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Burma

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees every citizen “the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality, or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” The law prohibits speech or acts insulting or defaming any religion or religious beliefs. As during previous years, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity. Violence, discrimination, and harassment in Rakhine State targeting ethnic Rohingya, nearly all Muslim, and other minority populations continued. Following the military’s commission of ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocities against Rohingya in August 2017 that displaced more than 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh, Rohingya remaining in Burma continued to face an environment of severe repression and restrictions on freedom of movement and access to education, healthcare, and livelihoods based on their ethnicity, religion, and citizenship status, according to the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Among the 163 Rohingya who reportedly fled the country between January and October, some cited ongoing abuses in Rakhine State; others reported continuing government pressure to participate in a residency verification campaign, which they said they did not trust. During the year, several UN entities commented or released reports on the Rohingya crisis. In September, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar said the government was purposefully evading accountability and making it difficult for Rohingya refugees to safely return to Rakhine State as part of the government’s goal of “exterminating their basic identity.” The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) began to interview witnesses and collect evidence for possible criminal proceedings for gross violations of human rights, including against Rohingya. Religious leaders and civil society activists reported some government and military officials continued to deploy anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim rumors and hate speech in official events. Rohingya, both in Rakhine State and those living in Bangladesh, faced mass disenfranchisement in November general elections because of discriminatory citizenship policies. The government barred seven Rohingya politicians from running in the elections on citizenship grounds, while allowing five Muslim candidates from the Kaman minority to run. Non-Buddhist minority groups, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, said authorities restricted religious practice, denied freedom of movement to members of religious minority groups, closed places of worship, denied or failed to approve permits for religious buildings and repairs, and discriminated in employment and housing. NGOs said the military’s selective denial of humanitarian access in some conflict areas, including Kachin, Chin, and Rakhine States, led to continued severe hardship for religious minority groups.

According to media reports, ethnic armed organizations in the country continued to pose a threat to religious freedom. Christian pastor Tun Nu, abducted in 2019 by the Arakan Army and previously presumed dead, was found alive and was reunited with his family in March. In the Wa Self-Administered Division, where the government had no administrative control, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) tightened restrictions on Christian religious practice. In December 2019, 51 Baptist churches had reopened and UWSA authorities stated they were conducting assessments to determine which other churches would be allowed to reopen. In October, however, a Baptist religious leader reported that all churches were again closed and even house worship was limited to no more than four families together in some areas.

Some leaders and members of the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation (formerly Ma Ba Tha) continued to issue pejorative statements against Muslims. Although the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), an independent but government-supported body that oversees Buddhist affairs, issued orders that no group or individual be allowed to operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha and declared it an “illegal organization,” many local Ma Ba Tha branches continued to operate with that name. Other Ma Ba Tha leaders continued propagating anti-Muslim speech in sermons and through social media. According to Burma Monitor, an NGO focused on monitoring and analyzing hate speech, more than 100 Ma Ba Tha-affiliated candidates registered to run in the 2020 general elections, mostly from nationalist parties such as the Democratic Party of National Politics, the military-linked National Development Party, and the People’s Pioneer Party. While local and international experts said deep-seated prejudices led to abuses and discrimination against members of religious minority groups, some civil society groups worked to improve interreligious tolerance. According to media reports, civil society activists spearheaded efforts to improve interreligious tolerance and respect for religious practices and to deepen interfaith dialogue. The interfaith “White Rose” campaign that formed after an anti-Muslim, Buddhist nationalist mob shut down temporary Ramadan prayer sites in Yangon in 2019 continued its efforts. Other religious and civil society leaders continued to organize intrafaith and interfaith events and developed mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech.

Senior U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, the Acting Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Ambassador to Burma, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, advocated for religious freedom and tolerance and consistently raised concerns about discrimination against members of religious minority groups, the treatment of Rohingya and conditions in Rakhine State, and the prevalence of anti-Muslim hate speech and religious tensions. In June, the Acting USAID Administrator noted freedom of religion was a key component of national security and that the U.S. response to promote accountability for those involved in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya remained a top priority. U.S. financial sanctions imposed in December 2019 on the Burmese military commander-in-chief, his deputy, and two brigadier generals for human rights violations against members of ethnic and religious minority groups remained in place. During the year, U.S. embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, frequently met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, to highlight concerns about religion-based abuses, including discrimination, and called for respect for religious freedom and the values of diversity and tolerance in statements and other public messaging.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c) (5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 56.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recently available estimates, approximately 88 percent are Theravada Buddhists. Approximately six percent are Christians (primarily Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, along with several small Protestant denominations). Muslims (mostly Sunni) comprise approximately four percent of the population. The 2014 census excluded Rohingya from its count, but NGOs and the government estimated the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Rohingya population at 1.1 million prior to October 2016. According to estimates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh beginning in August 2017, and an estimated 520,000 to 600,000 remain in Rakhine State. There are an estimated 130,000 Rohingya living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, according to Human Rights Watch. There are small communities of Hindus and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. There is a very small Jewish community in Yangon (Rangoon).

There is a significant correlation between ethnicity and religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Bamar ethnic group and among the Shan, Rakhine, Mon, and numerous other ethnic groups. Various forms of Christianity are dominant among the Kachin, Chin, and Naga ethnic groups. Christianity also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, although many Karen and Karenni are Buddhist and some Karen are Muslim. Individuals of South Asian ancestry, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south-central region, are predominantly Hindu or Muslim, although some are Christian. Ethnic Rohingya and Kaman in Rakhine State, as well as some Bamar and ethnic Indians in Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Magway, and Mandalay Regions, practice Islam. Chinese ethnic minority groups generally practice traditional Chinese religions and to a lesser extent Islam and Christianity. Some smaller ethnic groups in the highland regions observe traditional indigenous beliefs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice his or her religious beliefs. The constitution limits those rights if they threaten public order, health, morality, or other provisions of the constitution. It further provides to every citizen the right to profess and practice his or her religion if not contrary to laws on security, law and order, community peace, or public order and morality.

The law prohibits deliberate and malicious speech or acts intended to outrage or wound the religious feelings “of any class” by insulting or defaming its religion or religious beliefs. The law also prohibits injuring, defiling, or trespassing on any place of worship or burial grounds with the intent to insult religion.

All organizations, whether secular or religious, must register with the government to obtain official status. This official status is required for organizations to gain title to land, obtain construction permits, and conduct religious activities. The law on registering organizations specifies voluntary registration for local NGOs.

The law bars members of “religious orders” such as priests, monks, and nuns of any religious group, from running for public office, and the constitution bars members of religious orders from voting. The government restricts by law the political activities and expression of the Buddhist clergy (sangha). The constitution forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes.” The election law states that a candidate’s parents must be citizens at the time of the candidate’s birth, and the citizenship of most Rohingya is denied, thus precluding Rohingya from candidate status.

Although there is no official state religion, the constitution notes that the government “recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.” The constitution “also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”

The government bans any organization of Buddhist monks other than the nine state-recognized monastic orders. Violations of this ban are punishable by immediate public defrocking and criminal penalties. The nine recognized orders submit to the authority of the SSMNC, the members of which are elected by monks.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (Buddhist teaching) oversees the government’s relations with Buddhist monks and schools. Religious education is not included in public schools; however, some schools with Buddhist-majority student bodies may start the school day with a Buddhist prayer.

Four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion” remain in effect. The Buddhist Women Special Marriage law stipulates notification and registration requirements for marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women, obligations that non-Buddhist husbands must observe, and penalties for noncompliance. The Religious Conversion law regulates conversion through an extensive application and approval process through a township-level Religious Board for Religious Conversion; however, the law is rarely applied, and many townships do not have conversion boards. The applicant must be older than 18 and must undergo a waiting period of up to 180 days; if the applicant still wishes to convert, the board issues a certificate of religious conversion. The Population Control Law allows for the designation of special zones where population control measures may be applied, including authorizing local authorities to implement three-year birth spacing. The Monogamy Law bans polygamous practices, which the country’s penal code also criminalizes.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

International organizations and NGOs reported most members of the military involved in mass atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in 2017 had not been held accountable, and the military continued to commit acts of violence against members of ethnoreligious groups. In April, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee stated that the military “may once again be committing crimes against humanity in Rakhine State.” According to Lee, the military had expanded its campaign against minorities from Rakhine to Chin States, adding, “having faced no accountability, the Tatmadaw continues to operate with impunity.” According to NGO Fortify Rights, two former soldiers confessed in videos recorded in July by the Arakan Army to having taken part in atrocities committed by the army against Rohingya in 2017. In the recording, the soldiers said they were involved in killing more than 180 Rohingya men, women, and children in Taung Buzar Village and surrounding villages in Buthidaung and five villages in Maungdaw during military operations in Rakhine State in late 2017. One also admitted to committing rape in Taung Buzar Village, Rakhine State. At year’s end, the two men were reportedly in the custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

On June 23, a Buddhist monk and military veteran stabbed to death a Muslim teenager in Magway Region’s Aung Lan Township. The victim’s brother told authorities the assailant, Tun Naing Win, called the brothers “kalar,” considered a derogatory term for persons of South Asian descent, and shouted, “You kalars do not own this country, you kalars do not own this road,” before killing the victim.

The investigation of the June 2, 2019, beating of one group of villagers by another group of villagers in Ann Myawk Village, Rakhine State continued with no reported progress through year’s end. According to the CHRO, which first documented the incident in December 2019, 25 villagers, led by Khin Aung, Myint Maung, Hwe Hla and Nyuat Maung, assaulted members of the Chawn family, who were conducting a Christian home prayer service.

In November 2019, The Gambia filed an application instituting proceedings against Burma at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and a request for provisional measures, alleging Burma’s actions against Rohingya violated the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In January, the ICJ unanimously indicated provisional measures, ordering Burma to preserve any evidence of atrocities against Rohingya; ensure that government and security officials refrain from any act that could contribute to genocide; and report to the ICJ on its progress on these measures in May and every six months thereafter while the case was pending. The government submitted two reports and stated its reports would show decisively that no genocide occurred. The government also filed preliminary objections to the jurisdiction of the court and the admissibility of The Gambia’s application; proceedings on the merits were suspended while the ICJ considered the preliminary objections. In September, Canada and the Netherlands announced their intention to intervene in the case.

According to the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor, during the year it was in the process of organizing a fact-finding mission to gather relevant evidence for its investigation into credible allegations that crimes against humanity were committed against Rohingya in Burma. Although the country is not a party to the ICC, the court claimed it had jurisdiction over such crimes if elements of the crime were at least commissioned in Bangladesh, which is a state party, and where most displaced Rohingya fled.

The Independent Commission of Enquiry established by the government in 2018 to investigate the 2017 violence in Rakhine State released the executive summary of its final report in January. The summary stated the commission found no evidence of genocidal intent, but it did not address alleged crimes against humanity. It stated the abuses amounted to “war crimes.” According to Human Rights Watch, the executive summary was part of the government’s attempt to portray the operation as a “legitimate armed conflict” with no element of genocide. The summary also stated there was “no evidence of gang rape committed by Burma’s security forces,” despite extensive documentation by the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and human rights groups of widespread rape against Rohingya women and girls. According to Human Rights Watch, the executive summary of the final report fell well short of creating the conditions for justice and accountability or the safe return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. As of the end of the year, the government had not released the full report. According to international and domestic human rights activists, previous government-led investigations of reports of widespread abuses by security services against Rohingya in northern Rakhine State in 2016 had yielded no findings of responsibility by security forces and were criticized by international observers as deeply flawed.

The IIMM, established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 to facilitate fair and independent criminal proceedings covering human rights abuses in Burma since 2011, continued to develop protocols and procedures to balance public outreach with confidentiality and the protection of witnesses in criminal cases. Since 2018, the government has denied the IIMM permission to establish an office in the country, and during the year, the IIMM, based in Geneva, received no response to its request to travel to the country. During the year, the IIMM received evidence from the UN Fact-Finding Mission, traveled to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to interview Rohingya refugees, and completed a mapping of NGOS and victims’ groups in Burma as part of planning for evidence collection there.

According to leaders of religious minority communities and human rights activists, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, communal disparities were exacerbated by inconsistent government regulations, their enforcement, and varying interpretations of the regulations around the country, with harsher outcomes for minority religious communities. The President’s Office banned public events and mass gatherings nationwide on March 13, including religious events. As of year’s end, a range of restrictions at the national and regional level remained in place, and pagodas, monasteries, mosques, and churches remained closed to the public. At least three different laws were applied to enforce limits on gatherings, including religious gatherings. The same action – for instance, a gathering of five or more persons – had the potential to result in charges and punishment under the Natural Disaster Management Law (three months to three years’ imprisonment or a fine or both), the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law (six months’ imprisonment or a fine), or Article 188 of the Penal Code (one to six months’ imprisonment or a fine). According to media, the government prosecuted Rohingya returnees from Bangladesh – returning through both formal and informal channels – amid anti-Muslim sentiment and hate speech from the public, military, and religious hardliners portraying Rohingya as a vector for the coronavirus.

More than 200 residents of Sinthay Village in Dawei District’s Yebyu Township attended Buddhist funeral rites for a monk in April, despite COVID-19 restrictions. According to the Irrawaddy newspaper, the chairman and secretary of the pagoda trustee committee were fined 93,000 kyat ($70) under the penal code for defying an order issued by government officials. In contrast, 12 Muslim men in Mandalay were sentenced to three months’ imprisonment under the Natural Disaster Management Law for holding a religious gathering at a house in the Aung Pin Lae quarter of Chanmyathazi Township.

According to the Myanmar Times, Christian pastor David Lah and colleague Wai Tun were sentenced to three months in prison on August 6 for organizing a prayer session in April in violation of the government’s National Disaster Management Law prohibiting mass gathering as part of a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In response, Ma Ba Tha members shared some of Lah’s speeches denigrating Buddhism, reportedly in an attempt to incite anti-Christian hatred.

According to Monywa Aung Shin, secretary of the National League of Democracy’s (NLD) central information unit, on May 26, Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein and the NLD-led Yangon regional government attended a public religious ceremony that went “against the government’s own [COVID-19] instructions.” The government took no disciplinary against the Chief Minister or cabinet members who attended the event.

Several NGOs reported authorities confined approximately 130,000 Rohingya in camps within the country, following an earlier round of violence in 2012. Restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya remained extensive. Authorities required the largely stateless Rohingya to carry special documents and travel permits for internal movement in areas in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya reside.

In July, newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Thomas Andrews told the Human Rights Council, “Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are forced to live in deplorable conditions in IDP camps or in villages without basic rights, including freedom of movement.” He also noted that a proposed camp closure project the government launched as part of its National Strategy on Resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons and Closure of IDP Camps in 2019 “not only prohibits the right of IDPs to return home but may force them into land susceptible to flooding and without access to basic services, including healthcare and education. And it may also continue to deny other basic rights, including freedom of movement.” According to local sources, authorities continued to deny IDPs the right to choose their relocation or return destination. Human Rights Watch described these IDP camps as severely limiting livelihoods, movement, education, health care, and adequate food and shelter. It stated the government closure process entailed constructing permanent structures near the current camp locations, further entrenching segregation and denying Rohingya the right to return to their land, reconstruct their homes, regain work, and reintegrate into society.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, an additional 163 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh between January and October, compared with 2,966 during the same period in 2019. According to humanitarian aid organizations, the government made no new efforts to initiate the return of Rohingya refugees during the year. An attempt in August 2019 failed when Rohingya refused to return, often saying they would be subject to human rights abuses if they returned without a guarantee of citizenship. Bangladesh authorities said they would not force them to go back.

Starting in 2019 and continuing during the year, authorities arrested hundreds of Rohingya in Ayeyarwady, Yangon, Bago, and Magwe Regions for traveling without permission, and charged them with violations of the Immigration Act. On April 8, a court dropped charges against more than 200 of those accused of leaving Rakhine State illegally, but according to activists, hundreds more remained in jails and youth detention centers across the country.

On November 2, Wirathu, a monk and chairperson of the Ma Ba Tha branch in Mandalay, surrendered to Yangon police on an arrest warrant issued in 2019 for criticism of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Numerous human rights groups described Wirathu’s anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric as hate speech.

According to international humanitarian NGOs, the government continued to tightly restrict outside access, including UN and NGO humanitarian aid and media, to northern Rakhine State, northern Shan, southern Chin, and Kachin States during the year. NGOs stated the government’s travel authorization process for aid groups within the country effectively restricted aid and humanitarian access to displaced populations, in violation of international humanitarian law. During the year, the Red Cross Movement and World Food Program continued to maintain generally predictable access to meet life-saving emergency needs.

Multiple sources stated authorities and the military continued to single out Rohingya in northern Rakhine State to perform forced labor, including requiring them to transport soldiers, weapons and ammunition, and food supplies, and arbitrarily arrested them and imposed restrictions impeding their ability construct houses or religious buildings. According to reports, government officials were occasionally complicit with traffickers abducting Rohingya women and children in transit while fleeing violence, selling them into sex trafficking and forced marriage in India, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Authorities in northern Rakhine State reportedly continued to prohibit Rohingya from gathering publicly in groups of more than five persons, prior to the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions. Rohingya refugees reported that exceptions to the five-person regulation applied only to marketplaces and schools.

Armed conflict between the government and ethnic armed organizations in Kachin and northern Shan States, begun in 2011, continued. It was often difficult to categorize specific incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity. The United Nations reported that 107,000 persons remained displaced during the year by conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States, where many Christians and individuals from other religious groups lived. According to the United Nations, 97,000 persons remained displaced in Kachin State and 20,000 in Shan State.

According to NGOs, both the government and nationalist monks used their influence and resources to build Buddhist infrastructure in majority Christian areas, including in Kachin and Chin States, against the wishes of the local population. Minority religious communities said they perceived these efforts to be part of a process of “Burmanization.”

According to the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), authorities continued practicing discriminatory and abusive policies against members of religious minority groups. The CHRO said that Christians in Chin State and Sagaing Region continued to face destruction of homes and places of worship and suffered physical violence by pro-military Buddhist nationalists, and that authorities prevented them from legally owning land and constructing religious buildings. The CHRO also said there were cases in which police failed to investigate or hold perpetrators to account for crimes against members of religious minority communities.

In Rakhine State, according to the United Nations and media reports, the situation remained unchanged from 2019, and government and security forces continued to restrict the movement of members of various ethnic and religious groups, particularly Rohingya. Restrictions governing the travel of persons whom the government considered foreigners, including both Muslim and Hindu Rohingya, some other Hindus living in Rakhine State, and others between townships in northern Rakhine State, varied depending on the township, usually requiring submission of an immigration form. The traveler could obtain this form only from the township of origin’s Immigration and National Registration Department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and letters from two guarantors. The form typically authorized travel for two to four weeks but was given almost exclusively for medical emergencies, according to human rights activists. Sources stated obtaining travel permits often involved extortion and bribes. Muslims throughout the country still faced restrictions on travel into and out of Rakhine State and reportedly feared authorities would not allow them to leave Rakhine State if they were to visit the state. According to an August report by Burma Human Rights Network, 160 cases against 1,675 individuals were documented over four years of discriminatory prosecution against Rohingya for attempting to move freely in the country.

According to NGOs, such restrictions continued to impede the ability of Rohingya to pursue livelihoods and education, access markets, hospitals, and other services, and engage other communities. Sources stated that individuals stereotyped by security forces as appearing to be Muslim continued to receive additional scrutiny on their movements in the region, regardless of their actual religion; obtaining these travel permits often involved extortion and bribes.

According to various religious organizations and NGOs, the process to register an NGO, whether religious in nature or not, remained lengthy and often went uncompleted due largely to bureaucratic inefficiency in local governments. Some NGOs that tried to register reportedly found the process extremely onerous. According to Myanmar Now, a leading national news organization publishing in Burmese and English, the Internal Revenue Department required an NGO categorized as an “advocacy group” to pay tax if the department determined the NGO had made a “profit,” based on its tax return. NGOs voiced concern that new tax rules could place an unfair burden on small organizations and limit their operations.

According to the Irrawaddy, on July 7, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture ordered the removal of sitting Buddha statues in Nay Pyi Taw donated by members of the country’s former military regime because, it said, the stone idols were sculpted according to occult practices that contravene Theravada Buddhism, the country’s dominant religion.

According to the CHRO, the government continued not to issue permits for Christian religious groups to register and own land and properties. All such registration applications remained pending at year’s end, with some pending for more than 15 years.

Religious groups throughout the country, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and especially Muslims, continued to report difficulties and delays that could last for years in getting permits to allow construction of and repairs to religious buildings. Buddhist leaders said obtaining such permission was more difficult for non-Buddhist groups. Representatives of religious groups said the need for multiple permissions, unclear authority among government agencies, and interminable delays in responses to requests for permits led them to construct places of worship without the required permissions, leaving them vulnerable to future government action, often as a result of pressure by members of other religious groups. Others said it was necessary to bribe authorities to obtain permits.

In areas with few or no mosques, Muslims often conducted prayer services and other religious practices, such as teaching, in private homes. The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture continued to restrict non-Buddhist religious teachings to government-approved religious buildings and prohibited prayer services and religious teaching in private homes.

Along with other houses of religious worship, mosques remained closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak as of the end of the year, although some authorities allowed limited renovation work to take place. In September 2019, some Muslim leaders formed a committee to press the government to reopen shuttered mosques across the country, most of which were closed by the government in the wake of 2012 communal Buddhist-Muslim violence in Rakhine State. The committee maintained a list of more than 40 shuttered mosques across the country. A 2019 list from the General Administration Department reported there were more than 800 mosques in Maungdaw Township, more than 400 in Buthidaung Township, and 10 in Rathedaung Township, all in northern Rakhine State. It was unknown how many of them had been shut down or destroyed. Twelve mosques and religious schools remained closed in Ayeyarwady, Mandalay, and Sagaing Regions, as well as in Shan State, according to the Burma Human Rights Network. A 2017 ban on prayers in eight Islamic schools in Thaketa Township in Yangon Region and the closure of two additional schools remained in force. Thirty-two mosques and religious schools in Yangon and Mandalay Regions remained closed. Human rights and Muslim groups reported that historic mosques in Meiktila in Mandalay Region, Hpa-An in Karen State, and other areas continued to deteriorate, in part because authorities denied permits to perform routine maintenance.

Muslims in Mandalay Region reported continued obstacles to rebuilding mosques after anti-Muslim violence in 2014. Authorities ordered mosques shut down after the 2013 anti-Muslim riots in Meiktila, and they remained closed, as did mosques in Bago and Mandalay Regions. Some Hindu leaders also reported authorities continued to limit access to religious sites.

A Chin-based NGO again reported local authorities in Chin State and Sagaing Region continued to delay applications from Christian groups and churches seeking to buy land in the name of their religious organizations. Religious groups said individual members continued to circumvent this requirement by purchasing land in their own names on behalf of the group, a practice the government tolerated.

According to the CHRO, the General Administration Department in Mindat, Chin State continued to require organizers of religious events and activities involving domestic and international NGOs to seek permission at least two weeks in advance from the Chin State government. COVID-19 restrictions that remained in place at the end of the year, however, stopped all events.

According to the CHRO, in January and before COVID restrictions were in place, the Chin State government prohibited a religious gathering organized by the Chin Baptist Convention, the largest Christian organization in Chin State. The event was scheduled to take place in Mindat Township, Chin State, with a focus on peace and environmental issues. Despite the convention’s having submitted a permission request in advance and having pledged not to discuss politics during the meeting, Chin State officials denied the request just prior to the scheduled start of the gathering.

While COVID-19 restrictions prevented most public events, sources said the government continued restrictions on both secular and religious civil society organizations holding public events in hotels and other venues, including requirements for advance notice of events and participants. NGOs sometimes turned to churches and other religious institutions in light of restrictions on the use of other venues. Many religious groups and NGOs said they preferred to receive written authorization from ward, township, and other local authorities before holding events to avoid last-minute cancellations.

Christian and Muslim groups seeking to build small places of worship on side streets or other inconspicuous locations continued to be able to do so only with approval from local authorities, according to religious groups.

The government continued to financially support Buddhist seminaries and Buddhist missionary activities. It continued to fund two state sangha universities in Yangon and Mandalay that trained Buddhist monks under the purview of the SSMNC, as well as the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon. According to religious organizations, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture financially supported the SSMNC and religious ceremonies.

Teachers at many government schools reportedly continued to require students to recite Buddhist prayers. Many classrooms displayed Buddhist altars or other Buddhist iconography. According to the CHRO, Christian students were required to convert to Buddhism to access so-called “Na Ta La” schools in Chin State, which were better funded than public schools. The CHRO described Na Ta La schools as a “state-sponsored religious and cultural assimilation program.” The national elementary school curriculum included lessons and textbooks containing discriminatory and incendiary material, according to UN and NGO reports. According to sources, one high school textbook still commonly used included a poem that read, “Horse, the color of a coconut shell / slave, [the red-brown color of a] kalar.”

Several Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several Islamic madrassahs, in Yangon, Sagaing, and elsewhere.

Due to movement restrictions, many Rohingya could not access education in state-run schools. Rohingya and Kaman children in central Rakhine State had physical access to only one high school, located in Thet Kae Pyin, Sittwe Township, according to international observers. Authorities generally did not permit Rohingya high school graduates from Rakhine State and others living in IDP camps to travel outside the state to attend college or university. Authorities continued to bar any university students who did not possess citizenship cards from graduating, which disproportionately affected students from religious minorities, particularly Muslim students. These students could attend classes and take examinations but could not receive diplomas unless they had a citizenship card, the application for which required some religious minorities to identify as a “foreign” ethnic minority.

A Rakhine State government university program for Rohingya and Rakhine students – launched during the 2018-2019 school year and expected to expand during the 2020-2021 school year – allowed students to attend University of Sittwe-administered courses in a limited distance education program.

In December 2019, the Center for Diversity of National Harmony (CDNH) and the embassies of the Netherlands and Denmark launched a small scholarship program in Rakhine State that allowed 100 students, both Rakhine and Rohingya, to attend East Yangon University in Yangon. Previously, Rohingya students were required to attend the University of Yangon because of stated government concerns regarding security if they attended school in Sittwe. According to CDNH, the program was set to expand in the 2020-2021 school year.

Human rights organizations again reported that schools sometimes submitted citizenship applications on behalf of non-Muslim students while denying the same privilege to Muslim students. Muslim students, after submitting the applications, sometimes had to pay bribes to immigration officials to obtain documentation. According to Rohingya rights organizations, instructors reportedly made anti-Muslim comments in university classrooms. Muslim students typically were not permitted to join institutes for professional studies. One human rights group documented the teaching of racist and anti-Muslim tenets in schools throughout the country.

According to a 2019 report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission, established by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2017, the government continued to prevent Rohingya and other Muslims from holding congregational prayers on Friday or during religious festivities in Rakhine State. Rohingya refugees reported they were unable to freely celebrate Eid al-Fitr or other religious holidays for the past seven years.

According to media reports, Yangon authorities requested that Muslims observe Ramadan at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic led to additional government restrictions on all forms of worship, including Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim, but sources reported punishments for violation were disproportionally meted out to religious minorities. In July, the government permitted limited worship with fewer than 30 people at a time. Before the COVID-19 pandemic led to the suspension of public events, the White Rose campaign – which grew in response to anti-Muslim activities in 2019 – conducted food distribution and a “Peace Biker” rally in Yangon during Ramadan.

Although Muslims said government authorities had granted limited permission to slaughter cows during Eid al-Adha in prior years, COVID-19 restrictions prevented this activity in 2020. Media and religious sources said that in previous years, local authorities in some villages had restricted the licensing and butchering of cattle by slaughterhouses, the vast majority of which were owned by Muslims. Community leaders stated these restrictions negatively affected business operations and the ability of Muslims to celebrate Islamic holidays.

Sources continued to state that authorities generally did not enforce four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion.”

Although there were no public reports of military donations to Ma Ba Tha during the year, according to the weekly newsmagazine Frontier, the military and military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had a history of patronizing and funding Ma Ba Tha. In October remarks to Frontier, a monk active in Ma Ba Tha stated, “So what if Ma Ba Tha was funded by the USDP? It’s a charity organization. Everyone was welcome to support Ma Ba Tha’s mission and it is not fair to criticize the giving of donations to a Buddhist organization.”

On February 10, the military-aligned nationalist Buddhist organization Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) conferred its highest honor on the military’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing for protecting “race, language, [and] religion,” according to the newspaper Myanmar Times. On June 26, the YMBA issued a statement demanding “insults” to Buddhism, race, and religion must be stopped or be prosecuted, according to Frontier.

On January 26, Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture Aung Ko said during a Myanmar Muslim Youth Gathering in Yangon that he wanted to reopen closed mosques and build a large new mosque in Yangon, but he feared the reaction of what he termed “ultranationalist thugs.”

The 2019 case against monk Myawaddy Sayadaw for defaming the military was ongoing at the end of the year. NGOs stated that Sayadaw was an active participant in various peacebuilding and interfaith efforts.

A 2005 local order in Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine State remained in effect, requiring residents, predominately Rohingya, to obtain local authorization to marry. In addition, some Rohingya sources expressed concern about the two-child policy for Rohingya families, referring to a 2005 local order promulgated in northern Rakhine State and sporadically enforced.

According to civil society activists, Rohingya remained unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions.

Buddhists continued to make up nearly all senior officials within the military and civil service. Applications for civil service and military positions continued to require the applicant to list his or her religion. Applications by Muslims for government jobs were largely rejected, according to one human rights organization.

Buddhists continued to make up the vast majority of parliamentarians. There were 60 Christian and two Muslim members of parliament: Sithu Maung (Yangon constituency) and Win Mya (Mandalay constituency). Neither of the two was Rohingya. According to political observers, the exclusion of Rohingya in the political process was based more on animosity towards Rohingya as an ethnic group than on Rohingya as followers of Islam. Twenty-Five Muslim candidates competed in the November general elections, compared with none in 2017 and 2018. The Union Election Commission barred seven Rohingya politicians from running in the elections on the grounds that their parents did not hold citizenship. Activists noted the difficulty of attributing this to anti-Muslim (rather than anti-Rohingya ethnic group) sentiment, citing the fact that five Muslim candidates from the Kaman minority were allowed to run.

According to Fortify Rights, because of discriminatory documentation requirements, Rohingya were disenfranchised en masse in the November general elections, both Rohingya still living in Rakhine State and Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh. Second Vice President Henry Van Thio, a Chin Christian, continued to serve in his position, and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament were Christian.

Authorities continued to require citizens and permanent residents to carry government-issued identification cards that permitted holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards usually indicated religious affiliation and ethnicity. The government also required citizens to indicate their religion on certain official applications for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer’s religion. Members of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, continued to face problems obtaining identification and citizenship cards. Some Muslims reported they were required to indicate a “foreign” ethnicity if they self-identified as Muslim on their application for a citizenship card.

The government continued to call for Rohingya to participate in the government’s citizenship verification process and to apply for National Verification Cards (NVCs). The government said these cards were necessary to apply for citizenship under the 1982 citizenship law. NGOs reported that Rohingya were pressured or coerced to accept NVCs. There were reports that government officials required Rohingya to have an NVC to fish or access banking services. Many Rohingya expressed distrust of the process; they said they were already citizens and that they feared the government would either not affirm their citizenship or would grant naturalized rather than full citizenship, which carried fewer rights. Some townships in Rakhine State continued to require Rohingya to identify as “Bengali” to apply for NVCs and listed “Bengali” as their race on their citizenship scrutiny card, also known as “pink card.” At least one NGO stated that NVCs were a method used by authorities to diminish the citizenship standing and future rights of Rohingya by indicating they were foreigners. The few Rohingya who received citizenship through this process said they did not receive significant rights or benefits, and consideration of their citizenship applications usually required significant bribes at different levels of government.

State-controlled media continued to frequently depict military and government officials and their family members paying respect to Buddhist monks; offering donations at pagodas; officiating at ceremonies to open, improve, restore, or maintain pagodas; and organizing “people’s donations” of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines nationwide. The government published and distributed books on Buddhist religious instruction.

Statements from various government ministries and departments, including the President and State Counselor’s Office, highlighted discriminatory attitudes toward Rohingya, according to the NGO Progressive Voice. According to media reports, the military continued a coordinated effort to spread anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiment through fictitious Facebook accounts and other social media. After media attention in July focused on a handful of cases of COVID-19 imported into Burma by Rohingya returning from Bangladesh, Kyaw Win, director of Burma Human Rights Network, said the narrative that Rohingya brought COVID-19 into Burma was an attempt to “divide the Rakhine and Rohingya community.”

On May 4, the government ordered all civil servants to stop using hate speech on social media and required civil servants to monitor and report online behavior to the central government. According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), civil society groups welcomed the move but were cautious about its intent and effect. Thet Swe Win, Executive Director of the Center for Youth and Social Harmony, told RFA, “We have noticed that the government has issued directives on hate speech in the past few days. This coincides with increasing international pressure, as they will soon submit a report to the ICJ. They may be politically motivated to reduce international pressure, but otherwise these measures are very good in nature.”

In January, former President Thein Sein urged voters to consider the protection of “race, religion and military” as they looked toward the November election. NGOs said this phrase was well-known coded language used to encourage discrimination against Rohingya.

The government hosted conferences and attended events with a number of interfaith groups, including Religions for Peace, to promote reconciliation, peace, and development through national and local initiatives in its interfaith councils, the Interfaith Youth Network, and Women of Faith Network. Events included multireligious, multistakeholder Community Forums for Advancing Peace and Development in Pyay, Bago Region, on February 19, and in Lashio, Shan State, on February 25. Religions for Peace participants included Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh leaders.

In February, Vice President Myint Swe and other senior government officials participated in an interfaith conference organized by Religions for Peace in Loikaw, Kayah State. During the event, Myint Swe urged respect for the country’s different faiths.

According to NGOs, the government generally regulated foreign religious groups in a manner similar to nonreligious foreign aid groups. Local religious organizations were also able to send official invitations for visa purposes to clergy from faith-based groups overseas, and foreign religious visitors acquired either a tourist or business visa for entry. Authorities generally permitted Yangon-based religious groups to host international students and experts.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local and international experts said deeply woven prejudices led to instances of abuse or discrimination against members of religious minorities by societal actors. Many prominent civilian and religious leaders continued to promote the idea that Burmese Buddhist culture was under assault by Islam and Muslims, who would come through the mountains of western Burma – northern Rakhine State where Rohingya live – and overwhelm Buddhist areas of the country.

According to Muslim leaders and civil society activists, opposition from Buddhist monks in Hpa-an, Karen State, prevented the construction or repair of any mosques and blocked Muslims from purchasing homes outside the traditional Muslim quarter, despite government approval. Monks exercised influence over local officials to prevent permits or construction despite higher-level government approval, according to religious and interfaith leaders.

Despite a continuing order by the SSMNC that no group or individual operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha, some branches of the group continued to use the name Ma Ba Tha, while others used the new name, Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation. Many of the group’s leaders and members continued to make pejorative and hateful statements against Muslims in sermons and through social media, including a July campaign in Mandalay that distributed stickers reading, “We don’t want the NLD to make Myanmar a kalar country.”

According to Burma Monitor, more than 100 Ma Ba Tha-affiliated candidates ran in the 2020 general election from various – mostly nationalist – parties, such as the Democratic Party of National Politics, the military-linked National Development Party, and the People’s Pioneer Party. None of the candidates was elected to office. According to RFA, the parties’ campaign posters contained three banyan leaves – a symbol used by Burma’s Buddhist majority – and the slogan “No Rohingya.”

On February 9, hundreds of individuals, characterized as anti-Muslim ultranationalists by civil society and pro-tolerance activists, protested in Yangon as part of the newly formed and Ma Ba Tha-linked Myanmar Nationalist Organization, accusing the NLD-led government of failing to protect the country’s Buddhist majority, according to Reuters. Speakers at the rally protested against remarks made by Religious Affairs Minister Aung Ko, blaming him for criticizing the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry for the government’s failure to arrest several nationalist figures for sedition and inciting violence. Protestors carried “No Rohingya” banners.

On December 28, “Bullet” Hla Shwe, a former USDP lawmaker and former military officer, who said in 2019 that the Prophet Mohammad would bomb the U.S. embassy if it posted “insulting images” of him, surrendered to Yangon police on a 2019 arrest warrant for sedition.

On April 3, police arrested three street artists in Kachin State for painting a mural that raised awareness about the coronavirus pandemic, according to Human Rights Watch. The artists were charged with violating the law criminalizing speech that “insults” religion after some Buddhists, described by interfaith activists as “hardliners,” said the mural, which portrayed a grim reaper figure spreading the COVID-19 virus, was wearing a robe that resembled those worn by Buddhist monks. On July 17, the artists were freed after charges were dropped.

According to local and international experts, Rohingya Muslims were perceived as not truly belonging to the country, irrespective of citizenship status, and belonging to a religion commonly viewed with fear and disdain. There were continued reports of social stigma surrounding any assistance to or sympathy for Rohingya. Some civil society leaders said that even among otherwise tolerant individuals, anti-Rohingya sentiment remained prevalent. There were continued reports of general anti-Muslim prejudice, including social pressure not to rent housing to Muslims in some areas.

On June 15, local media outlet The Voice ran a cartoon depicting a Rohingya man crossing the border carrying COVID-19 with him, accompanied by the derogatory label “illegal interloper,” a term frequently used to describe Rohingya.

Hate speech against Muslims continued to be widespread on social media. In September, Facebook said that in the second quarter of the year it had taken action against 280,000 pieces of content in Burma that violated its community standards regarding hate speech, with 97.8 percent detected by its systems before being reported, up from the 51,000 pieces of content it took action against in the first quarter.

Some Buddhist and Muslim community leaders in Mandalay continued to collaborate to quell rumors and prevent violence through formal and informal community-centered activities, such as informational exchanges, although most activities were curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Religious and community leaders and civil society activists organized intrafaith and interfaith events, and some worked jointly to develop mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech and to promote religious tolerance and diversity. A coalition of interfaith civil society groups, including Article 19 and Free Expression Myanmar, continued advocating and consulting on draft legislation to counter hate speech, although parliament did not take up the legislation by year’s end.

Monk Ashin Issariya, formerly known as “King Zero,” continued to lead the Anti-Adhamma Committee, a group of approximately 100 like-minded monks who preached against intolerance, confronted militant Buddhism from within the Buddhist clergy, and conducted interfaith outreach initiatives. According to interfaith activists, Issariya collaborated with other monks and lay activists, including Pyin Oo Lwin-based monks U Seintita and Thet Swe Win, who led the 2019 “White Rose” solidarity campaign with Muslims following a spate of communal violence in Yangon.

In Mandalay Region, civil society and interfaith leaders continued to hold meetings and public events for community leaders and youth aimed at promoting peace and religious tolerance, as in previous years, although such meetings were, in part, curtailed due to COVID-19. A number of interfaith groups continued mobilizing civil society around the country to promote religious tolerance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Senior U.S. government officials – including the Secretary of State, the Acting Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the USAID Administrator, the Ambassador to Burma, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and senior Department of State officials for East Asia and human rights – consistently raised ongoing U.S. concerns about religious freedom in the country with senior government and military leaders. They specifically raised the plight of the overwhelmingly Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State, hardships facing minority religious communities in Kachin, northern Shan, and Chin States amid ongoing military conflicts, and the advocacy on social media of violence against religious minorities.

U.S. visa restrictions imposed in July 2019 on the armed forces commander-in-chief, his deputy, and two brigadier generals for human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities remained in force during the year, as did Global Magnitsky financial sanctions imposed in December 2019 on these same individuals for serious human rights abuses.

In March, the then-USAID Administrator said, “We have carried out groundbreaking initiatives aimed at helping religious and ethnic minorities recover from atrocities, [providing assistance to] the Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh.”

In May, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom warned that the Burmese military was denying Rohingya Muslims access to medical care and exposing them to the risk of complications in severe cases of COVID-19.

In February, when launching the International Religious Freedom Alliance to promote global religious freedom and respect human dignity, the Secretary of State noted the repression of religious freedom in Burma, stating, “We condemn terrorists and violent extremists who target religious minorities, [including] Muslims in Burma.”

The U.S. government continued to press for full accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations, including those concerning religious freedom.

The U.S. government advocated with senior Burmese government officials for the military to drop its legal action against a leading pro-tolerance monk for remarks critical of the military.

U.S. government officials continued to call for sustainable solutions to the root causes of discrimination and violence in Rakhine State, including a voluntary and transparent path to provision of citizenship, freedom of movement and access to services for IDPs, and unhindered access for humanitarian personnel and media in Rakhine and Kachin States. Embassy officials also urged government and interfaith leaders to improve efforts to mitigate religiously motivated violence in Mandalay, Kachin, and elsewhere. Since August 2017, the U.S. government has provided more than $820 million in humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh and Burma, including $469 million in 2020, with $78 million for programs in Burma, $314 million for programs in Bangladesh, and $29 million in regional crisis response.

Embassy officials at all levels emphasized the importance of addressing the effects of ethnoreligious violence and hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric. Embassy officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in meetings with high level government officials, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the national security advisor, and the Ministers of International Cooperation; Religious Affairs; Home Affairs; Ethnic Affairs; Immigration, Population, and Labor Affairs; and Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement Affairs. Embassy officials also met with officials in the President’s Office, the Speaker of the lower house of parliament, parliamentarians, and representatives of other governments.

Although embassy travel to ethnic and religious minority-predominant areas was curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions of religious freedom and tolerance with state and local government officials, NGOs, and members of community-based organizations and religious communities continued. Embassy staff visited Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, Shan and Karen States, areas where conflict or violence have affected religious minorities in recent years, as well as other areas that suffered from and were identified as vulnerable to ethnoreligious violence.

The embassy emphasized the need for respect for religious freedom, tolerance, and unity in its interactions with all sectors of society, in public engagements, and through its social media accounts. At high-profile events, embassy representatives spoke out for religious freedom and against intercommunal conflict and hate speech, including at panel discussions on U.S. First Amendment rights integral to freedom of religion and communal harmony. Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, repeatedly met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, members of faculties of theology, and other religiously affiliated organizations and NGOs, to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy also shared multiple posts on Facebook to engage local audiences on the importance of religious pluralism, tolerance, and shared identity in democratic societies and in the United States.

The Ambassador gave interviews to local media and international media in which he discussed the need for accountability for the 2017 ethnic cleansing and improved conditions for Rohingya and other minority groups. The embassy regularly published statements highlighting concerns about religiously-based tensions and anti-Muslim discrimination, as well as calling for respect for religious diversity, unity, and tolerance.

Public programs at embassy facilities in Yangon and Mandalay offered a platform for community leaders, media, students, and others to discuss intercommunal tolerance and respect, often featuring individuals from minority ethnic and religious communities, including a virtual Youth Forum on tolerance. The embassy hosted programs on digital and media literacy as a way to empower participants to reject online hate speech and the spread of rumors and other misinformation. As in prior years, the embassy worked with and supported numerous faith-based groups and NGOs working on programs promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c) (5) of the Act.

China (Includes Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Macau)

Read A Section: China

Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Executive Summary

Reports on Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet, and Xinjiang are appended at the end of this report.

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices. National law prohibits organizations or individuals from interfering with the state educational system for minors younger than the age of 18, effectively barring them from participating in most religious activities or receiving religious education. Some provinces have additional laws on minors’ participation in religious activities. The government continued to assert control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents that it perceived as threatening state or CCP interests, according to religious groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international media reports. The government recognizes five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services. There continued to be reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, subjected to forced indoctrination in CCP ideology, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices. According to Minghui, a Falun Gong publication, police arrested more than 6,600 Falun Gong practitioners during the year. According to the annual report of The Church of the Almighty God (CAG), authorities arrested more than 7,000 of its members and subjected them to physical abuse, including beatings, sleep deprivation, and being forced into stress positions. The CAG reported some individuals died in custody or as a result of police harassment. Bitter Winter, an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in the country, reported instances of individuals being held for extended periods of time in psychiatric hospitals for practicing their religious beliefs, where authorities beat them and forced them to take medication. Authorities detained and arrested religious leaders trying to hold services online. The government continued its 2019-2024 campaign of “Sinicization” to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, including by requiring clergy of all faiths to attend political indoctrination sessions, monitoring religious services, preapproving sermons, and altering religious texts, including, according to media, stories from the life of Jesus, to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the State. In September, United Front Work Department (UFWD) vice head and State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) director general Wang Zuo’an announced foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in China. The government offered financial incentives to law enforcement to arrest religious practitioners and to citizens who reported “illegal religious activity.” The government continued its campaign against religious groups it characterized as “cults,” including the CAG, and maintained a ban on other groups, such as Falun Gong. From January to July, officials across the country shut down religious venues, including some that were affiliated with the authorized patriotic religious associations, in some but not all cases citing COVID restrictions. There were reports the government used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to increase the surveillance and arrest of religious practitioners, including members of state-sanctioned groups, and to curtail private worship among religious groups. Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature, and penalized publishing and copying businesses that handled religious materials. Authorities censored online posts referencing Jesus or the Bible. There were numerous reports that authorities closed or destroyed Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, and Taoist houses of worship and destroyed public displays of religious symbols throughout the country. The government removed architectural features that identified churches and mosques as religious sites. It altered textbooks to delete references to religious holidays. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama. In October, the Holy See extended for another two years its 2018 provisional agreement with the government concerning the appointment of bishops. Critics stated the agreement did not alleviate government pressure on Catholic clergy to join the state-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA).

Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities. In Xinjiang and Tibet, authorities continued to suppress Uyghur and Tibetan language and culture, while promoting ethnic Han individuals in political, economic, and cultural life. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread.

In multiple public speeches, the U.S. Secretary of State criticized the government for curtailing religious freedom. In an October speech on tolerance given while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.” The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met with a range of government officials to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance, and for the release of individuals imprisoned for religious reasons. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with members of registered and unregistered religious groups, family members of religious prisoners, NGOs, and others to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to Chinese citizens through outreach programs and social media.

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In July, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on four Chinese leaders and additional PRC entities pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. During the year, the U.S. government added 20 PRC entities to the Department of Commerce’s Entity List that were implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The U.S. imposed visa restrictions on government and CCP officials for their responsibility for, or complicity in, human rights abuses in Xinjiang. When announcing the visa restrictions, the Secretary of State said, “The United States will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” The U.S. also prohibited import of merchandise believed to have been produced in Xinjiang with forced labor. At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.*

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020 the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.4 billion (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the State Council Information Office (SCIO) report Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China, published in September 2019, there are more than 200 million religious adherents in the country. An SCIO April 2018 white paper on religion in the country states there are approximately 5,500 religious groups.

Local and regional figures for the number of religious followers, including those belonging to the five officially recognized religions, are unclear. Local governments do not release these statistics, and even official religious organizations do not have accurate numbers. The Pew Research Center and other observers say the numbers of adherents of many religious groups often are underreported. The U.S. government estimates that Buddhists comprise 18.2 percent of the country’s total population, Christians 5.1 percent, Muslims 1.8 percent, followers of folk religions 21.9 percent, and atheists or unaffiliated persons 52.2 percent, with Hindus, Jews, and Taoists comprising less than one percent. According to a February 2017 estimate by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, there are more than 350 million religious adherents in the country, including 185 to 250 million Chinese Buddhists, 60 to 80 million Protestants, 21 to 23 million Muslims, seven to 20 million Falun Gong practitioners, 12 million Catholics, six to eight million Tibetan Buddhists, and hundreds of millions who follow various folk traditions. According to the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA’s World Watch List 2020 report, there are 97.2 million Christians. According to 2015 data from the World Jewish Congress, the country’s Jewish population is 2,500, concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai, and Kaifeng.

