Lijana Ruokyte-Jonsson, Mayor of Vilnius Simasius, the LJC, and Litvak (Lithuanian Jewish) organizations from Israel and Poland attended a 75th Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at the Paneriai Memorial.  In his remarks, Speaker Pranckietis said, “Today we [Lithuanians] suffer repentance for the grievance caused to the Jewish nation.”

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

Luxembourg

Executive Summary

The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, including the right to practice it in public and manifest religious opinions, and prohibits compulsory participation in religious services or observance of religious groups’ days of rest.  Parliament adopted legislation banning all forms of face coverings, including the burqa, in public buildings and on public transportation; legislation formalizing the dissolution of local Roman Catholic Church councils and the transfer of their assets to municipalities or to a fund of the Catholic Archdiocese of Luxembourg, despite continuing opposition by the councils; and an animal protection law requiring stunning before slaughter except in cases of hunting and fishing.  Members of the Jewish and Muslim communities said the law requiring stunning of animals prior to slaughter conflicted with the expression of their religious beliefs.

The Council of Religious Groups that Signed an Agreement with the State (Conseil des Cultes Conventionnes – CCC), an interfaith council of six religious groups met four times during the year.  The Luxembourg School of Religion and Society (LSRS), a Catholic institution of higher education and research, hosted several conferences and expositions on religious freedom.

U.S. embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues with government officials at the Ministries of Justice, Foreign Affairs, and State, as well as with leaders and representatives of religious groups, including reactions to the implementation of the laws banning facial coverings and regulating animal slaughter and to the implementation of the law reorganizing the relationship between religious groups and the state.  In November the Ambassador hosted an interfaith Thanksgiving lunch at which he delivered remarks supporting religious freedom and condemning anti-Semitism.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

According to police, no individual had violated the new law banning facial coverings in certain public places since its introduction.

On July 11, the Luxembourg Administrative Court dismissed a lawsuit filed in 2016 by the Syndicate of Church Councils, an association representing the interests of 270 of the 285 local Catholic Church councils, and 109 church councils against the government and Catholic Archbishop of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Hollerich.  The suit had sought to invalidate the agreement between the government and the archdiocese on the disposition of Catholic Church property managed by the local Church councils.  The court ruled that the Church councils did not own the properties in question and therefore could not argue they had been expropriated.  Forty-seven Church councils filed a separate lawsuit on the same topic in April at the Luxembourg district court for damages; the case was pending at year’s end.

The Jewish Consistory – an umbrella organization concerned with Jewish life in the country that acts as the main interlocutor for the Jewish community with the government and other religious communities – and members of the Muslim community said the new law requiring the stunning of animals prior to killing them affected the religious freedom of Jews and Muslims, as it had an impact on ritual slaughter consistent with their religious beliefs.  According to the consistory, although the law made ritual slaughter illegal, in practice, the Jewish and Muslim communities were not affected, as they had already been importing meat for their consumption from abroad since there had been no halal or kosher slaughterhouses in the country prior to enactment of the law.

In September the pastor of the Protestant Trinity Church in Luxembourg City reiterated that the mounting costs for an ongoing civil court case could potentially bankrupt his church.  The pastor stated the judge should have dismissed the case because it pertained to an internal church matter.

In June the government signed an agreement with the Major Seminary (Grand Seminaire), a legal entity that trains Catholic priests, through which the government committed to providing 615,000 euros per year ($705,000) between 2018 and 2021 to the LSRS to promote, among other objectives, research, education, and collaboration with religious groups that have signed agreements with the state.  The Major Seminary founded the LSRS in 2015 to foster relations between religious communities in the country, with a particular focus on CCC members.

According to data provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government granted refugee status to 978 individuals during the year, the majority of whom were Muslim.  The Organization for Welcome and Integration, an entity of the Ministry of Family and Integration, stated the government sought to be proactive in assuring refugee access to mosques, halal meals, and same-sex housing for those who requested it.

On June 17, the government inaugurated a monument honoring the country’s Holocaust victims.  Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, Prime Minister Xavier Bettel underscored the persecution of Jews during World War II.  The Jewish Consistory welcomed the government’s action, describing it as an important step to combat recurring anti-Semitism.

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

Macau

Executive Summary

IN THIS SECTION: CHINA | TIBET | XINJIANG | HONG KONG | MACAU (BELOW)


The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education.  The law also protects the right of religious assembly and the rights of religious organizations to administer schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and to provide other social services.  The law states the government does not recognize a state religion and explicitly states all religious denominations are equal before the law.  The law stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad.  Falun Gong continued to hold rallies and protests of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in Mainland China.

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

In meetings with religious leaders and civil society representatives, representatives from the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong and Macau stressed the importance of religious freedom and tolerance for all religious groups and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the Mainland and in Hong Kong.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Falun Gong members continued to hold rallies and set up informational sites at public venues without incident.  In July Falun Gong practitioners held a rally to protest the CCP’s persecution of Falun Gong members on the Mainland and a candlelight vigil to commemorate deceased practitioners.

Some religious groups reported they retained their ability to conduct charitable activities on the Mainland by working through official channels and officially recognized churches.  There were reports that Mainland students could not attend local seminaries.

The Catholic Diocese of Macau continued to run many educational institutions.

The government provided financial support, regardless of religious affiliation, for the establishment of schools, child-care centers, clinics, homes for the elderly, rehabilitation centers, and vocational training centers run by religious groups.  The government also continued to refer victims of human trafficking to religious organizations for the provision of support services.

International Religious Freedom Reports
Edit Your Custom Report

01 / Select A Year

02 / Select Sections

03 / Select Countries You can add more than one country or area.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future