The SCIO’s April 2018 white paper found the number of Protestants to be 38 million. Among these, there are 20 million Protestants affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state-sanctioned umbrella organization for all officially recognized Protestant churches, according to information on TSPM’s website in March 2017. The SCIO report states there are six million Catholics, although media and international NGO estimates suggest there are 10-12 million, approximately half of whom practice in churches not affiliated with the CCPA. Accurate estimates on the numbers of Catholics and Protestants as well as other faiths are difficult to calculate because many adherents practice exclusively at home or in churches that are not state sanctioned.

According to the 2018 SCIO white paper, there are 10 ethnic minority groups totaling more than 20 million persons for whom Islam is the majority religion. Other sources indicate almost all Muslims are Sunni. The two largest Muslim ethnic minorities are Hui and Uyghur, with Hui Muslims concentrated primarily in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and in Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan Provinces. The SARA, also referred to as the National Religious Affairs Administration, estimates the Muslim Hui population at 10.6 million. Most Uyghur Muslims are concentrated in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and, along with ethnic Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups, number approximately 14.9 million residents, or 60 percent of the total population there.

While there is no reliable government breakdown of the Buddhist population by branch, the vast majority of Buddhists are adherents of Mahayana Buddhism, according to the Pew Research Center.

Prior to the government’s 1999 ban on Falun Gong, the government estimated there were 70 million adherents. Falun Gong sources estimate tens of millions continue to practice privately, and Freedom House estimates there are seven to 20 million practitioners.

Some ethnic minorities follow traditional religions, such as Dongba among the Naxi people in Yunnan Province and Buluotuo among the Zhuang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The central government classifies worship of Mazu, a folk deity with Taoist roots, as an expression of “cultural heritage” rather than religious practice.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, which cites the leadership of the CCP and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping Thought, states citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but it limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining normal. It says religion may not be used to disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system. The constitution provides for the right to hold or not to hold a religious belief. It says state organs, public organizations, and individuals may not discriminate against citizens “who believe in or do not believe in any religion.” The constitution states, “Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”

The law does not allow legal action to be taken against the government based on the religious freedom protections afforded by the constitution. Criminal law allows the state to sentence government officials to up to two years in prison if they violate a citizen’s religious freedom.

The CCP is responsible for creating religious regulations and oversees the UFWD, which in turn manages SARA’s functions and responsibilities. SARA is responsible for implementing the CCP’s religious regulations and administers the provincial and local bureaus of religious affairs.

CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practice. Members found to belong to religious organizations are subject to expulsion, although these rules are not universally enforced. The vast majority of public office holders are CCP members, and membership is widely considered a prerequisite for success in a government career. These restrictions on religious belief and practice also apply to retired CCP members.

The law bans certain religious or spiritual groups. Criminal law defines banned groups as “cult organizations” and provides for criminal prosecution of individuals belonging to such groups and punishment of up to life in prison. There are no published criteria for determining or procedures for challenging such a designation. A national security law also explicitly bans cult organizations.

The CCP maintains an extralegal, party-run security apparatus to eliminate the Falun Gong movement and other organizations. The government continues to ban the Guanyin Method religious group (Guanyin Famen or the Way of the Goddess of Mercy) and Zhong Gong (a qigong exercise discipline). The government considers Falun Gong an “illegal organization.” The government also considers several Christian groups to be “cults,” including the Shouters, The Church of the Almighty God (CAG, also known as Eastern Lightning), Society of Disciples (Mentu Hui), Full Scope Church (Quan Fanwei Jiaohui), Spirit Sect, New Testament Church, Three Grades of Servants (San Ban Puren), Association of Disciples, Established King Church, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Family of Love, and South China Church.

The Counterterrorism Law describes “religious extremism” as the ideological basis of terrorism; it uses “distorted religious teachings or other means to incite hatred or discrimination, or advocate violence.”

The government recognizes five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Regulations require religious organizations to register with the government. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations are permitted to register, and only these organizations may legally hold worship services. The five associations, which operate under the direction of the CCP’s UFWD, are the Buddhist Association of China (BAC), the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China (IAC), the Three Self Patriotic Movement Church (TSPM), and the CCPA. Other religious groups, such as Protestant groups unaffiliated with the official TSPM or Catholics professing loyalty to the Holy See, are not permitted to register as legal entities. The law does not provide a mechanism for religious groups independent of the five official patriotic religious associations to obtain legal status.

According to regulations, religious organizations must submit information about the organization’s historical background, members, doctrines, key publications, minimum funding requirements, and government sponsor, which must be one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations. Registration information is only required once, but religious organizations must reregister if changes are made to the required documentation.

Under revisions to the civil code passed by the National People’s Congress in June, a religious institution established according to law may apply for the status of a “legal person” (nonprofit entity) under Article 92 of the civil code. The revisions formalized the ability of organizations to possess property, publish approved materials, train staff, and collect donations, thereby facilitating authorities’ ability to track and regulate religious institutions. Previously, bank accounts and real estate holdings were commonly held in the name of individual staff members, making it difficult in some cases for authorities to separate the financial matters of members from those of the religious institution.

Religious and other regulations permit official patriotic religious associations to engage in activities such as building places of worship, training religious leaders, publishing literature, and providing social services to local communities. The CCP’s UFWD, including SARA, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs provide policy guidance and supervision on the implementation of these regulations.

Government policy allows religious groups to engage in charitable work, but regulations specifically prohibit faith-based organizations from proselytizing while conducting charitable activities. Authorities require faith-based charities, like all other charitable groups, to register with the government. Once they are registered as official charities, authorities allow them to raise funds publicly and to receive tax benefits. The government does not permit unregistered charitable groups to raise funds openly, hire employees, open bank accounts, or own property. According to several unregistered religious groups, the government requires faith-based charities to obtain official cosponsorship of their registration application by the local official religious affairs bureau. Authorities often require these groups to affiliate with one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations.

Article 70 of the Regulations on Religious Affairs requires members of religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad for “religious training, conferences, pilgrimages, and other activities.” Anyone found organizing such activities without approval may be fined between RMB 20,000 and 200,000 ($3,100 and $30,600). Illegally obtained income connected to the travel may be seized and “if the case constitutes a crime, criminal responsibility shall be investigated according to law.”

The regulations specify that no religious structure, including clergy housing, may be transferred, mortgaged, or utilized as investments. SARA regulations place restrictions on religious groups conducting business or making investments by stipulating the property and income of religious groups, schools, and venues must not be distributed and should be used for activities and charity befitting their purposes; any individual or organization that donates funds to build religious venues is prohibited from owning the venues.

The regulations impose a limit on foreign donations to religious groups, stating such donations must be used for activities that authorities deem appropriate for the group and the site. Regulations ban donations from foreign groups and individuals if the donations come with any attached conditions, and they state that any donations exceeding RMB 100,000 ($15,300) must be submitted to the local government for review and approval. Religious groups, religious schools, and “religious activity sites” may not accept donations from foreign sources that have conditions attached.

The regulations require that religious activity “must not harm national security” or support “religious extremism.” The regulations do not define “extremism.” Penalties for “harm to national security” may include suspending groups and canceling the credentials of clergy.

National laws allow each provincial administration to issue its own regulations concerning religious affairs, including penalties for violations. Many provinces updated their regulations after the national 2018 regulations came into effect. In addition to the five officially recognized religions, local governments, at their discretion, may permit followers of certain unregistered religions to carry out religious practices. In Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, and Guangdong Provinces, for example, local governments allow members of Orthodox Christian communities to participate in unregistered religious activities.

SARA states, in a policy posted on its website, that family and friends have the right to meet at home for worship, including prayer and Bible study, without registering with the government. A provision states, however, that religious organizations should report the establishment of a religious site to the government for approval.

By law, prison inmates have the right to believe in a religion and maintain their religious faith while in custody. However, the PRC defines the right to religious faith differently than the right to religious activities, such as prayer facilities and access to clergy. Muslim prisoners are reportedly allowed to have meals with the “halal” label.

The law does not define what constitutes proselytizing. The constitution states that no state unit, social organization, or individual may force a citizen to believe or not believe in a religion. Offenders are subject to administrative and criminal penalties.

An amendment to the criminal law and a judicial interpretation by the national Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Supreme People’s Court published in 2016 criminalize the act of forcing others to wear “extremist” garments or symbols; doing so is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, short-term detention or controlled release, and a concurrent fine. Neither the amendment nor the judicial interpretation defines what garments or symbols the law considers “extremist.”

Publication and distribution of literature containing religious content must follow guidelines determined by the State Publishing Administration. Online activities (“online religious information services”) of religious groups require prior approval from the provincial religious affairs bureau. Religious texts published without authorization, including Bibles, Qurans, and Buddhist and Taoist texts, may be confiscated, and unauthorized publishing houses closed.

The government offers some subsidies for the construction of state-sanctioned places of worship and religious schools.

To establish places of worship, religious organizations must first receive approval from the religious affairs department of the local government when the facility is proposed, and again before services are first held at that location. Religious organizations must submit dozens of documents to register during these approval processes, including detailed management plans of their religious activities, exhaustive financial records, and personal information on all staff members. Religious communities not going through the formal registration process may not legally have a set facility or worship meeting space. Therefore, every time such groups want to reserve a space for worship, such as by renting a hotel room or an apartment, they must seek a separate approval from government authorities for that specific service. Worshipping in a space without prior approval, gained either through the formal registration process or by seeking an approval for each service, is considered an illegal religious activity and is subject to criminal or administrative penalties.

By regulation, if a religious structure is to be demolished or relocated because of city planning or the construction of “key” projects, the party responsible for demolishing the structure must consult with its local bureau of religious affairs (guided by SARA) and the religious group using the structure. If all parties agree to the demolition, the party conducting the demolition must agree to rebuild the structure or to provide compensation equal to its appraised market value.

The Regulations on Religious Affairs include registration requirements for schools that allow only the five state-sanctioned religious associations or their affiliates to form religious schools. Children younger than the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in religious activities and receiving religious education, even in schools run by religious organizations. Enforcement and implementation of these rules varied widely across and within regions. One regulation states that no individual may use religion to hinder the national education system and that no religious activities may be held in schools. The law mandates the teaching of atheism in schools, and a CCP directive provides guidance to universities on how to prevent foreign proselytizing of university students. The Regulations on Religious Affairs of the XUAR state, “Minors shall not participate in religious activities. No organization or individual may organize, induce or force minors to participate in religious activities.” Minors are also prohibited from entering religious venues. Multiple provinces send letters instructing parents that “teachers and parents should strictly enforce the principle of separation between education and religion and ensure that minors are not allowed to enter religious places, participate in religious activities, or to attend religious trainings.” Implementation of these rules, however, varies greatly across and within regions.

The law states job applicants shall not face discrimination in hiring based on religious belief.

On February 1, the Administrative Measures for Religious Groups went into effect. These measures comprise six chapters and 41 articles dealing with the organization, function, offices, supervision, projects, and economic administration of communities and groups at the national and local levels. The measures state that only registered groups may operate legally and stipulate that religious organizations must support the leadership of the CCP, adhere to the direction of Sinicization, and implement the values of socialism. Article 17 states that religious organizations shall “follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, abide by laws, regulations, rules, and policies, correctly handle the relationship between national law and canon, and enhance national awareness, awareness of the rule of law, and citizenship.”

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). With respect to Macau, the central government notified the UN Secretary-General, in part, that residents of Macau shall not be restricted in the rights and freedoms they are entitled to unless otherwise provided for by law, and in case of restrictions, the restrictions shall not contravene the ICCPR. With respect to Hong Kong, the central government notified the Secretary-General, in part, that the ICCPR would also apply to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Government Practices

Police continued to arrest and otherwise detain leaders and members of religious groups, often those connected with groups not registered with the state-sanctioned religious associations. There were reports police used violence and beatings during arrest and detention. Authorities reportedly used vague or insubstantial charges, sometimes in connection with religious activity, to convict and sentence leaders and members of religious groups to years in prison.

Sources continued to report deaths in custody, enforced disappearances, and organ harvesting in prison of individuals whom authorities had targeted based on their religious beliefs or affiliation. There were reports that authorities tortured detainees, including by depriving them of food, water, and sleep. NGOs reported that some previously detained individuals were denied freedom of movement even after their release.

The Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) maintained by the human rights NGO Dui Hua Foundation counted 3,492 individuals imprisoned for “organizing or using a ‘cult’ to undermine implementation of the law.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that according to a government source, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission issued a confidential document in September ordering a nationwide, three-year crackdown on the CAG. The campaign outlined three main goals: “To destroy the Church’s system domestically completely, to substantially downsize its membership by preventing church activities and blocking new members from joining, and to curb the development of the church abroad.” Bitter Winter reported increased arrests of Church members following the issuance of this document, including 71 arrests in Xuzhou City, Jiangsu Province, in September and 160 arrests in Nanyang City, Henan Province, on November 10 alone.

According to the annual report released by the CAG, during the year, at least 42,807 church members were directly persecuted by authorities, compared with 32,815 in 2019. The report stated that authorities harassed at least 35,752 church members (at least 26,683 in 2019), arrested 7,055 (6,132 in 2019), detained 4,045 (4,161 in 2019), tortured or subjected to forced indoctrination 5,587 (3,824 in 2019), sentenced 1,098 (1,355 in 2019), and seized at least RMB 270 million ($41.3 million) in church and personal assets. At least 21 church members died as a result of abuse or persecution (19 in 2019). The 21 included four who died as a result of physical abuse or forced labor, three who committed suicide as a result of authorities surveilling and pressuring them to renounce their faith, and four who died of medical complications during or following their detention.

According to the CAG annual report, in August, a woman named Qin Shiqin died in custody in Shandong Province 10 days after her arrest. Facial swelling and blood in the corners of her mouth could be seen on her remains. A 71-year-old woman identified as “Xiang Chen” died in prison in Sichuan Province while serving a three-year sentence because of her faith. Her remains appeared emaciated, her face was swollen and bruised, and a scar was visible under her nose. A man named Zou Jihuang died in custody in Hubei Province of liver cirrhosis. Zou had been arrested in 2017. During his imprisonment, he had developed a liver condition for which he was denied medical treatment, beaten, and forced to perform hard labor. In Shaanxi Province, a 77-year-old woman named Yang Fengying committed suicide after police went to her home multiple times over the course of three years to intimidate and threaten her.

According to the CAG annual report, at least 847 CAG members were arrested between February and April, many of whom were apprehended as a result of the CCP’s antipandemic household checks or at identity card checkpoints. Police extracted information on the church from these individuals through physical abuse, such as administering electric shocks and handcuffing them painfully, with one arm over a shoulder and one twisted up from below.

Media reported authorities used measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19, including facial recognition software and telephone tracking, to identify and arrest members of unregistered or banned religious groups. The government installed surveillance cameras outside unregistered churches during the pandemic. According to media reports, the government conducted door-to-door household inspections, during which they identified and arrested members of banned religious groups. One CAG member said she hid under the bed every time officials came for an inspection. A government employee in Shandong Province said his superiors ordered him to search for nonlocal tenants, particularly members of banned groups, such as the CAG and Falun Gong.

In May, Bitter Winter reported the political and legal affairs commission of a locality in northeastern China released a document stating the CCP had established “a stability maintenance mechanism” targeting religious groups, among other individuals and groups, that the government determined posed “a danger to social stability” during the pandemic.

Bitter Winter reported that between February and March, authorities used COVID-19-related mandatory identification checks and home inspections to arrest 325 CAG members. In February, authorities arrested two church members during an identification check, searched their home, and confiscated RMB 45,000 ($6,900) of church valuables. During interrogation, officers reportedly placed a plastic bag over the head of one of the Church members and beat him. They also strapped him to a “tiger bench” with his body tied in a stress position and shocked him with an electric baton. According to Bitter Winter, another church member was arrested when a pandemic inspection team that included community representatives, health personnel, and police officers came to his home. During his interrogation, officers reportedly covered his mouth with a plastic bag and hit him on the face with a desk calendar, stepped on his feet, beat his calves with an iron rod, and forced him to hold a live electric baton.

According to Minghui, police arrested 6,659 Falun Gong practitioners and harassed 8,576 practitioners during the year for refusing to renounce their faith, compared with 6,109 arrested and 3,582 harassed in 2019. The arrests occurred throughout the country. Hebei, Heilongjiang, Shandong, Jilin, Sichuan, and Liaoning were the provinces where the highest number of practitioners were targeted. Those arrested included teachers, engineers, lawyers, journalists, authors, and dancers. Minghui stated individuals were tortured in custody. Minghui also reported that authorities sentenced 622 practitioners to prison throughout the country during the year. The sentences ranged from three months to 14 years, with the average sentence being three years and four months.

Minghui reported that during the year, 83 individuals from 20 provinces and centrally controlled municipalities died due to being persecuted for being Falun Gong practitioners. Some individuals died in custody as a result of physical abuse, including being deprived of sleep and food, forced into stress positions, and denied proper medical attention. Others died shortly after being released on medical parole. On May 13, authorities in Yuzhou City, Henan Province, arrested Zhang Zhiwen for distributing Falun Gong materials the previous August. Zheng’s husband attempted to bring her clothes and insulin for her diabetes, but authorities refused to accept the items, saying they would provide her medication. Zheng died in custody on May 17 and authorities sent the body directly to a funeral home without notifying her husband. Falun Gong practitioner Li Ling of Dazhangjia Village, Penglai City, Shandong Province, died on July 13 after reportedly being severely beaten following her arrest on June 28. Village authorities forced her family to cremate her remains on the same day. According to her family, her face was deformed, and she was covered in bruises. The village’s CCP secretary and a group of paramilitary soldiers took Li from her home on June 28 after a fellow villager reported seeing her with dozens of Falun Gong booklets.

According to Minghui, on September 22 and 23, authorities in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, arrested 27 Falun Gong practitioners and three family members who were not practitioners, and confiscated books, laptops, printers, money, photographs of Falun Gong’s founder Li Hongzhi, and other personal items. Authorities harassed eight other practitioners within days of the arrests. One practitioner returned home to find police ransacking her home. They confiscated books on Falun Gong and arrested the woman along with her husband, who was not a practitioner. Following a group arrest of Falun Gong practitioners in Changchun City, Jilin Province, in July, police beat one practitioner, hit his head against the wall, and dragged him around on the concrete floor. He suffered severe injuries to his knees as a result.

According to Bitter Winter, on May 18, authorities assaulted several individuals who were protesting the demolition of a Buddhist temple in Shucheng County, Anhui Province, that authorities declared was “a dilapidated building.” Police beat one woman for filming the scene. A witness said, “Three officers pressed her to the ground, hitting her collarbones until she lost consciousness, and the phone was destroyed.” Police injured a monk in his 70s for waving his walking stick at authorities and accused him of “assaulting the police.”

In March, the U.S.-based NGO Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) released a report, Organ Procurement and Extrajudicial Execution in China: A Review of the Evidence. In the report, VOC stated that Falun Gong practitioners and Uyghur Muslim prisoners of conscience were the most likely source of organs for sale in the country’s organ-transplant market. A related series of articles published during the year examining the country’s organ transplantation system questioned the plausibility of official government statistics about the sourcing of transplant organs, stating there was an overlap between medical personnel performing organ transplants and individuals involved in the anti-Falun Gong campaign.

On March 1, the China Tribunal, an independent tribunal established by the Australia-based NGO International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China, released its Full Judgment on the conditions of organ harvesting in the country. The report was a fuller account with appendices of the evidence the nongovernmental group had drawn on and methodology it had used to reach conclusions contained in its Short Form Conclusions and Summary Judgment report issued in June 2019. In the Full Judgment report, the group included accounts by individuals, including medical personnel, who stated they were eyewitnesses to abuses, including from medical personnel, and other evidence that documented what the NGO determined to be a decades-long and ongoing state-run program of forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience, principally Falun Gong practitioners. The Full Judgment report also contained eyewitness accounts from Falun Gong and Uyghur individuals of involuntary medical examinations, including x-rays, ultrasounds, blood tests, and DNA tests.

According to the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-affiliated news organization, on August 2, authorities broke into the home of a Falun Gong practitioner, pinned her down, and forcibly took a sample of her blood, telling her it was “required by the state.” One officer shouted, “The law does not apply to you. We’re going to wipe you all out.” The Epoch Times stated that dozens of other practitioners across the country reported similar incidents. On July 22, authorities in Gaomi County, Shandong Province, arrested and took blood samples from 46 practitioners. An attorney familiar with the cases said the blood sampling did not appear to be a routine physical checkup but rather was illegally “collecting people’s biological samples.”

According to the CAG annual report, harassment of members included the collection of biological data, such as blood samples and hair.

In April, Bitter Winter reported instances in which individuals were held against their will in psychiatric hospitals for extended periods of time for practicing their religion. According to a staff member in a psychiatric hospital in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, it was hospital practice to begin “treatment” of CAG members as soon as they were brought in, without any tests or examination. According to a member of the Church from Tianmen City, Hubei Province, who spent 157 days in a psychiatric hospital, “A doctor told me that because of my faith, I was a mental patient, and there was no need for further tests.” Nurses threatened to tie her up if she refused to take medication. One former patient said two doctors pressed her down on a desk and shocked her on the back, hands, and feet with an electric baton to force her to take medication. During the month she was in the hospital, doctors administered six electroshock treatments, causing her to suffer memory loss and numbness in her limbs. She said doctors threatened that her son’s job would be negatively affected if she continued to practice her faith.

International religious media outlets and human rights groups reported that local authorities in several districts around the country continued to award compensation to police officers for arresting religious practitioners from certain groups or confiscating donation money. Conversely, local officials were allegedly disciplined if they did not meet a certain quota for arrests of religious practitioners each month. For example, a government employee from Sanmenxia City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter the municipal government issued arrest quotas for CAG members to subordinate localities, leading to the arrest of 211 individuals. In Jiangxi Province, the police arrested 116 CAG members and confiscated RMB 378,000 ($57,800) of church and personal assets. Minghui reported police received an unknown amount of bonus pay for each Falun Gong practitioner arrested.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities raided the homes of and arrested at least eight members of the Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC) during an online worship service on April 12, Easter Sunday. A pastor and a deputy deacon were among those arrested. According to the NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), authorities continued to harass members in the weeks following the raid. On April 24, authorities took Church member Ran Yunfei to a police station shortly before he was scheduled to speak in an online service. He returned home later that same day. The NGO ChinaAid reported police summoned Ran again in November in connection with his participation in another online religious seminar.

The ICC reported that on May 23, authorities arrested a pastor from the Nanjing Road Church in Wuhan, Hebei Province, during an online evangelism event in which he was taking part. They interrogated him for approximately five hours before releasing him.

According to Bitter Winter, in February, police arrested 13 members of the Born Again Movement, also called the All Sphere or All Range Church, in Huai’an City, Jiangsu Province. Five of the members arrested were elderly and suffered from various illnesses. Police released the five after protests from their relatives but forced them to sign statements promising to stop their church activities. Police also came to the home of another church member who hosted church gatherings at her home and threatened to arrest her if she did not stop doing so. They said three generations of her descendants would be unable to take college entrance examinations, enroll in the army, or become public servants if she did not stop. The officers took samples of her blood and prints of her fingers and palms.

According to AsiaNews.it, on April 2, authorities took Zhao Huaiguo, founder and pastor of the Bethel Church in Cili County, Hunan Province, from his home and arrested him on a charge of “inciting subversion against state power.” Police returned to his apartment on April 15 to confiscate books, Bibles, and photocopies of books as evidence of “illegal trade” in books. His wife said he was likely arrested because he spoke to foreign news agencies about COVID-19 and had not affiliated his church with the TSPM church. ChinaAid reported the Zhangjiajie Intermediate Court tried Zhao in October for “inciting subversion of state power,” and prosecutors recommended an 18-month sentence.

In May, the ICC reported that authorities transferred Pastor Wang Yi of the ERCC from Chengdu City Detention Center to a prison in an unknown location. In December 2019, Wang had been sentenced to nine years in prison. According to the ICC, since his arrest, authorities had denied Wang’s parents the ability to visit him, either in person or virtually, despite their having the legal right to do so, and Wang’s wife and child were living in an unknown location under surveillance.

At year’s end, the whereabouts of Gao Zhisheng remained unknown, although media reported it was believed he remained in the custody of state security police. In September 2017, police had detained Gao, a human rights lawyer who had defended members of Christian groups, Falun Gong practitioners, and other groups. In September, the NGO Jubilee Campaign submitted a written statement to the 45th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council calling for the government to “release unconditionally and with immediate effect all political and religious prisoners of conscience, including lawyer Gao Zhisheng.” Gao’s daughter, Geng Ge, submitted a video statement to the council, stating, “As of today, I don’t know if he’s alive or not.”

In October, ChinaAid reported that since July, police in Zhaotong City, Yunnan Province, had threatened and harassed Pastor Wang Hai of the Trinity Church and his wife and detained other church leaders and members of Wang’s extended family. Wang said authorities had targeted the Church because its members belonged to the ethnic Miao minority and were Christian. He said that due to the ongoing harassment, church attendance had dropped from 100 worshippers to only a handful who attended Sunday services.

AsiaNews.it reported that on September 1, authorities from the Religious Affairs Bureau in Fujian Province arrested Rev. Liu Maochun, an underground priest of the Mindong Diocese, and held him incommunicado for 17 days to pressure him to join the CCPA. At least 20 underground priests in the region faced similar pressure from the religious affairs bureau, according to AsiaNews.it.

According to RFA, on April 19 and May 3, several dozen state security police and officials from the local religious affairs bureau raided worship services at Xingguang Church, an unregistered church in Xiamen City, Fujian Province. Church pastor Yang Xibo told RFA the congregation was targeted for refusing to join the state-sanctioned TSPM. According to multiple international press reports and mobile phone videos that Church members posted to Twitter, authorities forcibly entered a private residence in which Church members were holding a worship service, without a warrant or showing any form of identification. Authorities seized several congregants and tried to drag them out, injuring three; they detained at least nine members, releasing them approximately 12 hours later. According to RFA, authorities raided Xingguang Church again on June 11, taking away furniture and other church belongings, but did not arrest anyone. ChinaAid stated authorities broke into church members’ homes on July 22, destroying and removing property.

In January, RFA reported that authorities in Jinan City, Shandong Province, arrested Hui Muslim poet Cui Haoxin, known by his pen name An Ran, for Twitter posts in which he criticized the government for the imprisonment, surveillance, and persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang and throughout the country. He was held on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” According to RFA, this charge was “frequently leveled at peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.”

The Falun Dafa Information Center, a Falun Gong rights advocacy group, reported authorities in Beijing detained at least 40 persons ahead of the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on May 22. Sources said police also harassed practitioners and searched their homes and that police told the individuals they were taking the actions because of the upcoming political meetings. On April 21, police forcibly entered the home of Wang Yuling by prying open her window. They ransacked the house and confiscated books and printed materials related to Falun Gong, as well as a printer and computer. They took Wang and her daughter into custody. On April 27, authorities forcibly entered the home of Yang Yuliang, searched it, and confiscated Falun Gong books and photographs of Falun Gong’s founder. They held Yang and his daughter, Yang Dandan, in custody for three days.

There continued to be reports of government officials, companies, and education authorities pressuring members of house churches and other Christians to sign documents renouncing their Christian faith and church membership. Media reported the government threatened to withhold social welfare benefits and to retaliate against family members. The NGO CSW stated authorities instructed schools to report the religious beliefs of students and staff.

Bitter Winter reported that on November 1, the government began the seventh national population census, collecting a broad range of personal and household data, including individuals’ identification numbers. According to several census takers, although there were no questions about religion on the census questionnaire, they were instructed when visiting people’s homes to pay attention to religious materials and symbols and to ascertain if the home was being used as a private religious venue. In one case, when five census takers entered a home in Zhengzhou City, Henan Province, they saw a Bible and asked the residents if they were Christian. They determined the home was being used as a house church and ordered the residents to stop hosting gatherings. A census taker in Yantai City, Shandong Province, said local police told him and his colleagues to report any households with images associated with Falun Gong. A census taker in Heze City, Shandong Province, said he was ordered to report to police any person who did not allow him inside the home, because refusal might indicate the person held religious beliefs or hosted unauthorized religious gatherings.

According to the ICC, on October 11, police arrested Elder Li Yingqiang of the ERCC in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, just before the church began an online service. During the arrest, police also threatened Li’s two young children. Police also arrested another church member, Jia Xuewei, and interrogated him for several hours about ERCC’s recent spiritual retreat and the worship that was about to take place. Both were released later that day. An ERCC member told the ICC that authorities likely detained Li and Jia to prevent the online service from taking place. According to the source, police told Li he would be taken from his home every week and that they would target his children if he posted about his experience online.

According to Bitter Winter, during the year, authorities in several provinces investigated the personal backgrounds of civil servants, hospital staff, teachers, students, and the family members of each to determine their religious status. In May, the Education Bureau of Jinan City, Shandong Province, required some primary and secondary schools to determine if any of their teachers, students, or their family members were religious.

There continued to be no uniform procedures for registering religious adherents. The government continued to recognize as “lawful” only those religious activities it sanctioned and controlled through the state-sanctioned religious associations. Only government-accredited religious personnel could conduct such activities, and only in government-approved places of religious activity.

SARA continued to maintain statistics on registered religious groups. According to 2014 SARA statistics (the latest available), more than 5.7 million Catholics worshipped in sites registered by the CCPA. The April 2018 white paper by the State Council Information Office (SCIO) stated there were approximately 144,000 places of worship registered for religious activities in the country, among which 33,500 were Buddhist temples (including 28,000 Han Buddhist temples, 3,800 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and 1,700 Theravada Buddhist temples), 9,000 Taoist temples, 35,000 mosques, 6,000 CCPA churches and places of assembly spread across 98 dioceses, and 60,000 TSPM churches and places of assembly.

The 2018 SCIO white paper stated that by 2017, there were 91 religious schools in the country approved by SARA: 41 Buddhist, 10 Taoist, 10 Islamic, 9 Catholic, and 21 Protestant. Students younger than 18 were barred from receiving religious instruction. This report also stated there were six national-level religious colleges. Although there were two CCPA seminaries in Beijing, civil society sources said they regarded one of these institutions to be primarily used as CCPA propaganda for international visitors. The SCIO report also estimated there were more than 384,000 religious personnel in the country: 222,000 Buddhist, 40,000 Taoist, 57,000 Islamic, 57,000 Protestant, and 8,000 Catholic.

The government continued to close down or hinder the activities of religious groups not affiliated with the state-sanctioned religious associations, including unregistered Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and other groups. At times, authorities said the closures were because the group or its activities were unregistered or, at other times, because the place of worship lacked necessary permits. Some local governments continued to restrict the growth of unregistered Protestant church networks and cross-congregational affiliations. Authorities allowed some unregistered groups to operate but did not recognize them legally. In some cases, authorities required unregistered religious groups to disband, leaving congregants from these groups with the sole option of attending services under a state-sanctioned religious leader. According to Union of Catholic Asian (UCA) News, Article 34 of the new Administrative Measures for Religious Groups regulation, which governs money and finances, if enforced, “will halt the activities of house churches, dissident Catholic communities, and other unregistered religious bodies.”

International media and NGOs reported the government continued to carry out its 2019-2024 five-year nationwide campaign to “Sinicize religion” by altering doctrines and practices across all faith traditions to conform to and bolster CCP ideology and emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state. The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations, promulgated in February, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions.

The five-year plan to promote the Sinicization of Christianity called for “incorporating Chinese elements into church worship services, hymns and songs, clerical attire, and the architectural style of church buildings,” and it proposed to “retranslate the Bible or rewrite biblical commentaries.” According to Bitter Winter, on April 13, the UFWD in Zibo City, Shandong Province, issued an order calling on religious groups and clergy to write essays on their “love for the country and the Communist Party.” A Catholic dean in Zibo said that on April 16, a religious affairs bureau official told him to study Xi Jinping Thought and the 19th National Congress of the CCP for an examination he would have to take later. On February 18, the Shenyang Religious Affairs Bureau in Liaoning Province issued a notice that the city’s religious groups should hold events to advance Xi Jinping’s policies. On April 14, the TSPM in Fujian Province issued a document stating, “Posters promoting the core socialist values shall be posted in prominent positions in all church venues. Clergy members should highlight the core socialist values in their sermons and use important festivals, major events, and other occasions to interpret and publicize the core socialist values, so that they are inserted into believers’ minds, their Sunday worship services, and daily lives.” Local government authorities reportedly threatened to close churches whose clergy refused to help spread government propaganda.

According to Bitter Winter, the government regularly pressured clergy to incorporate government messages into sermons. Following President Xi’s call in August to curb food waste in the country, two Chinese Christian Councils of Quanzhou, Fujian Province, demanded all TSPM churches integrate the president’s ideas into their sermons, so that “the policy reaches everyone in society.” In response, some clergy members reportedly integrated the president’s exhortation into the Biblical story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish.

Media reported that throughout the year, crackdowns on some churches with foreign ties intensified significantly throughout the country. Many religious groups faced comprehensive investigations that included checking their background, organizational setting, membership, online evangelism, and finances. Following investigations, authorities shut down hundreds of churches that were reportedly unregistered or whose registration had not been updated under the new regulations. In late 2019, the Jilin Province Religious Affairs Bureau issued a document calling for investigations of churches related to or funded by overseas religious groups and blocking their activities online, and it began implementing these measures during the year. In Shandong Province, national security officers interrogated a house church pastor in February for evangelical activities abroad.

The government media outlet Xinhua reported that in September, UFWD vice head and SARA director general Wang announced that in the previous 70 years, through the development of the TSPM, foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in the country.

On May 29, the Hainan Buddhist Association held a training session for Buddhist professionals and monks across the province. The training included advising monks on how to implement religious Sinicization, Xi Jinping’s remarks at the National Religious Work Conference, and the religious affairs regulations.

The BAC-affiliated Buddhist website AmituofoCN.com reported that on April 16, approximately 50 religious workers, including monks, pastors, imams, and other clergy from the five officially recognized religions, attended a mandatory training program organized by the Hainan Province UFWD, the Hainan Academy of Social Sciences, and the Hainan Party School. Participants studied the principles of the 19th National Congress of the CCP, Chairman Xi’s April 13, 2018, speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Hainan Special Economic Zone, and the Regulations on Religious Affairs. Hainan UFWD deputy director general Liu Geng in his opening remarks told the religious professionals to “make full use of religion to promote social harmony.” According to AmituofoCN.com, on May 29, the Hainan Buddhist Association organized another training session for clergy, teachers, and religious workers from various temples in the province. Song Xinghe, an official in the Hainan UFWD Religious Affairs Bureau, gave a lecture entitled, “Insistence on the Sinicization of Religion.”

According to Gospel Times, a Chinese Christian news website, from July 15 to 17, the Guangdong TSPM held a training session for 98 clergy to study new regulations and promote Sinicization in Guangdong Province. An associate professor from Jinling Union Theological Seminary gave a lecture on TSPM and the Sinicization of Christianity. Government officials also gave a lecture on “anticult” measures.

According to Bitter Winter, in some parts of the country, local authorities regularly reviewed sermons of TSPM pastors to ensure they were consistent with CCP ideology and contained praise for government leaders. The publication reported that on July 20, the Dandong City Religious Affairs Bureau in Liaoning Province required TSPM clergy to participate in a sermon competition on the Sinicization of religion. The clergy were told to prepare sermons by “looking for elements in the Bible that are relevant to the core socialist values and traditional Chinese culture,” in conformity with “the progress of the times.” One clergy member told Bitter Winter that only competition participants would pass the annual review to receive a clergy certificate.

In August, a conference to study the new civil code and volume three of Xi Jinping on Governance was held at the Guangxiao Buddhist Temple, organized by the Guangdong Buddhist Association. Approximately 800 leaders of all religious groups in Guangdong Province attended in-person and virtually.

The state-owned China News Service reported that on December 1, SARA director general Wang delivered remarks at the 10th National Congress of the BAC. Wang called on the BAC to “pursue political progress toward the adherence of Sinicization of Buddhism” to ensure Buddhist content was suitable for “contemporary social development.”

From August 10 to16, the Gansu provincial UFWD held what it described as the first round of training for Gansu Province’s main Islamic clerics and the directors of temple management committees at the Lanzhou Islamic Institute. A UFWD press release stated the training was intended to direct the Sinicization of Islam, promote the statement of CCP principles, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and “increase political literacy, all while highlighting policies and regulations, history and culture, and national and provincial conditions through the lens of patriotic education.”

In November, National Public Radio (NPR) reported that an Islamic scholar in the northwestern part of the country said of Muslim community leaders, “There are no imams who dare to speak out. You can renounce your state-given imam certification and leave the mosque in order to speak out – but then you can be sure you will be constantly monitored.”

On October 13, the state-owned China National Daily News reported the Hubei Provincial Islamic Association released an outline for implementing the “five-year plan for Hubei Province to adhere to the Sinicization of Islam in China (2018-2022).” According to the article, measures to implement the plan included “strengthening political identity,” studying the works of Xi Jinping, studying the Regulations on Religious Affairs, and guiding imams to interpret the scriptures in accordance with “Chinese traditional culture and the core values of socialism.”

China News Service reported that on November 28, the 10th National Congress of the Chinese Taoist Association was held in Jurong, Jiangsu Province. In addition to passing a code of conduct for Taoist teachers, the congress elected Li Guangfu as the new Taoist Association chairman. Li stated that Taoism should “adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era” and “adhere to the Sinicization of Taoism.”

Media reported in September that Catholics in the country protested the distorted retelling of a Bible story in a textbook the government-run University of Electronic Science and Technology Press published to teach “professional ethics and law” in secondary vocational schools. In the original biblical story from the Gospel of John, Jesus forgave the sins of a woman who committed adultery and prevented a crowd from stoning her to death. In the textbook, Jesus disperses the crowd, but he says to the woman, “I, too, am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead,” and he then proceeds to stone her to death himself. According to UCA News, Catholic critics said the authors of the textbook “want to prove that the rule of law is supreme in China and such respect for law is essential for a smooth transfer to socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Sources told media that authorities in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in north-central China, home to a majority of Hui Muslims, prevented public calls to prayer and banned sales of the Quran. Authorities also prohibited news broadcasts from showing images of pedestrians wearing skull caps or veils.

During the year, authorities reportedly pressured churches to display banners with messages of political ideology, recite the national anthem before singing Christian hymns, and engage in other acts demonstrating loyalty to the CCP over the church. In a press release on October 1, the anniversary of the founding of the PRC, Pastor Wang Qingwen, senior pastor of Jinghe New City, Shaanxi Province, called on six Christian churches in the city to “unswervingly adhere to the three-self patriotic principle of teaching and strive to promote the theological construction of the Sinicization of Christianity.” In the press release, Wang urged churches to continue to adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and to “hold high the banner of patriotism.”

In December, the Jerusalem Post reported there were approximately 100 practicing Jews among the 1,000 individuals with Jewish ancestry in Kaifeng, Henan Province. Lacking access to the Torah, they used Christian Bibles containing the Old Testament. Members of the community said they worried about government crackdowns on religion and had to celebrate Hanukkah and hold other gatherings in secret. One community member said, “Every time we celebrate, we are scared.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities placed pastors of house churches and dissident Catholic priests under arrest to make sure they would not lead Christmas celebrations in churches or private homes. According to the publication, in Xiamen, Fujian Province, police stopped a group of Christians from singing Christmas songs at a mall, even though they had been invited to perform there. Authorities fined a Christian in Lushan County, Henan Province, RMB 160,000 ($24,500) for gathering people to pray and sing Christmas songs. The NGO Human Rights Defenders reported there was pressure on schools across the country to teach children that Christmas should not be celebrated and that gifts should not be exchanged. According to the NGO, the government gave permission for “spontaneous” street demonstrations by people carrying banners reading “Christmas, Get out of China.”

The government labeled several religious groups as “cults” (xie jiao – literally “heterodox teachings”), including the CAG, the Shouters, the Association of Disciples, and the All Sphere Church. The government also continued to ban certain groups, such as Falun Gong, which it classified as an illegal organization. In July, Bitter Winter reported that several provinces had introduced measures that encouraged individuals to report on members of what it called “cults,” which carried a penalty of between three and seven years’ imprisonment. According to the CAG’s annual report, authorities harassed and threatened with imprisonment more than 8,400 Church members across the country who refused to sign statements renouncing their faith. In Shandong Province, those who reported on suspected “cult” members could receive up to a RMB 2,500 ($380) award, while Hainan Province offered awards up to RMB 100,000 ($15,300). Guangdong Province, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and Nanjing City introduced similar measures. Actions by cults to be reported included using the internet to produce or disseminate religious materials; producing or disseminating religious leaflets, pictures, slogans, newspapers, and other publications; and hanging religious banners and posters in public places. Sources told Bitter Winter the campaign against xie jiao was ubiquitous throughout the country. Bitter Winter posted photographs of a park in Yuchen County, Shangqiu City, Henan Province, that contained multiple large red banners with anti-xie jiao messages.

The government reportedly discriminated in employment against members of religious groups it labeled as cults and prevented government employees from participating in religious activities. Faluninfo.net reported that in June, a police supervisor in Yuzhou City, Henan Province, fired Falun Gong practitioner Zha Zhuolin from the force for refusing to write a statement denouncing the group. According to Zha, the supervisor, Xu Wang, said, “The first rule for a police officer is to be loyal to the [Chinese Communist] Party.”

Media reported that in Guangzhou, pandemic-control volunteers delivered anti-xie jiao brochures, along with facemasks and hand sanitizer, to residents at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, then broadcast anticult propaganda when an industrial park reopened in April.

According to media, police and local religious affairs bureau officials raided the Dongguan Branch of Guangzhou Bible Reformed Church on the evening of August 21 when more than 10 adherents were holding a Bible study session. Police accused the attendees of “spreading heterodox teachings” and detained three individuals. Two were released shortly, but the minister, Yang Jun, was detained until the next day on a fraud charge.

According to Bitter Winter, the government responded to protests against school reform in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region by blaming the unrest on banned religious groups, such as Falun Gong, or groups it labeled cults, such as the CAG. On August 28, the region’s Anticult Association launched “Prevention of Xie Jiao Propaganda Month.” Activities during the month included holding events, distributing brochures, and teaching “all ethnic groups in Inner Mongolia to guard against xie jiao.”

In October, CSW reported that some ethnic minority villages had established “village rules” to allow villagers to isolate and target Christians. According to CSW, in September, village authorities in Huang Fei Village, Yingjiang County, Yunnan Province, issued a notice stating that the traditional faith of the Dai community was Buddhism and that Christianity was an “evil cult.” The notice announced that anyone who violated the rules of the village “by believing in Jesus Christ and other sects” would have to pay a financial penalty to the community. CSW stated that individuals on social media reported the Li community in Hainan Province had also imposed a financial penalty on persons believing in Christianity.

From January to June or July, the government closed venues throughout the country, including religious venues, and prohibited mass gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bitter Winter reported, however, that authorities allowed Taoist temples displaying Mao Zedong images to stay open throughout the lockdown. Sources told Bitter Winter that people worshiped at the Arhat Temple in Zhumadian City, Henan Province, throughout the lockdown because it had a Mao Zedong wall painting. The director of the Chinese National Ancestors’ Temple in Shanqui City, Henan Province, said authorities allowed his temple to remain open during the pandemic because it had a Mao Zedong statue.

Media reported authorities tried to stop many religious groups congregating or holding services online during the COVID-19 lockdown. On February 23, Shandong Province’s two state-run Christian organizations, the TSPM and the Chinese Christian Council, issued a notice prohibiting live streaming of religious services. A former TSPM pastor from Jiangxi Province told Bitter Winter that in early February, police shut down a chatroom he was using for a religious gathering. The ICC reported that on August 11, the local religious affairs bureau in Yunnan Province fined Zhang Wenli of the Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness RMB 20,000 ($3,100) for conducting unauthorized online Bible study. A TSPM pastor in Binzhou City, Shandong Province, told Bitter Winter in April that the government blocked the link he shared with his congregation on WeChat, a Chinese social media application. A house church director in Qingdao City, Shandong Province, live-streamed a church service on YY, a video-based social network, but the service was suspended less than half an hour into the broadcast. An imam in Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, reported that shortly after he discussed Islamic festivals on a social media platform, police blocked his account. A local government official in Liaoning Province was summoned by his superiors in March for attending an online service of a South Korean church. They forced him to uninstall the app that allowed him to join the service.

In June, AsiaNews.it reported that although the government had begun allowing churches to reopen, the bureaucratic process and conditions for reopening made doing so difficult. A priest in central China said these conditions included getting permission to reopen from the village, city, and provincial governments and meeting strict sanitation requirements. The priest said, “Religion does not seem to belong to us; it belongs to the [Chinese Communist] Party.” The Catholic News Service reported authorities in Zhejiang Province issued a notice on May 29 stating that priests were required to “preach on patriotism” as a condition for resuming in-person services. Bitter Winter reported in June that authorities in Zhejiang Province required churches to praise the government’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and to pray for “national economic and social development,” “attainment of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” and “promotion and realization of human destiny community,” all of which were President Xi Jinping’s political slogans.

According to Bitter Winter, in July, before the government had begun to lift lockdown restrictions and reopen religious venues in Nanyang City, Henan Province, the city’s religious affairs bureau ordered several folk religion temples to remove religious books and incense burners. Government authorities inspected the Taoist Jade Emperor Temple three times in August. As a condition for reopening the venue, officials ordered the temple to burn scriptures and expel a nun who lived on the premises. The temple remained closed, however, even after meeting these conditions.

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, took measures to stop Christians from gathering for Christmas celebrations, although it allowed some musical, cultural, and political events to take place. On Christmas Day, riot police blocked the entrance to the Catholic Cathedral of the Savior in Beijing (also known as the Xishiku Church), saying religious gatherings were cancelled due to the pandemic. A large Christmas tree was used to block the entrance to St. Joseph’s Church in Beijing, and signs were also posted there saying gatherings were cancelled due to COVID-19.

According to Bitter Winter, officials placed arbitrary restrictions on Catholic churches affiliated with the CCPA, closed facilities, and merged others without the congregations’ consent. Government officials in Linyi used a point system to determine whether a congregation should be merged, considering such factors as whether the congregation had more than 10 members or the facility was equipped with a blackboard, audio system, desks, and chairs.

According to Bitter Winter, on January 10, the local religious affairs bureau and the security bureau ordered Father Liu Jiangdong, a Catholic priest from the Church of the Sacred Heart in Zhengshou City, Henan Province, to leave the Zhengshou Diocese, which was affiliated with the CCPA. A source told Bitter Winter that government authorities had previously accused Liu of financial improprieties, suspended his priesthood certificate, and imprisoned him from October 2018 to December 2019. The source said Liu had in fact been imprisoned because he opposed removal of the cross from atop his church, formed a Catholic youth group, and allowed minors to attend religious services. A member of his congregation said that since Liu’s release, authorities had surveilled him, monitored his telephone calls, and locked him out of his residence. A churchgoer said authorities threatened to fine members of Liu’s former congregation up to RMB 200,000 ($30,600) if they sheltered him or invited him to hold Mass in their homes.

Media and human rights organizations reported that SARA issued a new requirement in October that only the IAC was permitted to organize Muslims’ pilgrimage trips. The new regulations stated that those who applied to join the Hajj must be “patriotic, law-abiding, and have good conduct,” have never before participated in the Hajj, and be in sound physical and mental health. They also had to be able to completely pay the costs associated with going on the Hajj and must oppose religious extremism. The new administrative measure was reportedly intended to “preserve religious freedom and the continued Sinicization of religion in the PRC.”

According to Bitter Winter, the municipal government of a city in Zhejiang Province issued a document in April that required authorities to increase “counterterrorism and stability maintenance measures” during Ramadan. The document instructed police to intensify surveillance of local Hui and other Muslims, especially during Friday prayers, the daily breaking of the fast, and other important Ramadan activities. It also instructed police to surveil ethnic minority visitors from Xinjiang by checking their documents and luggage, determining their whereabouts while in the city, and acquiring other information.

NPR reported in November that in the spring, police detained 14 men in Yiwu City, Central Zhejiang Province, because they had purchased Islamic books. They were subjected to weeks of questioning about their political views and online correspondence with Muslim intellectuals and Chinese Muslims overseas. According to a friend of one of the men detained, “The police had printed out the text records everyone had on WeChat with writers and publishers…Now the police say every time they travel, they have to report to [the police] beforehand when they are leaving and where they are going.”

Sources reported churches attended by foreigners continued to receive heavy scrutiny, as authorities forced them to require passport checks and registration for members to prevent Chinese citizens from attending “foreigner” services.

Bitter Winter reported that in April, authorities placed surveillance equipment, including facial recognition cameras, in at least 40 religious venues in Zhongwei City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Authorities also installed surveillance cameras in all Protestant and Catholic churches in Jinxiang County, Jinin City, Shandong Province. A deacon at one TSPM Church in Henan Province, where authorities had installed a surveillance camera in December 2019, said, “[Government officials] always know how many congregation members are in the church and what is said during sermons. We have to speak with caution at any time. If we disobey the government, our church will be shut down.” In March and April, authorities in a city in Zhejiang Province placed surveillance cameras outside the entrances of homes of seven members of the CAG. One church member reported she was told this was done for “theft prevention.”

In October, Bitter Winter reported that authorities in Jiangxi Province’s Poyang County, which has a large population of Christians, issued orders to install RMB one million ($153,000) in facial recognition cameras in all state-approved places of worship. According to the report, authorities installed approximately 200 cameras in more than 50 TSPM churches from July to September, and nearly 50 in 16 Buddhist and Taoist temples. A police officer stated the cameras were installed to monitor church members and sermons.

A Catholic source in the northeast part of the country told AsiaNews.it in July that government staff attended Sunday services to monitor activities and ensure children who were 18 or younger did not attend. The Grand Mosque in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, displayed signs prohibiting children who were 18 and younger from participating in religious activity. According to one worshipper at the mosque, authorities said this was to allow young people to focus on their secular education.

Minghui reported that police in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, intensely surveilled Falun Gong practitioner Ma Zhenyu, who had been released from Suzhou Prison on September 19 after completing his three-year sentence. While monitoring Ma, authorities intimidated his mother and other practitioners.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported in September that authorities in Sanya City, in the island province of Hainan, took measures against the predominantly Muslim Utsul ethnic minority, which comprised approximately 10,000 members. They banned girls from wearing traditional dress, including hijabs and long skirts, in school. An Utsul community worker said the ban prompted fierce protests by students and their families and that it was temporarily lifted after hundreds of students wore hijabs in public and boycotted classes. Photographs and videos circulated on social media showed girls wearing hijabs and reading from textbooks outside their primary school while surrounded by police officers. According to the SCMP, Utsuls working in government or CCP bodies were told the hijab was “disorderly.” The restrictions followed a 2019 government-issued document, Working Document Regarding the Strengthening of Overall Governance over Huixin and Huihui Neighborhoods, which referred to the only two predominantly Utsul neighborhoods on the island. The document called for the demolition of mosques displaying “Arabic” features, the removal of shop signs saying in Chinese characters the words “Islamic” or “Halal,” and increased surveillance over the Utsul population.

According to Bitter Winter, from March to May, Islamic symbols and writings in Arabic were painted over or covered on signboards of 70 Hui-run businesses in Chuxiong, the capital of the Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province. According to some shop owners, officials from various state institutions, among them the public security bureau, urban management, and religious affairs bureaus, ordered them to remove the symbols from their signboards or replace them entirely. Otherwise, their business licenses would be revoked. A baker from the prefecture’s Lufeng County said that from December to May, Islamic symbols were removed from the signboards of 62 halal shops in the county. “The state is out of control, like during the Cultural Revolution…Hui men are not allowed to wear white caps and women, headscarves. Hui Muslims will disappear in two or three generations.” Local officials told shop owners that the order came from the central government and that the signboard-removal campaign was nationwide. According to one local resident in Songming County, Kunming Province, signboards on 176 Hui businesses were “Sinicized” between December 2019 and May. A restaurant owner said, “If we Hui people tried to argue with officials, they would call us rioters and arrest us on any trumped-up charge.”

The SCMP reported in September that new foreign teachers coming to the country had to attend a mandatory 20-hour training course of what the news source characterized as “political indoctrination covering China’s development, laws, professional ethics, and education policies.” According to the newspaper, the Hainan provincial public security bureau offered rewards up to RMB 100,000 ($15,300) for tips on foreigners who “engaged in religious activities without permission,” including teaching religion and evangelizing. One teacher said authorities installed a surveillance camera in his classroom to monitor his lessons.

The SCMP reported in September that many foreign missionaries were not allowed to return to the country after it partially lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions for foreign national residents. According to the Voice of America (VOA), in November, the Ministry of Justice published draft regulations requiring foreign worshippers wanting to host religious activities to apply for a permit and to demonstrate their groups were “friendly to China” in their country of origin. The regulations would ban Chinese citizens from attending any services organized by foreigners and would require those organizing religious activities to provide the names, nationalities, and visa status of those who would attend as well as a detailed program of the service, including which texts would be read, before authorities would grant permission. According to VOA, authorities said the new regulations were intended to stop foreigners from spreading “religious extremism” or using religion “to undermine China’s national and ethnic unity.” The draft regulation specified it would also apply to individuals from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature. The government continued to allow some foreign educational institutions to provide religious materials in Chinese, which were used by both registered and unregistered religious groups. During the year, however, many provinces conducted campaigns cracking down on “illegal religious publications” from unofficial distribution channels. The government-affiliated news outlet Meipian.com reported that in January, law enforcement officers inspected publication wholesale and retail locations, farmer’s markets, and “urban-rural junctions within their jurisdictions” looking for “illegal religious publications and illegal training courses of a religious nature.” The ICC reported that on March 24, the Zhongshan No. 1 District People’s Procuratorate in Guangdong Province charged Christians Liang Rurui and Zhu Guoqing with conducting illegal business operations that “seriously disrupted market order.” According to the ICC, authorities in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, had arrested them in November and December 2019, respectively, for printing 7,000 children’s Bibles. According to the human rights blog Weiquanwang (Rights Protection Network), on July 2, authorities arrested four Christians from the Life Tree Culture Communications Co., Ltd. – Fu Xuanjuan, Deng Tianyong, Han Li, and Feng Qunhao – on charges of “illegal business operations” for selling electronic audio Bible players, small handheld devices that allow the user to listen to (as opposed to read) Biblical text. According to Weiquanwang, the company had been legally established in 2011 in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province.

Bitter Winter reported that on September 14, the education and environmental protection bureaus in Luoyang City, Henan Province, inspected a local printing house to determine whether it was publishing banned religious materials. The printing house manager said, “They checked my storehouse, scrutinized all records, and even looked at paper sheets on the floor, to see if they have prohibited content. If any such content is found, I’ll be fined, or worse, my business will be closed.” According to Bitter Winter, similar bans applied to photocopying businesses. One photocopy employee said, “I was told to report anyone who comes to copy religious materials.” Another said, “If we are not sure if a text is religious, we must keep its copy and report it to authorities.”

The ICC reported in September that the People’s Court of Linhai City in Zhejiang Province sentenced online Christian bookseller Chen Yu to seven years in prison and fined him for “illegal business operations,” allegedly for selling unapproved religious publications. Authorities first detained him in September 2019.

In July, Bitter Winter reported government restrictions on printing, copying, and mailing nonapproved Buddhist literature increased throughout the country. A source in Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, said authorities confiscated thousands of Buddhist books and compact discs from at least 20 stores in the region. One store owner said authorities confiscated more than 2,000 Buddhist books and materials from the store. Another shop owner said, “In the past, people would send me books and materials they printed themselves to distribute them for free, but nobody dares to do this now.” In March, police in Zhejiang Province forbade printing houses from fulfilling orders from venues not approved by the government. In June, authorities in Hulunbuir City, Inner Mongolia, banned copy centers from printing Buddhist and Christian materials. One copy shop owner said, “Government officials come every day to inspect computers and copy machines. If they discover that religious materials have been copied, I could be held legally accountable.”

Bitter Winter reported that in early September, police arrested a person in Jinan City, Shandong Province, who attempted to mail compact discs of sermons by Shenpo Sodargye, a Tibetan Buddhist master, to the more than 100 individuals in Weihai City, Shangdong Province, who had ordered them online. The names of the buyers were forwarded to local Weihai police, who summoned them for questioning.

According to Bitter Winter, during a meeting on Buddhism organized on July 31 by the Fuzhou City Religious Affairs Bureau in Jiangxi Province, authorities banned all temples in the city from keeping religious books from Hong Kong and Taiwan in the name of “preventing foreign infiltration.” The director of a Buddhist temple said, “The government controls all books on Buddhism; nothing that does not comply with the CCP ideology is allowed and is considered illegal. Only religious materials promoting the Party are permitted to be circulated.”

According to Bitter Winter, local authorities throughout the country continued to ban the sale and display of religious couplets (banners with poetry) traditionally displayed during Chinese New Year. Local authorities threatened to fine or imprison anyone caught selling them. One merchant in Luhe County, Guangdong Province, said, “We don’t carry religious couplets. Even if we had them, we wouldn’t dare sell them.” On January 19, three officials from Poyang County, Jiangxi Province, entered a TSPM church, took photos, and registered the personal information of those in the church. The officials distributed couplets praising the CCP and demanded they be posted. A government employee in Xinmi City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter that in early March, municipal authorities ordered all town and township governments to conduct door-to-door inspections of households and shops looking for religious couplets. Inspectors were instructed to remove the couplets and cooperate with the public security bureau to ascertain where they had been produced. One shopkeeper said authorities threatened to close his business if he posted Christian couplets again.

Christian organizations seeking to use social media and smartphone apps to distribute Christian materials reported the government increased censorship of these materials. According to VOA, in October, ChinaAid stated that online censors removed the words “Christ” (jidu), “Jesus” (Yesu), and “Bible” (shengjing) from social media posts and replaced them with the initials “JD,” “YS,” and “SJ.” The word Christianity was replaced with “JD religion.” According to some scholars, Christians were replacing the words in texts themselves to avoid online censors who might block the posts.

In May, Bitter Winter reported authorities continued to dismantle Islamic architectural features and remove Islamic symbols from mosques throughout the country, and it published photographs from multiple locations showing construction workers taking down domes and minarets as well as before-and-after pictures. In Weizhou City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, many of the more than 4,000 mosques in the city were remodeled or destroyed between 2018 and February 2020 as part of the government’s “de-Arabization and de-Saudization” campaign. Before-and-after photographs of the Weizhou Grand Mosque and other mosques showed that Chinese-style pagodas had replaced minarets and crescent moon symbols had been removed.

In late March, authorities removed the domes and star-and-crescent symbols from 17 mosques in Pingliang City, Gansu Province. A local imam said that before the removals, authorities forced imams to study “de-Arabization and de-Saudization policies as well as the promotion of religion ‘Sinicization.’” The imam said authorities threatened to revoke the credentials of imams who did not cooperate with removal of the symbols. Many mosques visible from major highways in Qinghai Province in September had replaced traditional Islamic minarets with more Chinese-looking structures or appeared to be in the process of doing so. Mosques with more traditional Han Chinese architecture, such as the Grand Mosque in Xining, Qinghai Province, remained unchanged and were highlighted in public tours by imams and other mosque representatives.

According to Bitter Winter, in January, authorities removed domes and star-and-crescent symbols from at least 10 mosques in Pingdingshan City, Henan Province. On March 18, amid the coronavirus lockdown, government-hired workers remodeled the roof of the Gongmazhuang Mosque in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, to make it look “more Chinese.” Authorities had removed domes and star-and-crescent symbols from the mosque in November 2019. In late March, the government ordered the removal of domes and star-and-crescent symbols from a mosque in Xiaoma Village, Henan Province. In mid-November, authorities removed the dome and star-and-crescent symbols from a mosque in Qinghua Town, Henan Province, and hung banners reading, “Resolutely resist religious infiltration and combat religious extremism” at the mosque’s entrance. In Maying Village, Henan Province, after the government ordered the removal of symbols from the local mosque, one resident said, “We have to listen to what Xi Jinping says and what state policies indicate. No one dares to challenge the state.”

In December, Bitter Winter published before-and-after photographs of numerous churches in multiple provinces, including churches affiliated with the TSPM, that showed that exterior crosses had been removed and facades altered to eliminate Western-style features that identified them as Christian worship venues. Authorities removed crosses from at least 900 TSPM churches in Anhui Province between January and July. In April, UCA News reported the removal of crosses from several Catholic churches, including from Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Anhui Diocese on April 18. A priest said dioceses normally cooperated with authorities on the removal of crosses in the hopes that they would not demolish the entire building. On June 6, all crosses, other religious symbols, and pews were removed from the Wangdangjia village church in Linyi County. The “Catholic Church” signboard above its entrance was covered with wooden boards.

According to Bitter Winter, between March 2019 and January 2020, authorities removed crosses from approximately 70 Christian churches, including TSPM churches, in Linyi City, Shandong Province. Authorities said the crosses were “too close to the national highway,” “too tall,” or might seem “unpleasant” to visiting provincial government superiors. They threatened to demolish the buildings if the crosses remained. On January 8, the provincial government ordered a TSPM Church near the high-speed rail line in Lanshan District, Shandong Province, to remove its exterior cross because it was “too eye-catching.” The Chinese characters for “love” and “Christian Church” were also removed. Authorities removed crosses from at least 900 TSPM Churches in Anhui Province between January and July.

According to Bitter Winter, officials in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, pressured the abbot of the Buddhist Yuantong Temple to remove an 11-meter (36-foot)-high statue of Guanyin for being “too tall.” According to sources, authorities threatened to close the temple if the abbot did not comply. On March 9, workers dismantled the statue, and photographs accompanying the Bitter Winter article showed it lying in pieces on the ground.

Media reported authorities continued to destroy religious sites, including those affiliated with the TSPM and CCPA. Throughout the year, Bitter Winter published numerous before-and-after photographs showing churches, temples, and other religious structures that had been reduced in whole or in part to rubble. Bitter Winter reported that on March 10, authorities demolished a TSPM Church in Shangqiu, Henan Province. A source told Bitter Winter that on March 10 at 4:00 a.m., more than 200 government personnel and police came to demolish a TSPM Church in Xiazhuang Village, Shangqiu City, Henan Province. According to the source, police kicked in the door and forcibly removed a member of the congregation who was guarding the church, fracturing two of his ribs. The contents of the church were buried under the rubble.

On April 20, the government of Shangrao County in Shangrao City, Jiangxi Prefecture, demolished a TSPM Church, saying the structure was “unlicensed and dilapidated.” Sources said local officials told the congregation higher-level officials had ordered the demolition because “the government doesn’t allow belief in Jesus.” A church member told Bitter Winter the structure was in fact sound and was also registered with the local religious affairs bureau. The church member said that, contrary to law, authorities did not compensate the congregation for destroying the building. Accompanying the article were photographs showing the church before demolition and a pile of rubble following the demolition. According to another church member, following the demolition, congregants began practicing separately at home but had to be cautious. “The government arrests anyone in unauthorized religious gatherings. When they find two or three of us meeting, they can charge us with any crime at will, saying we are against the CCP.”

The ICC reported that on September 12, authorities in the town of Xiezhou in Yanhu District, Yucheng City, Shangxi Province, demolished the tombstones of more than 20 Swedish missionaries who had performed missionary work in the country in the early 1900s. They threatened to arrest anyone who photographed or videotaped the incident. Authorities planted vegetation over the gravesites.

Local sources reported authorities continued to close Christian venues or repurpose them into secular spaces. According to Bitter Winter, in April, the government of Qingshui Township in Shangrao City, Jiangxi Province, closed a TSPM Church for being “unlicensed and too eye-catching.” Officials destroyed religious symbols inside the church and posted a closure notice at the entrance. In May, officials converted the church into an activity center for the elderly, placing a ping-pong table, Chinese chess boards, and secular books inside.

Bitter Winter reported that on January 1, six local government officials and police officers raided a Catholic nursing home in Fuzhou City, Jiangxi Province. They confiscated 30 religious publications, a cross, and other religious symbols, sculptures, and paintings. A photograph accompanying the article showed that a mural of Jesus that had been displayed behind the alter was replaced with a landscape painting and an outdoor sculpture of Jesus was covered with a shed. Authorities pressured the church’s priest to sign an application to join the CCPA, but he refused. According to Bitter Winter, authorities also targeted the Benevolence Home, a nursing home operated by nuns in Saiqi Village, Fujian Province. On January 12, nearly 50 local government officials and police officers raided the nursing home where more than 30 persons lived, some of whom were from impoverished households or disabled. Authorities forced the elderly residents out and cut off the building’s electricity and water supply.

In July, a Catholic source in southeast China told AsiaNews.it that the local government denied permits to construct new Catholic churches and halted construction that was already underway. In January, AsiaNews.it reported that in at least five parishes in Mindong Diocese, Fujian Province, including Fuan, Saiqi, and Suanfeng, authorities cut off power and water to prevent churches from being used, citing “fire safety” measures.

Bitter Winter reported that government and law enforcement personnel destroyed the Great Hall of Strength, a Buddhist temple in Handan City, Hubei Province, on March 6. A local Buddhist said authorities demolished it because it “lacked a religious-activity venue-registration certificate.” The temple director said he was never approached about obtaining such a certificate. The local Buddhist said, “The government just wanted to demolish the temple…People cannot argue with authorities; they will accuse us of breaking the law as they please.”

According to Bitter Winter, authorities demolished the Buddhist Phoenix Temple in Qitang Town, Chongqing Municipality, on January 3. In March, authorities ordered eight Buddhist temples in Yongchuan District, Chongqing Municipality, to close and brick up their entrances, rendering the buildings unusable. Authorities demolished the Longhua Temple in Ma’anshan City, Anhui Province, on April 1.

Sources told Bitter Winter that on May 18, more than 20 officials and police in Shucheng County, Anhui Province, destroyed a Buddhist temple that authorities had declared “a dilapidated building.” When a protester attempted to film the scene, police officers pressed her to the ground and hit her in the collarbone until she lost consciousness. Police then destroyed her mobile phone.

Bitter Winter reported several cases of authorities destroying folk religion sites throughout the country. From April 14 to 19, authorities demolished three buildings in the Yangfu Temple in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province. On April 22, authorities demolished 18 statues in two folk religion temples in Linzhou, Henan Province. From April to June, authorities demolished 85 small folk religion temples in Handan, Hebei Province. On May 1, authorities demolished an ancestral hall in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province.

Bitter Winter reported that on July 2 in Dangtu County, Ma’anshan City, Anhui Prefecture, more than 100 police officers destroyed a village folk temple. One villager said police first cordoned off the area to prevent anyone from approaching. The witness said, “They then smashed the lock to get inside and demolished the temple after dragging out the eight elderly believers protecting it.” The online magazine posted a video on social media that showed a large number of police standing guard while a bulldozer knocked down the structure.

Bitter Winter reported in July that authorities had not yet reopened the Cao’an Manichean temple in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, which had been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Police were seen periodically patrolling the temple. Before its closure, authorities ordered the construction of a flagpole for the national flag and placed government propaganda slogans inside the temple.

Religious education for minors remained banned, but enforcement and implementation of the prohibition varied widely across and within regions.

AsiaNews.it reported authorities sent a directive to Xilinhaote Middle School Number 6 in Xilinhaote, Inner Mongolia dated March 25 forbidding students from taking part in religious activities in or outside of school. The directive reportedly prohibited parents from teaching their children about religion and religious organizations from operating in schools. Students and teachers found disobeying the restrictions faced expulsion and dismissal.

In November, Bitter Winter reported that a fifth-grade teacher in a Liaoning Province primary school told the online magazine any mention of religious holidays had been purged from English-language textbooks. The teacher said a text originally entitled “Easter Party” had been replaced with “English Party” and descriptive passages such as “You will meet the Easter Bunny” with “You will meet Robin the Robot.”

In January, AsiaNews.it, reported the government had closed down several Tibetan Buddhist centers in Sichuan Province because, authorities said, “Illegal activities” were carried out in the centers. The NGO International Campaign for Tibet said the government’s actual purpose was to limit the influence of Khenpo Sodargye, a Buddhist monk who founded these centers. The centers were associated with the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute, from which authorities had expelled more than 15,000 Buddhist monks and nuns since 2016 and destroyed significant portions of the property.

Individuals seeking to enroll at an official seminary or other institution of religious learning continued to be required to obtain the support of the corresponding official state-sanctioned religious association. The government continued to require students to demonstrate “political reliability,” and political issues were included in examinations of graduates from religious schools. Both registered and unregistered religious groups reported a shortage of trained clergy due in part to government controls on admission to seminaries.

Religious groups reported state-sanctioned religious associations continued to be subject to CCP interference in matters of doctrine, theology, and religious practice. The associations also closely monitored and sometimes blocked the ability of religious leaders to meet freely with foreigners.

National regulations required Muslim clerics to meet the following requirements: “Uphold the leadership of the CCP; love Islam and serve Muslims; possess a degree in or receive formal training in Islamic scriptural education; have graduated from junior high school or above, in addition to attaining competency in Arabic; and be at least 22-years-old.” According to sources, imams had to pass an exam testing their ideological knowledge to renew their license each year.

The government and the Holy See remained without formal diplomatic relations and the Holy See had no official representative to the country. On October 22, the Holy See and the PRC announced they had agreed to extend a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops for another two years. The two parties signed the original agreement in 2018. The precise terms of the agreement were not made public, but according to Catholic News Agency (CNA) and Vatican News, it was a “pastoral” effort to help unify members of the underground Catholic Church in China – which had remained in communion with the Holy See – with Catholics belonging to the CCPA. Vatican News stated the agreement “does not directly concern diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China, nor the legal status of the Chinese Catholic Church or relations between the clergy and the authorities of the country. The Provisional Agreement concerns exclusively the process of nomination of bishops…” Following the signing of the agreement, seven CCPA-affiliated bishops appointed without papal mandate were brought into full communion with the Holy See; an eighth bishop was posthumously recognized. AsiaNews.it reported that on November 23, Reverend Thomas Chen Tianhao became the third new bishop without a prior affiliation with the CCPA to be ordained under the agreement, assuming the position of Bishop of Qingdao in Qingdao City, Shandong Province. UCA News reported that on December 22, a fourth bishop, Peter Liu Genzhu, was ordained bishop of Hongdong in Linfen City, Shanxi Province.

Commentators, human rights groups, and some Catholic leaders criticized the agreement as doing little to protect freedom of religion or belief for Catholics in China. On November 17, the America Jesuit Review published an article discussing 30 bishops who belonged to the underground Catholic Church and refused to join the CCPA. “The situation of these bishops has become more difficult since the agreement as, contrary to what Rome expected, Chinese authorities have used it to pressure underground bishops and priests to submit to the state’s religious policies.” Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong in his online blog of October 7 said the agreement was lopsided, with the CCP nominating bishops for the Pope to approve, and that persecution of the underground Catholic Church had increased since 2018.

Catholic clergy and laypersons told media the situation of both registered and unregistered Catholic communities worsened during the year. A number of Catholic churches and bishops appointed by the Pope remained unable or unwilling to register with the CCPA. According to Bitter Winter, the Catholic Diocese of Mindong in Fujian Province suffered severe persecution from the CCP after most of its priests refused to join the CCPA. Authorities closed five parishes in January. Bitter Winter reported multiple instances of authorities pressuring Catholic leaders to join the CCPA and, in some cases, arresting and physically abusing Catholic leaders who refused. According to Bitter Winter, during the first half of the year, the CCPA attempted to force 57 unregistered Catholic priests from the Mindong Diocese to join the organization. As of June, 25 had complied, three had resigned in protest, and one was driven out of the diocese. Local authorities continued to pressure the remaining 28 priests to join.

According to Bitter Winter, on April 2, officials detained Father Huang Jintong, a priest from the Mindong Diocese’s parish in Saiqi Village in Fuan City, Fujian Province. Police deprived the priest of sleep for four days before he signed a document saying he would join the CCPA. According to AsiaNews.it, on September 1, the local religious affairs bureau detained another priest of the Mindong Diocese, Father Liu Maochun, for at least 17 days for refusing to join the CCPA.

Sources told Reuters News Agency that in May, two Catholic nuns serving at the Holy See’s Study Mission to China in Kowloon (Hong Kong) were arrested by mainland authorities when they traveled to Hebei Province to visit their families. The nuns were detained in Hebei for three weeks before being released into house arrest without being charged. They remained under house arrest as of year’s end, and their families’ homes were under surveillance. The nuns were reportedly allowed to attend Mass but were not permitted to leave mainland China.

In July, AsiaNews.it reported that a priest said authorities often gathered priests in order to “brainwash” them, congregation members were no longer able to host Mass in their homes, and bishops of underground dioceses were increasingly arrested since the 2018 signing of the provisional agreement between the Holy See and China. One lay member said there were more restrictions on the number of individuals allowed to attend religious gatherings, children younger than 18 were forbidden from entering the church, and government authorities often sat in on church meetings to surveil the church.

CNA reported that on October 4, Vincenzo Guo Xijin, the auxiliary bishop of the Mindong Diocese in Fujian Province, announced he would no longer preside over public masses or receive any tithes and said that all administrative matters associated with the diocese should be referred to Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu. In 2006, the Holy See excommunicated Zhan, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, but in December 2018 allowed him to replace Guo as bishop of the Mindong Diocese while Guo stepped into the subordinate position. Zhan was one of seven individuals appointed without papal mandate whom the Holy See recognized as bishops under the 2018 provisional agreement. The government did not recognize Guo, who was not a member of the CCPA, in his role as auxiliary bishop. In an open letter announcing his withdrawal from public religious duties, Guo stated, “The sacraments celebrated by those who sign [a document joining the CCPA] and those who do not sign are legitimate.”

In June, CNA reported that authorities detained underground Catholic bishop Cui Tai in Zhangjiakou Municipality, Hebei Province. According to AsiaNews.it, authorities in the past had repeatedly placed Cui under house arrest or sent him to forced-labor camps for engaging in evangelization activities without official government permission and for criticizing the CCPA. As of year’s end, it was unclear whether he had been released from detention.

Sources told Bitter Winter the government threatened to retaliate against family members if clergy in the Mindong Diocese did not join the CCPA. Authorities forced Father Feng from Xiyin Village, Fuan City, to sign an application to join the CCPA by threatening to dismiss his younger brother and sister-in-law from public employment. After another priest refused to join, authorities confiscated the vehicle his brother used for business and shut down his nephew’s travel agency.

The ICC reported in July that a member of the ERCC said authorities threatened to send the children of church members to “reeducation camps” and take adopted children away from their parents. The source said authorities had already taken four adopted children from one church family and returned them to their biological parents or found them other homes.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because the government and individuals closely link religion, culture, and ethnicity, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of societal discrimination as being solely based on religious identity.

Despite labor law provisions against discrimination in hiring based on religious belief, some employers continued to discriminate against religious believers. Religious minorities continued to report employers terminated their employment due to their current or prior religious activities. Minghui reported cases of Falun Gong practitioners losing their jobs due to their beliefs.

Bitter Winter reported that in June, a sanitation worker in Henan Province was fired for reading the Bible while on a work break. The director of the Environmental Sanitation Bureau fired her after publicly criticizing her earlier in the day. Thereafter, the Environmental Sanitation Bureau required that new workers show a “certificate of no faith” issued by police in the area of their permanent residence registration and stated that “one who believes in the Lord is not allowed.” A man in Shaanxi Province told Bitter Winter that he was required to provide a “certificate of no faith” to each of the multiple hotels he had worked at over the course of his career. A man working in the public security sector in Shandong Province said he lost his job because his father was a member of the CAG.

Discrimination against potential or current tenants based on their religious beliefs continued. Since 2017 and 2018 when articles in the 2005 Public Security Administration Punishment Law related to “suspicious activity” began to be enforced in earnest, Falun Gong practitioners reported ongoing difficulty finding landlords who would rent them apartments. Sources stated the enforcement of this law continued to move the PRC further away from informal discriminatory practices by individual landlords towards a more formalized enforcement of codified discriminatory legislation.

Sources told Bitter Winter that government propaganda portraying Uyghurs as radicals, extremists, and terrorists had created societal hostility towards that group. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread. Bitter Winter reported that in March, police in Xiamen City, Fujian Province, sent notices to many rental and real estate agencies forbidding them to rent apartments or shop spaces to Uyghurs. One property owner said police fined him RMB 500 ($76) for renting to Uyghurs and demanded he send police identification information and photographs of all Uyghur tenants. One Uyghur man said his family had, after some difficulty, found an apartment to rent, but on the condition that the family report to a local police station three times a week. The man said, “Three days after we signed the rental contract, police officers installed a surveillance camera at our building entrance.” One man in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province, said owners preferred to keep their properties empty rather than to rent to Uyghurs. A Uyghur man said he had to use his friend’s bank card because local banks refused to issue him one. Uyghur grocery store and restaurant owners said constant police visits had a severe negative impact on their businesses. A Han businessman told Bitter Winter, “The government tries every means possible to deprive Uyghurs of their rights, prohibiting them from renting, doing business, and staying in hotels. The goal is to drive them away and cut off all their sources of survival, forcing them back to Xinjiang to be locked in ‘transformation-through-education’ camps.”

According to Bitter Winter, several college students stated college administrators encouraged students to report on fellow students who appeared to engage in religious activities. One Christian student in Inner Mongolia said she had been reported and that school administrators investigated her, frequently summoned her, and forced her to write self-criticism statements. A university professor who was a member of the TSPM Church was demoted from her teaching position after mentioning the Bible in class and was subsequently investigated by the State Security Bureau.

There were reports that Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and other religious minorities continued to face difficulties in finding accommodation when they traveled.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other senior State Department officials and embassy and consulate general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom. On September 30, at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See’s Symposium on Advancing and Defending Religious Freedom Through Diplomacy in Rome, Italy, the Secretary gave a speech on the restrictions of religious freedom in China. The Secretary said the CCP “has battered every religious community in China: Protestant house churches, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees, and more. Nor, of course, have Catholics been spared this wave of repression.” In an October speech on tolerance while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.”

Embassy and consulate officials regularly sought meetings with a range of government officials managing religious affairs to obtain more information on government policies and to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance. Embassy and consulate officials, including the Ambassador and Consuls General, urged government officials at the central, provincial, and local levels, including those at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries, to implement stronger protections for religious freedom and to release prisoners of conscience. The Ambassador highlighted religious freedom in meetings with senior officials. The Department of State, embassy, and consulates general regularly called upon the government to release prisoners of conscience and advocated on behalf of individual cases of persons imprisoned for religious reasons.

The Ambassador, Consuls General in Chengdu (prior to its closure by the Chinese government in retaliation for the closure of PRC Consulate Houston), Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Wuhan, and other embassy and consulate general officials met with religious groups as well as academics, NGOs, members of registered and unregistered religious groups, and family members of religious prisoners to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The Consul General in Chengdu (prior to its closure) met with Tibetan and Muslim leaders in Sichuan Province to emphasize support for freedom of religion or belief. Embassy and consulate general officials hosted events around religious holidays and conducted roundtable discussions with religious leaders to convey the importance of religious pluralism in society and learn about issues facing religious communities. Embassy officials met with visiting members of U.S. religious groups to discuss how these groups were engaging with local communities.

The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to local audiences through postings to the embassy website and to its Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter accounts. Over the course of the year, the embassy published more than 120 messages promoting religious freedom, including videos, statements, images, and infographics. More than 250,000 social media users engaged with these social media posts, participating in online discussions with embassy staff and with each other. The embassy also highlighted the Secretary’s visit to the Vatican to emphasize U.S. support on religious freedom.

The embassy also shared religious holiday greetings from the President, Secretary of State, and Ambassador. These included well wishes on the occasion of special religious days for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists. Millions of social media users viewed these messages, often sparking further comments, such as “Countries that respect religious freedom will be respected,” “Freedom of religion is a prerequisite for building a civil society,” and “The essence of religion is to lead people to the good. As a democratic power, the United States has guaranteed religious freedom.” For International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, the embassy published the Secretary’s message supporting respect for religious freedom as well as information describing the Chinese government’s continuing control over religion and restrictions on the activities of religious adherents. These posts on Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter social media platforms garnered more than 750,000 views and approximately 10,000 engagements.

In January, the Consulate General in Guangzhou submitted comments to the Guangdong People’s Congress and Guangdong Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission regarding the new draft of Guangdong Religious Affairs Regulations. The government stated the new regulations would “protect citizens’ freedom of religious belief, maintain religious harmony and social harmony, standardize the management of religious affairs, and improve the level of legalization of religious work.” In December, the embassy submitted comments and recommendations on the central government’s draft Rules for the Implementation of the Provisions on the Administration of Foreign Religious Activities, which proposed burdensome preapproval procedures for almost all religious activities. The draft rules also limited activities of unregistered religious groups and conflated peaceful religious practice with “terrorism.”

On May 22, the Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Department of Commerce announced it would add China’s Ministry of Public Security Institute of Forensic Science and eight commercial entities to the list of entities subject to specific license requirements for export, reexport, and/or transfer in-country of specific items (the “Entity List”) for being complicit in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor, and high-technology surveillance against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the XUAR. On July 20, the Bureau of Industry and Security announced it would add an additional 11 commercial entities to the list for the same reasons, bring the total number of entities added to the Entity List during the year to 20. These actions constrict the export of items subject to the Export Administration Regulations to entities that have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the country’s campaign targeting Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

On July 1, the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security issued a business advisory to caution businesses about the economic, legal, and reputational risks of supply chain links to entities that engage in human rights abuses, including forced labor, in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.

On July 7, the Secretary of State announced the United States was imposing visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials determined to be “substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas,” pursuant to the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018.

On July 9, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on three senior CCP officials for their involvement in gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang: Chen Quanguo, the party secretary of the XUAR; Zhu Hailun, party secretary of the Xinjiang Political and Legal Committee; and Wang Mingshan, the party secretary of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (XPSB). They and their immediate family members became ineligible for entry into the United States. In making the announcement, the Secretary said the United States “will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” Also on July 9, the Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on Chen, Zhu, Wang, and Huo Liujun, former party secretary of the XPSB, as well as the XPSB organization, pursuant to Executive Order 13818, which builds on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. In response, the Chinese government on July 13 imposed sanctions on the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, three members of Congress, and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

On July 31, the Department of the Treasury imposed a second round of sanctions pursuant to the Executive Order on one government entity and two current or former government officials, in connection with serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), Sun Jinlong, a former political commissar of the XPCC, and Peng Jiarui, the deputy party secretary and commander of the XPCC.

On December 10, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on Huang Yuanxiong, chief of the Xiamen Public Security Bureau Wucun police station “for his involvement in gross violations of human rights in Xiamen, China.” In his statement, the Secretary said, “Huang is associated with particularly severe violations of religious freedom of Falun Gong practitioners, namely his involvement in the detention and interrogation of Falun Gong practitioners for practicing their beliefs.” The action also applied to Mr. Huang’s spouse.

On May 1, June 17, September 14, and December 2, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency prohibited imports of specified merchandise, including hair products, apparel, cotton, and computer parts, produced by eight companies that operated in Xinjiang, based on information that reasonably indicated the use of prison labor and forced labor of Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang being held in internment camps.

On December 27, the President signed into law the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020. The law states in part that decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders are exclusively spiritual matters that should be made by the appropriate religious authorities.

PRC authorities consistently harassed and intimidated religious leaders to dissuade them from speaking with U.S. officials. Authorities regularly prevented members of religious communities from attending events at the embassy and consulates general, and security services questioned individuals who did attend. Authorities routinely declined to approve or postponed U.S. officials’ requests to visit religious sites and meet with religious leaders.

At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.*

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020 the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

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Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Egypt

Executive Summary

The constitution states, “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 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. On February 24, the government executed eight men at Borg al-Arab Prison in Alexandria for their role in attacks on churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, 2017, that resulted in 88 deaths. On June 2, the Giza Criminal Court sentenced seven defendants to 15 years’ imprisonment each for setting fire to the Kafr Hakim Church in Kerdasa in Giza Governorate in 2013. On December 6, a Cairo court extended the detention of Coptic rights advocate Ramy Kamel Saied. In September, press and NGOs reported that police detained Quranist Reda Abdel-Rahman, a teacher in Kafr Saqr in Sharqia Governorate, on charges of joining ISIS, adopting takfiri extremist ideas, and promoting those ideas in print, reportedly based on papers seized from his residence at the time of his August 22 arrest. Authorities renewed Abdel-Rahman’s detention on December 31. On June 21, the Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court in Alexandria rejected an appeal submitted on behalf of atheist activist and blogger Anas Hassan to a February 27 verdict and upheld his sentence of three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 Egyptian pounds ($19,100) for managing “The Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page. On June 27, a court in Mashtoul al-Souk in Sharqia Governorate sentenced two men to one year in prison each on charges of “contempt of religions” for spreading and promoting Shia Islam. On February 23, an administrative court ordered all Shia websites and television channels closed, including the well-known website elnafisbook.com, which belongs to Shia activist Ahmed Rasem al-Nafis, a professor who converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having approved 478 applications for legalization for churches and related buildings during the year, resulting in a total of 1,800 buildings legally registered since the law’s enactment in 2017. According to a report issued by the media center of the cabinet, the government allocated lands to build 10 new churches in eight cities. The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications for Sunni imams and to register and license all mosques. In a June 28 cabinet meeting, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said the government should give “the highest priority to spreading awareness among students of the principles of religion, including freedom of belief.”

Press and NGOs reported that a fight broke out between Muslims and Christians in Dabbous in Minya Governorate on October 3 during a Coptic wedding that led to further violence two days later. Police arrested 12 individuals from both sides. Newspapers reported that a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian homes and a church in the village of al-Barsha in Minya on November 25 after rumors circulated that a local Christian man uploaded posts to social media viewed as insulting to the Prophet Mohammed. According to an NGO, Mohammed Mahdaly, a sociology professor in the High Institute of Social Service in Alexandria, posted a video on his personal Facebook account that mocked the Prophet Mohammed, which resulted in the Ministry of Higher Education suspending Mahdaly. On February 24, the Ministry of Awqaf suspended well-known al-Azhar cleric Abdullah Rushdy for a post on social media in which he suggested that a Christian cardiac surgeon would not enter heaven due to his religious affiliation. In March, Islamic scholar Dr. Haitham Talaat posted a video online in which he said atheists were social outcasts, infidels, and apostates and were worse than terrorists or armed robbers.

U.S. officials, including the Ambassador, other embassy representatives, senior Department of State officials, and the acting Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development met with government officials and religious leaders to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. Throughout the year, embassy representatives met with the Grand Mufti, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, bishops and senior pastors of the Coptic Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican churches, and the Jewish community. In the meetings, embassy officials raised the importance of the need for accountability for sectarian violence, protections for victims of sectarian attacks, and concerns about religious discrimination, including through the inclusion of official religious designations on national identity cards. They also discussed progress on issues such as legalization and construction of churches, and the restoration and protection of Islamic, Christian, and Jewish religious sites.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 104.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Most experts and media sources estimate that approximately 90 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim and 10 percent is Christian (estimates range from 5 to 15 percent). Approximately 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, according to Christian leaders.

Other Christian communities together constitute less than 2 percent of the population. These include Anglican/Episcopalian, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic (Armenian, Chaldean, Melkite, Maronite, Latin, and Syrian), and Orthodox (Greek and Syrian) Churches. Most Protestant denominations are members of the umbrella group known as the Protestant Churches of Egypt (PCE), also known as the Evangelical Church Association. These include the Apostolic Grace, Apostolic, Assemblies of God, Baptists, Brethren, Christian Model Church (al-Mithaal al-Masihi), Church of Christ, Faith (al-Eyman), Gospel Missionary (al-Kiraaza bil Ingil), Grace (al-Ni’ma), Independent Apostolic, Message Church of Holland (ar-Risaala), Open Brethren, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Revival of Holiness (Nahdat al-Qadaasa), and Seventh-Day Adventists. There are an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses and an estimated 150 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), the vast majority of whom are expatriates. Christians reside throughout the country, although the percentage of Christians is higher in Upper Egypt and in some sections of Cairo and Alexandria, according to religious and civil society groups.

Scholars estimate that Shia Muslims comprise approximately 1 percent of the population. Baha’i representatives estimate the size of the community to be between 1,000 and 2,000 persons. There are very small numbers of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and expatriate members of various groups.

According to a local Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO), there are six to 10 Jews.

There are no reliable estimates of the number of atheists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the main source of legislation. The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of Abrahamic religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and makes “incitement to hate” a crime. The constitution prohibits political activity or the formation of political parties on the basis of religion.

The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and allows only their adherents as defined by the government to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. The constitution states that al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs” and is responsible for spreading Islam, Islamic doctrine, and the Arabic language in the country and throughout the world. The Grand Imam is elected by al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and is officially appointed by the President for a life term. The President does not have the authority to dismiss him. The constitution declares al-Azhar to be an independent institution and requires the government to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes.”

According to the law, capital sentences must be referred to the Grand Mufti, the country’s highest Islamic legal official, for consultation before they can be carried out. The Grand Mufti’s decision in these cases is consultative and nonbinding on the court that handed down the sentence.

The constitution stipulates the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders. Individuals are subject to different sets of personal status laws (regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.) depending upon their official religious designation. The Ministry of Interior issues national identity cards that include official religious designations. Designations are limited to Muslim, Christian, or Jewish citizens. Although the government designates Jehovah’s Witnesses as “Christian” on identity cards, a presidential decree bans their religious activities. Since a 2009 court order, Baha’is are identified by a dash. The Minister of Interior has the authority to issue executive regulations determining what data should be provided on the card.

Neither the constitution nor the civil or penal codes prohibit apostasy from Islam, nor efforts to proselytize. The law states individuals may change their religion. However, the government recognizes conversion to Islam, but generally not from Islam to any other religion. The government recognizes conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to a Ministry of Interior decree pursuant to a court order. Reverting to Christianity requires presentation of a document from the receiving church, an identity card, and fingerprints. After a determination is made that the intent of the change – which often also entails a name change – is not to evade prosecution for a crime committed under the Muslim name, a new identity document should be issued with the Christian name and religious designation. In those cases in which Muslims not born Muslim convert from Islam, their minor children, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, remain classified as Muslims. When these children reach the age of 18, they have the option of converting to Christianity and having that reflected on their identity cards.

Consistent with sharia, the law stipulates Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men. Non-Muslim men who wish to marry Muslim women must convert to Islam. Christian and Jewish women are not required to convert to Islam in order to marry Muslim men. A married non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert. If a married man is discovered to have left Islam, his marriage to a woman whose official religious designation is Muslim is dissolved. Children from any unrecognized marriage are considered illegitimate.

A divorced mother is entitled to custody of her son until the age of 10 and her daughter until age 12, unless one parent is Muslim and the other is not, in which case the Muslim parent is awarded custody.

The law generally follows sharia in matters of inheritance. In 2017, however, an appellate court ruled applying sharia to non-Muslims violated the section of the constitution stating that personal status matters for Christian and Jewish communities are governed by their respective religious doctrine.

According to the penal code, using religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife; demeaning or denigrating Islam, Christianity, or Judaism; or harming national unity carries penalties ranging from six months to five years’ imprisonment.

There are four entities currently authorized to issue fatwas (religious rulings binding on Muslims): the al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the al-Azhar Islamic Research Center, the Dar al-Iftaa (House of Religious Edicts), and the Ministry of Awqaf’s General Fatwa Directorate. Previously part of the Ministry of Justice, Dar al-Iftaa has been an independent organization since 2007.

Islamic, Christian, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives a denomination the right to be governed by its canonical laws, practice religious rituals, establish houses of worship, and import religious literature. To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to the Ministry of the Interior’s Religious Affairs Department. The department then determines whether the group poses a threat to national unity or social peace. As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and al-Azhar. The President then reviews and decides on the registration application.

The law does not recognize the Baha’i faith or its religious laws and bans Baha’i institutions and community activities. The law does not stipulate any penalties for banned religious groups or their members who engage in religious practices, but these groups are barred from rights granted to recognized groups, such as having their own houses of worship or other property, holding bank accounts, or importing religious literature.

The government appoints and monitors imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries. According to the law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf or al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year, a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($3,200), or both. The penalty doubles for repeat offenders. Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law. A ministry decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons written and disseminated by the Ministry of Awqaf. Ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques, and an imam who fails to follow the guidelines for ministry sermons may lose the bonus and be subject to disciplinary measures, including potentially losing his preaching license.

The Prime Minister has the authority to stop the circulation of books that “denigrate religions.” Ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art. The cabinet may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace. The Islamic Research Center of al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (hadith) and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.

A 2016 law delegates the power to issue legal permits and to authorize church construction or renovation to governors of the country’s 27 governorates. The governor is to respond within four months of receipt of an application for legalization; any refusal must include a written justification. The law does not provide for review or appeal of a refusal, nor does it specify recourse if a governor fails to respond within the required timeframe. The law also includes provisions to legalize existing unlicensed churches. It stipulates that while a request to license an existing building for use as a church is pending, the use of the building to conduct church services and rites may not be prevented. Under the law, the size of new churches depends on a government determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area. Construction of new churches must meet specific land registration procedures and building codes and is subject to greater government scrutiny than that applied to the construction of new mosques.

Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf approves permits to build mosques. A 2001 cabinet decree includes a list of 10 provisions requiring that new mosques built after that date must, among other conditions, be a minimum of 500 meters (1,600 feet) from the nearest other mosque, have a ground surface of at least 175 square meters (1,884 square feet), and be built only in areas where “the existing mosques do not accommodate the number of residents in the area.” The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.

In public schools, Muslim students are required to take courses on “principles of Islam” and Christian students are required to take courses on “principles of Christianity” in all grades. Schools determine the religious identity of students, and the religious studies courses they should take, based on official identity card designations, not personal or parental decisions. Students who are neither Muslim nor Christian must choose one or the other course; they may not opt out or change from one to the other. A common set of textbooks for these two courses is mandated for both public and private schools, including parochial schools. Al-Azhar maintains a separate school system that serves an estimated two million students from kindergarten through secondary school using its own curriculum.

The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to… religion or belief.” The law stipulates imprisonment, a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,900) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($3,200), or both, as penalties for discrimination. If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($3,200) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($6,400).

Customary reconciliation is a form of dispute resolution that predates modern judicial and legal systems and is recognized in the law in instances that do not involve serious crimes such as homicide, serious injury, or theft. Customary reconciliation sessions rely on the accumulation of a set of customary rules to address conflicts between individuals, families, households, or workers and employees of certain professions. Parties to disputes agree upon a resolution that typically contains stipulations to pay an agreed-upon amount of money for breaching the terms of the agreement.

Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church formed the Family House (Beit al-A’ila) in 2011 to address sectarian disputes through communal reconciliation. With Family House branches throughout the country, al-Azhar, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and other Christian denominations bring together opposing parties to a sectarian dispute with the goal of restoring communal peace through dialogue. The Family House, however, is not uniformly active. Muslim and Christian religious leaders said that in some areas, such as Assiut, the Family House is quite active, while in others, such as Cairo and Alexandria, it has become largely inactive.

The government recognizes only the marriages of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim citizens with documentation from a cleric and does not recognize civil marriage for citizens. Marriages of Shia are recognized as Muslim. The government recognizes civil marriages of individuals from other religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ, if one or both are foreigners. Authorities deny Baha’is the rights of married couples pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse. In practice, however, Baha’is are able to file individual petitions for recognition of their marriages in civil court.

In matters of family law, when spouses are members of the same religious denomination, courts apply that denomination’s canonical laws. In cases where one spouse is Muslim and the other a member of a different religion, both are Christians but members of different denominations, or the individuals are not clearly a part of a religious group, the courts apply sharia.

Sharia provisions forbidding adoption apply to all citizens. The Ministry of Social Solidarity, however, manages a program called “Alternative Family” which recognizes permanent legal guardianship if certain conditions are met, including requirements that the guardians share the same religion as the child and have been married to one another for a minimum of five years.

The quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights, whose members are appointed by parliament under a 2016 law, is charged with strengthening protections, raising awareness, and ensuring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom. It also is charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements pertaining to human rights. The council’s mandate includes investigating reports of alleged violations of religious freedom.

According to the constitution, “No political activity may be engaged in, or political parties formed, on the basis of religion, or discrimination based on sex, origin, sect, or geographic location.

The constitution mandates that the state eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament. However, as of year’s end, parliament had not acted to implement the mandate.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but declared in a reservation that it became a party considering that the provisions of the covenant do not conflict with sharia.

Government Practices

On February 24, the government executed eight men at Borg al-Arab Prison in Alexandria for their role in attacks on churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, 2017, that resulted in 88 deaths. The men were among a group of 17 defendants who were tried and sentenced to death in 2018 for their involvement in these and other attacks.

On June 2, the Giza Criminal Court sentenced seven defendants to 15 years’ imprisonment each on charges of membership in a banned group, possession of firearms, setting fire to a religious establishment, and other charges for their roles in the arson attack on the Kafr Hakim Church in Kerdasa in Giza Governorate in 2013. On September 17, the Court of Cassation ordered that an additional 22 defendants, who in 2018 were each sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for the attack on the church, have their sentences reduced to between two and five years’ imprisonment.

On June 27, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies condemned the continued detention of human rights advocate Ramy Kamel Saied Salid and other activists. Authorities originally arrested Kamel in November 2019 following his application for a Swiss visa to speak at a UN forum in Geneva, where he had previously presented issues affecting the Coptic community. The government charged him with joining a banned group and spreading false news. On December 6, a Cairo court renewed his detention for 45 days.

On August 22, authorities arrested Reda Abdel-Rahman, a teacher in Kafr Saqr in Sharqia Governorate and member of the Quranists (Quraniyyun), who believe that the Quran is the sole source of Islamic law and reject the authenticity and authority of the hadith (the body of sayings and traditions attributed to the Prophet Mohammed). In September, press and NGOs reported that authorities were investigating Abdel-Rahman for joining ISIS, adopting takfiri extremist ideas, and promoting those ideas in print, based on papers seized from his residence at the time of his arrest. According to the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), security officers questioned Abdel-Rahman and seven of his relatives arrested at the same time about their relationship with Quranist leader Dr. Ahmed Sobhi Mansour and their adoption of Quranist principles before releasing the seven relatives. EIPR called for Abdel-Rahman’s release and for dropping the charges against him. On December 31, authorities renewed Abdel-Rahman’s detention.

On January 11, the Minya Criminal Court sentenced three defendants in absentia to 10 years’ imprisonment each for a 2016 attack on Souad Thabet, a Christian who was stripped and dragged through her village of Karm in Minya, in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner. Authorities originally charged four persons with attacking Thabet and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six other homes owned by Christians. According to the newspaper al-Masry al-Youm, Thabet welcomed the convictions and praised President al-Sisi for his public support for her and her family. Three defendants, sentenced in absentia, surrendered to authorities and faced automatic retrial on the same charges in the Minya Criminal Court. (The status of the fourth defendant remained unknown.) After announcing that it would hand down its verdict on August 24, the Minya Criminal Court ordered the case returned to the Beni Suef Criminal Court, which acquitted the three men on December 17. The same day, the Public Prosecutor ordered the formation of a technical committee to review and challenge the acquittal. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms told the al-Monitor news website the verdict demonstrated the deep-rooted bias within the judicial system against Christians. According to an analyst of customary reconciliation sessions from EIPR, local Christians whose houses had been damaged in the incident agreed to hold a customary reconciliation session with the alleged assailants after facing pressure from the local Muslim community in February.

On June 21, the Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court in Alexandria rejected an appeal submitted on behalf of atheist activist and blogger Anas Hassan to a February 27 verdict sentencing him to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 pounds ($19,100) for managing “The Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page. Authorities arrested Hassan in 2019 for publishing atheist ideas and criticizing the “divinely revealed religions.”

NGOs and press reported that on May 20, authorities assaulted a priest and arrested 14 Copts who were protesting the destruction of their church in Beheira Governorate. The lawyer for the Coptic community said that the church had been used for 15 years before the Abu al-Matamir city council ordered it removed. According to NGOs, after the church opened, local Muslims built a mosque next to the church with the aim of preventing the church from being legalized. According to NGO reports, security forces razed both the church and the adjacent mosque, since both appeared to encroach on agricultural land owned by the state. Church officials later stated that the government was within its rights to dismantle the church.

Although in late 2018 President al-Sisi stated individuals have the “right to worship God” as they see fit or “even worship nothing,” efforts to combat atheism sometimes received official support. In 2019, al-Azhar founded a “Bayan” (Declaration) Unit in its Center for Electronic Fatwa to “counter atheism” and prevent youth from “falling into disbelief.” The Bayan Unit published several social media pieces that were critical of atheism, and on August 25, as part of a training program, al-Azhar organized a workshop on “atheism, its types, and the most important methods of dealing with adherents of its ideas.”

On April 13, authorities in Beheira Governorate detained three Muslim teenagers on suspicion of blasphemy after they posted a video showing one of them smoking while performing prayers. According to local press, the three minors confessed, and said they posted the video to become famous.

On June 27, the State Security Misdemeanor Court in Mashtoul al-Souk in Sharqia Governorate sentenced two men initially arrested in 2019 to one year in prison each for violating laws against “contempt of religions” for spreading and promoting Shia Islam. According to an international NGO, the government based its prosecution of the two men on provisions in the penal code that criminalize the defamation of religion and spreading propaganda “insulting ‘the heavenly [Abrahamic] religions.”

On February 23, an administrative court ordered all Shia websites and television channels closed including the well-known website elnafisbook.com, which belonged to Shia activist Ahmed Rasem al-Nafis, a doctor and professor who converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. The court’s decision followed a lawsuit filed by activist lawyer Samir Sabry, whose office told the press after the decision, “The reasons behind this verdict are based on the dangers of Shiite ideology on Egyptian society and national security, as Shiites in Egypt use religion for political manipulation.” Al-Nafis said the country’s Shia community was not interested in conversions and added, “We are not hurting anyone.” One press report stated that the verdict was issued despite the fact that there are no laws prohibiting the promotion of Shia beliefs and that a 1959 fatwa from al-Azhar recognized the legitimacy of the Shia Jafaari school along with the four main Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

On August 26, a Port Said criminal court sentenced a man in absentia to 15 years in prison for allegedly “distorting” the text of the Quran after he said he had received a divine revelation. The court convicted the man of producing a “new Quran” in violation of laws that regulate the printing of the Quran.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government had designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. The government in 2013 banned the Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. On August 28, the MOI announced the arrest of Mahmoud Ezzat, acting supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ezzat had been a fugitive since 2013 when he was sentenced in absentia to two death sentences and life imprisonment on multiple terrorism-related charges. Following his arrest, the law required he face retrial on those charges. Upon Ezzat’s arrest, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated sources announced that Ibrahim Mounir, who lives in the United Kingdom, had become the new acting supreme guide.

The Court of Cassation in July upheld a life sentence for Mohammed Badie and five other Muslim Brotherhood leaders convicted for involvement in political violence in 2013. Essam al-Erian, whom the press identified as a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader who served as vice chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, died of a heart attack in Tora Prison on August 13.

On February 6, security authorities arrested Ahmed Sebaie, who managed a YouTube channel with 404,000 followers that focused on religion. Sebaie produced several videos in which he discussed Christian doctrinal issues, commented on social media posts of atheists, and discussed Islam. After 29 days in detention, authorities released Sebaie without charges. On November 27, authorities arrested Sebaie again after he posted a video discussing the Bible and Christian doctrine to social media and charged him with reading false news and misuse of social media.

On May 5, authorities in Alexandria arrested 10 persons for holding Ramadan night prayers in contravention of the Ministry of Awqaf’s closure of mosques due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All were subsequently released without charges.

On February 2, the director of the Alexandria Ministry of Awqaf ordered a deduction of three months’ salary from preacher Mohammed Kamal Mohammed for failing to adhere to the ministry’s official topic for Friday sermons. In August, the Ministry of Awqaf revoked the preaching license of an al-Azhar preacher after accusing him of membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and calling for violence.

According to the NGO Arab Network for Human Rights Information, imprisoned labor activist Khalil Rizk asked a warden of Tora Prison that he be allowed to attend Coptic Christmas services on January 1. Although authorities told Rizk his request had been approved, they did not allow him to attend Christmas prayers or allow a priest to visit him.

On January 6, EIPR issued a statement criticizing the pace of legalization of churches and subsidiary buildings that had filed applications since 2016 and called for a single, uniform decree granting final legal status to all churches and subsidiary buildings.

According to official statistics, the government approved 478 applications for legalization for churches and related buildings during the year. Since September 2017, it approved 1,800 of the 5,415 pending applications for licensure of churches and related buildings.

According to a report issued by the media center of the cabinet, the government allocated lands during the year to build 10 churches in eight cities (Sadat, New 6th of October, New Beni Suef, Badr, Nasser, and New Sohag). At the May 21 inauguration of Project Good Hope 3 in Alexandria, a complex that will provide housing for 50,000 individuals and feature a centrally located new cathedral and mosque in close proximity, President al-Sisi stated, “The idea is that when we built the schools, the church, and the mosque, our young children will see that we are one country, one people.”

In September, the government announced that it would open and renovate more than 300 mosques in several governorates across the country in September and October. According to press reports, the step came in response to accusations by the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups that authorities had been demolishing mosques in a crackdown on illegal buildings.

A cabinet report stated that the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities allocated 41 million pounds ($2.61 million) for the Journey of the Holy Family project, a 2,100 mile trail that will extend from Sinai to Assiut, and will include stops at churches, monasteries, and water wells in 11 governorates. Those governorates have provided 448 million pounds ($28.55 million) for related development projects, according to the report.

According to a 2019 report by Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), an international NGO, there continued to be no Shia congregational halls (husseiniyahs) in the country, and Shia Muslims remained unable to establish public places of worship. Members of the Shia community risked accusations of blasphemy for publicly voicing their religious opinions, praying in public, or owning books promoting Shia thought. Shia Muslims said they were excluded from service in the armed services, and from the security and intelligence services.

The press reported that a government committee charged with the seizure of Muslim Brotherhood assets filed a lawsuit in September to confiscate the funds of 89 Muslim Brotherhood members, including the heirs of former President Mohammed Morsi. The court scheduled a hearing for January 2021.

In January, the General Egyptian Book Organization, the government authority that oversees the Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF), announced that it had excluded a number of publishers of Islamic titles from participating in the fair, held in January and February, and barred the sale of several authors for their alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, including Sayyed Qutb, Hassan al Banna, and Youssef Qaradawi. A CIBF representative said publishers were required to submit lists of titles that they intended to display for approval, and security officials reportedly rejected some of the applications submitted by Islamic publishing houses. In a January 25 statement, the chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organization said that it took the actions to “prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from carrying out its activities.” On February 25, the Anti-Defamation League published a letter it had sent to President al-Sisi that condemned the presence of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and other anti-Semitic literature at the book fair. The General Egyptian Book Authority did not bar the publishers, one of which was affiliated with the government, from participating in the fair or order the books removed, citing the government’s commitment to freedom of speech. The Simon Wiesenthal Center published a letter which stated that the CIBF continued to allow the publisher Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi to display anti-Semitic publications.

On September 26, the Supreme Administrative Court denied an appeal against a 2014 decision by the Alexandria Judicial Court upholding a prohibition of the annual celebration of the birth of Rabbi Yaqoub bin Masoud, also known as Abu Hasira, at his tomb in the Beheira Governorate; ordered the removal of the shrine from the government’s list of Islamic, Jewish, and Coptic antiquities; and rejected a request to move the rabbi’s remains to Israel. The court justified its decision to prohibit the annual celebration, citing “moral offenses and disturbances to public order,” and ruled that the shrine lacked archaeological significance. The government first listed the tomb and the Jewish cemeteries surrounding it as antiquities in 2001. The court ordered the government to inform UNESCO of its decision.

While the Coptic Orthodox Church does not bar participation in government-sponsored customary reconciliation sessions, according to its spokesman, reconciliation sessions should not be used in lieu of application of the law and should be restricted to “clearing the air and making amends” following sectarian disputes or violence. At least one Coptic Orthodox diocese in Upper Egypt continued to refuse to participate in reconciliation sessions, criticizing such sessions as substitutes for criminal proceedings which would address attacks on Christians and their churches. Other Christian denominations continued to participate in customary reconciliation sessions. Human rights groups and some Christian community representatives characterized the practice as an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship that regularly pressures Christians to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of formal criminal charges.

On March 20 and 21, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Awqaf announced the closure of all churches and mosques to curb the spread of COVID-19. Churches and mosques remained closed through August. Religious institutions made concerted efforts to persuade the population to address the spread of COVID-19. On March 29, the Ministry of Awqaf, explaining its decision to close mosques, said that a fundamental goal of Islamic law was to preserve life. On March 15, al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the highest Islamic advisory body, declared it religiously permissible to suspend communal prayers in mosques to curb the spread of the pandemic. On March 17, Grand Mufti Shawky Allam said Egyptians should follow government guidelines on social distancing and hygiene, and on April 1, Dar al-Iftaa issued a fatwa encouraging the distribution of alms to workers affected by COVID-19.

On July 4, the Ministry of Awqaf ordered barriers placed around the tomb of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, located inside al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, an action the ministry said was intended to stem the spread of COVID-19 after some worshippers kissed the shrine. In previous years, the government closed the room containing the tomb during the three-day Shia commemoration of Ashura.

On January 26, the High Administrative Court upheld a final verdict banning faculty and teaching staff of Cairo University from wearing the niqab (face veil) during classes, putting an end to a case first filed by 80 faculty members in 2015. The ban only applied to lecture halls during classes and did not apply to students. The ban came into force on February 8, with instructions that professors who did not comply were to be prohibited from teaching. On January 30, Ain Shams University issued a similar ban on the niqab for university staff.

The government largely continued to allow Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Shia Muslims to worship privately in small numbers but continued to refuse requests for public religious gatherings.

The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials.

According to local media, on May 30, the Supreme Administrative Court dissolved the Islamist Building and Development Party based on an allegation of the Political Parties Affairs Committee, which oversees political parties, that the party was affiliated with an Islamist group in violation of the law. While authorities did not ban other Islamist parties, including the Strong Egypt Party, they added Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, leader of the Strong Egypt Party, to a list of designated terrorists on November 19.

The Minister of Immigration and Expatriate Affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet. The governors of the Damietta and Ismailia governorates are Christian, as is a deputy governor of Alexandria Governorate. The governor of Damietta was the country’s first female Christian governor. The electoral laws governing the 2020 House of Representatives elections reserved 24 seats for Christian candidates in the closed-list portion of the electoral system. Three Christians won elections as independent candidates to the House of Representatives in November. In addition, 17 Christian senators and two Christian representatives were elected, and President al-Sisi appointed seven Christian senators. President al-Sisi has approximately five senior Christian advisors.

Christians reported being underrepresented in the military and security services, and they stated that those admitted at entry levels of government face limited opportunities for promotion to the upper ranks.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 27 public universities. The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic-language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

The government generally permitted foreign religious workers in the country. Sources continued to report, however, that some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.

The Ministry of Education and Technical Education continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance. In the fall, third grade students began instruction using revised textbooks under the new curriculum. On September 8, Minister of Education Tarek Shawki said in a press conference that President al-Sisi directed third grade classes to begin universal instruction from the book Values and Respect for Others, a text to teach ethics drawn from Islamic and Christian religious traditions.

On February 18, the cabinet announced that the Ministry of Social Solidarity, in cooperation with the Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents and the Ministries of Education and Technical Education, Awqaf, Culture, and Youth and Sports and the National Council of Women, signed eight protocols of cooperation with a number of Muslim and Christian NGOs to launch a program to promote equality in Minya Governorate, a region with a significant Christian population and a history of sectarian tensions. The cabinet announced a budget of 12 million pounds ($765,000) for the program that would target 44 villages.

Grand Imam El-Tayyeb made multiple public references to the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, which he signed with Pope Francis in 2019, as a framework for “a world full of prosperity, tolerance, peace, and love.” In a January 18 meeting with a delegation of French Catholic bishops, El-Tayyeb said the document’s principles offered a “safe way out of the problems of the East and West.”

In January, the al-Azhar Curricula Development Committee announced that in addition to highlighting unity between Muslims and Christians and the concept of citizenship without distinction to religious belief, new textbooks in the 11,000 schools under its purview would include material based upon the principles of the Document on Human Fraternity. In 2019, the committee announced the introduction of new primary, secondary, and university textbooks that promote religious tolerance.

Al-Azhar continued tracking and countering online statements by ISIS and other extremist groups through the al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism. The observatory’s staff of approximately 100 individuals monitored and offered counterarguments to religious statements on jihadi websites. The center’s website and social media employed several languages to reach foreign audiences, including English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, Chinese, and Farsi. Al-Azhar, through the al-Azhar International Academy, also continued to offer courses to imams and preachers in 20 countries on a wide range of subjects related to Islam. Al-Azhar largely curtailed travel and in-person training during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but continued to offer training virtually.

In a June 28 meeting with his cabinet, President al-Sisi urged “giving the highest priority to spreading awareness among students of the principles of all religions, including freedom of belief, tolerance and acceptance of differences.” On October 21, after images of the Prophet Mohammed that Muslims widely considered blasphemous were published and displayed in France, the President gave an address to commemorate the Prophet’s birthday during which he said freedom of expression should have limits if it offended more than 1.5 billion people. Al-Sisi said, “We also have rights. We have the right for our feelings not to be hurt and for our values not to be hurt,” adding that he firmly rejected any form of violence in the name of defending religion, religious symbols, or icons.

While the constitution declares al-Azhar an independent institution, its budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 16 billion pounds ($1.02 billion).

Dar al-Iftaa and al-Azhar issued several fatwas and statements permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays, to assist non-Muslims in need, and to “stop using [religious] beliefs as means to harm or diminish others.” On April 18, Grand Imam El-Tayyeb congratulated Christians on Easter Sunday, stressing the bond of “brotherhood and love” between the country’s Muslims and Christians and highlighting that Christians were “good people (who) set the most wonderful example of solidarity and cohesion in critical moments, especially during this pandemic.”

On May 14, Dar al-Iftaa issued a fatwa stating that it is permissible for Muslims to give zakat (religiously mandated charitable donations) to non-Muslims in need of treatment for COVID-19 or other diseases or to meet any other material needs.

On June 16, Dar al-Iftaa issued a series of statements on social media following the death due to suicide of Sarah Hegazy, an Egyptian lesbian activist, writer, and reported atheist. Dar al-Iftaa wrote that “all heavenly religions” prohibit homosexuality and that atheism was an “intellectual problem” and a “psychological disease” requiring treatment. However, the statement continued, Muslims claiming “with full certainty” that a person “will never enter paradise” were “absolutely wrong, because such judgement of who goes to heaven and who does not is up to Allah.”

Following a government investment of 60 million pounds ($3.82 million), on January 10, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MOTA) reopened the Eliyahu HaNevi synagogue in Alexandria. Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled al-Anani noted in his remarks at the opening ceremony that “the opening of the Jewish synagogue in Alexandria after its restoration is a message to the world that the Egyptian government cares about the Egyptian heritage of all religions.” On February 14, the government sent a representative to a rededication ceremony of the synagogue honoring 174 members of the diaspora Jewish community from approximately a dozen countries.

On July 20, the government demolished several Islamic cemeteries it said dated from the early 20th century as part of a roadworks project, but denied reports that it had demolished parts of Cairo’s oldest Islamic cemetery, the Mamluk Desert Cemetery. Activists asserted that the tombs were part of the country’s Islamic heritage and that the cost of moving the graves was prohibitive for the families of the deceased.

On January 27 and 28, under the auspices of President al-Sisi, al-Azhar held the International Conference on the Renovation of Islamic Thought attended by Muslim scholars from 47 countries. Al-Azhar announced the opening of a new center for the renewal of Islamic thought during the conference. In remarks made on behalf of President al-Sisi, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly urged the acceleration of reforming religious discourse, stressed the importance of countering “bogus” messaging and “pretentious” religious scholars who “hijack the minds of youth,” and called for practical solutions to the problems that divide Muslims. Al-Azhar Grand Imam El-Tayyeb criticized extremist religious thought and what he labeled as distorted and mocking images of Islam in the West. In an accompanying panel discussion, El-Tayyeb and Cairo University president Mohammed al-Khost presented contrasting views of the nature of possible reforms. Khost called for revisiting and revising sharia and the hadith for a modern world, while El-Tayyeb said that Muslims should build on, not abandon, Islamic tradition and attributed extremism in the Islamic world to politics, not to religious heritage.

A columnist in the government-owned newspaper Al-Youm7 wrote that the conference showed that the leaders of al-Azhar were “not concerned with the issue of renewing thought and enlightenment, but rather … in preserving the heritage that enables them to keep their great privileges in power and [to] collect the spoils and remain in the spotlight, using religion as a vehicle.” Former Minister of Culture and public intellectual Gaber Asfour told international press that “The current leadership of al-Azhar does not believe in renewal and is comfortable with the way things are.”

In July, press reported that al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars released a letter it had sent to the parliamentary speaker in February that rejected, on constitutional grounds, a proposed law drafted by the government that would have changed the status of the Dar al-Iftaa and the Grand Mufti, making them independent of al-Azhar. Sources told the press that the main objective of the proposed law was to create a parallel entity to al-Azhar, under the direct control of the government. The draft legislation, introduced in parliament in August, would have granted the President the right to appoint the Mufti. The State Council ruled the draft law was unconstitutional and returned it to parliament where the Religious Affairs Committee withdrew it from further consideration. After the decision to withdraw the bill, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb said that the decision to withdraw the bill demonstrated that the country continued to respect its constitution and appreciate its national institutions, including al-Azhar.

On June 22, the Ministry of Awqaf announced the formation of a committee “to counter extremist ideology.” The ministry said the committee was tasked with developing plans to confront extremist thought among ministry preachers and employees.

In 2019, the Ministry of Awqaf announced it would prepare a “unique and distinctive architectural style” for all new mosques in the country, and that in the future, only mosques that complied with approved designs would be granted construction permits. Implementation of the new directive was pending at year’s end.

In 2019, the state-run University of Alexandria and the state-run University of Damanhour established centers of Coptic studies in collaboration with the Coptic Orthodox Church. The institutes include courses on the study of Coptic language, literature, history, and art. The center at the University of Alexandria first began accepting applications in 2019. On March 4, the state-run Zagazig University and the Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo signed an agreement for institutional cooperation in the fields of art, education, music, and the sciences. The agreement allows for an exchange of library services and publications and jointly held academic conferences.

On July 13, the Cairo Court of Appeals upheld a 2019 lower court ruling granting a Christian woman equal distribution of inheritance with her male siblings and declaring that the case was subject to Christian customary laws of inheritance rather than Islamic law.

On October 15, representatives from the Coptic Orthodox, Evangelical, and Catholic churches submitted a draft unified personal status law to the cabinet, covering such issues as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. In December, senior Coptic Orthodox Church representatives and the press announced that the cabinet had concluded its review of the draft law, which, according to press reports, incorporates and regulates personal status matters that the churches hold in common, while retaining articles specific to the doctrinal teachings of the three denominations.

On February 20, Grand Mufti Shawki Allam met with the World Council of Churches general secretary, Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, in the council’s Ecumenical Center in Geneva to discuss promotion of interreligious dialogue and combating extremism.

In January, Mohammed Fayek, president of the National Council for Human Rights, called on parliament to approve two draft laws on equal opportunity and preventing discrimination and to establish the constitutionally mandated independent commission to eliminate all forms of discrimination.

On July 21, Prime Minister Madbouly visited the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, built in the sixth century. On the occasion of the visit, the government announced that it would allocate 40 million pounds ($2.55 million) to restore and develop the monastery and its neighboring city.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Terrorist groups, including Islamic State-Sinai Peninsula (formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) among others, conducted deadly attacks on government, civilian, and security targets in the North Sinai Governorate.

In April, security forces said that a shootout with militants in the Amiriyah neighborhood of Cairo disrupted a plot against Coptic Orthodox Easter.

Press and NGOs reported that a fight broke out between Muslims and Christians in Dabbous in Minya Governorate on October 3 during a Coptic wedding that led to further violence two days later. Police arrested 12 individuals from both sides.

Newspapers reported that a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian homes and a church in the village of al-Barsha in Minya Governorate on November 25 after rumors circulated that a local Christian man had social media posts deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammed. There was minimal damage and no casualties, and police made multiple arrests of Muslims and Christians.

On January 12 in Cairo, a man attacked a Christian woman with a knife, injuring her neck. According to media reports, the man said he attacked the woman because “she was not covering her hair.” Authorities arrested the attacker and, according to press reports, the prosecutor referred him to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation.

According to an NGO, Mohammed Mahdaly, a sociology professor at the High Institute for Social Service, posted a video on his personal Facebook account that mocked the Prophet Mohammed and was “insulting” to the Quran. A Ministry of Higher Education official told the press that it had suspended the professor and referred the matter for investigation to a committee of professors at the University of Alexandria. The ministry referred Mahdaly’s case to the Public Prosecutor. Mahdaly, who had been experiencing health issues, passed away on December 24.

On May 16, authorities arrested a man after he reportedly threw a Molotov cocktail at the Virgin Mary and the Martyr St. George Church in Alexandria. There were no casualties or property damage. Prosecutors subsequently requested that the man undergo a psychiatric evaluation and said he had previously been under psychiatric care.

While there have been reports of abducted Coptic girls and women, government officials, leaders in the Christian community, and NGOs stated that they were skeptical of the classification of the cases as abductions. In a report released September 10, “Jihad of the Womb:” Trafficking of Coptic Women & Girls in Egypt, the NGO Coptic Solidarity reported on what it described as “the widespread practice of abduction and trafficking of Coptic women and girls…and how they are a particularly vulnerable group.” In March, MRGI reported that there were at least 13 reported cases of abducted Coptic women since October 2019.

Eshhad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction of intercommunal violence in recent years.

The Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR), the country’s media oversight agency, opened an investigation of television personality Radwa al-Sherbini after she said that women who wear the hijab are “100,000 times better than me and non-hijab [wearing] women…” and that “the devil inside women [who do not wear hijabs] is more powerful than their faith and strength.” The SCMR said it had received complaints from the public about the comments, and others criticized Sherbini on social media. One prominent women’s rights advocate said Sherbini’s statements instigated violence against nonveiled women. Sherbini later apologized for her comments.

Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, according to human rights groups and religious communities.

EIPR continued to call on the authorities to provide persons of unrecognized religious groups the right to obtain identity cards, marriage certificates, and private burials, and to sue in accordance with their own personal status laws.

Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians. On February 24, Dar al-Iftaa criticized commenters on social media who wrote that Christian cardiac surgeon Magdi Yacoub would not enter heaven due to his faith. In its statement, Dar al-Iftaa said Yacoub “never looked at the religion of those he treated and saved from death but regarded them with compassion, mercy, and humanity.” The Ministry of Awqaf on February 24 suspended well-known al-Azhar cleric Abdullah Rushdy for a post he made on social media that was believed to have targeted Yacoub. Commenting on the controversy, the al-Azhar International Center for Electronic Fatwa urged Egyptians to recognize that “the belief of every human being…is a personal thing between him and his creator, and only Allah will inquire into it.”

In March, Islamic scholar Dr. Haitham Talaat posted a video online in which he said atheists were social outcasts, infidels, and apostates, and were worse than terrorists or armed robbers. Talaat said that engaging in dialogue with atheists could lead to the “inevitable outcome” of suicide.

In a January 24 interview with Russia Today TV, historian Mohammad al-Shafi said Jews benefitted the most from World War II by using the Holocaust to “extort the international community” and that other countries harmed by the war “did not receive booty, nor did they profit like the Jews did.” On April 25, the Israeli Foreign Ministry criticized the Ramadan science fiction television series The End as “unfortunate and unacceptable” for portraying a dystopian future in which “all of the Jews of Israel have returned to their countries of origin.”

A poll of Arab populations conducted between January and March by a Dubai-based public relations firm and involving a team of international experts, indicated that 69 percent of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 – one of the highest results in the region – agreed that religion is “particularly important” to their personal identity.

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C., and released in November, 87 percent of respondents in the country either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” compared with 65 percent or respondents region-wide.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government officials at multiple levels, including the Ambassador, the acting Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other embassy officials, regularly raised religious freedom concerns. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives discussed attacks on Christians, church legalization and construction, interfaith dialogue, and countering extremist thought with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, governors, the Grand Imam, the Grand Mufti, and the Coptic Orthodox Pope as well as with civil society and minority religious groups. In their meetings with government officials, embassy officers 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, and the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly.

Throughout the year, embassy representatives met with senior officials in the offices of the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, and bishops and senior pastors of Protestant and Anglican churches. In these meetings, embassy staff members raised cases in which the government failed to hold the perpetrators of sectarian violence accountable and failed to protect victims of sectarian attacks; prosecuted individuals for religious defamation; and enabled religious discrimination by means of official religious designations including on national identity cards. They also discussed progress on religious freedom issues such as issuance of permits for and new construction of churches, political support for Christian and Jewish communities, and the protection and restoration of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious sites. In February, the Ambassador delivered remarks on religious pluralism during the February rededication of Alexandria’s Eliyahu HaNevi Synagogue.

U.S. officials met with human rights activists and religious and community leaders to discuss contemporary incidents of sectarian conflict and gather information to raise in meetings with government officials. Embassy representatives also met with leading religious figures, including the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the Grand Mufti of Dar al-Iftaa, leading Christian clergy, and representatives of the Jewish, Baha’i, and Shia communities. The embassy promoted religious freedom on social media during the year, including two posts describing the context of religious freedom that reached 25,306 persons.

Ethiopia

Executive Summary

The constitution requires the separation of religion and the state, establishes freedom of religious choice and practice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall any religion interfere in the affairs of the state. Despite international attention to an alleged attack on the Orthodox Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in November in Axum, in Tigray Region, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) stated that there was no evidence this event occurred, while local human rights groups could not confirm the allegation without on-the-ground verification. The EHRC based its findings on a rapid investigative mission sent to the area. The EOTC deployed a task force to provide humanitarian assistance in Tigray, and one of its senior representatives said reports of the Axum attack were unfounded and false. In August, there were reports that government security forces killed two imams (one with his wife and infant) and injured a third in Assasa and Shashemene towns in Oromia Region in the wake of August 17 and 18 protests demanding the release of Oromo opposition politicians. The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) released a statement condemning the acts. Government security forces also broke into mosques in Shashemene and Kofele in Oromia Region, injuring a religious leader and his student in one incident and opening fire on a mosque in another; no one was injured in the second incident.

A number of human rights groups stated that societal violence was on the rise. However, because ethnicity and religion are closely linked, and because criminality also played a role, it was difficult to characterize many incidents as solely based on religious identity. On September 6, 7, and 13, an unidentified armed group attacked several villages in the Bulen, Guba, and Wembera woredas (county equivalent) in the Metekel Zone of Benishangul Gumuz Region. The armed group stole livestock, ambushed travelers on roads, robbed communities, attacked churches, and killed approximately 160 civilians. Following the attacks, EOTC followers closed churches, fled the affected areas, and hid public signs and displays of their faith. On August 26, the EOTC released a statement saying that 67 of its followers were killed in Oromia Region during violence that followed the killing of the popular nationalist singer Hachalu Hundessa. The EOTC sent teams to investigate the affected areas where they concluded EOTC members were specifically targeted. According to a Christian aid organization, between Hachalu’s killing on June 29 and the beginning of September, groups of Oromo youth belonging to a nationalist youth movement called “Qeerroo” targeted and killed a number of Christians in Oromia Region. Human rights organizations and others, however, stated that it was unclear if the attacks in Oromia Region were religiously motivated. A local nongovernmental organization (NGO) that also conducted an assessment stated that the perpetrators used ethnic slurs when killing their victims, some of whom were Christian. On January 19 to 20, clashes between youths led to several deaths and destruction of property during the EOTC’s Epiphany celebrations in Dire Dawa, Harar, and Abomssa in the Arsi Zone of Oromia Region. The region’s police commissioner reported that 19 individuals, including 15 security personnel, suffered minor injuries and public and private property was destroyed.

The U.S. Secretary of State met with the Interreligious Council of Ethiopia (IRCE) in February to discuss the important role religious leaders play in social cohesion and to understand how the IRCE was engaging communities to decrease tensions before the national elections. U.S. embassy officials also engaged religious leaders at senior levels and during times of crisis to advocate for peaceful conflict resolution. The embassy reached out to key religious leaders in July during the violence surrounding the killing of Hachalu and called for calm. The embassy also reached out to religious leaders in Beninshangul Gumuz in September to understand the nature and targets of the attacks. The embassy funded a program to build religious cohesion with more than 25 influential community and religious leaders in Harar, Dire Dawa, and Jijiga. The project’s goal was to identify and mitigate violent conflict, create strategies for preventing electoral violence and developing community peacebuilding coalitions, and promote religious tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 108.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The most recent census, conducted in 2007, estimated 44 percent of the population adheres to the EOTC, 34 percent are Sunni Muslim, and 19 percent belong to evangelical Christian and Pentecostal groups. Most observers believe the evangelical and Pentecostal proportion of the population has increased since the census was conducted. The EOTC predominates in the northern regions of Tigray and Amhara, while Islam is most prevalent in the Afar, Oromia, and Somali Regions. Established Protestant churches have the most adherents in Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) and Gambella Regions and parts of Oromia Region.

Groups that together constitute less than five percent of the population include Eastern Rite and Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and practitioners of indigenous religions. The Rastafarian community numbers approximately 1,000, and its members primarily reside in Addis Ababa and the town of Shashemene in Oromia Region.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution requires the separation of state and religion, establishes freedom of religious choice and practice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall religion interfere in state affairs. It permits limitations on religious freedom as prescribed by law to protect public safety, education, and morals as well as to guarantee the independence of government from religion. The law criminalizes religious defamation and incitement of one religious group against another. The law permits sharia courts to adjudicate personal status cases, provided both parties are Muslim and consent to the court’s jurisdiction.

Registration and licensing of religious groups fall under the mandate of the Directorate of Faith and Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Peace, which requires unregistered religious groups to submit a founding document, the national identity cards of its founders, and the permanent address of the religious institution and planned regional branches. The registration process also requires an application letter, information on board members, meeting minutes, information on the founders, financial reports, offices, name, and symbols. Religious group applicants must have at least 50 individuals for registration as a religious entity and 15 for registration as a ministry or association; the rights and privileges are the same for each category. During the registration process, the government publishes the religious group’s name and logo in a local newspaper. If there are no objections, registration is granted. Unlike other religious groups, the EOTC is not registered by the Ministry of Peace but obtains registration through a provision in the civil code passed during the imperial era that is still in force. Registration with the ministry confers legal status on a religious group, which gives the group the right to congregate and to obtain land to build a place of worship and establish a cemetery. Unregistered groups do not receive these benefits. Religious groups must renew their registration at least every five years; failure to do so may result in a fine.

Registered religious organizations are required to provide annual activity and financial reports. Activity reports must describe proselytizing activities and list new members, newly ordained clergy, and new houses of worship.

Under the constitution, the government owns all land; religious groups must apply to both the regional and local governments for land allocation, including for land to build places of worship.

Government policy prohibits the holding of religious services inside public institutions, per the constitutionally required separation of religion and state. The government mandates that public institutions take a two-hour break from work on Fridays to allow Muslim workers to attend Islamic prayers. Private companies are not required to follow this policy.

The constitution prohibits religious instruction in public and private schools, although both public and private schools may organize clubs based on shared religious values. The law permits the establishment of a separate category of religious schools under the auspices of churches and mosques. The Charities and Societies Agency, a government body accountable to the federal attorney general, and the Ministry of Education regulate religious schools, which provide both secular and religious instruction. The Ministry of Education oversees the secular component of education provided by religious schools.

The law prohibits the formation of political parties based on religion.

The law allows all civil society organizations and religious groups to engage in advocacy and lobbying activities and to collect and obtain funding from any legal source.

Religious groups undertaking development activities are required to register their development arms as charities with the Charities and Societies Agency and to follow legal guidelines originating from the Charities and Societies Proclamation.

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

Government Practices

International media and human rights NGOs stated that on November 28 and 29, Eritrean forces, fighting alongside Ethiopian government forces to retake the town of Axum from a Tigrayan militia committed indiscriminate killings of hundreds of civilians, including those attending services at the Orthodox Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion (Maryam Ts’iyon), on the anniversary of the day EOTC followers believe the Ark of the Covenant arrived at the church. The soldiers allegedly entered the church and killed worshippers and others as they fled. Eyewitnesses reported as many as 800 civilians were killed in Axum. The EHRC conducted an investigative mission to Axum and found no evidence that the attack on the church occurred. According to CNN, in a similar attack on November 30, Eritrean forces opened fire on Maryam Dengelat Church in Dengalat Village while hundreds of worshippers were celebrating Mass, killing dozens. The EOTC deployed a task force to provide humanitarian assistance in Tigray, and one of its senior representatives denied these claims by international media. Local human rights groups could not confirm the allegations of these attacks without on-the-ground verification.

In August, there were reports that government security forces killed two imams and injured a third in Assasa and Shashemene towns in Oromia Region in the wake of protests on August 17 and 18 demanding the release of Oromo opposition politicians. In one of the attacks, the imam’s wife and three-month-old baby were also killed. The EIASC released a statement condemning the killings and expressed its disappointment with what it stated was the failure of government officials and the media to report on and condemn the killings.

In August, government security forces entered Qemer Mosque in Shashemene, Oromia Region, and injured a teacher and his student. In the same month, regional government security forces reportedly forcibly entered Kofele Mosque in Kofele, Oromia Region, and opened fire on the mosque while the Mmaghrib (sunset) prayer was underway. It was reported that no one was injured. The incidents took place during a period of unrest following the killing of Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa, during which some reported that authorities took “disproportionate” measures to control violence.

In June, the House of Peoples’ Representatives (lower chamber of parliament), during its regular proceedings approved into law two draft proclamations that conferred legal personality on the EIASC and the Evangelical Churches Fellowship of Ethiopia (ECFE) without the need for separate registration. Conferring legal status on the two faith groups marked a direct recognition of the groups as legal entities that may form organizations affiliated with them and exempted them from requirements of regular renewal that apply to civil society organizations.

Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy continued to engage religious leaders in his stated efforts to promote reconciliation among ethnic groups in the country. In May, he met with leaders of the EOTC, EIASC, Ethiopian Catholic Church, and ECFE and urged them to build stronger interfaith ties and to promote peace.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Several human rights groups stated that societal violence (locally referred to as “citizen-on-citizen violence”) was on the rise. Because ethnicity and religion are closely linked and because criminality also played a role, it was difficult to characterize many incidents as solely based on religious identity.

On September 6, 7, and 13, an unidentified armed group attacked several villages in Bulen, Guba, and Wembera woredas in the Metekel Zone of Benishangul Gumuz Region. The armed group stole livestock, ambushed travelers on roads, robbed communities, attacked churches, and killed approximately 160 persons. Mahibere Kidusan, an association under the EOTC, said the attackers killed 80 EOTC followers, burned down one church, caused 6,000 members to flee their communities, and forced followers to close their churches and remove all symbols that would identify them as Orthodox Christians. The EOTC and an Amhara-based opposition party said the attacks specifically targeted their followers. Regional government officials, however, said the attacks were not ethnically based because the perpetrators randomly stole cattle, committed extortion and robberies, and attacked residences in multiple communities that were home to several different ethnic and religious groups. The government deployed the Ethiopian National Defense Force to restore calm and established a task force to investigate the violence. On September 28, the Ethiopian Monitor daily news website reported 45 regional officials were dismissed for failing to carry out their duties and that 10 of these officials were under investigation. At the end of the year, the incident remained under investigation, and the identity and motivation of the attackers remained unconfirmed.

Following the June 29 killing in Addis Ababa of popular singer and Oromo nationalist Hachalu Hundessa, widespread violence occurred in Oromia Region and parts of Addis Ababa. Among the areas most affected by the violence were the towns of Arsi, Assasa, Sahshemene, Bale Robe, Ginir, Asebot, Chrio, and Awedaye. The EHRC estimated that 123 persons were killed from June 29 to July 2. On August 26, the EOTC released a statement saying that 67 of its followers were specifically targeted, based on an investigation carried out by the Church in the affected areas in the Oromia region. The EHRC and local NGOs also conducted investigations and reported that groups of youths in trucks had arrived at communities with lists of non-Oromos to target and that they also demanded residents’ identification. Watchdog groups also reported that some of the perpetrators used ethnic slurs against those they attacked. A local NGO that conducted an assessment stated that the perpetrators used ethnic slurs when killing their victims, some of whom were Christian. According to the Barnabas Fund, a Christian Aid Agency, between Hachalu’s killing on June 29 and the beginning of September, groups of “Qeerroo” targeted and killed more than 500 Christians in Oromia Region. According to combined estimates of police from Oromia Region and Addis Ababa, however, 239 persons were killed – the police did not specify the victims’ religious affiliation or indicate a religious motivation. Observers had differing views concerning whether the attacks were religiously rather than ethnically motivated.

The Barnabas Fund reported that on November 1, 60 gunmen suspected to be members of the Oromo Liberation Army-Shane opened fire on a group of approximately 200 individuals in Gawa Qanqa Village, Oromia Region, killing at least 54 of them. According to the Barnabas Fund, most of those killed were ethnic Amhara, who are predominantly Christian. Some observers also said the attacks were ethnically and not religious motivated. Soon after the killings, approximately 200 families fled the area according to regional police.

According to media, on January 19 to 20, clashes between youths resulted in several deaths and destruction of property during the EOTC’s Epiphany celebrations in Dire Dawa, Harar, and Abomssa in the Arsi Zone of Oromia Region. On January 19, in Harar, youth groups believed to be predominantly Muslim blocked EOTC processions on the eve of the Epiphany holiday. On January 20, groups of Christian youth attacked Muslim-owned businesses, homes, and vehicles in Harar. Individuals in that city spray painted Coptic crosses on vehicles outside of a mosque. Similar violence occurred on January 19 in Dire Dawa, where 21 followers of the EOTC were wounded by gunfire and one individual died after being attacked with rocks. The attacks were followed by vandalism of vehicles, houses, and businesses. Fourteen police officers were beaten and injured trying to stop the confrontation. During the same period, a group of local youths attacked EOTC followers in Abomssa, killing two. Christian youths killed one of the attackers; other youths targeted Christian-owned property, cattle, and businesses and wounded several individuals. Arsi Zone police reported that 19 individuals, including 15 security personnel, suffered minor injuries and a mosque as well as public and private property were destroyed. Federal Police intervened to defuse tensions.

Media outlets reported that on March 10, a group of Orthodox Christians in the town of Enewari in the northern part of the country severely beat a group of Protestant Christian missionaries who were proselytizing and providing basic medical care to the community. The missionaries took refuge in a nearby hospital; local and regional police responded to the incident and provided an armed escort from the area. The same day, an EOTC youth group robbed and burned the Full Gospel Church, a Protestant church not associated with the missionaries. Media outlets reported a similar incident in the town of Jeru in the northern part of the country, in which EOTC members attacked Protestant Christians, and burned their church to the ground.

In July, Afrobarometer conducted a survey regarding freedom, human rights, and governance. The survey randomly sampled 2,500 adults in nine Ethiopian regions. It found that 75 percent of the respondents had trust in religious leaders, who were judged the most trustworthy of the 12 societal and governmental groups measured. Religious leaders were followed by traditional leaders, the National Defense Force, and Prime Minister Abiy.

In October, the first Islamic bank in the country, ZamZam Bank, obtained a license from the national banking regulator to provide Islamic banking activities. ZamZam Bank became the first officially recognized institution to specifically offer financial services and products that comply with Islamic law following action in 2019 by the National Bank of Ethiopia and the House of People’s Representatives to establish the legal and procedural framework for the establishment of Islamic banking.

Religious leaders and organizations played key roles in peacebuilding, according to scholars and activists. Before the Ethiopian New Year celebration on September 11, the Patriarch of the EOTC, the Cardinal of the Catholic Church, the President of the EIASC, and the secretary general of the ECFE all conveyed messages calling for unity and peace. On June 16, a 52-member delegation of the IRCE traveled to Tigray to mediate growing disagreements and political disputes between the Tigray regional government and the federal government. In July, Oromia Region imams worked closely with communities afflicted by violence after the killing of the nationalist singer Hachalu Hundessa to restore calm and prevent incitement to violence.

The EIASC expressed continued concern about what it said was the influence of foreign Salafist groups within the Muslim community. In one example, the EIASC accused foreign Salafist groups of forcibly taking control of local mosques. The EIASC said it continued to hold these foreign groups responsible for the exacerbation of tensions between Christians and Muslims and within the Muslim community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Secretary of State met with the IRCE in February to discuss the important role that religious leaders play in social cohesion and to understand how the IRCE is engaging communities to decrease tensions before the national elections. The Ambassador hosted an iftar with Muslim community leaders during Ramadan and made remarks in which he highlighted the importance of religious freedom and tolerance as well as the joy of peaceful and supportive coexistence. The embassy reached out to key religious leaders in July during the violence surrounding the killing of Hachalu Hundessa to call for calm. The embassy also reached out to religious leaders in Beninshangul Gumuz in September to ascertain if churches were attacked and whether the attacks on certain communities were ethnically or religiously motivated.

The embassy supported peacebuilding and reconciliation dialogues at Jimma, Haramaya, Ambo, Bahir Dar, and Gondar Universities as part of its strategy to promote dialogue to prevent and reconcile conflicts. The project assembled students from diverse ethnic, religious, and political and ideological groups to engage in structured and intensive dialogue on diversity, including religious diversity, and to learn to build social cohesion through mutual trust and understanding. The embassy also funded a program to build religious cohesion with more than 25 influential community and religious leaders in Harar, Dire Dawa, and Jijiga. The project’s goal was to identify and mitigate violent conflict, create strategies for preventing electoral violence and developing community peacebuilding coalitions, and promote religious tolerance.

The embassy helped the IRCE translate and print its Amharic-language peace promotion training manuals into English and Afan-Oromo to expand the use of the manual and IRCE’s reach in conflict resolution initiatives.

Hong Kong

Read A Section: Hong Kong

China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau

Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) as well as other laws and policies state that residents have freedom of conscience, freedom of religious belief, and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). On June 30, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) imposed a broad National Security Law (NSL) for the SAR with the stated aim of combating secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when the PRC appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office chief, Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL, with some viewing it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, and others viewing it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their institutions preferred to stay neutral. Cardinal John Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, who described the NSL as “understandable,” said the NSL would not curtail religious freedom; other religious leaders made similar comments. Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and some other Christian leaders said they were concerned the law would enable the government to curtail religious liberty and freedom of expression in the name of combating subversion. One Protestant leader said the law’s ambiguous wording meant churches raising funds from overseas were open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers and money laundering. Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, the government granted churches permission to resume in-person or hybrid (in-person/online) services when health restrictions were lifted. Authorities did not curtail activities of Falun Gong practitioners during the year, but the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said it was concerned practitioners could be accused of “subversion of state power” under the NSL and sentenced to prison for activities that were currently permitted, including criticizing the PRC’s persecution of practitioners in mainland China. In May, a phishing campaign targeted Hong Kong Catholic Diocese leadership using a method “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” In an August letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education, Peter Lau, urged them to guard against campus politicization and to “foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” In December, police froze the bank accounts, raided two buildings, and arrested two members of the Good Neighbor North District Church, saying the church was under investigation for money laundering and fraud related to a crowd-funding campaign. Police said they froze the church’s assets because the church had underreported donations. The church pastor said the raid and asset freezes were in retaliation for church members’ support for prodemocracy protestors in 2019.

Falun Gong practitioners reported some incidents of harassment and vandalism at public information booths. Religious observers and practitioners stated groups were able to worship in line with their religious norms and without incident. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observations while strictly following health precautions. Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some churches reported they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.

The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, and community representatives. In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL could be used to repress religious believers.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to SAR government statistics, there are more than one million followers of Taoism and approximately one million followers of Buddhism; 500,000 Protestants; 403,000 Catholics; 300,000 Muslims; 100,000 Hindus; and 12,000 Sikhs. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, which recognizes the Pope and maintains links to the Vatican, reported approximately 620,000 followers (403,000 local residents and 217,000 residents with other nationalities). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported it has approximately 25,100 members. According to the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 2,500 Jews, primarily expatriates. Small communities of Baha’is and Zoroastrians also reside in the SAR. Confucianism is widespread, and in some cases, elements of Confucianism are practiced in conjunction with other belief systems. The Falun Dafa Association estimates there are approximately 500 Falun Gong practitioners.

There are numerous Protestant denominations, including Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, the Church of Christ in China, Seventh-day Adventist, and Pentecostal.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Basic Law also states the government may not interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations or restrict religious activities that do not contravene other laws. The Basic Law calls for ties between the region’s religious groups and their mainland counterparts based on “nonsubordination, noninterference, and mutual respect.” The Basic Law states that religious organizations “may maintain and develop their relations with religious organizations and believers elsewhere.”

The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the ICCPR, which include the right to manifest religious belief individually or in community with others, in public or private, and through worship, observance, practice, and teaching. The Bill of Rights Ordinance states persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their own religion, and use their own language. The ordinance also protects the right of parents or legal guardians to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” These rights may be limited when an emergency is proclaimed and “manifestation” of religious beliefs may be limited by law when necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights of others. If a state of emergency is proclaimed, the rights may not be limited based solely on religion.

On June 30, with the support of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the PRC National People’s Congress (NPC) announced the imposition of an NSL for Hong Kong. The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” The law states that it shall override local Hong Kong laws if there are inconsistencies. The NSL states power to interpret the law lies with the NPC Standing Committee, not local Hong Kong courts.

Religious groups are not legally required to register with the government. They must, however, register to receive government benefits such as tax-exempt status, rent subsidies, government or other professional development training, use of government facilities, or a grant to provide social services. To qualify for such benefits, a group must prove to the satisfaction of the government that it is established solely for religious, charitable, social, or recreational reasons. Registrants must provide the name and purpose of the organization, identify its office holders, and confirm the address of the principal place of business and any other premises owned or occupied by the organization. If a religious group registers with the government, it enters the registry of all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but the government makes no adjudication on the validity of any registered groups. Religious groups may register as a society, a tax-exempt organization, or both, provided they have at least three members who hold valid SAR identity documents; the registration process normally takes approximately 12 working days. The Falun Dafa Association is registered as a society rather than a religious group; as a society, it may establish offices, collect dues from members, and have legal status.

The Basic Law allows private schools to provide religious education. The government offers subsidies to schools that are built and run by religious groups. Government-subsidized schools must adhere to government curriculum standards and may not bar students based on religion, but they may provide nonmandatory religious instruction as part of their curriculum. Teachers may not discriminate against students because of their religious beliefs. The public school curriculum mandates coursework on ethics and religious studies, with a focus on religious tolerance; the government curriculum also includes elective modules on different world religions.

The NSL includes articles on public education, stipulating that the SAR “shall take necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organizations, the media, and the internet.” The NSL states the SAR “shall promote national security education in schools and universities[.]” The SAR and Education Bureau advised that subsidized schools, which include most religious schools, must comply with the NSL.

Religious groups may apply to the government to lease land on concessional terms through Home Affairs Bureau sponsorship. Religious groups may apply to develop or use facilities in accordance with local legislation.

The Chinese Temples Committee, led by the secretary for home affairs, has a direct role in managing the affairs of some temples. The SAR chief executive appoints its members. The committee oversees the management and logistical operations of 24 of the region’s 600 temples and gives grants to other charitable organizations. The committee provides grants to the Home Affairs Bureau for disbursement, in the form of financial assistance to needy ethnic Chinese citizens. The colonial-era law does not require new temples to register to be eligible for Temples Committee assistance.

An approximately 1,200-member Election Committee elects Hong Kong’s chief executive. The Basic Law stipulates the Election Committee’s members shall be “broadly representative.” Committee members come from four sectors, divided into 38 subsectors, representing various trades, professions, and social services groups. The religious subsector is composed of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, the Hong Kong Christian Council, the Hong Kong Taoist Association, the Confucian Academy, and the Hong Kong Buddhist Association. These six bodies are each entitled to 10 of the 60 seats for the religious subsector on the Election Committee. The religious subsector is not required to hold elections under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance. Instead, each religious organization selects its electors in its own fashion. Each of the six designated religious groups is also a member of the Hong Kong Colloquium of Religious Leaders.

Government Practices

Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

The Catholic News Agency reported that in April, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Hong Kong called for the Chinese government to respond to prodemocracy demonstrators’ demands, including an independent inquiry into police tactics.

Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL – some viewed it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, but others viewed it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their religious institutions preferred to stay neutral on the politically polarizing law.

Several Christian groups and religious leaders issued statements and open letters to the government regarding the NSL. After the May announcement that the NPC would pass the NSL, Cardinal Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, described the NSL as “understandable” and said it would not curtail religious freedom. He stated the Church’s relationship with the Vatican should not be seen as collusion with foreign forces. Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong said he supported the NSL, stating, “I cherish our Hong Kong freedoms – in particular the freedom of religion and way of life – as much as anyone, and I don’t think this law will change any of that….What I hope the new law will do is diminish the agitation against the government that last year brought things to a standstill, and to restore law and order.”

In June, the Hong Kong Christian Council released a public statement acknowledging the Hong Kong government’s inability to pass its own NSL legislation but calling for the NPC to abide by the principles of the Basic Law and to “fully guarantee human rights and all types of freedoms (including freedom of expression, publication, information, assembly, religion, association, etc.) that have been enjoyed under the one country, two systems principle.” In May, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Cardinal Tong’s predecessor, told the Catholic News Agency that he worried the NSL would be used to subvert freedom of religion in the SAR. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, Chairman of the Hong Kong Baptist Convention Reverend Hing Choi Lo said in a statement to all member churches in May, When the Church thinks it is ‘acting justly and [with] loving mercy,’ but the authorities consider the Church to be overthrowing [the regime], what choices do we have? Do we dance with the authorities’ baton?”

Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, churches petitioned directly to the government to resume in-person or hybrid services and did not report any difficulty in getting approval once health restrictions eased.

During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported they generally were able to operate openly and engage in behavior that remained prohibited in mainland China, including distributing literature, conducting public exhibitions, sharing information about the group on social media, and accessing and downloading online materials. In June, a practitioner in the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said the community was fearful. “Falun Gong practitioners take part in activities exposing the CCP’s crimes and encourage Chinese people to renounce the CCP and its affiliated organizations….These activities can all be considered ‘subversion of state power’ under the so-called National Security Law. Falun Gong practitioners could be sentenced to prison for activities that they are now able to freely partake in on a daily basis.” Falun Gong practitioners continued to state they suspected that the CCP funded private groups that harassed them at informational displays. No Falun Gong rallies were permitted during the year due to COVID-19 health restrictions.

In July, the NGO International Christian Concern stated that in May, a phishing campaign targeted leaders of the Catholic Church. According to a malware analyst, the campaign involved a type of malware “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” The malware files made use of “lure documents” associated with the Catholic Church, including communications from Vatican officials and news articles from the Union of Catholic Asian News. The NGO said that as the legitimate documents loaded, malware was installed, allowing the hacker remote access and full control of the victim’s computer.

Media reported in August that in a letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education Peter Lau told them to guard against campus politicization. The letter stated in part that school authorities should “enhance students’ awareness to national security and [the importance of] abidance to the law, have them learn and respect the national flag, the national emblem and the national anthem and foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” Critics on social media accused the Catholic Diocese of pandering to the PRC. Some members of the Catholic Church leadership said adhering to the law did not invalidate the Church’s vision or mission.

In August, the Justice and Peace Commission, comprised of 18 elected bishops, began to solicit donations to place advertisements in media that included a prayer to preserve democracy in Hong Kong. The Catholic Diocese suspended the donation campaign and pulled the advertisements, stating it did not approve of the method of fundraising or the content of the advertisements.

Media reported that on December 8, police froze the bank accounts of the Good Neighbor North District Church, raided two of its buildings and three homeless shelters it ran, arrested two church members, and ordered the arrests of church pastor Roy Chan and his wife, who were abroad. The police said this was done because the church had raised 27 million Hong Kong dollars ($3.5 million) through crowd funding campaigns from June 2019 through September 2020 but had publicly declared raising only one-third of that amount. The church stated the investigation was an “act of political retaliation” because some of its members had formed a group called “Safeguard Our Generation” in 2019 in an attempt to deescalate violent clashes between police and prodemocracy protesters.

In December, Radio Free Asia reported that Reverend Chi Wai Wu, general secretary of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, said, “The wording of the national security law is ambiguous, which means that churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, are now open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers.” He said police were using the law’s vague definition of “money laundering” to target religious groups that garnered overseas donations or host conferences with overseas church groups. Wu said the targeting of the Good Neighbor North District Church sent “shock waves” through religious communities in Hong Kong and that it was likely intended as a warning to them.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Falun Gong-affiliated publication Epoch Times reported that in August, a man reportedly defaced a Falun Gong display several times in one week and said to a Falun Gong practitioner, “The national security law is enacted, yet you dare to show these [Falun Gong materials]?” When the practitioners said he would call the police, the man responded, “Okay, I also want the police to come….See who the police will arrest, you or me?” Epoch Times reported that more than a dozen people gathered at the display the following day and cursed at Falun Gong practitioners. According to Epoch Times, in December, Falun Gong practitioners reported experiencing harassment at informational booths, as well as multiple instances of vandalism.

Religious observers and practitioners stated they were able to worship consistent with their religious norms and without incident. With COVID-19 measures requiring more restrictions, many religious groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observation while strictly following health precautions.

Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some Hong Kong churches reported that they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Consulate general officials, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, NGOs, and community representatives. In June, the Consul General met with the Hong Kong Christian Council to discuss the effects of political divisions on congregations within the Hong Kong Christian community. The Consul General and other consulate officials met with Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant religious leaders and adherents to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to receive reports about the status of religious freedom both in Hong Kong and in the mainland.

In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL “raises the specter that the Party will use the same tactics of intimidation and the full apparatus of state repression against religious believers.”

Throughout the year, consulate general officials promoted respect for religious traditions by marking traditional religious holidays and visiting local Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples. In May, the Consul General met the Chief Imam and toured the Blue Mosque, the largest mosque in Hong Kong. At all these events, consulate general officials stressed in public and private remarks the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity.

Read a Section

China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau

India

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It also states that citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health. Ten of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversions. In February, continued protests related to the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which excludes Muslims from expedited naturalization provisions granted to migrants of other faiths, became violent in New Delhi after counterprotestors attacked demonstrators. According to reports, religiously motivated attacks resulted in the deaths of 53 persons, most of whom were Muslim, and two security officials. According to international nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch, “Witnesses accounts and video evidence showed police complicity in the violence.” Muslim academics, human rights activists, former police officers, and journalists alleged anti-Muslim bias in the investigation of the riots by New Delhi police. The investigations were still ongoing at year’s end, with the New Delhi police stating it arrested almost equal numbers of Hindus and Muslims. The government and media initially attributed some of the spread of COVID-19 in the country to a conference held in New Delhi in March by the Islamic Tablighi Jamaat organization after media reported that six of the conference’s attendees tested positive for the virus. The Ministry of Home Affairs initially claimed a majority of the country’s early COVID-19 cases were linked to that event. Some members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said conference attendees spread COVID-19 “like terrorism,” which politicians and some media outlets described as “Corona Jihad.” Courts across the country dismissed numerous charges filed against Tablighi Jamaat members. Two Christians died in June after being beaten while in police custody for violating the COVID-19 curfews in Tamil Nadu. NGOs reported that nine police officers involved in the incident were charged with murder and destruction of evidence. In June, more than 200 Muslim residents of a village in Uttar Pradesh said they were leaving their homes because of intimidation by state police officials. There were reports by NGOs that the government sometimes failed to prevent or stop attacks on religious minorities. Political party leaders made inflammatory public remarks or social media posts about religious minorities. Attacks on members of religious minority communities, based on allegations of cow slaughter or trade in beef, occurred throughout the year. Such “cow vigilantism” included killings, assaults, and intimidation. Uttar Pradesh police filed charges in 1,716 cases of cow slaughter and made more than 4,000 arrests under the Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act as of August. In October, the Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh ruled that the state Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act “was being misused against innocent persons” and granted bail to a Muslim individual arrested under the act. NGOs, including faith-based organizations, criticized amendments passed in September to the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) as constraining civil society by reducing the amount of foreign funding that NGOs, including religious organizations, could use for administrative purposes and adding onerous oversight and certification requirements. The government said the law strengthened oversight and accountability of foreign NGO funding in the country. In February, the government cancelled the FCRA licenses of five Christian-linked NGOs, cutting off their foreign funding. In September, the NGO Amnesty International India ceased operations in the country after the government froze its bank accounts in response to a FCRA investigation that the NGO says was motivated by its critical reporting against the government. In September, a special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court acquitted all 32 persons, including former BJP politicians, charged in the case of the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The CBI court ruled that the demolition of the mosque was a “spontaneous act” and there was no evidence of conspiracy.

There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice and speak about their religious beliefs. In January, during anti-CAA protests in New Delhi, an armed crowd stormed a mosque, killed the muezzin, beat the imam, scattered worshippers, and set the building on fire. In September, media reported that a Hindu woman was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam after marrying a Muslim; two Muslims were arrested for the crime. The NGO United Christian Forum’s violence monitor stated that attacks on Christians and their places of worship continued to escalate in both number and severity in 2020. The Christian NGO Persecution Relief documented 293 instances of attacks or harassment of Christians in the country in the first half of the year, despite the widespread pandemic lockdown, including six rapes and eight murders. There were 208 incidents during the same period in 2019. In its annual report, the NGO Alliance for Defense of Freedom (ADF) documented 279 instances of violence against Christians during the year, with Uttar Pradesh State reporting 70 incidents and Chhattisgarh State 66. In June, a 14-year-old boy was abducted and killed in the Malkangiri District of Odisha State. Christian organizations attributed the killing to his family’s conversion to Christianity three years earlier. Police arrested two suspects, and four remained at large at year’s end. Some Hindu leaders accused Christian leaders of forcibly converting individuals to Christianity and called for additional anticonversion legislation.

During engagements with the majority and opposition parties, civil society representatives, religious freedom activists, and leaders of various faith communities, U.S. government officials discussed the importance of religious freedom and pluralism, the value of interfaith dialogue, the Muslim community’s concerns about the CAA, and difficulties faced by faith-based and human rights-focused NGOs following the FCRA amendments and allegations that Muslims spread the COVID virus. Throughout the year, the Ambassador met with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths to discuss their perspectives and concerns. In May, the Ambassador organized a virtual interfaith dialogue during Ramadan in which he emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. In January, a senior official from the Department of State Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs held a roundtable with civil society members in New Delhi to discuss interfaith harmony and promoting tolerance. In January, the Consul General in Hyderabad hosted an interfaith event to discuss the importance of mutual respect and combating religious intolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.3 billion (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, the most recent year for which disaggregated figures are available, Hindus constitute 79.8 percent of the population, Muslims 14.2 percent, Christians 2.3 percent, and Sikhs 1.7 percent. Groups that together constitute fewer than two percent of the population include Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsis), Jews, and Baha’is. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs officially recognizes more than 104 million members of Scheduled Tribes – indigenous groups historically outside the caste system who often practice indigenous religious beliefs – as Hindus in government statistics, although an estimated 10 million of those listed as Scheduled Tribe members are Christians, according to the 2011 census.

According to government estimates, there are large Muslim populations in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Telangana, Karnataka, and Kerala. Muslims constitute 68.3 percent of the population in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the only state or territory in which Muslims are a majority. Slightly more than 85 percent of Muslims in the country are Sunni, with the remainder mostly Shia. Christian populations are distributed throughout the country but in greater concentrations in the northeast as well as in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. Three northeastern states have majority Christian populations: Nagaland (90 percent), Mizoram (87 percent), and Meghalaya (70 percent). Sikhs constitute 54 percent of the population of Punjab. The Dalai Lama’s office estimates that there are significant resettled Tibetan Buddhist communities in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, and Delhi. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and media reports, there are approximately 100,000 Tibetan Buddhists in the country. According to media reports, approximately 40,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma live in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution mandates a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to profess, practice, and propagate religion freely, subject to considerations of public order, morality, and health. It prohibits government discrimination based on religion, including for employment, as well as religiously based restrictions on access to public or private establishments. The constitution states that religious groups have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, manage their own affairs in religious matters, and own, acquire, and administer property. It prohibits the use of public funds to support any religion. National and state laws make freedom of religion “subject to public order, morality, and health.” The constitution stipulates that the state shall endeavor to create a uniform civil code applicable to members of all religions across the country.

Federal law empowers the government to ban religious organizations that provoke intercommunal tensions, are involved in terrorism or sedition, or violate laws governing foreign contributions.

Ten of the 28 states in the country have laws restricting religious conversion: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh prohibit religious conversion by “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means” and require district authorities to be informed of any intended conversions one month in advance. Himachal Pradesh and Odisha maintain similar prohibitions against conversion through “force,” “inducement,” or “fraud,” and bar individuals from abetting such conversions. Odisha requires individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate at a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government.

Violators, including missionaries, are subject to fines and other penalties, such as prison sentences of up to three years in Chhattisgarh and up to four years in Madhya Pradesh if converts are minors, women, or members of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. Gujarat mandates prior permission from the district magistrate for any form of conversion and punishes “forced” conversions with up to three years of imprisonment and a fine up to 50,000 rupees ($680). In Himachal Pradesh, penalties include up to two years’ imprisonment, fines of 25,000 rupees ($340), or both. Punishments for conversions involving minors, Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe members, or in the case of Odisha, women, may include prison sentences.

Under Andhra Pradesh and Telangana law, authorities may prohibit proselytizing near places of worship. Punishment for violations may include imprisonment for up to three years and fines up to 5,000 rupees ($68).

The federal penal code criminalizes “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion” and “acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony,” including acts causing injury or harm to religious groups and their members. The penal code also prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Violations of any of these provisions are punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, a fine, or both. If the offense is committed at a place of worship, imprisonment may be for up to five years.

There are no requirements for registration of religious groups unless they receive foreign funding, in which case they must register under the FCRA. Federal law requires religious organizations registered under the FCRA to maintain audit reports on their accounts and a schedule of their activities and to provide these to state government officials upon request.

Organizations conducting “cultural, economic, educational, religious, or social programs” that receive foreign funding are required to obtain a license under the FCRA. The federal government may also require that licensed organizations obtain prior permission before accepting or transferring foreign funds. The central government may reject a license application or a request to transfer funds if it judges the recipient to be acting against “harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes, or communities.”

Legislation passed in September reduces the amount of funding that NGOs, including religious organizations, may use for administrative purposes from 50 to 20 percent and prohibits NGOs from transferring foreign funds to third parties.

The constitution states that any legal reference to Hindus is to be construed to include followers of Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, meaning they are subject to laws regarding Hindus, such as the Hindu Marriage Act. Subsequent legislation continues to use the word Hindu as a category that includes Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’is, and Jains, but it identifies the groups as separate religions whose followers are included under the legislation.

Federal law provides official minority-community status to six religious groups: Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, and Buddhists. State governments may grant minority status under state law to religious groups that are minorities in a particular region. Members of recognized minority groups are eligible for government assistance programs. The constitution states that the government is responsible for protecting religious minorities and enabling them to preserve their culture and religious interests.

Personal status laws establish civil codes for members of certain religious communities in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance based on religion, faith, and culture. Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Jewish, and Islamic personal status laws are legally recognized and judicially enforceable. Personal status issues that are not defined for a community in a separate law are covered under Hindu personal status laws. These laws, however, do not supersede national and state legislation or constitutional provisions. The government grants autonomy to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and the Parsi community to define their customary practices. If law boards or community leaders are not able to resolve disputes, cases are referred to the civil courts.

Interfaith couples and all couples marrying in a civil ceremony are generally required to provide public notice 30 days in advance – including addresses, photographs, and religious affiliation – for public comment, although this requirement varies across states. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jains who marry outside their religions face the possibility of losing their property inheritance rights under those communities’ personal status laws.

The law recognizes the registration of Sikh marriages but does not include divorce provisions for Sikhs. Other Sikh personal status matters fall under Hindu codes. Under the law, any person, irrespective of religion, may seek a divorce in civil court.

The constitution prohibits religious instruction in government schools; the law permits private religious schools. The law permits some Muslim, Christian, Sindhi (Hindu refugees), Parsi, and Sikh educational institutions that receive government support to set quotas for students belonging to the religious minority in question. For example, Aligarh Muslim University must admit at least 50 percent Muslims. St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and St. Xavier’s in Mumbai must admit at least 50 percent Christians.

Twenty-four of the 28 states apply partial to full restrictions on bovine slaughter. Penalties vary among states and may vary based on whether the animal is a cow, calf, bull, or ox. The ban mostly affects Muslims and members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes that traditionally consume beef. In the majority of the states where bovine slaughter is banned, punishments include imprisonment for six months to two years and a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 rupees ($14-$140). Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir penalize cow slaughter with imprisonment of two to 10 years. Gujarat state law mandates a minimum 10-year sentence (the punishment for some counts of manslaughter) and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment (the punishment for premeditated murder of humans) for killing cows, selling beef, and illegally transporting cows or beef.

One state, Madhya Pradesh, sets fines of 25,000 to 50,000 rupees ($340 to $680) and prison sentences of six months to three years for “cow vigilantism,” i.e., committing violence in the name of protecting cows. This is the first law of its kind in the country.

The National Commission for Minorities, which includes representatives from the six designated religious minorities and the National Human Rights Commission, investigates allegations of religious discrimination. The Ministry of Minority Affairs may also conduct investigations. These agencies have no enforcement powers but conduct investigations based on written complaints of criminal or civil violations and submit findings to law enforcement agencies. Eighteen of the country’s 28 states and the National Capital Territory of Delhi have state minorities commissions, which also investigate allegations of religious discrimination.

The constitution establishes the legal basis for preferential public benefit programs for Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities and members of the “Other Backward Classes,” a category for groups deemed to be socially and educationally disadvantaged. The constitution specifies only Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists are eligible to be deemed members of a Scheduled Caste. As a result, Christians and Muslims qualify for benefits if deemed to be members of “backward” classes due to their social and economic status.

The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain a missionary visa.

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

Government Practices

In February, continued protests and counterprotests related to the CAA devolved into rioting between members of Hindu and Muslim communities in East Delhi, during which 53 people were killed and nearly 400 injured. Two security officials were also killed. The police arrested 1,829 persons in connection with the riots. In its report covering 2020, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that while a police officer and some Hindus were also killed in the rioting, the majority of victims were Muslim. The HRW report also said, “Witness accounts and video evidence showed police complicity in the violence.” In one example reported by The Guardian, Mufti Mohammad Tahir was forcibly removed by police from a mosque near Mustafabad and handed over to a crowd, which beat him unconscious and set fire to the mosque.

Among those arrested in the protests were activist and former Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid and Jamia Milia Islamia student and activist Safoora Zargar, both Muslims. The Delhi High Court released Zargar on bail in June for health considerations. On October 22, Khalid told a Delhi court that he was being kept in solitary confinement, which had taken a toll on his “mental and physical health.”

Human rights activists and NGOs said that members of the governing BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Hindu nationalist organization made inflammatory public remarks about anti-CAA protesters but were not charged by police. HRW said that the violence in Delhi broke out soon after a local BJP politician, Kapil Mishra, demanded that the police clear the roads of protesters. In another example, in a widely viewed video posted online on January 3, Somashekhara Reddy, a state-level BJP member of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, threatened Muslims protesting the CAA. He said, “We are 80 percent and you [the CAA protesters] are just 17 percent. Imagine what will happen to you if we turn against you.”

On April 9, the Delhi Minorities Commission (DMC) demanded the police take action in response to attacks against Muslims in New Delhi during the CAA protests. The DMC requested a report from the commissioner and unspecified “proper action” from the police over “random arrests” of Muslims in connection with the CAA riots in February. The DMC also asked police to file formal charges against perpetrators for an alleged attack on a mosque in Delhi on April 8. A July report by the DMC said the violence in Delhi was “planned and targeted,” and it found that police were filing cases against Muslims for acts of violence but were not acting against Hindu leaders accused of inciting violence, including municipal-level BJP politicians.

Muslim academics, human rights activists, former police officers, and journalists alleged anti-Muslim bias in the investigation into the riots by Delhi police. The Delhi police commissioner stated that the investigation was being carried out without regard to religion and party affiliation and noted that arrests included almost equal numbers of Muslims and Hindus.

Parliament passed the CAA in December 2019 to provide an expedited path to citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who had entered the country on or before December 31, 2014. Similarly situated Muslims, Jews, atheists, and members of other faiths from these three countries were excluded from the CAA. As of late 2020, the government had not yet enacted rules to implement the CAA. Domestic and international media, NGOs, religious groups, intellectuals, and some political parties criticized the exclusion of Muslims from the legislation, sparking widespread protests. Activists, NGOs, and political parties filed petitions against the CAA on the grounds that it added a religious qualification to the country’s historically secular citizenship laws. None of the more than 100 legal challenges had been heard by the Supreme Court as of the year’s end. Commentators, members of some political parties, and activists said the CAA was part of an effort to marginalize Muslim communities throughout the country. They also questioned delays in hearing legal challenges to the legislation. The government stated the legislation facilitated naturalization for refugees from religious minorities who had fled neighboring countries due to religious persecution and that Muslims could also apply for citizenship through other mechanisms.

According to AsiaNews, two Christians died in June after being beaten while in police custody for violating COVID-19 pandemic curfews in Thoothukudi District, Tamil Nadu. The victims were a man and his son, who were detained for keeping their shop open beyond restricted hours on June 19. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the Indian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said to the media, “Such violence from those who should defend citizens is unacceptable. Justice must run its course and punish the guilty.” The All India Catholic Union also called for intervention by the authorities. The NGO International Christian Concern (ICC) reported that four police officers were suspended after the state government opened an investigation. HRW stated that the CBI, which was asked to investigate the deaths following nationwide outrage, charged nine police officers with murder and destruction of evidence in the case.

In September, the Jharkhand Health Ministry ordered administrative action against two doctors who had allegedly declined to provide adequate medical care to Tabrez Ansari, a Muslim who was assaulted by a mob in Jharkhand in 2019 and subsequently died. In August, Ansari’s wife met with Chief Minister of Jharkhand Hemant Soren and requested an expedited trial and enhanced compensation. Some NGOs and media outlets continued to report that lawmakers sometimes denied or ignored incidents of mob violence, lynching, and communal violence. HRW reported that since May 2015, 50 persons had been killed and more than 250 injured in mob attacks, including instances when Muslims were beaten and forced to chant Hindu slogans. HRW reported that in some cases, police failed to investigate these attacks, instead filing criminal cases against witnesses to intimidate them.

Some Hindu community leaders accused Christian community leaders of forcibly converting individuals to Christianity and called for additional anticonversion legislation. According to the ICC, in June, Chief Minister of Haryana State Manohar Lal Khattar announced his intention to add an anticonversion law to the state’s legal code. Such a law had not been passed by year’s end. On August 11, Hindu nationalists attacked four Christian women at a prayer service in Faridabad District of Haryana.

On November 25, Uttar Pradesh State approved a law which would impose penalties of up to 10 years in prison for “unlawful religious conversions” and “interfaith marriages with the sole intention of changing a girl’s religion.” The governor signed the law into effect on November 28, and authorities made their first arrest under the new law on December 2, according to Indian media sources. The suspect, Owais Ahmad, was accused of pressuring a Hindu woman married to another man to leave him, convert to Islam, and marry Ahmad. His case was pending at year’s end. The Uttar Pradesh government had proposed the law after 14 cases were reported in Kanpur of Muslim men concealing their religious identity, allegedly to lure Hindu girls into romantic relationships, marry them, and force them to convert to Islam, a practice commonly referred to as “love jihad” (a derogatory term). In September, Kanpur police established a special team to investigate these cases after 11 instances of forced conversion on the pretext of marriage were reported in one month.

On December 26, Madhya Pradesh State implemented the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion ordinance, replacing the 1968 Freedom of Religion Act. The ordinance requires prior permission from a district official to convert to the spouse’s faith in case of interfaith marriage, with a prison term of up to 10 years for violators. Some NGOs criticized the law for targeting Muslim men wishing to marry or enter into relationships with non-Muslim women. The Chief Minister of Rajasthan State, Ashok Gehlot (Congress Party), said the law was “manufactured by the BJP to divide the nation on communal lines.” BJP politicians, including in states where the law had not been proposed, stated that the legislation was necessary to protect Hindu and Christian women from forced religious conversion.

On March 13, the Delhi High Court rejected a petition by local BJP politician Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay to enact a law in that state to regulate and prevent religious conversions by force or deceit, similar to the anticonversion laws enacted in other states. The court stated that religion is a personal belief and to convert to a different faith was an individual’s choice.

On March 8, according to media reports, police detained a pastor and a group of volunteers from his church for distributing food and medicine to slum residents in Villupuram District, Tamil Nadu. A local Hindu filed a complaint that the church group was proselytizing. The minister and volunteers denied the allegation and said they had been slapped and harassed while in custody at the Marakkanam police station. Police released them with a warning.

According to ADF India, on February 18, a district court in Ratlam acquitted eight Christians who had been accused in 2017 of conspiring to kidnap 60 children and covert them to Christianity in Maharashtra State.

On March 15, a group of Hindus attacked a church service in Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, with hockey sticks and steel rods without intervention from police who were present, according to Pastor Indresh Kumar Gautam. Gautam told media that the Hindus accused the worshippers of increasing Christian conversions in the area. Instead of stopping the attack, police took the pastor, three Christian worshippers, and a non-Christian into custody, Gautam said. The pastor said the non-Christian was released immediately. The other four were held for six hours and released on bail after signing affidavits stating they would not be involved in further Christian conversion activities in the area. Gautam also said that a police officer beat him.

The NGOs ICC and ADF India stated that authorities pursued charges against Christians in several states, most frequently Uttar Pradesh, under religious conversion laws or laws prohibiting “insults” to religion or religious belief, including Section 259A of the national penal code. In September, the ICC reported that eight persons were arrested and several house churches closed in Lakhimpur Khere District. Those arrested were charged under Section 259A and were subsequently released on bail.

On June 6, more than 200 Muslim residents of Taprana village in Shamli town, Muzzafarnagar District, Uttar Pradesh, said they were leaving their homes because of intimidation by state police officials. Villagers told media that a police raid on May 26 prompted them to move. They said police ransacked and looted homes during the raid and arrested a Muslim resident who had returned to the village before his six-month ban for cow slaughter had ended. One witness said this was the fourth such raid in two months.

On September 30, a special CBI court acquitted all 32 persons, including former senior BJP politicians L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, charged in the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu activists in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, which sparked violence that led to an estimated 2,000 deaths, mostly of local Muslim residents. The court ruled that the destruction of the mosque had not been a “preplanned act” and that there was no evidence of a conspiracy to carry it out. Some Muslim organizations pledged to appeal the ruling, and some political analysts noted that the judgment was likely to fuel feelings of discontent and marginalization among the country’s Muslim minority, while others disagreed with the ruling but welcomed a resolution to the divisive case after several decades. NGOs and opposition politicians said the outcome was inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s prior findings and expressed frustration that the court’s judgment meant an absence of accountability for the mosque’s destruction.

In November 2019, the Supreme Court awarded the site where the Babri Mosque had stood to a trust for the purpose of constructing a Hindu temple there and provided five acres of land in the city for the construction of a new mosque. On August 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the inauguration ceremony for construction of the temple. Some opposition politicians and members of civil society expressed opposition to the Prime Minister’s attending a religious ceremony in an official capacity.

On July 9, a temple and two mosques located on the premises of a Telangana State office complex were damaged during the construction of a new office complex, prompting Hindu and Muslim organizations and political parties to call for reconstruction of the structures. State Chief Minister Chandrashekar Rao said the damage was accidental, expressed regret for the incident, and said the state would construct a new temple and mosques as part of the new complex. In response to a demand from the Christian community, the Chief Minister announced on September 5 that a church would also be built in the new complex.

In October, the Supreme Court accepted the government’s plan to rebuild a smaller temple on the former site of the Guru Ravidas Hindu temple, which had been demolished in August 2019 as part of a government drive against illegal properties. Hindu Dalit groups had protested the demolition and demanded the temple’s reconstruction.

The government and media initially attributed early cases of COVID-19 in the country to a conference held in New Delhi in March by the Islamic Tablighi Jamaat organization after media reported that six conference attendees – including some who had travelled from abroad – had tested positive for the virus after gathering at a large event in contravention of social distancing provisions. The Ministry of Home Affairs initially claimed a majority of the country’s COVID-19 cases were linked to the event. Some studies indicated the event had resulted in an initial spread of COVID-19. A BJP member of the state legislative assembly in Karnataka said the Tablighi Jamaat conference attendees were spreading COVID-19 “like terrorism.” A senior state-level BJP leader in Maharashtra State called the Muslims who attended the conference “human bombs.” Politicians and some media labeled this “Corona Jihad,” which some NGOs said reflected increasing anti-Muslim sentiment.

At a press briefing on April 4, Ministry of Home Affairs Secretary Punya Salila Srivastava said that law enforcement agencies “through a massive effort, had located and placed around 22,000 Tablighi Jamaat workers and their contacts in quarantine.” Most of those quarantined were Muslim. In July, authorities charged conference participants from 34 countries, most of whom were Muslim, for violation of visa conditions and “malicious spreading of COVID-19.” Of 956 Tablighi Jamaat members and foreign nationals detained in Delhi, 249 were granted bail and an additional 132 were released in July. In Uttar Pradesh State, 512 Tablighi Jamaat members were released in June following court orders.

In an online address to the nation on April 26, Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of the RSS, called on Indians not to discriminate against anyone in the fight against COVID-19. In a reference to the March Tablighi Jamaat conference, he asked people not to target members of a “particular community” (i.e., Muslims) “just because of the actions of a few.” Prime Minister Modi tweeted on April 19, “COVID-19 does not see race, religion, color, caste, creed, language or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood.”

On April 3, the Gujarat High Court directed national and Gujarat State officials to submit a list of citizens and foreign nationals who participated in the Tablighi Jamaaat conference and later entered Gujarat. On August 21, the Aurangabad bench of the Mumbai High Court annulled complaints against 29 foreign nationals alleged to have violated their visas by visiting Maharashtra State (where Mumbai is located) after attending the conference. The judges said that authorities had identified and charged the foreigners in order to make them scapegoats. On September 21, during a Gujarat State legislature meeting, Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel and other BJP lawmakers in Gujarat said that Tablighi Jamaat members were responsible for the initial spread of COVID-19 in that state.

On September 24, the Nagpur Bench of the Mumbai High Court dismissed a case against eight Burmese Muslims who were charged with engaging in religious activities that contributed to the spread of COVID-19 in Maharashtra State. The eight had visited a mosque in Nagpur just before pandemic restrictions were imposed in March.

On June 17, the Telangana State High Court questioned Hyderabad police on why cases were registered against “a disproportionate number of Muslims” on the charge of violating COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. The court asked the state police chief to submit evidence of action taken against police officials who used excess force on the alleged violators of the lockdown. Police denied that they were targeting Muslims and said their internal investigation showed that all had suffered their injuries “accidentally.”

The NGO Shia Rights Watch said that during the month of Muharram (August 20 to September 17), authorities had restricted Shia processions in areas of Jammu and Kashmir, blocking roads, arresting 200 persons, and injuring 40. Authorities said the processions were in violation of the COVID-19 lockdown orders.

On March 27, police in Kandhamal District of Odisha arrested a pastor and an official of a church on a charge of violating lockdown restrictions and conducting prayers with approximately 60 attendees. The pastor said he was leading the prayer service because it was “the only weapon” against the virus. The two were later released on bail.

On March 29, police in Hyderabad detained a pastor for organizing worship in a church during a COVID-19 lockdown. He was charged with disobeying an order from a public servant and conducting an act likely to spread an infectious disease dangerous to life. The pastor was released on bail; his case remained under investigation at year’s end.

On April 5, police in the Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh dispersed a Sunday church gathering of 150 persons and arrested Pastor N. Vijay Ratnam on a charge of violating lockdown guidelines. On April 8, police in Hyderabad arrested 10 Muslims, including two imams, for violating lockdown restrictions and offering prayers in a mosque. Ratnam and the imams were released on bail; their cases were under routine investigation at year’s end.

On November 5, a National Investigative Agency (NIA) court in Mumbai extended the detention of Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest and 84-year-old social activist, on sedition charges in connection with a violent demonstration that resulted in several deaths. NIA officers arrested him on October 8 at his residence on the outskirts of Ranchi, Jharkhand, and his communication with others during detention was strictly regulated. Swamy remained in jail at year’s end.

On July 28, according to media reports, the BJP-controlled Karnataka State government removed some lessons on Christianity and Islam from middle school social science textbooks, stating that the move was intended to shorten the curriculum while school sessions were limited due to pandemic restrictions. After strong reaction from the state’s opposition parties, the state government agreed to review the decision. As of the end of the year, the review was pending.

On October 19, the Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh ruled that the state’s Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act “was being misused against innocent persons” and granted bail to a Muslim arrested under the act. Uttar Pradesh police had filed charges in 1,716 cases of cow slaughter and made more than 4,000 arrests under the Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act as of August. According to Uttar Pradesh State government data, the National Security Act (NSA) was also used in some cow slaughter cases; observers said this was to make the charges more serious. Persons detained under the NSA may be held up to 12 months without formal charges.

On March 9, the Gujarat High Court overruled a lower court’s order and allowed two Hindus to sell their property to a Muslim under the terms of the Gujarat Disturbed Areas Act, which mandates that property buyers and sellers of different religions receive prior permission for transactions in specified neighborhoods. The State of Gujarat has the only such law in the country. The court decision was significant, according to the Gujarat Minority Coordination Committee, which monitors human rights in the area, because the Gujarat law in practice often restricted Muslims to buying and selling property in low-income areas.

On August 30, a Hindu man in Gujarat filed a complaint with police objecting to his Parsi neighbor’s selling land to a Muslim and alleging the buyer concealed his religion and forged documents to evade provisions of the Gujarat Disturbed Areas Act. The complaint remained under police investigation at year’s end.

In July, Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi stated that cases of triple talaq (the practice by which a Muslim man may immediately divorce his wife by saying the Arabic word talaq three times) had declined by 82 percent since the government passed a bill in 2019 criminalizing the practice. He said the law had nothing to do with religion and had been passed to ensure gender equality by ending an “inhuman, cruel, and unconstitutional practice.”

In February, Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde referred to a seven-judge panel for action a 2016 challenge to a Supreme Court ruling that recognized the minority status of Islamic educational institutions, including Aligarh Muslim University, and their independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. The panel had not ruled on the petition by the end of the year.

On September 15, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath announced that a new museum in Agra would be renamed after the Hindu warrior-king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj instead of in honor of the nation’s historic Muslim Mughal rulers, as had been announced by the previous government in Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath said that the Muslim rulers “cannot be our heroes.”

In September, the national parliament amended the FCRA to prohibit NGOs registered under the act from using more than 20 percent of the foreign funding they receive for administrative expenses. Previously, this limit was 50 percent. The amendment also prohibited FCRA-registered NGOs from transferring their foreign funding to a third party. Opposition parties and NGOs, including faith-based organizations, criticized the amendment and said it was an attempt to muzzle civil society voices. According to HRW, the amendments “added onerous governmental oversight, additional regulations and certification processes, and operational requirements, which would adversely affect civil society groups, and effectively restrict access to foreign funding for small nongovernmental organizations.” The government defended the amendment, stating it strengthened the regulatory mechanism that governs use of foreign funding by NGOs in the country and that NGOs were required to comply with relevant laws.

On February 5, the Ministry of Home Affairs suspended the FCRA licenses of Ecreosoculis North Western Gossner Evangelical in Jharkhand, the Evangelical Churches Association (ECA) in Manipur, the Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jharkhand, and the New Life Fellowship Association Mumbai, preventing the organizations from receiving funds from outside of the country. The ministry said these organizations were engaged in proselytizing, which is a violation for organizations registered under the FCRA.

On September 29, Amnesty International India announced that it was ceasing operations in the country after the government froze its bank accounts in response to an FCRA investigation. The NGO said the government had accused it of violating foreign funding laws in reprisal for its human rights advocacy. In 2018 and 2019, the NGO had documented what were described as numerous hate crime incidents against Christians and Muslims in the country.

On September 15, in response to a petition filed by Jamia Milia Islamia, the Supreme Court suspended broadcasts of a news serial program, Bindas Bol, on the grounds that it was prejudiced against the notion of Muslims joining the Indian civil services and that it “vilified” the Muslim community. The court upheld the suspension in subsequent hearings.

Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah told the media in September that as a result of the central government’s ending the special constitutional status of the territory in 2019 and assuming responsibility for government personnel decisions, an unknown number of Muslim civil servants had been removed from their positions in the territory and replaced by Hindus.

In November, Karnataka member of the legislative council Shantaram Siddi said that members of his Siddi minority group, who are descended from African slaves in Goa, should not be considered members of the Scheduled Tribes, and thus eligible for government benefits, if they converted from Hinduism to Islam or Christianity. He stated that those who converted and received benefits were putting Hindu Siddis at a disadvantage.

Organizations representing members of Dalit communities continued to challenge at the Supreme Court the practice of denying members of lower castes eligibility for educational and job placement programs for those who convert from Hinduism to another religion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

International media reported that Hindus led violent attacks against Muslims during February riots in East Delhi. In one case reported by The Guardian, Muhammed Zubar said he was beaten with clubs by a group chanting Hindu slogans. The Guardian also reported the case of Imran Khan, who said a mob surrounded him on the street, identified him as Muslim, and beat him unconscious with iron rods, crowbars, and metal pipes before dragging him into a gutter with a rope tied around his neck.

According to the NGO Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS), national media reported 23 incidents of mob lynching during the year, compared with 107 incidents in 2019. The CSSS said the decline was attributed to the COVID-19 lockdowns around the country. Twenty-two individuals were killed in the attacks, including Muslims, Christians, and Hindus, according to the CSSS. Seven of the incidents were directly linked to cow vigilantism. For example, on January 31, a mob in the Bhiwandi District of Maharashtra State attacked Muslims Nafees Qureshi, Aamir Khan, and Aakib Aalam, who were loading a buffalo into their vehicle. Police arrived to break up the attack, but Qureshi died in the hospital from injuries inflicted by the mob. Police later filed a murder case against six of the attackers.

On April 16, according to media reports, a mob in Palghar, Maharashtra, lynched Hindu monks Kalpavrukshagiri Maharaj and Sushilgiri Maharaj along with their driver, accusing them of being child kidnappers. The mob pulled the three monks from a police vehicle and killed them, also injuring two police officers. Opposition party members in Maharashtra said the killings were motivated by the religious identity of the victims and that the perpetrators were Christian, but the Maharashtra government stated the incident was due to general fear and suspicion of child kidnapping in the area.

The NGO United Christian Forum’s violence monitor stated that attacks on Christians and their places of worship continued to escalate in both number and severity during the year. According to the NGO, COVID-19 lockdowns did not lessen attacks on religious minorities. However, the monitor recorded 200 attacks against Christians as of November 12, compared to more than 300 cases reported in all of 2019.

Tehmina Arora, the director of ADF India, said attacks against Christians happened “nearly every day.” In its annual report, the ADF documented 279 instances of violence against Christians in 2020, with Uttar Pradesh reporting 70 incidents and Chhattisgarh 66. On November 16, a group of individuals described as religious extremists disrupted a wedding ceremony at a church in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, and threatened the pastor. The protesters also prevented the pastor from holding prayer services, according to the ADF. The ADF report also said that the Uttar Pradesh law against unlawful religious conversions targeted Christians and restricted their individual freedom to convert to another faith.

The Christian NGO Persecution Relief reported 293 cases of attacks on or harassment of Christians in the country in the first half of the year, despite the widespread pandemic lockdown. The incidents included six rapes and eight killings, according to the NGO. During the same period in 2019, Persecution Relief recorded 208 incidents. The NGO also reported an increase in social media posts by Hindus accusing Christians of forced conversions that included footage of attacks on Christians.

In July, the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) stated there had been 135 attacks against Christian churches, homes, or individuals across the country in the first six months of the year. EFI general secretary Vijayesh Lal said attacks increased during the pandemic lockdown. In September, however, EFI reported 32 incidents of religiously motivated violence against Christians in Uttar Pradesh in the first six months of 2020, compared with 86 recorded incidents in the state in all of 2019. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, the COVID-19 lockdowns likely reduced persecution in Uttar Pradesh, but reported attacks against Christians increased once pandemic restrictions eased.

In its World Watch List 2020 report, the NGO Open Doors stated that Hindu extremists, who believed the country should “be rid of Christianity and Islam,” used extensive violence, particularly targeting Christians from a Hindu background. According to the NGO, Christians were often accused of following a “foreign faith” and physically attacked in their villages.

Unlike previous years, the government did not present statistics on religious violence to parliament during the year.

In an example of the sectarian violence sparked by continued protests over the CAA, CNN reported that an armed crowd stormed a mosque in the Ashok Nagar area of New Delhi on January 25, killed the muezzin, beat the imam, scattered worshippers, and set the building on fire.

On September 25, according to media reports, Priya Soni, a Hindu, was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam after marrying Muslim Ajaz Ahmed in a civil ceremony. Ahmed and Shoaib Akhtar, also a Muslim, were arrested for the crime and were in custody while the police investigation continued at year’s end. According to media, Ahmed and Akhtar were part of an organized group that lured Hindu women into marriage and then forced them to convert.

On October 26, Nikita Tomar, a Hindu, was killed by a Muslim outside her college in Faridabad, Haryana State. Tomar’s family said that she had resisted pressure by her killer to convert to Islam and marry him. In January, the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala issued a statement that 12 Christian women had been forcibly converted to Islam and taken to Syria to join ISIS and that some may have been killed.

On June 4, 14-year-old Samaru Madkami was abducted and killed in the Malkangiri District of Odisha. Police said they suspected he was killed because the attackers believed he had been practicing witchcraft, but Christian organizations attributed the killing to his family’s conversion to Christianity three years earlier. Police arrested two suspects, while four remained at large at year’s end. A church source stated that 14 Christians had been killed in Malkangiri District in the previous two years.

On August 12, according to media reports, police in Bangalore fatally shot three persons during violent protests by Muslims regarding a Facebook post they said denigrated the Prophet Mohammed. Sixty police were also injured. Bangalore police arrested the nephew of a Karnataka State legislator from the Congress Party for posting the item on Facebook.

The NGO Persecution Relief reported that on January 12, Hindu activists attacked several Christian homes in Banni Mardatti village in Karnataka State, which led Christian families to move away from the village. On March 1, a Karnataka pastor was attacked by Hindu activists as he led church services. Persecution Relief reported that the pastor was dragged out of his house church, tied to a tree, and beaten with sticks.

Morning Star News reported that a crowd of more than 200 attacked a house church in Haryana State on January 5, beating and kicking the pastor, whom they accused of forcibly converting Hindus to Christianity. Police officers took the pastor to a hospital for treatment of a broken leg before detaining him for forcible conversion. He was released on bail on January 7.

The NGO ICC reported that a crowd disrupted a prayer service being hosted in a local home on March 11, then returned to beat the leader of the service and ransack his home when he and his family would not renounce their faith. The victim was hospitalized for a week. Local police declined to take action against the assailants, according to the NGO.

On September 16, assailants in Jharkhand State’s Simdega District reportedly beat seven tribal Christians, partially shaved their heads, and forced them to chant Hindu invocations. The assailants alleged the Christians had slaughtered a cow. Police arrested four of the nine assailants.

In March, the Juvenile Justice Board in Alwar, Rajasthan State handed down the first punishment in the 2017 mob killing of Muslim cattle trader and dairy farmer Pehlu Khan. The board sentenced two minor defendants to three years in a juvenile home.

Several Muslim leaders and activists in Telangana State said local BJP leaders and other Hindu activists encouraged Hindus not to buy from Muslim merchants following media reports that many attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat conference in New Delhi in March, who had been accused of spreading COVID-19, were from Telangana.

In April, a leading Urdu-language newspaper warned against a “new wave of hatred against Muslims” created under the pretext of the Tablighi Jamaat’s “so-called civic irresponsibility amid the lockdown.” The newspaper stated, “The assumption that the [Tablighi] Jamaat and Muslims are solely responsible for the spread of coronavirus in India is very dangerous.”

In June, the ICC stated that local Hindu groups in charge of food aid distribution during the pandemic lockdown denied aid to Christian groups unless they renounced their faith. In at least one instance, according to the ICC, Hindus and police attacked a pastor and his congregation, saying the aid was not meant for Christians.

On March 5, a group of Hindu activists prevented a Christian evangelist and his wife from distributing Bible literature in Vellore District, Tamil Nadu State. The activists then assaulted the couple and smeared Hindu sacred ash on their foreheads.

On March 2, Hindu activists entered the Catholic Sanjo Hospital in Karnataka State and assaulted staff for keeping copies of the Bible in hospital rooms and holding prayer services. Police subsequently arrested one hospital employee for proselytizing.

According to Persecution Relief, a Dalit Christian family was prevented from obtaining water from a local well by Hindu groups in a village in Karnataka State. Local police were called to resolve the matter, and the family was permitted to retrieve water.

On February 2, Jharkhand Disom Party (JDP) workers in West Bengal’s Malda District violently disrupted a Hindu mass wedding ceremony for 130 tribal couples organized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). A JDP leader told the media that the tribal individuals were being converted to Hinduism by being married in a Hindu ceremony. The leader also said that the VHP had enticed participants by promising each couple 12,000 rupees ($160). VHP representatives said they organized the wedding ceremony in line with tribal customs.

There were numerous acts of vandalism and arson targeting Christian sites and symbols during the year. The NGO Persecution Relief documented 49 cases of churches being vandalized, destroyed, or burned over six months, including in Belgaum District, Karnataka, where a church under construction was set on fire on December 17. The NGO said the pastor filed a complaint with police, but arsonists returned on December 22 and set the church on fire again. Police provided protection to the pastor and church members after the second incident.

On June 13, unidentified individuals burned down the Church of True Peace Pentecostal Church in Tamil Nadu’s Chengalpattu District. The pastor said he suspected arson and filed a report with local police. According to Persecution Relief, attacks on Christians in Tamil Nadu increased steadily in recent years, with 57 reported in 2017, 67 in 2018, and 75 in 2019.

In January, unknown individuals vandalized the St. Francis Assisi Catholic Church in a suburb of Bengaluru and ransacked the altar, according to media accounts. Police opened an investigation.

On March 3, police removed a statute of Jesus from a Christian cemetery in Doddasagarhalli, Karnataka, after local Hindus pressed local authorities to remove it, according to the Catholic news site Crux. Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore condemned the “forceful removal” of the statute from land that local Christians had used without incident as a cemetery for more than 30 years. He stated the site was not being used for forcible conversions, as alleged by Hindus from outside the village. Machado said the removal was a “violation of the religious freedom guaranteed to us by the Indian Constitution.”

Media reported that in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, a group threw a bottle filled with gasoline at one mosque and stones at another in retaliation for an attack made on a local Hindu leader during the protests against the CAA.

A Hindu temple in East Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh State was damaged by fire on September 6. In the protests that followed on September 8, a mob attacked a local church with stones, damaging its windows and compound wall. Police arrested 43 persons belonging to various Hindu organizations in connection with the attack on the church. Andhra Pradesh police opened an investigation into the church attack, but all suspects were free on bail at year’s end. On September 11, the state government ordered a separate probe by the CBI into the temple fire; the probe had not begun as of year’s end.

On September 1, unidentified persons demolished a church in Khammam District, Telangana State. The pastor said that Hindu nationalists carried out the attack in retaliation for a complaint he filed against them in 2019 for disturbing worship.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

During the year, U.S. embassy and consulate officials met with government officials to discuss reports of religious freedom abuses. Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, engaged with members of parliament and politicians from the ruling and opposition parties on the CAA. They emphasized the importance the United States attaches to religious freedom and the responsibility of democracies to ensure the rights of religious minorities. Among the issues discussed were the Muslim community’s concerns about the CAA, difficulties faced by faith-based NGOs in the wake of amendments to the FCRA, and allegations that Muslims spread the COVID-19 virus.

Embassy and consulate officials met with political leaders from religious minorities, NGOs, civil society members, academics, and interfaith leaders to discuss the concerns of religious minorities and reports of religious persecution and religiously motivated attacks. Embassy representatives engaged civil rights NGOs, media representatives, interfaith groups, religious leaders, and politicians to discuss their perspectives on the CAA and its continued impact.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths. In May, the Ambassador organized a virtual interfaith dialogue during Ramadan in which he emphasized the importance the U.S. government attached to religious freedom in the country. Members of academia, media commentators on interfaith issues, NGO interfaith activists, and representatives of multiple faiths participated.

In January, a senior official from the Department of State Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs held a roundtable on religious freedom issues with civil society members in Delhi. Also in January, the U.S. Consul General in Hyderabad hosted an interfaith event at his residence and discussed with representatives of principal faiths the rising trend of religious intolerance in the country and how to confront it. In March, embassy officers met with activists of a Dalit human rights network to discuss the perspectives of Dalits and other marginalized religious communities.

Iran

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet or Islam”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, excluding converts from Islam, are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” According to the online news service Iran Focus, on September 10, the Supreme Court, for the third time, upheld the death sentence against seven Sunni Muslim prisoners who were charged with “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “moharebeh.” On October 4, according to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish nongovernment organization (NGO), security forces arrested a prominent Kurdish Sunni imam, Mamousta Rasoul Hamzehpour, in his home in the city of Piranshahr. As of year’s end, his whereabouts and the status of his case remained unknown. The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC), a U.S.-based human rights NGO, said that from January 2000 to November 2020, the government sentenced at least 237 persons to amputation and carried out the sentence in at least 129 cases. On October 8, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a report on the country’s use of capital punishment, stating, “The death penalty…has often been used against members of Iran’s ethnic communities and religious minorities, especially in political cases based on moharebeh, ‘spreading corruption on Earth,’ insurrection, and other vaguely worded crimes.” According to the ABC, on October 14, authorities in the Office of the Borazjan City Prosecutor flogged a Christian convert, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 80 times for drinking communion wine. On November 22, NGOs and several media outlets reported that authorities raided the homes of dozens of Baha’is across the country in “simultaneous operations.” On May 28, Radio Farda reported that police in Khuzestan Province said they arrested “14 agents of takfiri (an umbrella term to refer to Sunni dissident groups and Sunni individuals) and separatist groups.” The opposition website Iran Focus stated human rights groups reported that authorities summoned, interrogated, and arrested several religious Sunni teachers, students, and civil activists during the month of Ramadan (which began in late April). NGOs reported that as of October 27, there were 38 Baha’is – 16 men and 22 women – in prison. Twenty-six of them were placed there during the year. In July, a court sentenced seven of eight Christian converts who were arrested in Bushehr in 2019 for spreading “propaganda against the regime.” After sentencing a married couple among the group, the court ruled that, as Christians, the couple were not fit to raise their adopted daughter, who has heart and other health conditions, whom the court viewed as a Muslim. In May, the parliament passed amendments to the Islamic Penal Code, including language that those found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam” could be labeled as members of a “sect” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or the death penalty. On November 9, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by women’s right activist Saba Kord-Afshari of her prison sentence for protesting the compulsory hijab. On November 1, Iran International and the international human rights news agency HRANA reported that authorities barred from higher education at least 17 Baha’is who participated in the year’s nationwide university entrance examinations, despite their being academically qualified. In January, NGOs and press reported that the application form for the state-issued national identity card, required for almost all government and other transactions, would only allow citizens to register as one of the country’s recognized religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism; previously application forms for the identity card had an option for “other religions.” According to a December 4 report by the news website IranWire, the government issued a memorandum to provincial judiciary heads establishing a new General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers to receive any reports of transgressions by members of the legal profession, including women lawyers not wearing the mandatory hijab at work or on social media or doubts about a lawyer’s commitment to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or the principle of Supreme Leader.

According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, while employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private-sector jobs. Baha’is reported there was continued destruction and vandalism of their cemeteries. According to IranWire, during Friday prayers in early November in Kermanshah, Sunni cleric Mullahamid Faraji called Yarsanis infidels, Satanists, and enemies of Muslims. Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the most senior Sunni cleric in the country, circulated a video on social media charging that Chinese Shia students studying at al-Mustafa International University in Qom had infected the country with the COVID-19 virus. According to press and NGO reports, on May 14, following threats on Twitter, a man broke into the shrine of Esther and Mordechai, a Jewish holy site in Hamadan, in an attempt to set fire to the tomb. In June, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran, a Netherlands-based NGO focusing on research on Iran, conducted an online survey with the collaboration of the ABC that found dramatic changes in Iranian society’s religiosity, especially an increase in secularization and a diversity of faiths and beliefs. The survey found that only 40 percent of respondents identified as Muslim.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran. The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. On September 24, the United States sanctioned several officials and entities for gross violations of human rights and denials to the right of liberty of those seeking only to practice their religion, including Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and the Adel Abad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad prisons. The statement read, in part, “Judge Soltani is responsible for sentencing Baha’is in Iran on dubious charges related to their exercise of freedom of expression or belief” and “Orumiyeh Prison has subjected members of ethnic and religious minority groups and political prisoners to abuse, including beatings and floggings.”

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on in section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA) for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 85.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to Iranian government estimates, Muslims constitute 99.4 percent of the population, of whom 90-95 percent are Shia, and 5-10 percent are Sunni, mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds, living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest provinces, respectively. Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population, but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable. There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.

According to U.S. government estimates, groups constituting the remaining less than 1 percent of the population include Baha’is, Christians, Yarsanis, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians. The three largest non-Muslim minorities are Baha’is, Christians, and Yarsanis.

According to Human Rights Watch data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.

The government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians in the country. Some estimates, however, suggest there may be many more than actually reported. According to World Christian Database statistics, there are approximately 547,000 Christians. Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates there could be between 300,000 and one million.

Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000. There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers. Christian groups outside the country disagree on the size of the Protestant community, with some estimates citing figures lower than 10,000, and others, such as Open Doors USA, citing numbers greater than 800,000. Many Protestants and converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but HRANA and the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) estimate there are up to two million. Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.

According to recent estimates from Armenian Christians who maintain contact with the Iranian Christian community in the country, their current numbers are approximately 40,000 to 50,000, significantly lower than the peak of 300,000 estimated prior to 1979. The number of Roman Catholics in the country is estimated to be 21,000.

According to Zoroastrian groups and the government-run Statistical Center of Iran, the population includes approximately 25,000 Zoroastrians.

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while representatives from the Jewish community in the country estimated their number at 15,000 during a 2018 PBS News Hour interview.

The population, according to government media, includes 14,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.

According to the 2011 census, the number of individuals who are nonreligious rose by 20 percent between 2006 and 2011, which supports observations by academics and others that the number of atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, and religiously unaffiliated living in the country is growing. Often these groups, however, do not publicly identify, as documented by Amnesty International’s report on the country, because those who profess atheism are at risk of arbitrary detention, torture, and the death penalty for “apostasy.”

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. The constitution stipulates all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”

The constitution prohibits the investigation of an individual’s ideas and states no one may be “subjected to questioning and aggression for merely holding an opinion.” The law prohibits Muslims from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The only recognized conversions are from another religion to Islam. Conversion from Islam may be considered apostasy under sharia, a crime punishable by death. Under the law, a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim.

By law, non-Muslims may not engage in public persuasion or attempted conversion of Muslims. The law considers these activities proselytizing and punishable by death. In addition, citizens who are not recognized as Christians, Zoroastrians, or Jews may not engage in public religious expression, such as worshiping in a church or wearing religious symbols such as a cross. The government makes some exceptions for foreigners belonging to unrecognized religious groups.

The penal code specifies the death sentence for moharebeh (“enmity against God,” which according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, means in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions caused by unbelievers or unjust people that threaten social and political wellbeing”), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet” or “insulting the sanctities [Islam]”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.

The constitution states the four Sunni schools (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) and the Shia Zaydi school of Islam are “deserving of total respect,” and their followers are free to perform religious practices. It states these schools may follow their own jurisprudence in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities. “Within the limits of the law,” they have permission to perform religious rites and ceremonies and to form religious societies. They are also free to address personal affairs and religious education according to their own religious canon. The government considers any citizen who is not a registered member of one of these three groups or who cannot prove his or her family was Christian prior to 1979, to be Muslim.

Since the law prohibits citizens from converting from Islam to another religion, the government only recognizes the Christianity of citizens who are Armenian or Assyrian Christians, because the presence of these groups in the country predates Islam, or of citizens who can prove they or their families were Christian prior to the 1979 revolution. The government also recognizes Sabean-Mandaeans as Christian, even though they state they do not consider themselves as such. The government often considers Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, but Yarsanis identify Yarsan as a distinct faith (known as Ahl-e-Haq or Kakai). Yarsanis may also self-register as Shia to obtain government services. The government does not recognize evangelical Protestants as Christian.

Citizens who are members of one of the recognized religious minorities must register with authorities. Registration conveys certain rights, including the use of alcohol for religious purposes. Authorities may close a church and arrest its leaders if churchgoers do not register or unregistered individuals attend services. The law does not recognize individuals who convert to Christianity as Christian. They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.

The Supreme Leader (the Velayat-e Faqih, the Guardian of the Islamic Jurist), the country’s head of state, oversees extrajudicial special clerical courts, which are not provided for by the constitution. The courts, each headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, operate outside the judiciary’s purview and investigate offenses committed by clerics, including political statements inconsistent with government policy and nonreligious activities. The courts also issue rulings based on independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources. The constitution provides that the judiciary be “an independent power” that is “free from every kind of unhealthy relation and connection.” The government appoints judges “in accordance with religious criteria.”

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) monitor religious activity. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also monitors churches.

The constitution provides for freedom of the press, except when it is “harmful to the principles of Islam or the rights of the public.”

The Ministry of Education determines the religious curricula of public schools. All school curricula, public and private, must include a course on Shia Islamic teachings, and all pupils must pass this course to advance to the next educational level, through university. Sunni students and students from recognized minority religious groups must take and pass the courses on Shia Islam, although they may also take separate courses on their own religious beliefs. To pass the university entrance examination, applicants must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology based on their official religious affiliation.

Recognized minority religious groups, except for Sunni Muslims, may operate private schools. The Ministry of Education supervises the private schools operated by recognized minority religious groups and imposes certain curriculum requirements. The ministry must approve all textbooks used in coursework, including religious texts. These schools may provide their own religious instruction and in languages other than Farsi, but authorities must approve those texts as well. Minority communities must bear the cost of translating the texts into Farsi for official review. Directors of such private schools must demonstrate loyalty to the official state religion. This requirement, known as gozinesh review, is an evaluation to determine adherence to the government ideology and system as well as knowledge of the official interpretation of Shia Islam.

The law bars Baha’is from founding or operating their own educational institutions. A Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology order requires universities to exclude Baha’is from access to higher education, or to expel them if their religious affiliation becomes known. Government regulations state Baha’is are only permitted to enroll in universities if they do not identify themselves as Baha’is. To register for the university entrance examination, Baha’i students must answer a basic multiple-choice question and identify themselves as followers of a religion other than the Baha’i Faith (e.g., Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism).

According to the constitution, Islamic scholars in the Assembly of Experts, an assembly of 86 popularly elected and Supreme Leader-approved clerics whose qualifications include piety and religious scholarship, elect the Supreme Leader. To “safeguard” Islamic ordinances and to ensure legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (i.e., the parliament or Majles) is compatible with Islam, a Guardian Council, composed of six Shia clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and six Shia legal scholars nominated by the judiciary, must review and approve all legislation. The Guardian Council also vets all candidates for the Assembly of Experts, President, and parliament, and supervises elections for those bodies. Individuals who are not Shia Muslims are barred from serving as Supreme Leader or President, as well as from being a member in the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council, or Expediency Council (the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council over legislation).

The constitution bans parliament from passing laws contrary to Islam and states there may be no amendment to its provisions related to the “Islamic character” of the political or legal system, or to the specification that Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam is the official religion.

Non-Muslims may not be elected to a representative body or hold senior government, intelligence, or military positions, with the exception of five of the 290 parliament seats reserved by the constitution for recognized religious minorities. There are two seats reserved for Armenian Christians, one for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians together, one for Jews, and one for Zoroastrians.

The constitution states that in regions where followers of one of the recognized schools of Sunni Islam constitute the majority, local regulations are to be in accordance with that school within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils and without infringing upon the rights of the followers of other schools.

According to the constitution, a judge should rule on a case on the basis of codified law, but in a situation where such law is absent, he should deliver his judgment on the basis of “authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwas.”

The constitution specifies the government must “treat non-Muslims in conformity with the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights, as long as those non-Muslims have not conspired or acted against Islam and the Islamic Republic.”

The law authorizes collection of “blood money,” or diyeh, as restitution to families for Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities who are victims of murder, bodily harm, or property damage. Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive “blood money.” This law also reduces the “blood money” for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man. Women are entitled to equal “blood money” as men, but only for insurance claims where loss of life occurred in automobile accidents and not for other categories of death, such as murder. In cases of bodily harm, according to the law, certain male organs (for example, the testicles) are worth more than the entire body of a woman.

The criminal code provides for hadud punishments (those mandated by sharia) for theft, including amputation of the fingers of the right hand, amputation of the left foot, life imprisonment, and death, as well as flogging of up to 99 lashes or stoning for other crimes.

By law, non-Muslims may not serve in the judiciary, the security services (which are separate from the regular armed forces), or as public school principals. Officials screen candidates for elected offices and applicants for public-sector employment based on their adherence to and knowledge of Islam and loyalty to the Islamic Republic (gozinesh review requirements), although members of recognized religious minorities may serve in the lower ranks of government if they meet these loyalty requirements. Government workers who do not observe Islamic principles and rules are subject to penalties and may be fired or barred from work in a particular sector.

The government bars Baha’is from all government employment and forbids Baha’i participation in the governmental social pension system. Baha’is may not receive compensation for injury or crimes committed against them and may not inherit property. A religious fatwa from the Supreme Leader encourages citizens to avoid all dealings with Baha’is.

The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage. The attestation serves as a marriage certificate and allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.

Recognized religious groups issue marriage contracts in accordance with their religious laws.

The constitution permits the formation of political parties based on Islam or on one of the recognized religious minorities, provided the parties do not violate the “criteria of Islam,” among other stipulations.

The constitution states the military must be Islamic, must be committed to Islamic ideals, and must recruit individuals who are committed to the objectives of the Islamic revolution. In addition to the regular military, the IRGC is charged with upholding the Islamic nature of the revolution at home and abroad. The law does not provide for exemptions from military service based on religious affiliation. The law forbids non-Muslims from holding positions of authority over Muslims in the armed forces. Members of recognized religious minorities with a college education may serve as officers during their mandatory military service, but they may not continue to serve beyond the mandatory service period to become career military officers.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but at ratification, it entered a general reservation “not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the international legislation in effect.”

Government Practices

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to numerous international human rights NGOs, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and anti-Islamic propaganda. According to Amnesty International and Voice of America (VOA), on June 10, an official told the family of Hedayat Abdollahpour, a Sunni Kurdish activist, they executed him on or about May 21 in the town of Oshnavieh. Authorities subsequently gave the family a death certificate stating he died on May 11 as a result of “being hit by hard or sharp objects,” a phrase Amnesty International had previously documented was used on certificates of deaths from gunshot wounds. Authorities had arrested Abdollahpour in 2016 in connection with an armed fight between the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran and the IRGC. The government charged him with “taking up arms [against the government]” and “supporting a dissident group,” charges he denied. The NGO Justice4Iran reported that authorities did not notify Abdollahpour’s family members at the time of his execution, and for many months before his death, his whereabouts were unknown, which led international observers to press authorities for information on his case. At year’s end, the government still refused to disclose what it did with Abdollahpour’s remains. According to Kurdistan Human Rights-Geneva, out of the nine political prisoners executed in 2020 in addition to Abdollahpour, there were three other Sunni Kurd political prisoners charged with “enmity against God” and other vague national security charges – Mustafa Salimi, Saber Shehkh Abdullah, and Diako Rasulzadeh – and two Sunni Baluchis – Abdulbaset Dehani and Abdulhameed Baluchzahi.

According to Radio Farda and IranWire, on July 9, authorities executed in Central Mashad Prison a man social media users helped identify as Morteza Jamali, who was arrested and charged with “consumption of alcohol.” IranWire reported that Jamali’s lawyer said that he was arrested in 2017 or 2018 and had been charged with consuming alcohol on several occasions. Under the country’s Islamic penal code, consuming alcohol is a “crime against God” and the initial punishment is usually flogging. Article 179 of the code states, however, that the accused may face the death penalty after being arrested three times.

According to the U.S. Institute of Peace and multiple media reports, on February 22, a Revolutionary Court sentenced to death three young men who had participated in November 2019 antigovernment protests, which began in reaction to a government increase in fuel prices. The government charged the men with “participating in vandalism and arson with the intent to confront and engage in war with the Islamic Republic of Iran” and “enmity against God.” The reports identified the three men as Amir Hossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi, and Mohammad Rajabi. Amnesty International said their trial was unfair and that security forces “tortured [them] with beatings, electric shocks, and being hung upside down.” Gholam-Hossein Esmaeili, a spokesman for the country’s judiciary, confirmed the three protesters’ death sentences on July 14 and accused them of “having links with certain groups abroad.” Citizens posted items on social media using the hashtag “DoNotExecute.” On July 19, the country’s judiciary said it would suspend the executions.

CHRI reported that the government announced the execution of two Sunni Baluch prisoners, Behnam Rigi and Shoaib Rigi, in the central prison in Zahedan, in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, on December 19. On December 20, the government executed a third Baluch prisoner, Abdolbaset Khesht, who was arrested in 2012, in the central prison of Dozap, in the same province. Authorities accused the men of membership in militant Sunni Muslim groups. NGOs and press reported that three other Sunni prisoners held in Zahedan were in imminent danger of execution.

According to Iran Focus, on September 10, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against seven Sunni prisoners for the third time. Authorities imprisoned the inmates, Farhad Salimi, Qassem Absteh, Davood Abdollahi, Ayub Karimi, Anwar Khezri, Khosrow Besharat, and Kamran Sheikha, in the Urmia, Evin, and Rajai Shahr prisons for 11 years after arresting them in 2009. The government charged the men with “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “moharebeh.”

According to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish NGO, security forces arrested a Kurdish Sunni imam, Mamousta Rasoul Hamzehpour, in the city of Piranshahr on October 4. Authorities arrested Hamzehpour in his home, which they searched. The news report’s source stated that the government arrested Hamzehpur, whom the source said was regarded as one of the prominent clerics in the province, several times in the past. As of year’s end, his whereabouts and the status of his case remained unknown.

The ABC said that from January 2000 to November 2020, the government sentenced at least 237 persons to amputation and carried out the sentence in at least 129 cases. Commenting on the report, Amnesty International stated, “The real number of victims is likely to be higher as many cases are believed to go unreported.” During this period, the ABC said the government flogged at least 2,134 individuals, including at least 17 children. According to the ABC, these numbers meant that, on average, for the past 20 years authorities have amputated the fingers of at least one person every two months and flogged at least two persons every week.

According to Amnesty International, members of the intelligence unit of the IRGC arrested Yarsani Kurdish activist and documentary filmmaker Mozhgan Kavousi at her home in Noshahr, Mazandran Province, primarily in connection to her writings on social media about the November 2019 protests. IGRC intelligence officers held Kavousi in a Mazandran detention center, where she was kept in prolonged solitary confinement. Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Noshahr convicted her of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “inciting people to disrupt the country’s order and security” in connection with two posts on her Instagram account about the protests and sentenced her to five years and nine months in prison. Starting in May, she was serving her sentence in Evin Prison along with 35 other women prisoners of conscience as of year’s end.

According to Amnesty International, in March and April, thousands of prisoners in at least eight prisons across the country, many in provinces containing Sunni Ahwazi Arab, Kurdish, and Azerbaijani Turkish ethnic minorities, staged protests over fears of contracting the COVID-19 virus. Prison authorities and security forces reportedly responded by using live ammunition and tear gas to suppress the protests, killing approximately 35 inmates in two prisons and injuring hundreds of others. According to reports from families of prisoners, journalists, and Ahwazi Arab human rights activists and organizations, on March 30 and 31, security forces used excessive force to quell protests, causing up to 15 deaths in Sepidar Prison and 20 in Sheiban Prison, both located in the city of Ahvaz in Khuzestan Province. Amnesty International reported that numerous videos taken from outside both prisons and shared on social media sites showed smoke rising from the buildings, while gunfire can be heard. Authorities transferred Arab minority rights activist Mohammad Ali Amourinejad and several other inmates, including prisoners of conscience serving life sentences for “enmity against God” due to having promoted educational and cultural rights for Ahwazi Arabs, out of Sheiban Prison following the unrest. At year’s end, the government continued to hold these prisoners incommunicado in an unknown location.

On October 8, ahead of the World Day against the Death Penalty, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a report on the country’s use of capital punishment, saying it was “an indelible stain on the country’s human rights record.” According to the report’s language, “The death penalty…has often been used against members of Iran’s ethnic communities and religious minorities, especially in political cases based on moharebeh, ‘spreading corruption on Earth,’ insurrection, and other vaguely worded crimes.” According to the FIDH report, “These ethnic and religious groups have been subjected to extensive and protracted discrimination with regard to their political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights, which has led to resentment towards the central government. Various groups have engaged in opposition activities and occasionally taken up arms in ethnic-populated regions in the past four decades. Rather than addressing their grievances, the Iranian authorities have responded with heavy-handed measures, including the implementation of the death penalty on a large scale.…Members of religious minorities [who have been targeted by executions] include some groups of Sunni Muslims in West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Sistan and Baluchistan Provinces; followers of the Shia Ahl-e-Haq sect [Yarsan] in West Azerbaijan Province; and Baha’is.”

Residents of provinces containing large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported continued repression by judicial authorities and members of the security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention. They also reported discrimination (including suppression of religious rights), denial of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects. Iran Human Rights and other human rights activists continued to report a disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs.

On May 6, IranWire and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) reported security forces shot and killed two Sunni Baluchi brothers, 18-year-old Mohammad and 20-year-old Mehdi Pourian, in their home in Iranshahr, the capital city of Sistan and Baluchistan Province. Security forces also reportedly killed a 17-year-old, Daniel Brahovi, in the incident. The Iranshahr prosecutor told local media that the three were “famous and well-known miscreants” and that “weapons and ammunition were seized from them.” The families of the three deceased filed charges against the security forces involved but did not receive a response. According to one report, the local police and prosecutor threatened to kill the Pourian family if they continued to press the case.

According to the ABC, on October 14, authorities of the Office of the Borazjan City Prosecutor flogged a Christian convert, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 80 times for drinking communion wine. Authorities released Omidi from Evin Prison in August after he served two years on charges of “establishing home churches” and “promoting Zionist Christianity.” In September, he moved to Borazjan in Bushehr Province to serve a two-year term of internal exile. The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Omidi and fellow members of the Church of Iran denomination Yussef Nadarkhani, Zaman (Saheb) Fadai, and Mohammad Ali (Yasser) Mosayebzadeh to 10 years in prison each in 2017. At a retrial in June, a court reduced Nadarkhani and Fadai’s sentences to six years each and Omidi’s sentence to two years. On November 15, according to UK-based Article 18, an NGO focused on religious freedom in Iran, authorities summoned Fadai to the Shahid Moghadas Revolutionary Court, where he received 80 lashes for drinking communion wine.

Human rights NGOs, including CHRI, HRANA, and the official website of Gonabadi Sufi dervishes, Majzooban Noor, reported throughout the year on extremely poor conditions inside Qarchak Prison for Women, including reports of Shia guards requiring all inmates, regardless of their faith, to use a chador as their head-to-toe covering.

According to human rights activists, the government continued to target Christians who converted from Islam, using arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and other forms of harsh treatment. Article 18 reported that on January 12, authorities arrested Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi during protests in central Tehran and took her to Vozara detention center, where male and female prison guards beat her so badly that she carried visible bruises for three weeks. Detention center staff forced her to sit outside in extremely cold temperatures, withheld food until 24 hours after her arrest, and strip-searched her. They transferred Mohammadi to Qarchak Prison, where her bail was set at approximately 95 million rials ($2,300), equivalent to more than the annual salary of the average Iranian. Mohammadi had already served six months in prison for her Christian activities on charges of “action against national security” and “propaganda against the system.” According to VOA, on April 21, Mohammadi told her Instagram followers that she spent 46 days in “terrible conditions” during her detention. She said authorities sentenced her to three months in prison and 10 lashes for participating in the January protests but suspended punishment for one year, allowing her to remain free.

In a July report, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, expressed concern at the reported high number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience from the Azerbaijani-Turk, Kurdish, and Ahwazi Arab communities, many of whom were from religious minorities.

On May 6, Amnesty International reported that Hossein Sepanta, a prisoner in Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, was critically ill because authorities denied him proper treatment for a spinal-cord disorder. CHRI had reported in 2019 that in response to his hunger strike, prison authorities had transferred Sepanta, a convert from Islam to Zoroastrianism, to the “punishment unit” of Adel Abad Prison. According to a source inside the prison, an interrogator severely beat Sepanta, after which he had problems keeping his balance when walking. Sepanta began serving a 14-year sentence in 2013 on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”

According to human rights activists, Baluchis faced government discrimination both as Sunni religious practitioners and as an ethnic minority group. Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists. They reported authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Amnesty International called on authorities to suspend the execution of a Baluchi man, Javid Dehghan, who had been forced to confess under torture that he was a member of a Salafi terrorist group called Jaish ul-Adl and fatally shot two IRGC agents in an ambush in 2015. According to OHCHR, there was a series of “at least 28” executions in December in the country. An OHCHR spokesperson said, “This has included a series of executions of members of ethnic and religious minority groups – in particular, Kurdish, Ahwazi Arabi, and Baluchi communities.”

According to IranWire, on December 15, Ayatollah Mahmoud Amjad, who criticized the government many times in the past, released a video protesting the government’s execution of a dissident journalist and blaming Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the bloodshed in the country since 2009. He also called on fellow clerics and religious scholars not to remain silent about the violence.

The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 60 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being “religious minority practitioners.” Of the prisoners in the Atlas database, the government sentenced at least 25 to long-term imprisonment or executed them on charges of “enmity against God” or a charge referring to groups taking arms against the government (baghi), which officials sometimes used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.” Authorities sentenced at least 43 persons to prison for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” and at least 13 for “insulting the Prophet or Islam.”

On May 28, Radio Farda reported police in Khuzestan Province said they arrested “14 agents of takfiri and separatist groups.” The report said that authorities used takfiri as an umbrella term to refer to Sunni dissident groups and Sunni individuals. Police accused those arrested of shooting at government buildings and raising the flag of dissident groups around the city.

On November 22, NGOs and several media outlets reported that authorities raided the homes of dozens of Baha’i’s across the country in “simultaneous operations.” Security agents possessing vaguely worded search warrants confiscated personal effects, mobile telephones, computers, laptops, and religious books and pictures. In some cases, agents also reportedly confiscated cash and national identity cards. Some of the Baha’is whose homes were searched had previously served prison sentences, including Afif Naeimi, a member of the former leadership body of the country’s Baha’i community, who was freed in 2018 after serving a 10-year sentence, and Riaz Sobhani and Shahrokh Taef, who each had served four-year sentences in Rajaei Shahr Prison.

Human rights NGOs reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minorities held in government prisons. On September 26, VOA reported that since August, authorities denied a Gonabadi Sufi dervish, Benham Mahjoubi, medical treatment, including medication provided by his family, for a panic disorder, and forcibly transferred him from Evin Prison to the Razi Aminabad psychiatric hospital in Tehran. Amnesty International stated that authorities subjected Mahjoubi to torture and gave him injections of an unknown substance on multiple occasions against his will. Mahjoubi’s wife posted on social media that authorities transferred him to the facility after he was paralyzed in a fall. According to VOA, the government had arrested Mahjoubi for taking part in street protests in Tehran in 2018, along with 300 other Gonabadi Sufi dervishes who had been demanding the release from house arrest of their leader, Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh (who subsequently died on December 24, 2019).

In May, Gonabadi dervish Reza Yavari told VOA that authorities forced him to relocate to the northeastern town of Taybad, in Razavi Khorasan Province, to start a two-year sentence of internal exile following his April 1 pardon and release from a prison in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, capital of Khuzestan Province. Yavari, a native of Khuzestan who was studying at a Tehran university prior to his 2018 detention, accused authorities of acting illegally by forcing him into internal exile after granting him a pardon. Yavari told VOA that 38 other dervishes had also been forced into internal exile and expressed concern about the government’s ongoing imprisonment of eight other dervish activists who were among more than 300 dervish community members arrested for involvement in antigovernment protests in Tehran in 2018. In August, four dervishes whom the government sentenced to internal exile told VOA that they rejected the claim made by a government representative in a press briefing that the government did not maintain a predetermined list of destinations for internal banishment. The four men said that the government sends released prisoners to live in poor towns, with harsh climates, far from the country’s population centers and their homes.

According to the human rights NGO Hengaw, in late September, government security services arrested three Kurdish religious activists, Syawash (Forat), Behzad Talayi, and Farshad Fatahi in Urmia, West Azerbaijan Province. The government transferred the men to Urmia Central Prison on October 14. According to the NGO, the government arrested the three individuals because of religious activities and “propaganda” on behalf of “Islamic extremist groups.”

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. According to a June report by the online news source Balochwarna News, Sunni cleric Molavi Fazl al-Rahman Kouhi remained in prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad on the orders of a special clerical court that summoned and jailed him in November 2019 following nationwide antigovernment protests after a sharp increase in gasoline prices. Kouhi served as the Friday prayer leader for the town of Pashamagh, inhabited mostly by Baluchi Sunnis. The court summoned and jailed him days after he gave a sermon criticizing the country’s Shia-dominated government for violently suppressing the protests. According to the report, Kouhi’s sermon described the crackdown as un-Iranian, un-Islamic, and inhumane. Abdol Sattar Doshoki, an exiled Sunni rights activist, said that the government’s apparent arbitrary detention of an outspoken Sunni cleric was the latest sign of a bleak future for the country’s Sunni Muslim minority.

Balochwarna News reported that security forces arrested Molawi Mohammad Qalandarzai, a Sunni imam, on February 27 at his home in Zahedan.

Iran Focus stated that during the year, the government increased its persecution of Sunnis in the parts of the country that have large Sunni populations. The website stated that human rights groups reported that authorities summoned, interrogated, and arrested several Sunni religious teachers, students, and civil activists during the month of Ramadan, which began in late April. Authorities detained at least 10 Sunnis in Sanandaj in Kurdistan Province. According to other reports, the Sanandaj Intelligence Agency summoned Ali Moradi, a Sunni cleric, and his son Mohammad at the beginning of Ramadan. On April 22, the IRGC summoned and interrogated Maktoom Askani, a Sunni activist in Zahedan in Sistan and Baluchistan Province. The Zahedan Revolutionary Guards Corps summoned and arrested Abdul Rauf Dashti, another Sunni activist. In late April, the Human Rights News Agency reported that MOIS summoned and interrogated Shahdad Zehi, a Sunni cleric in Sarbaz in Sistan and Baluchestan Province. On May 21, the Baluch Activists Campaign said that the Zahedan Revolutionary Guards Corps summoned and interrogated Akram Kuhi, the temporary head of Friday prayers in Peshamag village. The reports said that after the IRGC officials asked Kuhi about the employees, teachers, and students at a local religious school, they summoned and interrogated four other Sunnis from the school in September.

NGOs reported that as of October 27, there were 38 Baha’is – 16 men and 22 women – in prison. Twenty-six of them – 19 women and seven men – were placed there in 2020. NGOs reported that it was not clear whether holding twice as many women as men was accidental or whether it marked the beginning of a trend designed to apply additional pressure on the Baha’i community. In Shiraz, authorities summoned 26 Baha’is for a criminal hearing on October 5.

According to Iran Press Watch (IPW), on December 24, Branch 2 of the Bandar Abbas Revolutionary Court sentenced eight Baha’is for “gathering and colluding with the intent to disrupt the security of the country.” Six Baha’is received two-year prison sentences and two received one-year prison sentences. The court banned them from membership in political and social parties and groups, including Baha’i banquets and gatherings, for a period of two years and sentenced them to five sessions of “counseling on sectarian issues.”

According to press reporting, on September 7, a court in southern Khorasan Province sentenced eight Baha’is – six women and two men – to prison for “membership in the illegal Baha’i organization, which is a threat to national security.” Authorities arrested the eight during a celebration of a Baha’i holiday. The court gave the defendants – Ataollah Melaki, Attiyeh Salehi, Saeed Melaki, Roya Melaki, Nasrin Ghadiri, Arezou Mohammadi, Farzaneh Dimi, and Banafshe Mokhatari – sentences ranging from 15 months to two years’ imprisonment. Some of these individuals wrote letters to Birjand judicial authorities requesting a delay in starting their sentences due to the rampant spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Authorities denied their requests, however, and the group began serving their sentences on October 20.

On June 8, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported that in the weeks leading up to that date, authorities summoned 55 Baha’is to court in Shiraz, Birjand, Karaj, and Kermanshah, trying and sentencing 26 of them; summoned 11 Baha’is to prison in Shiraz, Ghaemshahr, and Birjand; arrested three Baha’is in Yazd; and arrested two Baha’is in Isfahan, releasing them shortly thereafter. In a court hearing in Shiraz, a court official threatened to “uproot” the Baha’is in the city.

The Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported that on September 17, security forces arrested brothers Salar Ghazali and Saman Ghazali, holding them in a MOIS detention center for 75 days before transferring them to Mahabad Prison. In mid-December, Branch 1 of the Mahabad Revolutionary Court tried them for “acting against national security through membership in a Kurdish opposition party” and “propaganda against the state.”

Activists and NGOs reported that Yarsani activists and community leaders continued to be subjected to detention or disappearance for engaging in awareness-raising regarding government practices or discrimination against the Yarsani community.

IPW and IranWire reported that on May 2, IRGC agents raided the Isfahan homes of three Baha’is, Shahzad Hosseini, his son Shayan Hosseini, and Shahzad’s mother. Security personnel then arrested Shayan Hosseini and transferred him to an unknown location. According to a close relative of Shayan, during the raids, agents searched for small wooden boxes that the families used to store prayer books.

Non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detentions and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGOs. Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians, including members of unrecognized churches, for their religious affiliation or activities, and charged them with “operating” illegally in private homes or supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries. Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscation of religious property. News reports stated authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement. According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition against proselytizing.

On May 28, authorities summoned Hossein Kadivar, Khalil Dehghanpour, Kamal Naamanian, and Mohammed Vafadar to begin serving five-year prison sentences. The government arrested the men in early 2019 before releasing them on bail. The four men were among nine Christian converts belonging to the Church of Iran denomination arrested over a four-week period, accused of endangering state security and promoting Zionism. The government transferred the other five converts, who were unable to afford bail, to Evin Prison shortly after their 2019 arrests. In late 2019, a court convicted all nine of “acting against national security” and sentenced them to five years’ imprisonment. A court upheld the sentences on appeal in February.

In July, a court convicted seven of eight Christian converts arrested in Bushehr in 2019 of “propaganda against the regime.” One of the Christians, Sam Khosravi, received a one-year prison term followed by two years of internal exile. The court fined Maryam Falahi, his wife, who worked as a nurse, 80 million rials ($1,900) and banned her from working in a public institution. After their sentencing, a court ruled that as Christians, the couple were not fit to raise their daughter, whom they adopted as an infant in early 2019 and whom the court viewed as a Muslim. In September, an appeals court upheld that decision, despite the daughter’s physical disabilities, which, according to the judge, made her chances at another family adopting her “zero.”

On January 11, a court sentenced Anglican convert Ismaeli Maghrebinejad to three years’ imprisonment for “insulting sacred Islamic beliefs” after he responded with a smiley emoji to a joke seen as critical of ruling clerics that had been texted to him on his cell phone. On February 27, a court sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment on a separate charge of “membership in a group hostile to the regime” (“evangelical Zionism,” according to court documents) for receiving a Bible verse sent over a cell phone app. In May, a court upheld the February verdict and added a one-year prison sentence for “propaganda against the regime.” In July, a court overturned on appeal his three-year sentence for “insulting sacred Islamic beliefs,” but upheld the other two sentences. Authorities arrested Maghrebinejad in early 2019 in Shiraz. In late 2019, authorities dropped a charge of apostasy that they brought against Maghrebinejad at the time of his arrest.

In February, authorities in Rasht arrested four Christian converts, Ramin Hassanpour, his wife Saeede (Kathrin) Sajadpour, Hadi (Moslem) Rahimi, and Sakine (Mehri) Behjati, for being members of a house church belonging to the Church of Iran. On May 14, the Revolutionary Court in Rasht initially set bail at five billion rials each ($119,000). The government transferred the four to Lakan Prison, near Rasht, when they were unable to post bail. A week later, the court reduced the bail to two billion rials each ($47,600) and released Sajadpour, Rahimi, and Behjati on May 20 and Hassanpour on May 21. On August 1, a court handed down prison sentences to the four for “acting against national security” by belonging to a house church and “spreading Zionist Christianity.” Hassanpour received a five-year sentence, Rahimi four years, and Behjati and Sajadpour two years each.

After the cancellation of several court sessions connected with appeals of their 2017 and 2018 convictions and respective 10- and five-year sentences relating to “illegal church activity,” Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church, and his wife, Shamiram Isavi, learned in early August that their appeals had been denied and that authorities would schedule no further hearings. On August 11, Isavi received a summons to report to Evin Prison to begin her prison sentence. On August 15, the couple fled the country. In September, Article 18 reported that Christian converts Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi, Hadi Asgari, and Amin Afshar-Naderi, who had received prison sentences in 2017 alongside Bet Tamraz, also fled the country after their appeals were rejected. In January, authorities summoned Ramiel Bet Tamraz, the son of Victor Bet Tamraz and Shamiram Isavi, to Evin Prison to serve his four-month sentence from 2018 for “propaganda against the system” through membership in a house church. Authorities released him from prison on February 26.

According to Article 18, authorities extended the two-year internal exile of Ebrahim Firouzi by 11 months. The government released Firouzi, a Christian convert, from Rajai Shahr Prison in 2019 after he served six years in prison for “collusion against national security” for converting to and practicing Christianity and related missionary activities. After he reported to the city of Sarbaz for the two years of internal exile included in his sentence, authorities extended his exile, saying that Firouzi did not have proper permission for a brief trip home to attend to some family business involving the death of his mother. After Firouzi’s exile was extended, a local prosecutor summoned him on new charges of “insulting the sacred,” which carries a maximum five-year sentence, and “propaganda against the state through promoting the Christian faith,” which may be punished with up to a year in prison. After meeting Firouzi, the prosecutor dismissed the case.

On November 18, at a virtual conference hosted by the International Organization to Preserve Human Rights regarding the “attitude of the Islamic Republic of Iran towards the different religious groups,” an Article 18 representative said that 17 Christian prisoners of conscience, all converts, were incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

In April, authorities arrested Masoud Heydari and Hamid Haghjoo, the managing director and the Telegram channel administrator at the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), following the posting of a cartoon mocking COVID-19 remedies prescribed by religious leaders. ILNA officials denied publishing the cartoon and said they were falsely accused. Police released Heydari on bail while detaining Haghjoo pending an investigation into the case. There were no updates as of year’s end.

The government continued to permit Armenian Christians to have what sources stated were perhaps the greatest leeway among religious minorities in the country. It extended preservation efforts to Armenian holy sites and allowed nationals of Armenian descent and Armenian visitors to observe religious and cultural traditions within their churches and dedicated clubs.

According to the BBC Persian service, on October 29, the Qom Seminary Teachers Association labeled Grand Ayatollah Kamal Heidari a “liar,” “sinner,” and “foreign agent,” and decreed that any dealings with him would be considered a “sin.” The association excommunicated Heidari and labeled him a “seditionist” for his modernist and rationalist views.

In a January 28 report to the UN Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran said he was “deeply concerned” about a bill adopted by the Committee for Judicial and Legal Affairs of parliament in 2019 on “misguided sects” that would criminalize membership in religious groups that the government considered to be “misguided.” The special rapporteur stated, “According to a member of the Committee, the bill was proposed because of concerns about sects that have no jurisprudential or religious status but attribute their belief to Islam and about the cults that have emerged recently. Members of nonrecognized religious minorities have expressed concern that passage of the bill would make it a criminal offence to follow certain religions and could be used to increase discrimination against them.”

In May, parliament passed the legislation on “misguided sects” in the form of amendments to articles 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code. The legislation stated that those found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam” could be labeled as members of a “sect” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or the death penalty. A human rights lawyer living in Europe stated, “The law should protect citizens, including Christian converts and Baha’is, against the government, but in Iran the law has become a tool to justify the government’s violent treatment of converts and other unrecognized minorities.” The NGO Article 18 reported that the Guardian Council, which must approve all parliamentary bills, returned the bill to parliament in July, seeking eight clarifications, the majority of which related to “ambiguous” language. An Article 18 official cautioned that the legislation would still likely to return in a “different, perhaps more minimal, form.” ARTICLE 19, another human rights NGO based in the UK, reported that in November, it was believed that parliament addressed issues raised by the Guardian Council, but the specific changes were not publicly released. The NGO said the proposed amendments, regardless of any changes, would “further erode the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief.”

According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, the government continued to monitor statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views. According to international media, authorities continued to target Shia clerics with arrest, detention, funding cuts, loss of clerical credentials, and confiscation of property. On September 5, IranWire reported that in late 2019, authorities arrested Einollah Rezazadeh Juibari, a Shia cleric, at his home as preparations began for the 40th day commemorations of the deaths of protestors killed by government forces in the November 2019 protests. Authorities first detained Juibari, a critic of the government who was repeatedly arrested in the past, at a detention center in Urmia before taking him to a prison in Miandoab, where he undertook a 13-day hunger strike before being released. IranWire reported that Juibari, whose case remained open at year’s end, had written a letter stating that he would remove his clerical garments and clerical turban for good, because such clerical attire needed to be “excised from politics.” His letter also said that the government had “used Islamic jurisprudence as a pretext for a power grab” and that it had “sacrificed the truth and authority of the Shia faith with [its] greed.”

Critics stated the government continued to use extrajudicial special clerical courts to control non-Shia Muslim clerics as well as to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas and participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.

The BBC Persian service and the Times of Israel reported authorities confirmed to local media that a California-based Zoroastrian priest, Arash Kasravi, was killed on July 25 while attending his father’s funeral in Kerman. BBC Persian reported on August 2 that the Kerman Province prosecutor told local media that the killer’s body was one of two others found with Kasravi and that he had committed suicide after the killings. The prosecutor said the judiciary believed the killings were financially motivated, since $10,000 was found in one of the victims’ vehicles. A social media post said that, following the 1979 revolution, many Zoroastrians have been targeted in these types of “mysterious homicides.”

Sources said that even when arrested, perpetrators of crimes against Baha’is faced reduced punishment if they stated that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.

There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays, or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though by law, businesses may close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year. NGOs also reported the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials.

The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it had seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers. It also continued to prevent Baha’is from performing burials in accordance with their religious tradition. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), authorities routinely prevented the burial of deceased Baha’is from Tabriz at the local Vadi-i-Rahmat Cemetery. Instead, they often sent the remains for burial in Miandoab, 100 miles away, where authorities did not permit the families to wash the bodies and perform Baha’i burial rites. The IHRDC noted that Baha’i religious practice requires the deceased be buried at a location within an hour’s travel time from the place of death; however, the travel time between Tabriz and Miandoab is approximately 2.5 hours. According to the report, authorities at the cemetery, the Tabriz City Council, and the Eastern Azerbaijan provincial government said they were executing orders prohibiting the burial of Baha’is in Tabriz, but none of those offices claimed responsibility for issuing the order.

BIC reported that it learned in July that the Baha’i cemetery in Taft, Yazd Province, which the government had confiscated shortly after the 1979 revolution, was being divided and sold. According to BIC, the judiciary endorsed the confiscation of all property owned by Baha’i residents in the village of Ivel, Mazandaran Province, on the grounds that Baha’is have “a perverse ideology” and therefore have no “legitimacy in their ownership” of any property.

According to BIC, the government’s anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years.

According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices. Official reports and media continued to characterize Christian private churches in homes as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.” Christian community leaders stated that when authorities learned Assyrian church leaders were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches. NGOs report that virtually all Farsi-language churches in Iran were closed between 2009 and 2012. In 2019, Radio Farda reported, “Christians from Iran’s historic Assyrian and Armenian communities are a recognized minority who are usually able to freely practice their faith, providing they don’t open their doors to Muslim-born Iranians by holding services in Persian.” Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed the latter to enter.

Christian advocacy groups continued to state the government, through pressure and church closures, eliminated all but a handful of Farsi-language church services, thus restricting services almost entirely to the Armenian and Assyrian languages. Security officials monitored registered congregation centers to perform identity checks on worshippers to confirm non-Christians or converts did not participate in services. In response, many Christian converts reportedly practiced their religion in secret. Other unrecognized religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Yarsanis, were also forced to assemble in private homes to practice their faith in secret.

The government continued to require all women to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – an overcoat and a hijab or, alternatively, a chador (full body length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes). Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment. The government continued to crack down on public protests against the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women.

On November 9, Branch 28 of the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by women’s right activist Saba Kord-Afshari of her 24-year prison sentence, which she received in August 2019, on a set of charges relating to her protesting the compulsory hijab. As a result, she faced a minimum of 15 years in prison, the sentence associated with the most serious charge against her, “spreading corruption.” In July, Amnesty International said authorities forced Kord-Afshari to wait a year following her 2019 arrest before allowing her to make her first hospital visit on June 29 for pre-existing gastrointestinal problems that were exacerbated in prison. Amnesty International also said the doctor failed to conduct a comprehensive examination of Kord-Afshari and referred her for future colonoscopy, endoscopy, and ultrasound procedures. VOA reported that Kord-Afshari was told that she could not have the procedures because of her late hospital arrival and her lack of funds for payment. As a result, Kord-Afshari’s health problems worsened since the government transferred her to Evin Prison in August 2019, the source added.

In December, authorities summoned Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent female human rights lawyer and 2012 winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, back to prison one month after her release due to health complications she manifested in prison. The government arrested Sotoudeh multiple times since 2009 because of her work as a rights defender. Most recently, authorities arrested her in 2018 as a result of what Amnesty International described as her “peaceful human rights works, including her defense of women protesting against Iran’s forced-hijab laws.” A court sentenced her to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes in 2019. At year’s end, she remained confined to Qarchak Prison.

The government continued to suppress public behavior it deemed counter to Islamic law, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsani religious communities, as well as other unrecognized religious minorities, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known. On November 1, Iran International and HRANA reported that authorities barred from higher education at least 17 Baha’is who participated in the year’s nationwide university entrance examinations, despite their being academically qualified. As in previous years, the government organization responsible for holding university entrance exams and for placing students, the Sazeman-e Sanjesh, used pretexts such as “incomplete information” and “further investigation required” to reject Baha’i applicants. A November 2 Radio Farda report stated, “The real number of Baha’i students unable to access… degrees is likely much higher,” noting that officials rejected 70 Baha’i students in 2017. IranWire said that the banning of Baha’is from entering higher education began in 1980 and that this was the 40th consecutive year the government denied its own citizens access to higher education because of their religious beliefs.

In January, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran reported to the UN Human Rights Council that he remained “highly concerned about the denials of the right to education for religious minorities, with continuing reports of Baha’i students being rejected from entering university despite passing the required examinations.”

On September 11, Radio Farda reported that new Minister of Education Mohsen Haji Mirzaei, apparently in response to an account published two days earlier by a human rights organization, said, “It is forbidden for them [Baha’is] to study in schools.” Mirzaei was referring to the organization’s claim that authorities had ordered Saadet High School in the city of Semnan to refuse enrollment to student Borna Pirasteh in the third year of high school because of her Baha’i faith.

A Sabean-Mandaean resident of Bandar-e Mahshahr, Khuzestan Province told IranWire in October that law enforcement personnel regularly harassed his community. The man said that authorities regularly demanded bribes from Sabean-Mandaean goldsmiths. Another Sabean-Mandaean goldsmith stated that police worked with known thieves to victimize Sabean-Mandaean-owned jewelry shops.

In January, NGOs and press reported that the state-issued national identity card required for almost all government and other transactions would henceforward only allow citizens to register as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions. According to CHRI, “anyone applying for the card who is not of the official Muslim faith or one of three religious minorities recognized in the…constitution (Christianity, Judaism or Zoroastrianism) will have to either lie and check the required box on the application for one of those religions, or not receive the card.” Previously, application forms for the ID card had an option for “other religions.” The card is used for all government services, banking activities, and the vast majority of other transactions. CHRI stated the policy “will blatantly discriminate against Baha’is as well as members of the Mandaean, Yarsani, and other unrecognized minority faiths in the country.” A report by Deutsche Welle stated that since Baha’is were forbidden by their faith to lie about their religion, they were unable to apply for new identity cards and obtain official identification.

In a July 21 report to the UN General Assembly, the special rapporteur stated that he “remains deeply concerned at the continued discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. Changes to the national identity card application process reportedly hinder minority religious groups from gaining access to several essential services. The application form had previously listed ‘other’ as a religious option. In January, the National Organization for Civil Registration reported that this option had been removed, meaning individuals could only choose from the four officially recognized religions. The removal of ‘other’ raised fears that nonrecognized religious groups, such as Baha’is, Christian converts, Yarsanis, Sabean-Mandaeans and nonbelievers, would be unable to obtain a national identity card, which is necessary to gain access to government and banking services.”

According to a December 4 report by IranWire, the government issued a memorandum to the country’s provincial judiciary heads regarding the supervision of lawyers. Describing the expansion of a “security umbrella” over practicing attorneys, the government letter said it had established a new General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers to receive any reports of transgressions by members of the legal profession, in addition to the work already carried out by the Bar Association. Possible issues cited in the memorandum included non-observation of the mandatory hijab by female lawyers at work or on social media, or doubts about a given lawyer’s commitment to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or the principle of Supreme Leader. According to IranWire, this new office “will intimidate, silence, and push some lawyers out of the profession, while forcing others to align with the state’s principles, leading to an atrophy of justice.”

According to BIC, the government continued to ban Baha’is from participating in more than 25 types of work, many related to food industries, because the government deemed Baha’is “unclean.”

Members of the Sunni community continued to dispute statistics published in 2015 on the website of the Mosques Affairs Regulating Authority that stated there were nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran and 15,000 across the country. Community members said the vast majority of these were simply prayer rooms or rented prayer spaces. International media and the Sunni community continued to report authorities prevented the building of any new Sunni mosques in Tehran. Sunnis said there were not enough mosques in the country to meet the needs of the population. Three news sources opposed to the government stated that Sunnis were not allowed to have a mosque in Tehran.

On May 25, the Deutsche Welle Persian service reported that Mohammad Baqer Tabatabai, an advisor to the Razavi Khorasan Guidance Office, referred to the Maki Mosque in Zahedan, the country’s largest and most culturally significant Sunni mosque, as a “house of corruption” on his Twitter account and called for its destruction. He deleted his tweet after public protest. Maki Mosque was built in 1353 in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan Province. It is religiously and culturally significant to the Sunni Baluch minority, which reportedly contributed to the upkeep of the building independently from the central government.

Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, the same term used by Christian converts for informal chapels or prayers rooms in underground churches, to practice their religion. Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.

MOIS and law enforcement officials reportedly continued to harass Sufis and Sufi leaders. Media and human rights organizations reported continued censorship of the Gonabadi order’s Mazar Soltani websites, which contained speeches by the order’s leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh, and articles on mysticism.

International media and NGOs reported continued government-sponsored propaganda aimed at deterring the practice of or conversion to Christianity. According to Mohabat News, the government routinely propagated anti-Christian publications and online materials, such as the 2017 book Christian Zionism in the Geography of Christianity.

According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship. A member of the Sabean-Mandaean community in Ahvaz, whom IranWire identified as “Selim,” said, “The Mandaeans of Ahvaz are not allowed to be buried in the public cemetery.” On December 31, Radio Farda reported, “destroying graves and tombstones of minorities and dissidents, including Baha’is and Yarsanis, [has] formed a part of the daily life of the supporters of the Islamic Republic.” According to the report, security forces warned Baha’is that they no longer had the right to bury their dead in many cities, including Gilavand, Tabriz, Kerman, and Ahvaz.

Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and in school systems. They also continued to report the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names. According to a February article in U.S. Institute of Peace’s Iran Primer, “The regime has discriminated against the group by cracking down on Yarsani places of worship, religious monuments, religious speech, publications, education and communication in Kurdish. Yarsanis have also had difficulty finding employment and faced arrest and interrogation by Iranian intelligence.”

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two preschools continued to operate in Tehran, but authorities required their principals be Muslim. The government reportedly continued to allow Hebrew language instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language, according to the Jewish community.

According to Christian NGOs, government restrictions on published religious material continued, including confiscations of previously available books about Christianity, although government-sanctioned translations of the Bible reportedly remained available. Government officials frequently confiscated Bibles and related non-Shia religious literature and pressured publishing houses printing unsanctioned non-Muslim religious materials to cease operations. Books about the Yarsani religion remained banned. Books published by religious minorities, regardless of topic, were required to carry labels on the cover denoting their non-Shia Muslim authorship.

Sunni leaders continued to report authorities banned Sunni religious literature and teachings from religion courses in some public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas. Other schools, notably in the Kurdish regions, included specialized Sunni religious courses. Assyrian Christians reported the government continued to permit their community to use its own religious textbooks in schools, but only after the government authorized their content. Armenian Christians were also permitted to teach their practices to Armenian students as an elective at select schools. Unrecognized religious minorities, such as Yarsanis and Baha’is, continued to report they were unable to legally produce or distribute religious literature.

Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions. Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Moharam, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

Baluch sources reported that throughout the year, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

According to media reports from 2018, the most recent reporting available, there were 13 synagogues in Tehran and approximately 35 throughout the country. Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens.

Government officials continued to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric in official statements and to sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books. According to the Anti-Defamation League, following a March speech by the Supreme Leader on the COVID-19 pandemic, his office’s website posted remarks by a cleric who said “there is no doubt that the Jews and especially the Zionists previously have a long history of supernatural affairs and matters such as a relationship with the devil and genies.” The Anti-Defamation League report stated that most of the COVID-19 conspiracy theories spread by the government imagined the United States as leading “a biological attack, either with the help of Jewish capitalists or Israel, or to benefit Israel or at the behest of Jewish puppet masters.” According to the Anti-Defamation League, another central theme of the government’s propaganda regarding the global health crisis was the conspiracy theory that Jews are all-powerful or seek world domination.

In September, Masud Shojaei-Tabatabai, the head of a government arts agency, announced a plan to organize another exhibition of Holocaust-denial cartoons, which the government also held in 2006 and 2016. Following the beheading in France of a teacher who had shown students the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, Shojaei-Tabatabai told the Tehran Times, that “our [exhibition] program [will] publish serious artworks challenging the Holocaust; for one insulting cartoon, we will publish 10 cartoons in social media and other virtual spaces.” After French President Macron defended the slain teacher’s presentation of secularism and individual freedom, the Supreme Leader asked on Twitter, “Why is it a crime to raise doubts about the Holocaust? Why should anyone who writes about such doubts be imprisoned while insulting the Prophet (pbuh [Peace be upon him]) is allowed?”

The government continued to allow recognized minority religious groups to establish community centers and some self-financed cultural, social, athletic, and charitable associations.

On December 16, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The General Assembly passed the measure by a vote of 82 states in favor, 30 against, and 64 abstentions. The resolution, which was cosponsored by 45 member states, expressed concern about “ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, restrictions on the establishment of places of worship, undue restrictions on burials carried out in accordance with religious tenets, attacks against places of worship and burial, and other human rights violations….” These violations included “harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention, and incitement to hatred that leads to violence against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities, including Christians, Gonabadi dervishes, Jews, Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Yarsanis, Zoroastrians and members of the Baha’i faith, who have faced increasing restrictions from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran on account of their faith and have been reportedly subjected to mass arrests and lengthy prison sentences.” The resolution called upon the government “to cease monitoring individuals on account of their religious identity, to release all religious practitioners imprisoned for their membership in or activities on behalf of a recognized or unrecognized minority religious group, and to ensure that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, in accordance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ….”

Endowed religious charitable foundations, or bonyads, accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the country’s economy, according to some experts. According to NGOs, government insiders, including members of the military and clergy, ran these tax-exempt organizations, which the law defines as charities. Members of the political opposition and international corruption watchdog organizations frequently accused bonyads of corruption. Bonyads received benefits from the government, but there was no requirement for a government agency to approve their budgets publicly.

According to Radio Farda, religious leaders in Qom warned shops not to sell gifts associated with Valentine’s Day because of its roots in Christian tradition. Radio Farda stated that the country’s law enforcement agencies issue warnings to stores every year against selling such items, threatening to close the businesses from one to six months for noncompliance. The report also stated that some secular citizens have tried to promote the February 19 celebration of the day of Sepandarmaz, the goddess of fertility from the country’s pre-Islamic past. The country’s religious leaders opposed Sepandarmaz because of its roots in Zoroastrianism, which was replaced by Islam as the country’s predominant religion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to IranWire, during Friday prayers in early November in Kermanshah, Sunni cleric Mullahamid Faraji called Yarsanis infidels, Satanists, and enemies of Muslims. “Yarsanis are not our brothers,” he told the congregation, adding, “Brotherhood is only possible in Islam.” According to IranWire, protests by members of the Yarsan community followed, gaining momentum over the days that followed, prompting Faraji to issue a retraction on social media in which he said enemies of the Islamic Republic had distorted and misrepresented his statements in an attempt to sow division between Muslims and Yarsanis in the area. He defined these “enemies” as Jews, Christians, and Zionists.

According to Radio Farda, Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the most senior Sunni cleric in the country, circulated a video on social media charging that Chinese Shia students studying at al-Mustafa International University had infected Iran with the novel coronavirus. The university said in a statement that the Sunni leader had no evidence to back up his accusation and that top religious clerics should be more cautious in public remarks. According to Iran News, the university also “deplored Abdolhamid for accusing al-Mustafa International University of brainwashing its non-Iranian students.”

A member of the Sabean-Mandaean community in Ahvaz said that he had witnessed the destruction of a temple and 12 other buildings belonging to the community in recent years. Another Sabean-Mandaean said, “Since 2015, the destruction of the Mandaean tombs has occurred many times in different parts of the country. But have our protests ever been heeded?”

According to a Radio Farda report, Yarsani graves were neither safe from attacks nor from disrespect, and Yarsani cemeteries and mausoleums were repeatedly damaged and destroyed in the city of Kermanshah and elsewhere in the country.

According to press and NGO reports, on May 14, following threats on Twitter, a man broke into the shrine of Esther and Mordechai, a Jewish holy site in Hamadan, in an attempt to set fire to the tomb. IRNA, the country’s official press agency, which first confirmed the attack but later removed the report from its website, said there was no major damage to the shrine. The attack followed reports in February that the government was considering razing the shrine as an act of revenge aimed at the United States and Israel. Hamedan’s prosecutor, Hassan Khanjani, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency that police had not reached a conclusion on the cause of the fire and that no arrests had been made.

Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights reported that Baha’is continued to be major targets of social stigma and violence and that perpetrators reportedly continued to act with impunity.

There continued to be reports of non-Baha’is dismissing or refusing employment to Baha’is, sometimes in response to government pressure, according to BIC and other organizations monitoring the situation of Baha’is. BIC continued to report instances of physical violence committed against Baha’is based on their faith. Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.

Yarsanis outside the country reported that widespread discrimination against Yarsanis continued. They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and in shared community facilities. Yarsani men, recognizable by their particular mustaches, continued to face employment discrimination. According to reports, Shia preachers continued to encourage social discrimination against Yarsanis.

According to human rights NGOs, including CSW, Open Doors USA, and others, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members.

Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements.

Sunni students reported professors continued to routinely insult Sunni religious figures in class.

In June, the Netherlands-based NGO Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran conducted an online survey with the collaboration of the ABC that showed Iranian society’s unprecedented secularization. According to its authors, the result of the poll of 40,000 individuals revealed dramatic changes in the country’s religiosity, with an increase in secularization and a diversity of faiths and beliefs. The survey found that only 40 percent of respondents identified as Muslim, contrasting with government data that states 99.5 percent of the country is Muslim. The survey found 32 percent of respondents explicitly identified as Shia, while 5 percent said they were Sunni Muslim and 3 percent Sufi Muslim. Another 9 percent said they were atheists, along with 7 percent who preferred the label of “spirituality” as describing their religion. Among the other selected religions, 8 percent said they were Zoroastrians, which the pollsters interpreted as a reflection of Persian nationalism and a desire for an alternative to Islam, rather than strict adherence to the Zoroastrian faith, while 1.5 percent said they were Christian (which Christian groups state translates into between 750,000 and one million Christians in the country). Of those polled, 78 percent said they believed in God, while only 37 percent believed in life after death and only 30 percent believed in heaven and hell. Approximately 25 percent said they believed in jinns (demons).

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran and therefore did not have opportunities to raise concerns in a bilateral setting with the government about its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.

In a speech to the National Prayer Breakfast on February 6, the President expressed concern about the arrest of Mary Mohammadi, a Christian convert, at an antigovernment protest in January, which the President said was due to her conversion to Christianity. The Secretary of State later told an interviewer that he was deeply disturbed by the arrest.

The U.S. government continued to call publicly and in multilateral forums for the government to respect religious freedom and continued to condemn its abuses of religious minorities in a variety of ways and in different international forums. These included public statements by senior U.S. government officials, use of social media, reports issued by U.S. government agencies, support for relevant UN and NGO efforts, diplomatic initiatives, and sanctions. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on grounds related to their religious beliefs.

On January 15, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom tweeted, “Following the tragic death of Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh [on December 24, 2019], we are closely watching how the Iranian government treats Gonabadi Sufis. Authorities should release those unjustly detained and allow the community to select their religious leaders without government interference.”

On October 16, the Department of State spokesperson tweeted, “Deeply disturbed by reports Iran lashed Mohammad Reza Omidi 80 times for drinking communion wine. He already served two years in prison for belonging to a house church. We condemn these unjust punishments and urge Iran to allow all Iranians the freedom to practice their beliefs.”

On September 24, the United States sanctioned several Iranian officials and entities, including Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and the Adel Abad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad Prisons, for gross violations of human rights and denials to the right of liberty of those seeking to practice their religion. The statement read, “Judge Soltani is responsible for sentencing Baha’is in Iran on dubious charges related to their exercise of freedom of expression or belief” and “Orumiyeh Prison has subjected members of ethnic and religious minority groups and political prisoners to abuse, including beatings and floggings.” The statement added, “The actions taken today by the United States expose Iran’s revolutionary courts and their judges for what they really are: tools designed to enforce the Iranian regime’s brutal ideology and suppress dissent. They do not fairly administer justice, but rather seek to deprive the Iranian people of due process as well as their human rights and fundamental freedoms. The United States will continue to stand with the Iranian people and demand the regime treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

Following the attempted arson in May at the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism called on the government in a tweet “to stop incitement and protect its Jewish and other minorities.” He said that the United States strongly condemned the attack and that the Iranian government is “the world’s chief state sponsor of anti-Semitism.”

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA), for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Israel, West Bank and Gaza

Read A Section: Israel

West Bank and Gaza

Executive Summary

The country’s laws and Supreme Court rulings protect the freedoms of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation. The 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state.” The 2018 Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People law determines, according to the government, that “the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people; the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination; and exercising the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” In June, authorities charged Zion Cohen for carrying out attacks on May 17 on religious institutions in Petah Tikva, Ashdod, Tel Aviv, and Kfar Saba. According to his indictment, Cohen sought to stop religious institutions from providing services to secular individuals, thereby furthering his goal of separating religion and the state. He was awaiting trial at year’s end. In July, the Haifa District Court upheld the 2019 conviction and sentencing for incitement of Raed Salah, head of the prohibited Islamic Movement, for speaking publicly in favor an attack by the group in 2017 that killed two police officers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. In his defense, Salah stated that his views were religious opinions rooted in the Quran and that they did not include a direct call to violence. He was in prison at year’s end. The government continued to allow controlled access to religious sites, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount (the site containing the foundation of the first and second Jewish temples and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque). Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. In January, worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and mosques in Gaza and the occupied West Bank engaged in a protest campaign called “The Great Fajr [Dawn] Campaign” after dawn prayers. Starting in January at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the occupied West Bank, Islamic organizations, including Hamas, called on worshippers to gather for Friday fajr prayers to defend the sites against Israeli “violations.” On July 2, the Jerusalem Police informed the Jordanian government’s Islamic Religious Endowment (Waqf) that they had petitioned the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court requesting the closure of the Bab al-Rahma/Gate of Mercy, a building within the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, on the grounds that the move was necessary because of evidence that the building had been used in 2003 by an organization affiliated with Hamas. On January 1, the Department for Investigations of Police Officers (DIPO) indicted a detective from the Beit Shemesh police for assault and obstruction of justice after he detained an ultra-Orthodox protester and pulled him by his earlock. Following the announcement of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and some Arab countries, Muslim visitors from the Gulf were at times harassed in person or vilified on social media by Muslim and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem for visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site in coordination with the government. The Palestinian Authority-appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (who has no authority over the site) issued a fatwa denying access to the site to Muslims from countries that established diplomatic relations with Israel, but the Waqf (which administers the site) rejected it, stating that Muslim visitors from those countries were brought by Israeli officials without coordination with the Waqf. The government continued to implement some policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. Some minority religious groups complained about what they said was a lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. The government maintained its policy of not accepting new applications for official recognition from religious groups but stated that members of unrecognized religious groups remained free to practice their religion.

In June, a Catholic friar reported being assaulted in public by three men wearing kippot (yarmulkes) who spit at and verbally attacked him before assaulting him physically. Yuri Logvanenko, a chef formerly employed by the Rehovot branch of the Yochanof supermarket chain, filed suit against the store after the chain demoted and then fired him after his Jewish identity was questioned by a kashrut (the body of Jewish religious laws concerning the suitability of food, the fitness for use of ritual objects, etc.) supervisor. According to press reports, on August 5, former member of the Knesset (MK) Moshe Feiglin posted a comment on Facebook calling the massive August 4 explosion in the port of Beirut “a gift from God” in time for the celebration of the Jewish feast of Tu B’av. Press and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said that the COVID-19 outbreak intensified tensions between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis, some of whom shared viral videos showing large gatherings at ultra-Orthodox weddings and funerals to reinforce a stereotype that the ultra-Orthodox disregarded state authority and the public good. Many ultra-Orthodox stated they disagreed with COVID-19 restrictions that limited religious gatherings but permitted months of large demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In its 2020 Israel Religion and State Index poll (of 800 adult Jews) published in September, the NGO Hiddush found that 65 percent of respondents identified as either secular (47 percent) or “traditional not religious” (18 percent), whose positions regarding public policy on religion and state were close to the positions of secular Israelis.

Visiting high-level U.S. government officials, including the Vice President, met with government officials, religious groups, and civil society leaders to stress the importance of tolerance and dialogue and ways to reduce religiously motivated violence. Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. In meetings with government officials and public speeches, embassy officers stressed the importance of religious freedom and respect for all religious groups. Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated for a shared society for Jewish and Arab populations. Embassy officials participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Baha’i groups to show U.S. support for religious pluralism.

This section of the report covers Israel within the 1949 Armistice Agreement line as well as Golan Heights and East Jerusalem territories that Israel occupied during the June 1967 war and where it later extended its domestic law, jurisdiction, and administration. The United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 and Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights in 2019. Language in this report is not meant to convey a position on any final status issues to be negotiated between the parties to the conflict, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the borders between Israel and any future Palestinian state.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) classification system, approximately 75 percent of the population is Jewish, 18 percent Muslim, 2 percent Christian, and 1.6 percent Druze. The remaining 4 percent consists of those the CBS classifies as “other.” This includes those who identify as Jewish but do not satisfy the Orthodox Jewish definition of “Jewish” the government uses for civil procedures, such as many immigrants from the former Soviet Union. There are also relatively small communities of Samaritans, Karaite Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Messianic Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Baha’i Faith. The majority of non-Jewish citizens are of Arab origin. This includes approximately 77 percent of the country’s 180,000 Christians, according to the CBS as of December. Non-Arab Christians are mainly those who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s as descendants of Jews or alongside Jewish family members and their descendants.

According to the annual religion and state poll conducted by religious freedom NGO Hiddush, 60 percent of Jewish citizens do not affiliate with any religious group, 17 percent are “Zionist Orthodox,” 12 percent “ultra-Orthodox” (including 2 percent “Zionist ultra-Orthodox”), 7 percent “Reform,” and 4 percent “Conservative.”

Muslim, Druze, and Christian communities are located throughout the country. For example, in the Galilee region, some communities are homogenous, while others feature a mix of these groups. There are also dozens of Muslim-majority communities in the Negev. In addition to an Alawite community in Ghajar, there are several Druze communities in the Golan Heights.

The CBS estimates 563,200 Jews, 345,800 Muslims, and 12,850 Christians live in the current municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, accounting for approximately 99 percent of the city’s total population of 936,400 as of 2019.

According to government and NGO data, there are approximately 330,000 foreign workers in the country, including 97,000 documented Palestinian workers; 31,000 undocumented Palestinian workers; 98,000 migrant workers with permits, 77,000 non-Palestinian undocumented workers (either migrant workers without a permit or tourists who overstayed their visa); and 31,000 asylum seekers, of whom an unknown number work. Foreign workers and asylum seekers include Protestants, Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Catholics among the foreign worker population include 30,000 Filipinos, 15,000 Indians, 5,000 Sri Lankans, 2,500 Colombians, and 1,100 individuals from South American countries.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Although the country has no constitution, a series of “Basic Laws” enumerate fundamental rights, which serve as the country’s constitutional foundation. The 1992 “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state” and references the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which protects freedom to practice or not practice religious beliefs, including freedom of conscience, faith, religion and worship, regardless of an individual’s religion. The law incorporates religious freedom provisions of international human rights covenants into the country’s body of domestic law, which applies to citizens and Palestinian residents.

The 2018 “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People” (Nation State Law) recognizes only the Jewish People as having a national right of self-determination and calls for promotion of “Jewish settlement” in “the Land of Israel.” The law recommends – but does not require – that judges use Jewish jurisprudence and heritage as a source of legal principles in cases in which there is no relevant legislation or judicial precedent.

The Chief Rabbinate retains the sole authority to issue certificates of conversion to Judaism within the country under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. The Council of the Chief Rabbinate consists of Orthodox rabbis chosen by an assembly of rabbis, local government leaders, government ministers, and laypersons appointed by the government.

The government provides funding for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversion programs. Relatives of Jewish converts may not receive residency rights, except for the children of converts born after the parent’s conversion was complete.

The law recognizes only Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Druze faith, and the Baha’i Faith. Christian religious communities recognized according to the adopted Ottoman millet (court) system include Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean (Chaldean Uniate Catholic), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Evangelical Episcopal. The Anglican and Baha’i communities are recognized through a British Mandate-era law adopted by the government. The government does not recognize other religious communities, including major Protestant denominations with a presence in the country, as distinct ethnoreligious communities. There are two legal pathways to formal recognition, according to laws adopted from the British Mandate period: by petitioning either the Prime Minister’s Office, according to the Order in Council, or the Ministry of Interior (MOI). Groups may appeal rejected applications to the Supreme Court.

Recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation of places of worship and may have separate courts to apply their religion’s personal status laws. Municipalities may levy property taxes on religious properties not used for prayer, such as schools, monasteries, pilgrim hostels, and soup kitchens.

Legislation establishes religious councils for Jewish communities and for the Druze. The Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) has jurisdiction over the country’s 133 Jewish religious councils that oversee the provision of religious services for Jewish communities. The government finances approximately 40 percent of the religious councils’ budgets, and local municipalities fund the remainder. The MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs has jurisdiction over religious matters concerning non-Jewish groups and oversees the religious council for the Druze. The Department of Non-Jewish Affairs annually convenes an interreligious council of all recognized religions, including Judaism, which serves as a discussion forum for recognized religious communities. The council did not meet in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The law criminalizes the damage, destruction, or desecration of religious sites (subject to seven years’ imprisonment) and actions that “harm the freedom of access” of worshippers to religious sites (subject to five years’ imprisonment). Certain religious sites considered antiquities receive further protection under the antiquities law. The Ministry of Tourism is responsible for the protection and upkeep of selected non-Jewish religious sites, while the MRS protects and maintains selected Jewish religious sites. The law also provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for actions “likely to violate the feelings of the members of the different religions” regarding their religious sites. The law grants the government, not the courts, the authority to decide the scope of the right to worship at certain religious sites.

The law criminalizes willfully and unjustly disturbing any meeting of persons lawfully assembled for religious worship or assaulting someone at such a meeting. It also criminalizes intentionally destroying, damaging, or desecrating any object held sacred by any group of persons, with punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment for violations. Government regulations recognize 16 sites as holy places for Jews, while various other budgetary and governmental authorities recognize an additional 160 places as holy for Jews.

The law criminalizes calling for, praising, supporting, or encouraging acts of violence or terrorism where such actions are likely to lead to violence, including calls for violence against religious groups. The law criminalizes statements demeaning, degrading, or showing violence toward someone based on race, but provides an exception for statements citing a religious source, unless there is proof of intent to incite racism. The infliction of “injury to religious sentiments” constitutes a criminal offense and is punishable by one year’s imprisonment. Such injury includes publishing or saying something that is liable to offend the religious sentiment or faith of others.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled since 1993 that Jews have the right to pray on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but police can restrict this right in the name of public order and safety. The court reiterated in 2019 that its precedent on this issue is nonintervention in government decisions, “except in highly unusual cases when the decision constitutes a major distortion of justice or is extremely unreasonable.” The court upheld this position again in a decision on May 19.

The “Nakba Law” prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Activities forbidden by the law include rejection of the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”

The law requires citizens to obtain a permit from the MOI or the Prime Minister for travel to countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel, including Hajj travel to Saudi Arabia; the government issues these permits in the vast majority of cases. Illegal travel is punishable by a prison sentence or fine if the traveler does not request prior approval.

It is illegal to proselytize to a person younger than 18 without the consent of both parents. The law prohibits offering a material benefit in the course of proselytizing.

The government provides separate public schools for Jewish and Arab children, with instruction conducted in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively. For Jewish children there are separate public schools available for religious and secular families. Individual families may choose a public school system for their children regardless of ethnicity or religious observance. Minor children have the right to choose a public secular school instead of a religious school regardless of parental preference. By law, the state provides the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of “recognized but not official” (a form of semiprivate) ultra-Orthodox religious schools affiliated with ultra-Orthodox political parties, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System. Churches, however, receive only partial government funding to operate “recognized but not official” schools. Palestinian residents in Jerusalem may send their children to one of these church schools or a private school operated by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf; both include religious instruction. Some Israeli-funded public schools in Jerusalem use the Palestinian Authority curriculum. Religious education is part of the Palestinian Authority curriculum for students in grades one through six in these schools, with separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians. Students in these schools could choose which class to take but could not opt out of religion courses.

The Law of Return provides the right for any Jew, including those who converted to Judaism, or any child or grandchild of a Jew, to immigrate to the country from a foreign country with his or her spouse and children. The minor children of a grandchild of a Jew receive humanitarian status but are not automatically granted citizenship. Non-Jews who are not descendants of Jews do not have this route to immigration. Under this law, those who completed an Orthodox Jewish conversion inside or outside the country are entitled to immigration, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry. Those who completed conversion to Judaism outside the country, regardless of affiliation, are eligible for these benefits even if they are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate; this would include Reform, Conservative, and other affiliations of Judaism. The Population and Immigration Authority of the MOI recognizes Conservative and Reform conversions in the country for the purpose of being registered as Jewish in the population registry; however, those who convert through a non-Orthodox denomination, whether inside or outside Israel, are not able to obtain such religious services as marriage, divorce, or burial in a Jewish cemetery. Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under this law regardless of the religious beliefs under which they were raised. The law considers those who were eligible for immigration and those who converted as adults to another religion, including Messianic Judaism, as no longer eligible for benefits under the Law of Return.

The Law of Citizenship and Entry, renewed annually, explicitly prohibits residence status for non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, unless the MOI makes a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds.

The Chief Rabbinate determines who may be buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox Jewish standards. The law provides for the right of any individual to burial in a civil ceremony and requires the government to establish civil cemeteries in various areas around the country. The law criminalizes the intentional desecration of, or trespass on, places of burial, which is punishable by three years’ imprisonment.

Laws inherited from the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate periods establish the legal authority of religious courts operated by officially recognized religious communities over their members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial. The law allows for civil registration of two persons as a married couple outside of the religious court system only if they married outside the country or if the partners are of different religions and their respective religious courts do not object to a civil registration, or if both partners are listed as “lacking religion” in the population registry. A law mandating women’s equality contains language that explicitly exempts matters of marriage, divorce, and appointments to religious positions.

The only domestic marriages with legal standing and that may be registered are those performed according to the religious statutes of recognized religious communities. Marriages performed outside of the country may be registered with the MOI. Members of some nonrecognized groups may process their personal status documents, including marriage licenses, only through the authorities of one of the recognized religious communities if those authorities agree.

The law imposes a two-year prison sentence for persons who conduct or are married in a Jewish wedding or divorce outside the Chief Rabbinate’s authority.

Religious courts have exclusive jurisdiction over divorce cases when the husband and wife are registered with the same recognized religion. Members of religious groups not permitting divorce, such as Catholics, may not obtain a divorce. Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of sharia courts. Civil courts have jurisdiction over personal status cases when religious courts lack jurisdiction, as in cases of interfaith and same-sex couples.

Matters stemming from divorce proceedings, including alimony, child support, child custody, guardianship, and property division, are under the parallel jurisdiction of religious and civil courts. The first court to receive a case acquires exclusive jurisdiction over it. The Jordanian Waqf administers Islamic courts in Jerusalem for Muslim residents, with the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs in Jordan having appellate authority.

In accordance with halacha (Jewish religious law), a Jewish woman whose husband refuses to give her a get (Jewish legal writ of divorce) may not legally remarry in the country. While a rabbinical court may order a husband to give a get, it does not have the power to terminate the marriage if he refuses. In such cases, rabbinical courts may impose community-based punishments on the husband, including avoiding financial dealings with a get-refuser, excluding him from community activities, and advertising these decisions to the public. The law permits rabbinical courts to hear cases of get refusals in which the spouses are not Israeli citizens, if certain other conditions are met (for example, if the couple lives abroad in a location where there is no rabbinical court).

Secular courts have primary jurisdiction over questions of inheritance, but parties may file such cases in religious courts by mutual agreement. Decisions by these bodies are subject to Supreme Court review. The rabbinical courts, when exercising their power in civil matters, apply religious law, which varies from civil law, including in matters relating to the property rights of widows and daughters. A child born to a woman still married to another man is considered a mamzer (child of an unpermitted relationship) under Jewish law, which restricts the child’s future marriage prospects in the observant Jewish community.

Military service is compulsory for Jewish citizens, male Druze citizens, and male Circassian citizens (Muslims originally from the northwestern Caucasus region who migrated in the late nineteenth century).

Religious Jewish women and ultra-Orthodox men may request an exemption from military service. For most ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Druze religious students, military service is postponed for several years, after which they receive an exemption. A petition on the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men was pending at the Supreme Court as of the year’s end. Arab Muslims and Christians as well as Druze and Circassian women receive a de-facto exemption by not being called for military service. Those exempt from military service may volunteer for it or for civil-national service.

Membership in a recognized religion is recorded in the National Registry and generally passed from parents to children unless a person changes it through a formal conversion to another recognized religion. Religious identification is listed in the National Registry but not on official identity cards.

All citizens who meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” under Jewish religious law are recorded as Jewish, whether Orthodox or not (unless they convert to another religion). Approximately 450,000 citizens who identify as Jewish but do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” as well as members of religious groups that are not recognized are recorded as “lacking religion.” The vast majority are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children, who gained citizenship under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate because they cannot prove they meet the Orthodox definition of Jewish through matrilineal descent.

There is no legal requirement regarding personal observance or nonobservance of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), from sunset on Fridays until sunset on Saturdays, and on Jewish holidays. The law, however, declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest. The law criminalizes (up to one month imprisonment) employers who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat, except those who are self-employed. There are exceptions for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries. The law instructs the Minister of Labor and Welfare to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat. The law prohibits discrimination against workers who refuse to work on their day of rest based on their religion and regardless of whether they are religiously observant.

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation based on age, race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and disability. The Equal Employment Opportunities Law prohibits an employer from discriminating against employees, contractors, or persons seeking employment.

The law includes hostility based on the victim’s religion as an aggravating circumstance in a murder charge, making the offense punishable by life imprisonment.

The law states that public transportation operated and funded by the national government may not operate on Shabbat, with exceptions for vehicles bringing passengers to hospitals, remote localities, and non-Jewish localities and for vehicles essential to public security or maintaining public transportation services.

The Chief Rabbinate has sole legal authority to issue certificates of kashrut, which certify a restaurant or factory’s adherence to Jewish dietary laws. On August 31, in response to a 2017 Supreme Court ruling, the Chief Rabbinate released guidelines formally permitting restaurants and other food businesses to display a declaration regarding the kashrut standards they observe and the organization that supervises those standards. A business may not use the words “kosher” or “certificate” and must clearly state that it does not have a kashrut license from the rabbinate.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with a reservation stating that matters of personal status are governed by the religious law of the parties concerned and the country reserves the right to apply that religious law when inconsistent with its obligations under the covenant.

Government Practices

Because religious and national identities were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

On June 7, authorities charged Zion Cohen in the Central District Court for arson and attempted arson, producing and holding weapons, breaking and entering, and attempting to destroy property with explosive materials. The Ministry of Justice said Cohen, a resident of the Golan Heights, carried out attacks on May 17 on the Rabbinical Court in Petah Tikva, the Ashdod Religious Council, the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, the Kfar Saba Religious Council, and the Kfar Saba Rabbinical Court. According to his indictment, Cohen sought to stop religious institutions’ provision of services to secular individuals, thereby furthering his goal of separating religion and state. According to authorities, Cohen began visiting religious institutions around the country, posing as a homeless person, to collect information. He set off 12 devices simultaneously, causing thousands of shekels worth of damage. According to the newspaper Haaretz, the government also suspected Cohen of carrying out a 2005 attack on a Tel Aviv rabbinical court that caused 2.7 million shekels ($840,000) in damage. As of the year’s end, Cohen was awaiting trial.

In July, the Haifa District Court upheld the 2019 conviction and sentencing of Raed Salah for incitement after he spoke at the 2017 funeral of three terrorists in favor of an attack that they had carried out earlier in the year that killed two police officers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. In the sermon, Salah, head of the prohibited Islamic Movement, described the men as “martyrs of al-Aqsa.” In his 2019 defense, Salah stated that his views were religious opinions rooted in the Quran and that they did not include a direct call to violence. The three-judge appellate panel said that Salah’s arguments were “outrageous.” On August 15, Salah briefly addressed hundreds of supporters gathered outside Kishon Prison, where he was about to begin his 28-month sentence (including 11 months credited for time served), stating, “Every Muslim and Arab in the world is proud of you. I do not respect the court’s decision.”

On January 1, DIPO indicted a detective from the Beit Shemesh police for assault and obstruction of justice after detaining an ultra-Orthodox protester in 2019 and pull him by his earlock. The police suspended the officer, and authorities continued to investigate the case as of November.

On December 4, police arrested an Orthodox Jewish man for trying to set fire to the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemene on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The suspect poured flammable liquid inside the Catholic church and set it on fire before a church guard detained him and police took him into custody. On December 31, a judge found the assailant mentally incompetent and remanded him to a psychiatric institution for up to 20 years.

On December 22, press outlets reported that hundreds of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators blocked several main roads in Jerusalem to protest the arrest of 20-year-old yeshiva student Shechna Rotenberg, who failed to report for induction into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) after being conscripted. The protestors threw bottles at police who responded to the demonstration, injuring three. Protestors also surrounded the car of a senior IDF officer, Major General Yoel Strick, whom they identified as he passed by the area, threatening to physically harm him. A special police unit rescued Strick after he drew his handgun in self-defense. Police arrested three demonstrators.

Press reports stated that, on December 7, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators protested in Jerusalem against light rail construction on Bar Ilan Street, which borders neighborhoods inhabited by ultra-Orthodox Jews, arguing that it would harm the ultra-Orthodox character of the area. Police said 25 protesters were arrested, saying that one of them had been in possession of a pocketknife, a baton, and pepper spray. Organizers of the protest posted signs that said “Ultra-Orthodox Judaism will in no way accept the destruction of its neighborhoods, and the ultra-Orthodox of Jerusalem will all stand firmly…and will not rest until the complete abolition of the horrific decree.”

The government continued to allow controlled access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, with only Muslims permitted to engage in religious worship there. The government stated it understood the post-1967 status quo pertaining to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount to allow non-Muslim visitors but prohibit non-Islamic worship on the compound, while Israel respects Jordan’s “special role” at the site, as reflected in the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty. Muslim representatives stated that they generally have a different understanding of the status quo and that the Waqf should have full autonomy in administering the site (reflecting wide Palestinian and Muslim rejection of Israeli authority or sovereignty at the site) and that only Muslim worshippers are entitled to unrestricted access to the site.

In January, worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and mosques in Gaza and the occupied West Bank engaged in a protest campaign called “The Great Fajr [Dawn] Campaign,” after daily dawn prayers. Hamas and other Islamic organizations called on worshippers to gather for Friday fajr prayers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the West Bank to defend them against “violations” by Israeli Jews. Media reports on January 17 stated that police dispersed protestors at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount after Friday dawn prayers. Press reports said that Palestinian demonstrators chanted slogans recalling the Muslim massacre of Jews at the Battle of Khaybar, near Medina, in the seventh century. Police broke up the impromptu demonstration without incident. Clashes between police and demonstrators occurred at other times near the site in January and February. Press reports stated that at least 10 Palestinian Muslims were injured by rubber bullets fired by police on January 31 and that police turned away “hundreds” of worshippers from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on February 7.

The Jordanian Waqf in Jerusalem administers the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supports maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem. The issue of the use of the Bab al-Rahma/Gate of Mercy, a building within the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount that was reopened by the Waqf in 2019 after it had been closed since 2003, remained unresolved. The government stated it regarded the reopening as a violation of the status quo. On July 2, Israeli police asked the Jerusalem Magistrate Court to reimpose the court-ordered closure of the building, stating, according to the media, that it would be used again by Hamas, based on evidence that the building had been used in 2003 by an organization affiliated with Hamas. Police asked the Waqf to close the building permanently. On July 12, the court asked the Waqf to provide its views within 60 days regarding the closure of the Bab al-Rahma. The Waqf stated that it did not recognize the authority of Israeli courts over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Throughout the year, Muslim worshippers could generally enter the site, although Israeli police regularly conducted security searches there.

Israeli media reported that security forces arrested six Muslim worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on January 7 for “shouting nationalist rhetoric.” Video of the incident showed police kicking one of those arrested. Police and the Waqf reached agreement to close the site from March 22 to May 31 to both Muslim and non-Muslim visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Waqf said it sought to close the site on one other occasion but kept it open because Israeli authorities did not agree to simultaneously close it to non-Muslim visitors. The Israeli government stated that the public regulations in place at that time did not mandate closure of the site. Government authorities closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, other houses of worship, and holy sites for Passover, Eid al-Fitr, and Easter holidays as well as for the Ramadan and Lenten seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Christian leaders stated that they were frustrated when Israel restricted indoor gatherings, including religious services, to 10 persons, saying that the cap was based on the number of men required for a minyan (a Jewish prayer quorum) and did not allow for greater numbers by taking into account the size of religious buildings and ability to socially distance safely. Israeli authorities made exceptions to health restrictions for Easter and Christmas services, allowing greater but still limited public attendance. Authorities also restricted the size of synagogue congregations during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Government restrictions on gathering for prayer varied from March through December due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During a nationwide lockdown in the spring, no gatherings were allowed, including for prayer; at other times, prayer gatherings of 10 to 20 persons were allowed, including in roped-off groups at the Western Wall. Guidelines at other periods were more lenient.

On January 29, Israeli authorities briefly closed the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount after two Palestinians were arrested for attempting to carry out a stabbing attack against police.

On September 6, an association of Islamic leaders in Jerusalem issued a statement accusing police and authorities of violating the sanctity of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount by erecting ladders and installing loudspeakers at the entrance to the Lions Gate. The Waqf posted photos showing the police and other staff mounting the roof and installing the equipment. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the speakers were installed outside the compound and were for the safety of individuals visiting the site.

Authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site or incited others to violence, and public figures whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions. Banned individuals included Waqf guards and administrative and maintenance staff and imams delivering sermons at the site. The Wadi Hilweh Center reported that Israeli authorities banned 46 Waqf staff during the year. The government stated the police banned individuals from accessing the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount only in cases of violation of public order or a disturbance to the freedom of worship. The government said that these bans were authorized according to procedures approved by police officials and courts, and that they targeted both Jews and Muslims who “called for violence and disrupted the peace” at the site. According to the government, 225 individuals, including Jews and Muslims, were banned from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for different time periods. The Wadi Hilweh Information Center reported Israeli authorities banned 315 individuals from the site during the year.

While the government stated it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities banned Palestinians from Gaza and the occupied West Bank, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, as well as Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. Palestinian civil society organizations said that starting in November, police checked the identify cards of individuals entering the Old City to visit the site for Friday prayers and would bar from entry those with West Bank identity cards and return them to the West Bank.

Media outlets reported Israeli authorities barred prominent Muslims from the site for periods of time. Radwan Amr, director of the manuscripts department at al-Aqsa Mosque was barred for six months. Sheikh Issam Amireh, a senior leader of the Hizb al-Tahrir political party, was also barred for six months after he called the beheading of a teacher by a Muslim terrorist in France a “great honor for all Muslims” during a sermon at the site. On January 18, the Israeli police barred Ekrima Sabri, the imam of the al-Aqsa Mosque, head of the private Islamic Higher Committee in Jerusalem, and the former Palestinian Grand Mufti, from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for a period of four months after accusing him of incitement in a January 17 sermon. On May 29, authorities detained Sabri again and later informed him that he would not be allowed to visit the site for an additional four months. On October 28, police raided the office of the deputy director of the Waqf, Najeh Bkirat, in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and told him to report to the intelligence services in seven days, when he was told that he would be banned from entering the site for six months. According to media, Bkirat was banned for “incitement” against the normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries, and against the visitors from those countries to the site, as well as for his possible linkages to Hamas. On November 26, authorities presented him with an order that he would not be allowed in the site for three months. Bkirat told the International Middle East Media Center in November that since 2003, police had banned him from the site 21 times for a period of more than seven years, adding: “In 2019, I was admitted into the mosque only for one week.”

In addition, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities at times restricted some Muslims based on gender and age from entering the site. Israeli authorities have not issued permits for Gazans to visit the site during Muslim holidays since 2017, when it issued a few hundred permits during Ramadan, according to UN reports. Muslims who are Israeli citizens, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, or foreigners already present in Israel do not need permits to visit the site.

The Waqf also said that Israeli authorities interfered in the administration of the site by the Waqf, including maintenance and restoration work. Israeli officials and activists stated the Waqf sometimes attempted to conduct repairs without coordinating with Israeli authorities. For example, pictures on the Waqf’s Facebook page showed their personnel digging at the site on March 31, while the site was closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the police banning individual Waqf staff members from visiting the site, the Waqf said that it had a greatly reduced capacity to administer the site because Israeli authorities refused to grant permits to new staff.

In January, the Attorney General allowed the Chief Rabbinate, for the first time, to issue indictments against business owners who presented their products as kosher without having a kashrut certificate. During the year, the rabbinate filed 21 such indictments.

In July, the Chief Rabbinate council exempted, for the first time, importers of foods from presenting a local kashrut certificate prior to receiving a kosher stamp when the imported product already had been certified as kosher by a local kosher certification agency or rabbi.

Some religious minority groups complained of lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. Data from the NGO Tag Meir, which tracks hate crimes, and from media reports indicated in recent years authorities had indicted few suspects in attacks on religious sites in the country.

According to the most recent data from the MRS, 30,260 individuals applied for Jewish marriage during the year, although no figures were available regarding the number of those who were asked by rabbinical courts to prove their Jewish identity. In 2019, 34,083 individuals registered a Jewish marriage and rabbinical courts instructed 3,064 who self-identified as Jewish to prove their Jewish lineage. One-and-a-half percent of the 4,449 cases of proving Jewish lineage closed in 2019 were unsuccessful, some of which carried over from previous years. Jewish couples who could not marry through the rabbinate or travel abroad to marry due to government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions generally were left without an opportunity to marry. Similarly, those who otherwise wanted to marry outside the rabbinate were left without an alternative due to the pandemic. According to the CBS, 9,021 weddings took place abroad and were later registered in the country during 2018, the most recent data available.

In late December, according to the press and NGOs, several couples married online in the state of Utah in order to circumvent the law’s requirement that marriages must be performed according to the religious statutes of a recognized religious community in order to be registered. The Population Immigration and Border Authority accepted four couples’ marriage certificates and registered the marriages, including of a lesbian couple. Upon learning of the loophole, Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri ordered the registration process for the couples to be stopped to allow further review by senior officials. According to the NGO Hiddush, this action contradicted previous Supreme Court verdicts.

On August 17, the Jerusalem Administrative Court ruled that an initiative of the Jerusalem municipality to hold small ceremonies in public venues during the COVID-19 pandemic must not discriminate against couples who could not or were not interested in an Orthodox ceremony, although such marriages could not be officially registered.

On June 21, the Tel Aviv Municipality announced that it would allow couples who could not or chose not to marry under current laws to register and enjoy all the rights and financial benefits provided to married couples by the municipality. According to the announcement, LGBTI couples, interfaith couples, couples who could not marry under current laws, and secular couples who did not want to marry in the rabbinate were among those allowed to register. Registration as a couple provided discounts on such items as property taxes and preschool registration for children. Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai stated the city was taking the step to celebrate gay pride week, and the municipal government had decided to “challenge the [central] government [on the issue of civil marriage] and enable partnership based on a declaration.” The Ramat Gan and Rishon LeTzion municipalities adopted similar policies in November and December.

Local authorities circumvented the ban on public transportation on Shabbat by funding privately operated bus lines. On March 26, the Tel Aviv District Court rejected a petition filed by the NGO Chotam against the operation of transportation services on Shabbat by the Ramat Gan municipality, arguing that the services were planned to balance the different needs of Ramat residents, and an effort was made to minimize passage through religious areas. According to a September Hiddush poll, 71 percent of Jewish citizens were in favor of transportation on weekends, including 96 percent of citizens who described themselves as secular.

Women’s rights organizations, including the Israel Women’s Action Network, expressed concern about gender segregation in publicly funded or sponsored events and in academia, to accommodate ultra-Orthodox and some Orthodox Jews.

The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize as Jewish some citizens who self-identified as Jewish, including Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism and others who could not prove Jewish matrilineage to the satisfaction of the Chief Rabbinate. As a result, the government prohibited those individuals from accessing official Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial services in the country. Some Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis, however, officiated at a growing number of these ceremonies outside of the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. The government continued not to allow Jewish men with priestly patrilineage (kohanim) to marry converts or divorcees, in accordance with halacha.

On August 4, following a 2019 order by the Supreme Court, an additional closed hearing was held by an expanded panel of the Supreme Court on a 2018 Supreme Rabbinical Court ruling which found that a woman who engaged in an extramarital relationship had no rights to her and her husband’s home. In 2019, the petitioners argued that the rabbinical court put a heavy weight on the adultery in its decision, which they said should not be a consideration in decisions regarding property. The case was pending as of year’s end.

According to the NGO Mavoi Satum, not wanting to be married is not one of the specific causes for divorce allowed based on halacha, and over the years, some rabbinical courts have ruled against this argument as a cause for divorce. According to Mavoi Satum, in two cases during the year, rabbinical courts overreached their authority by allowing recalcitrant husbands to reopen negotiations over divorce agreements signed between partners and validated by another rabbinical court.

On September 21, the Supreme Court ordered the Minister of Justice to hold a disciplinary hearing for the chief rabbi of the city of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, for making racist and offensive statements against Arabs and for defaming state institutions following a 2016 petition against his comments filed by the Israel Religious Action Center, Tag Meir, and other NGOs. The court stated, however, that comments the rabbi made against Arab, Druze, women, and the LGBTI community based on his religious perspective were protected within his freedom of speech as a city rabbi.

Israeli police continued to be responsible for security at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, with police officers stationed inside the site and at entrances. Police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and inside buildings on the site and regulated pedestrian traffic exiting and entering the site. Israeli police continued to maintain exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance through which non-Muslims entered the site and allowed visitors through the gate during set hours; however, police sometimes restricted this access, citing security concerns.

Some Jewish groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount despite the ban on non-Islamic prayer there. The government reiterated that non-Islamic prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the site; Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated this view in a campaign event in March. However, NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount advocacy groups continued to report that in practice, police generally allowed discreet non-Muslim prayer on the site. Police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious articles. Police allowed Jewish male visitors who were visibly wearing a kippah (head covering) and tzitzit (fringes), and those who wished to enter the site barefoot (in accordance with interpretations of halacha) to enter with police escort.

The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount from entering the Dome of the Rock and other buildings dedicated for Islamic worship, including the al-Aqsa Mosque, unless they were participating in a Waqf-sponsored visit. The Waqf also lodged objections with Israeli police concerning non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing. Israeli police sometimes acted upon these objections.

Waqf officials repeated previous years’ complaints over their lack of control of access to the site. The Waqf objected to non-Muslims praying or performing religious acts on the site and to individuals whom they perceived to be dressed immodestly or who caused disturbances, but they lacked authority to remove such persons from the site. Waqf officials stated Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions regarding entry and barring of Muslim and non-Muslim visitors to the site. Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza, but Waqf officials exercised only a limited oversight. The government extended visiting hours in the afternoon by 30 minutes to prevent large groups forming at the entrance for non-Muslims in accordance with COVID-19 health restrictions.

Following the announcement of normalized relations with several Arab countries, Muslim visitors from the Gulf were at times harassed in person and vilified on social media by Palestinian Muslims for visiting the site. The Palestinian Authority Mufti of Jerusalem, who has no authority over holy sites, issued a fatwa denying access to the site to Muslims from countries that established diplomatic relations with Israel, but the Jordanian Waqf rejected the fatwa. The Waqf stated that Muslim visitors from those countries were brought by Israeli officials without coordination with the Waqf. The government welcomed these visits as a positive outcome of normalization and as a demonstration of freedom of religion.

The NGO Returning to the Mount filed a petition to the Supreme Court May 4 demanding the government allow Jewish visitors to enter the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The NGO argued that the arrangement at that time – in which only Muslim Waqf staff were allowed to enter the site due to the COVID-19 pandemic – discriminated against Jews who wished to visit. The court rejected the petition on May 19, stating it did not find grounds to interfere with the government’s discretion. On June 23, the Supreme Court ordered the government to respond by November 21 to a petition by the NGO Moked Israeli Center for the Advancement of Democracy and Protection of Human Rights, which objected to a sign near the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount discouraging non-Muslim visitors from entering the site. The case was ongoing as of the years’ end. The Waqf and others criticized non-Muslim visitors who entered the site escorted by police as “settlers” and said they “stormed” the site.

Many Jewish religious leaders, including the government-appointed rabbi of the Western Wall, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for reasons of ritual purity. Some Jewish religious leaders, MKs, and activists called for reversing the policy of banning non-Islamic prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors.

The government continued to allow MKs and ministers to visit the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. MKs were required to inform the Knesset guard at least 24 hours prior to the visit to allow for coordination with police.

At the main Western Wall plaza, the place of worship nearest the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to prohibit the performance of any “religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, which harms the feelings of the public towards the place.” Authorities interpreted this prohibition to include mixed-gender Jewish prayer services, to the objection of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements. The organization Women of the Wall, whose goal is to secure the official right for women to pray at the Western Wall, argued that their monthly presence at the wall for more than 30 years had established them as part of the “customs of the place.”

Authorities continued to prohibit visitors from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall plaza and women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site. Authorities, however, permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions.

Within COVID-19 limitations, authorities allowed Women of the Wall to hold its monthly service in a barricaded portion of the women’s area of the main Western Wall, or as a pod at the rear of the main plaza along with other separated prayer pods. However, when the Western Wall was open for prayers by groups of only 10 people at a time, Women of the Wall reported that rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz rejected their April 19 request for a group of 10 women from Jerusalem to pray there, despite approving such requests for ultra-Orthodox visitors from outside of Jerusalem.

Representatives of Women of the Wall complained of a lack of effort by police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Western Wall main plaza, to intervene when ultra-Orthodox women and men disrupted their monthly prayer service with screaming, whistling, and pushing. In response, the government stated that large numbers of police, ushers, and security personnel maintained order on occasions when Women of the Wall prayed there. A 2017 petition to the Supreme Court by Women of the Wall asking that ushers and police prevent disruption of their services was under review at year’s end.

Authorities continued to allow use of a temporary platform south of the Mughrabi ramp and adjacent to the Western Wall, but not visible from the main Western Wall plaza, for non-Orthodox “egalitarian” (mixed gender) Jewish prayers. Authorities designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, including for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs. The Supreme Court criticized the government on November 4 for its lack of progress since 2018 on upgrading the area to a permanent egalitarian prayer space. The government blamed the delay on multiple rounds of national elections, the COVID-19 pandemic, and an obstacle posed by a Jerusalem municipality planning committee, but also stated that it was not under a legal obligation to implement the construction plan. The court ordered the government to make progress by April 4, 2021. This case was a combination of lawsuits against the government, some dating back to 2013, that would allow prayer for all religious streams of Judaism at the Western Wall. In 2017, the government “froze” a 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that would have offered them symbolic recognition, in addition to upgrading the egalitarian prayer space. In 2018, a special government committee approved expansion of the temporary platform. The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill their 2016 agreement with the government. The court case was ongoing as of the end of the year. In addition, observers stated that scaffolding prevented visitors from touching the sacred wall in the egalitarian prayer space since a rock fell there in 2018. Over the same period, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation managed large construction projects in the main plaza, making routine inspections for loose rocks at the main plaza without blocking access to the wall.

The government continued to promote the establishment of a cable car route from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City that would pass over a Karaite cemetery. In September, the Jerusalem Municipality published a tender for the construction of the cable car, and on September 9, a Jerusalem local planning committee approved the expropriation of more than 10,000 square meters (108,000 square feet) of private lands, mostly in Silwan, for construction of the project. According to the Karaite community, the cable car would desecrate the cemetery, thus preventing its further use. The government stated the cable car was meant to solve accessibility problems to holy sites such as the Western Wall, but some NGOs said the project was meant to specifically promote Jewish touristic sites in East Jerusalem and to reinforce Israel’s claims of sovereignty over the area. The plan was pending final approval from the government at year’s end. Three petitions against the cable car, filed by the Karaite community, the NGO Emek Shaveh, and the NGO Israel Union for Environmental Defense were pending with the Supreme Court at year’s end.

After workers sent by the Jerusalem municipality demolished a wall and stairs in the Islamic al-Yusufiye Cemetery to make way for a park in November, local Palestinians gathered in protest and the work stopped. On December 24, the Jerusalem District Court issued a temporary restraining order against the municipality, forcing the city to suspend its work. The cemetery, which is hundreds of years old, is affiliated with the Islamic Waqf and adjacent to the Old City.

The barrier that divided the majority of the occupied West Bank from Israel also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities. The government stated that the barrier was needed for security reasons.

On November 30, a court cited the country’s Nation State Law in dismissing a lawsuit brought by two Arab schoolchildren against their northern town of Carmiel, ruling that the town’s “Jewish character” must be preserved. The children’s family asked to be reimbursed for expenses incurred for traveling to an Arabic-speaking school outside the city, because there are no such schools in Carmiel which has a population that is only 6 percent Arab. Although the court provided seven reasons for dismissing the suit, Haaretz reported that the ruling drew “criticism for citing the controversial nation-state law passed in 2018, which officially defines Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people and asserts that ‘the realization of the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people’” and for stipulating that the Jewish people alone, as a people, have the right to self-determination in Israel. According to the magistrate court judge’s ruling, “Carmiel is a Jewish city which is intended to strengthen Jewish settlement in the Galilee.” The court ruling also said “The development of Jewish settlement is therefore a national value, one anchored in basic law. It ought to be an appropriate and dominant consideration in the array of municipal considerations, including for the issue of establishment schools and funding transportation.” A Justice Ministry attorney told a Knesset panel that the Nation State Law should not impinge on the individual civil rights of non-Jews. In a separate court proceeding, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit stated that he believed the dismissal of the case expressed a misinterpretation of that law. The children’s family said they would appeal the court’s decision. Bills to cancel or amend the Nation State Law have been submitted in the Knesset but have not been approved.

Several groups, including religious minorities and human rights NGOs, continued to criticize the Nation State Law. On December 22, the Supreme Court heard 15 petitions filed by human rights groups and Arab and Druze citizens asking the court to strike down the law and declare as unconstitutional several specific articles the plaintiffs said were discriminatory. As the court was hearing arguments in the case, Prime Minister Netanyahu wrote on Facebook that the Supreme Court “has no authority to debate the validity of Basic Laws,” adding that the court “is not an absolute ruler.”

In 2019, six Orthodox women halacha students and NGOs petitioned the Supreme Court to permit women to take halacha examinations used to ordain rabbis. While Orthodox women cannot become rabbis, passing the examinations is equal to receiving a bachelor’s degree and grants an advantage when applying for certain public sector positions. On June 29, in its response to the petition, the government proposed to establish a parallel examination operated by the Ministry of Education rather than the rabbinate. On June 30, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef threatened that the rabbinate would not conduct any exams to ordain state-authorized rabbis, including for men, if the court ruled that women could be ordained, in contradiction to halacha. On July 27, the Supreme Court issued an injunction ordering the government to explain why the rejection of registration of women for halacha examinations does not constitute discrimination and why the court should not rule that the Chief Rabbinate must allow women to register for such examinations. At year’s end, the case was still pending.

Separate public and semipublic school systems varied widely in educational quality, according to NGOs and international organizations. Muslim, Christian, Druze, and ultra-Orthodox students passed the matriculation exam at lower rates than their non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish counterparts.

The government continued operating educational and scholarship programs to benefit Arab students. Between the academic years 2009/10 and 2020/21, the percentage of Arab students rose significantly in all university degree programs, increasing from 13 percent to 19 percent in undergraduate programs, from 7 percent to 15 percent in master’s programs, and from 5 percent to 7 percent in doctoral programs, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

According to the press, in June, a kosher supervisor from the Chief Rabbinate revoked the kashrut certificate of Kalo Cafe, a Jerusalem restaurant, for allegedly allowing a Palestinian cook to operate kitchen equipment in contravention of Kashrut rules that only allow Jews to do so. The cafe’s owner decided to renounce the kashrut certification, which the restaurant had maintained for 25 years, and said he regarded the rabbinate’s suggestion that he fire his employee as “racist.” Social media users protested the certificate decision on the Chief Rabbinate’s Facebook page, which, according to the Times of Israel, evoked “insulting” responses from the rabbinate’s account, for which the Chief Rabbinate apologized; the responses were also deleted.

In June, Falafel HaTeomim, a restaurant in Givataim, stopped paying the rabbinate for supervision of its kitchen after 42 years due to a downturn in business caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The rabbinate subsequently withdrew its kosher certificate for the restaurant and according to media reports, placed notices in the nearby city of Bnei Brak that the rabbinate could no longer certify the restaurant as kosher and that the public should “know and beware.” Strong public reactions supporting the restaurant and its owners and against the rabbinate followed the press reports, including from the chair of the Reform movement, who said the rabbinate was “rotten from its base, filled with corruption and inconsiderate of business owners.”

In June, city officials in Lod stated that the Islamic call to prayer, particularly at high volume and in the early hours of the morning, was a violation of city ordinances. According to the website Al-Monitor, for several months municipal authorities measured the volume of the call to prayer and issued warnings to the imams of local mosques. The authorities asked police to enforce the law, stating the mosques were disturbing the peace. They also asked the MOI to summon one of the mosques’ imams to a hearing, stating that since his salary was paid by the ministry, he should follow their instructions. In April, Arab members of the city council, local imams, and the People’s Committee of Lod sent a letter demanding that the municipality refrain from intervening in the calls to prayer. The letter was distributed in mosques and stated that the muezzin and the call to prayer represented “our Islamic presence, identity, and roots.” The letter said the city’s efforts regarding the calls to prayer were a declaration of a “religious war” and that the clerics and the Arab leadership in the city would not be responsible if the situation worsened.

The MOI continued to rely on the sole discretion and approval of the Jewish Agency, a parastatal organization, to determine who qualified to immigrate as a Jew or descendant of a Jew. The government continued to deny applications from individuals, including those holding Messianic or Christian beliefs, whom the government said became ineligible when they converted to another religion.

A group of Orthodox rabbis continued to operate a private conversion court for children of families whom the state or rabbinical courts did not recognize as Jews. The Chief Rabbinate and MOI continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they remained eligible for immigration under the Law of Return if they converted outside the country. In June, the press reported that Interior Minister Aryeh Deri asked the Prime Minister to support a bill that was aimed at giving the rabbinate sole control over conversions, precluding private Orthodox conversions and those recognized by the Conservative and Reform movements.

A series of Supreme Court cases on conversion rights, including a petition demanding immigration rights to those who completed Reform or Conservative conversions inside the country, continued through year’s end. On December 7, the Supreme Court, noting that the case had been pending since 2005 and that the government had filed numerous requests for delays while it sought a legislative solution, said that there was no reason to further delay a ruling. It asked the petitioners to update their legal briefs by December 21. The petition was pending at year’s end.

The rabbinate asked some individuals from the former Soviet Union to take DNA tests in order to prove their Jewish heritage. On January 22, the Supreme Court “erased” a petition against such DNA tests and gave the Chief Rabbinate a year to regulate the procedure, including setting clear criteria for when a test should be conducted and clarifying the meaning of refusal to be tested. If after one year the issue is not regulated, the court said the petitioners would be legally able to submit a new petition.

In February, Hiddush filed suit in the Jerusalem District Court challenging the Jerusalem municipality’s exclusion of synagogues representing Reform, Conservative, egalitarian Orthodox, and other independent Jewish communities as well as non-Jewish religious institutions (primarily Muslim and Christian) from the “Religion and Tradition” section of the municipal website, which only includes information about Orthodox synagogues and institutions. In July, after the city deleted the list of synagogues in the city from the municipal website, Hiddush stated the municipality took the step to avoid publicizing non-Orthodox synagogues and non-Jewish houses of worship.

According to a November 9 Times of Israel report, Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion and his administration proposed a plan to designate seats on Jerusalem community councils as either ultra-Orthodox or not. Jerusalem is the country’s only municipality to use community councils, which were established to provide greater communication between the city’s diverse populations and the municipal government. Each council has 15 members, nine elected and six appointed. Lion said the proposal was designed to reduce conflicts on the councils and to ensure that the views of minority communities were represented. Members of both the ultra-Orthodox and non-ultra-Orthodox communities expressed concerns about the proposal, with one describing it as “undemocratic.” There are eight community councils serving Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as well, but none of them has elected members.

On January 7, Ynet posted a video of Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yosef speaking at a conference in which he referred to immigrants from the former Soviet Union as “not Jews at all,” “communists,” “hostile to religion,” and “haters of religion,” who “vote for parties that incite against the ultra-Orthodox and against religion.” The video also depicted Yosef saying the immigrants were brought to Israel to “act as a political weight against the ultra-Orthodox.” On February 16, the predominantly secular Yisrael Beitenu party filed a Supreme Court petition against the chief rabbi that demanded the court issue an injunction to force the Minister of Justice to explain why the religious court judges’ committee had not convened to discuss the termination of the chief rabbi and why a complaint had not been filed against him in the disciplinary tribunal. Reacting to the chief rabbi’s comments, the Prime Minister said that immigration from the former Soviet Union had been a “boon” for the country. The head of the Blue and White Party said that the chief rabbi needed to apologize and that the country had a “debt” to those who had emigrated from the former Soviet Union.

On July 9, media published a speech of Chief Rabbi Yosef in which he stated that Reform Judaism is “falsified Judaism.” On October 25 the ombudsman of the Israeli judiciary recommended the committee appointing rabbinic judges convene to discuss whether Chief Rabbi Yosef, who also acts as the president of the rabbinical court, should continue in this role, following a complaint by the NGO Israeli Religious Action Center (IRAC) regarding his negative statements against the Reform movement, women, and the High Court of Justice. The chief rabbi stated that he stood behind his words.

Members of some minorities said that the government did not provide the same service and benefits to them as to the country’s majority Jewish population. In May, the Druze and Circassian communities called a general strike in their villages and protested in front of the Prime Minister’s office, complaining that budgetary funding for their communities at large and for their towns and villages was insufficient to meet their needs and that the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated their challenges. In May, Arab citizens’ local councils also led protests against what they described as the failure to offer Arab municipalities sufficient COVID-19 relief for tax shortfalls in those localities. Arab leaders also stated that there was insufficient information or COVID-19 testing provided to their community after the pandemic’s outbreak.

On April 30, a national labor court ordered an examination of retroactive salary compensation to 16 Ethiopian Israeli keisim (Jewish religious leaders) and rabbis as a result of wage gaps between them and other religious council employees from 1992 onward.

The MRS listed 28 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and West Bank settlements for civil burial and burial of persons the government defined as “lacking religion,” but only three were available for use to the general public regardless of residence, and one had been full for several years. The other cemeteries, located in agricultural localities, were permitted to bury only “residents of the area.” This, according to Hiddush, left the majority of the country’s population deprived of the ability to exercise its right, as mandated by law, to be buried in accordance with secular or non-Orthodox religious views. The two MRS-administered cemeteries in West Bank settlements were available only for the burial of Israeli citizens. On December 12, the Supreme Court, as a part of a petition by Hiddush, issued an order instructing the state to explain why it would not allow civil burial in agricultural localities for individuals who were not local residents and who do not have another alternative. The case was pending as of the end of the year.

According to Hiddush, an absolute majority of the MRS licenses for civil burial are held by Jewish Orthodox NGOs and religious councils. Some of these organizations, according to Hiddush, conducted a “less religious burial” rather than a secular one, did not allow burial in a coffin, and stated on their websites that their services were only for non-Jews. In an October letter, Hiddush called upon the Minister of Religious Services to cease issuing licenses to these groups and to set clear rules regarding the obligations of the organizations providing civil burial services.

The government again did not propose new draft legislation to reduce inequality in the burden of military service between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews, despite its commitment to the Supreme Court following the 2017 Supreme Court verdict which struck down the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military service. On November 3, after approving several postponements over the years, the Supreme Court rejected a government request to postpone the implementation of the verdict again, ruling that the amendment providing for the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military service would be canceled on February 1, 2021. According to press reporting, the court determined that no additional deferrals would be granted to the government on the issue.

While some ultra-Orthodox communities stated that mandatory conscription was a violation of the right to conscientious objection on the basis of religious beliefs, the Ministry of Defense rejected this argument. The IDF reported increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox recruits since at least 2011, mainly into dedicated ultra-Orthodox units such as the Netzah Yehuda Battalion. A scandal arose in December 2019, however, when media reported that the IDF inflated the number of ultra-Orthodox men in its ranks over several years to meet its quotas. For example, 1,300 ultra-Orthodox men enlisted in 2017, but the IDF reported 3,070, according to KAN Radio. In 2018, the IDF established the Ultra-Orthodox Draft Administration. The commander of the administration, Lt. Col. Telem Hazan, opened an inquiry after an unnamed official asked him to file a falsified report with inflated numbers, according to press reports.

Those exempt from compulsory military service continued to have the option to join the National Service, a civilian alternative in which volunteers work for two years to promote social welfare in schools, hospitals, or NGOs. According to government officials and NGOs, this alternative was more popular among women from Jewish Orthodox backgrounds than other exempt groups.

Members of the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit community did not receive an exemption from military service based on its members’ conscientious objection on religious grounds because its yeshivas were not recognized by the state and young men studying in those yeshivas did not submit draft exemption applications. As a result, dozens of them were arrested every month, according to representatives of the community.

On August 9, the Supreme Court rejected a petition by members of the ultra-Orthodox Satmer community demanding an exemption from military service based on conscientious objection on religious grounds because they do not recognize the state. The court ruled it would not intervene in the state’s rejection of a blanket exemption for a specific community.

According to the Karaite community’s NGO, during the year the IDF requested religious Karaite women who sought to be exempted from military service to declare their status as religious women at a rabbinical court, which would be contrary to their beliefs. Up until 2020, Karaite women were able to submit a letter from a Jewish Karaite court to the IDF to prove their status.

On June 28, the government’s Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council announced that it had ordered a U.S.-based evangelical broadcaster, GOD TV, off the air, saying the company’s Hebrew-language Shelanu channel hid its missionary agenda when it applied for a license. The chairman of the council, in explaining the decision, said, “The channel appeals to Jews with Christian content.” Its original request was for a “station targeting the Christian population.” In a statement, the broadcaster said that the license unambiguously states that the channel will broadcast Christian content in Hebrew to the general Israeli public and accused the council chairman of revoking the license because he was close to former Communications Minister David Ansalem, who had condemned the license granted to the Shelanu channel before he left the ministry. A spokesman said the Shelanu channel would reapply for a license. According to Haaretz, several government ministers and the Chief Rabbinate were among those who complained to the council about the station’s proselytizing of Israeli Jews. During the council’s review of the station’s license following public criticism of its programming, Shelanu said that the threat to suspend its license was unprecedented and that such a suspension “could constitute blatant discrimination on the basis of religion.” On June 30, the cable provider that had carried the station said it would not act on Shelanu’s behalf to reapply for the license.

According to the website of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center, the government maintained an agreement with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that no member of the Church “will engage in proselytizing of any kind” within Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, as a condition of its lease of land for its campus on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Some other nonrecognized Christian communities reported that the MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs discouraged them from proselytizing or holding large public gatherings outside their houses of worship.

The Center of Scientology Israel reported that it was targeted by the NGO Israeli Center for Victims of Cults (ICVC) and falsely categorized as a “domestic violence and familial sexual abuse” organization. ICVC was partially funded by the government and paid for a campaign to target Scientology online.

The government maintained its policy of not accepting applications for official recognition from nonrecognized religious groups, including evangelical Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government stated no religious community had attempted to apply for recognition during the year. The government stated some leaders of nonrecognized religions were invited and participated, along with the leaders of recognized religions, in official events and ceremonies.

A Supreme Court petition by Jehovah’s Witnesses that requested official recognition as a religious community was pending as of the year’s end. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite repeated requests, the government had not taken action on the group’s original 2017 application for recognition. The court had not reached a decision by year’s end.

The Knesset’s finance committee rejected applications for tax-deductible status by Jehovah’s Witnesses NGO Watchtower Association of Israel and the Messianic Jewish NGO Yachad Ramat Hasharon, despite objections from legal advisors in the Ministry of Justice and the Tax Authority. A petition by the Jehovah’s Witness to the Supreme Court regarding the matter was pending at the year’s end.

According to the Secular Forum, growing “religionization” (hadata) of the education system continued, including in textbooks and through programs in schools taught by Orthodox NGOs. On February 6, the Supreme Court issued an injunction ordering the Ministry of Education to explain why it should not expand its criteria to fund religious NGOs conducting Jewish education in secular schools to include pluralistic organizations conducting religious education in secular schools. According to Molad – The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, the hadata in schools was politically motivated with the goal of increasing support for settlers.

Public Hebrew-language state schools taught Jewish history, culture, and some basic religious texts. Many ultra-Orthodox religious schools in the “recognized but not official” category continued not to offer the basic humanities, mathematics, and science curriculum. The government, however, included that basic curriculum in public ultra-Orthodox schools. Public Arabic-speaking schools continued to teach religion classes on the Quran and the Bible to both Muslim and Christian Arab students. A few independent mixed Jewish-Arab schools also offered religion classes. For example, the curriculum at the nonprofit school Hand-in-Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education, which received a third of its funding from the government, emphasized commonalities in the holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The government funded approximately 34 percent of the budget of Christian school systems in the “recognized but not official” category, in which schools had autonomy over hiring teachers, admitting students, and the use of school property, according to church officials. The government repeated its offer made in previous years to fully fund Christian schools if they became part of the public school system, but churches rejected this option, stating that, unlike in Orthodox schools, they would lose autonomy over hiring, admitting students, and use of property. Church leaders criticized the disparity between government funding for their schools and those affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, which were also categorized as “recognized but not official” but received full government funding.

Seventh-day Adventists and others who worshipped on Saturday stated they faced difficulty traveling to their houses of worship in cities in which public transportation was unavailable on Shabbat, including Jerusalem. Some nonrecognized religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, received a property tax exemption on their houses of worship, although others, such as Buddhists and the Church of Scientology, did not. The government said local authorities conducted tax collection from nonrecognized religious groups in accordance with the law. The government stated it was unaware of any recent case in which a religious house of worship was not granted a property tax exemption, although representatives of religious groups stated that tax collection by local authorities remained a concern.

Christian leaders reported little difficulty obtaining visas for clergy to serve in the country, except for Christian clergy from Arab countries, some of whom reported long delays for, and periodic denials of their visa applications. The government stated Christian clergy from Arab countries were subject to the same entry laws and similar security procedures as clergy from other parts of the world and that any visa delays or denials were due to security reviews. The government also said there were some “unavoidable delays” in cases of applicants from countries that did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Church officials noted that the clergy visa did not allow the bearer access to basic social benefits such as disability insurance or national health insurance, even for those who had served in the country for more than 30 years.

The government continued to approve annual “delays” of conscription to military service for individual members of Jehovah’s Witnesses upon presentation of documentation of their continued affiliation with the religious community without acknowledging their right to conscientious objection. Because members of the community were not legally exempt from military service, they could not participate in the national civil service program as alternative service.

The government employed an “appropriate representation” policy for non-Jewish minorities in the civil service. The percentage of Arab employees in the public sector was 12.2 percent (61.5 percent of them entry-level), according to the Civil Service Commission. The percentage of Arab employees in the 62 government-owned companies was approximately 2.5 percent; however, during the year Arab citizens held 12 percent of director positions in government-owned companies, up from 1 percent in 2000, and Arab workers held 11 percent of government positions, up from 5 percent in 2000, according to Sikkuy, an NGO that supports full equality between Jewish and Arab citizens.

The MOI appointed and funded approximately half of the Druze and Muslim clerics in the country and continued to train Druze and Muslim clerical employees of the state on how to work with government ministries. Muslim leaders criticized the MOI for appointing non-Muslims – mostly Druze former military officers – to head the Muslim Affairs Department at the ministry. Muslim leaders again said the MOI routinely monitored and summoned for “talks” those whom the ministry suspected of opposing government policies. The government said it did not monitor clerics, but government employees of all faiths were “expected not to incite against the state in their official capacities.” The government stated the remaining Druze and Muslim clerics were not state employees due to either the preference of the local community or lack of MOI budgetary resources. Muslim leaders stated sharia court judges, who were Ministry of Justice employees, were their preferred religious representatives.

No Islamic seminaries remained in the country, and students of Islam traveled elsewhere, primarily Jordan or the West Bank, to study. The government stated there were “Islamic colleges” in Umm al-Fahm, Baqa’a al-Gharbia, and Kfar Baraa. Muslim leaders continued to reject this assertion and stated that none of those institutes was an Islamic seminary.

The government continued to promote measures to encourage increased Israeli residence and economic development in the thinly populated Negev Desert in the south of the country, including development plans for military industries, railways, the expansion of Road 6, and a phosphate mine. Civil society organizations criticized government plans, stating they could lead to the displacement of 36,000 Bedouins. The government made more funding available for government-approved Bedouin cities and towns to relocate Bedouins displaced by the economic expansion.

In reports on its website, the NGO Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, stated that the government discriminated against the Bedouin residents of the Negev in several ways, including charging those in unrecognized villages the highest water prices in the country; refusing to classify camels as “farm animals”; preventing Bedouin herders from using the grazing land in the region; not addressing overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in local schools; and displacing residents to allow for the expansion of primarily Jewish towns and the relocation or expansion of government military facilities.

In March, the NGOs Adalah and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking that it order the investigation of the death of teacher Yaqub Musa Abu al-Qian be reopened. Police shot and killed Abu al-Qian, a teacher in his fifties, in 2017 during an operation to demolish homes in the unrecognized village of Umm al-Hiran, which was scheduled to be replaced by the Orthodox-only Jewish town of Hiran. After he was shot, Abu al-Qian’s car struck and killed a police officer. The government accused Abu al-Qian of intentionally killing the officer. The then-Minister of Public Security said Abu al-Qian was a “terrorist.” The NGOs’ petition disputed the details of the government’s account of the incident and presented a review of the police investigation by outside experts to support their argument that Abu al-Qian was driving at a speed of 10 kilometers (six miles) per hour when police opened fire, that the officer who shot Abu al-Qian did not believe his life was in danger, and that police and medical personnel had not provided medical care that may have saved Abu al-Qian’s life, but allowed him to bleed to death. Similar accounts appeared in the media, including in television news reports featuring internal police communications about the incident and the newspaper Haaretz. On September 13, Adalah and PCATI submitted an urgent motion to the Supreme Court for an immediate hearing on their March petition and asked for a reopening of the investigation. No hearing had been held by year’s end.

Bedouin residents in the unrecognized village of Umm al-Hiran continued to not fulfill their 2018 agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture Authority for the Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev to demolish their structures and relocate to vacant plots in the Bedouin town of Hura. The agreement followed years of legal battles and negotiations on replacing Umm al-Hiran with a new community called Hiran. Jewish families sponsored by the OR Movement (an organization dedicated to expanding the Israeli population of the Negev and Galilee regions) to move to Hiran remained in the forest outside Umm al-Hiran, living in mobile homes donated by the Jewish National Fund, while waiting for the village land to become available.

Some former mosques and Islamic cemeteries remained sealed and inaccessible, including to Muslims. These sites belonged to a defunct prestate Waqf (distinct from the Jordanian-administered Waqf in Jerusalem) until confiscated by the state after the 1948 War of Independence. Other former mosques continued to be used for secular purposes. According to the Turkish press agency Anadolu, a study prepared by Kamal Khatib of the High Follow Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel found that since the War of Independence, 15 mosques had been converted into synagogues by the government, 40 mosques were either destroyed, closed, or abandoned, while 17 others had been turned into barns, bars, restaurants, or museums.

On June 8, the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality decided to resume construction of a homeless shelter on the remains of the Ottoman-era al-Issaf Islamic cemetery, sparking protests from Jaffa’s Arab citizen residents. While the protests remained mostly peaceful, some residents were arrested for violently confronting the police and destroying municipal property. Several Arab and ultra-Orthodox political parties publicly showed support for the demonstrators, calling on authorities to respect the sensitivity of burial sites. Two city council members from Jaffa resigned from the city’s ruling coalition to protest the municipality’s decision. The Tel Aviv District Court initially ordered all construction to cease due to lack of up-to-date construction permits, but later approved the construction. The Islamic Council of Jaffa petitioned the High Court of Justice to stop construction but asked the court to delete the petition on August 27. Construction resumed soon after, and the Tel Aviv Municipality committed to excavate the site using manual methods acceptable for burial sites and avoid harming the remains of the cemetery.

Muslim community leaders reported no difficulties obtaining municipal approval for construction of mosques in Muslim-majority localities, but they sometimes faced difficulty in Jewish-majority localities.

On June 6, the Karaite community submitted a second petition to the Supreme Court to block the expropriation of land previously allocated to a Karaite synagogue in Ramla for the construction of a highway interchange. The Karaites stated that the loss of land and the new interchange would disrupt their religious and communal activity. The petition remained pending at year’s end.

The Government Press Office requested journalists to refrain from reporting from ultra-Orthodox areas in April due to the occasion of Passover.

The IDF continued to have only Orthodox Jewish chaplains. The government employed civilian clergy of different faiths, including Muslim imams, as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier died in service.

In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, private organizations posted “modesty signs” demanding women obscure themselves from public view to avoid distracting devout men. The Supreme Court ordered the Beit Shemesh municipality to remove such signs in 2018 or face fines. While the municipality took down some signs, it did not fully implement the ruling, and some that were removed were replaced by new ones. The court extended the deadline for the removal of the signs to September 30 to allow the municipality to discuss the matter with the residents.

In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, vandals repeatedly tore down or defaced billboards showing pictures of women, including commercial advertisements, public awareness campaigns, and political advertisements.

On April 30, the Supreme Court ruled on a petition by NGOs Adalah and the Secular Forum against a ban on bringing nonkosher foods (known as hametz) into public hospitals during Passover. According to the verdict, hospitals must allow nonkosher food for Passover, while finding appropriate arrangements within 10 months that would allow keeping the hospital food kosher. The alternatives offered include establishing hametz areas or using disposable plates and utensils for hametz. On June 16, the Chief Rabbinate requested an additional hearing on the case; the court had not ruled on the request as of year’s end.

According to the NGO HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in Israel, including in Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits because of the citizenship and entry law, with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families. There were also cases of Palestinian spouses of Palestinian residents living in East Jerusalem without legal status. Some Palestinian residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the security barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency. According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry Christians from the West Bank or elsewhere (Christians who hold neither citizenship nor residency). A Christian religious leader expressed concern that this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively affected the long-term viability of their communities.

According to NGOs, community members, and media commentators, factors contributing to Christian emigration included political instability; the inability to obtain residency permits for spouses due to the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry; the limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions; the difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits; loss of confidence in the peace process; and economic hardships created by the establishment of the barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions. The government stated such difficulties stemmed from the “complex political and security reality” and not from any restrictions on the Christian community itself.

The law continued to prevent the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administered the 93 percent of the country in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners. In practice, however, foreigners were allowed to lease if they could show they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return. This public land included approximately 12.5 percent owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose statutes strictly prohibited sale or lease of land to non-Jews. The application of ILA restrictions continued to limit the ability of Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who were not citizens to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of Jerusalem. In recent years, however, an increasing number of Palestinian citizens in Jerusalem have acquired property built on ILA-owned land. Arab citizens were allowed to place bids on JNF land, but sources stated that the ILA granted the JNF another parcel of land whenever an Arab citizen of Israel won a bid. Despite a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that the ILA Executive Council must include an Arab, Druze, or Circassian member to prevent discrimination against non-Jews, there were no members from these groups on the council at year’s end.

On June 24, the Jerusalem District Court denied a request by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to block the transfer of three properties in Jerusalem’s Old City to Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish prosettlement organization, which signed a 99-year lease for the properties in 2004. The District Court’s decision followed similar rulings by the Supreme Court in 2019 and a lower court in 2017. The Church had argued that its official who signed the lease was not authorized to do so. The Church filed the district court lawsuit after the Supreme Court decision, stating it had new evidence of corruption and fraud involving the sale. Following the district court decision, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate released a statement saying it received the ruling with “surprise” and that “We believe the court erred in its decision and intend to launch an appeal at the Supreme Court.”

On July 7, 13 heads of churches and Christian communities in Jerusalem issued a joint statement that the court’s ruling on the three properties threatened Christian presence in the city. The heads of the churches said that they stood united in their “commitment to safeguarding the historical status quo of the Holy Sites and rights of the churches which are universally recognized.” According to the statement, the case represented a “systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the holy city, to obstruct the Christian pilgrim route, and to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem.” The heads of the churches called on the Israeli government “to act in order to safeguard the integrity of the Christian heritage and patrimony in the Old City as well as the holy sites and the rights of the residents of the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem.”

Under the Israeli Antiquities Law, excavations within a sacred site require the approval of a ministerial committee, which includes the Ministers of Culture, Justice, and Religious Affairs. The government stated that Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) researchers “have greatly intensified their research on ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk, and Ottoman periods.” Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and Muslim leaders continued to protest archaeological excavations and construction work done at the City of David National Park in the Silwan neighborhood outside the Old City, and in the Old City near the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, including an elevator being installed at the rear of the Western Wall plaza. Some NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem continued to state the IAA emphasized archaeological finds that bolstered Jewish claims while minimizing historically significant archaeological finds of other religions. Archeologists from Emek Shaveh continued to dispute the government’s representation of the “Pilgrim’s Road,” a tunnel dug by the IAA and inaugurated in Silwan in 2019, as being historically part of the pilgrimage route to the Jewish Second Temple; Emek Shaveh said the excavation method did not establish with certainty the date and purpose of the road. NGOs such as the City of David Foundation (El-Ad) and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies continued to support the government’s position.

The Secular Forum and Hiddush continued to demand regular family visits to army bases on Shabbat, although the IDF committee established in 2019 following a petition by the Secular Forum and Hiddush concluded its work, according to a July 7 letter to Hiddush. In the letter, the IDF stated that the committee created unified procedures for visits on Shabbat but had not yet published them. Secular Forum and Hiddush originally petitioned the IDF because family visits on Shabbat were regularly cancelled.

The NGO Secular Forum reported that in response to complaints it had filed about IDF members being punished for using private refrigerators to store personal food items, the IDF issued an order allowing soldiers to bring outside food, including nonkosher food, into IDF facilities and to store nonkosher food in private or communal refrigerators.

The Israel Women’s Action Network and other women’s rights NGOs continued to cite a trend of gender segregation in government institutions, including the IDF. The NGOs said this increased accommodation of Jewish religious observance was intended to attract more personnel from groups that strictly interpreted Jewish law prohibiting mixing of the sexes. In 2019, following a wave of protests by “national religious” rabbis, the IDF stopped allowing women to serve in combat positions in the armored corps despite a successful pilot program. The IDF chief of staff, in a response to Supreme Court petitions on the matter, announced he would extend the pilot program and make a final decision on the matter in 2022. Many observers, however, stated that the trend in recent years has been toward greater inclusion of women in the IDF, including in combat roles and senior leadership positions.

According to a November report in the Jerusalem Post, the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court convicted an unnamed Bedouin man of polygamy and sentenced him to seven months in prison, the second such conviction in two years. According to a 2019 Associated Press report, the government was trying to end the custom of polygamy among Bedouins in the Negev and, for the first time, prosecuted suspected polygamists. Many Bedouins stated they saw this new policy as a means to curb their population growth and criminalize community members. On August 14, Haaretz reported that the government said it would change its method for selling building lots in Bedouin communities in order to prevent them from being purchased by women in polygamous marriages. Although the country outlawed polygamy decades ago, approximately 20 to 30 percent of Bedouin men practiced polygamy, according to government figures, with the rate as high as 60 percent in some villages.

On August 19, Minister of Education Yoav Galant intervened in Bible studies curriculum by cutting out Jewish history satirical sketches from the television show HaYehudim Baim (The Jews are Coming), posted on a Ministry of Education’s website including supplementary content for Bible studies teachers, following a protest from Orthodox rabbis. On August 21, the NGO Association for Civil Rights in Israel demanded that the Attorney General instruct the Minister that he has no authority to intervene in the school curriculum.

At year’s end, the Knesset had 17 members from religious minorities (11 Muslims, four Druze, and two Christians). There were no Druze, Muslim, or Christian members of the cabinet.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religious and national identities were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

Christian clergy and pilgrims continued to report instances of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem harassing or spitting on them. In one incident in June, a Catholic friar reported being assaulted in public by three men wearing kippot (yarmulkes) who spit at and verbally attacked him. When the attackers began physically assaulting the friar, bystanders intervened and forced the attackers to leave. According to the priest, police did not respond to telephone calls for assistance during the attack but recorded a complaint filed by the victim.

On November 16, an employee of the emergency medical service Magen David Adom was filmed spitting on Christian icons placed in a hallway of a building after he collected a sample for a coronavirus test. Magen David Adom dismissed the Jewish worker, who said he did it because the symbols were “idol worship.”

Yuri Logvanenko, a chef formerly employed by the Rehovot branch of the Yochanof supermarket chain, filed suit against the store after the chain demoted and then fired him after his Jewish status was questioned by a kashrut supervisor. Four days after Logvanenko started work at the branch, the store’s kashrut supervisor approached him and demanded in front of other employees that he prove his Jewish identity. His attorneys said that Logvanenko, who had worked at another Yochanof location for seven months prior to transferring to Rehovot, was “abused and harmed in his workplace” because he was born in the Soviet Union. Logvanenko stated that he felt he was the victim of “racism.”

According to press reports, on August 5, former Knesset member Moshe Feiglin posted a comment on Facebook calling the massive August 4 explosion in the port of Beirut “a gift from God,” in time for the celebration of the Jewish feast of Tu B’av. In a subsequent radio interview, Feiglin said “We are all allowed to rejoice in that it exploded in the port of Beirut and not Tel Aviv.” Observers noted that Feiglin’s comments were not representative of public and government sentiment. Many social media users described Feiglin’s comments as “hateful” and disturbing; the government worked through diplomatic channels to offer medical and humanitarian assistance to the government of Lebanon. Feiglin later removed the Facebook post. On December 30, President Reuven Rivlin reiterated that the “State of Israel will always be committed to freedom of religion.”

During the funeral of Iyad Halak, a Palestinian student who was fatally shot on May 30 by police officers, hundreds of mourners reportedly chanted “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of [the Prophet] Mohammed will return,” a taunt referring to the seventh century Muslim massacre and expulsion of the Jews of Khaybar. Israeli police in Jerusalem’s Old City fatally shot Halak, who had autism, on June 30 after he allegedly failed to follow police orders to halt. Police stated they believed Halak was carrying a “suspicious object.” Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed regret for the incident and called for a quick investigation. On October 21, DIPO issued a statement that the prosecution intended to indict, pending a hearing, a police officer suspected of the shooting on charges of reckless homicide. According to the Ministry of Justice, investigators carefully examined the circumstances of the incident and determined that Halak had not posed any danger to police and civilians who were at the scene, that the police officer discharged his weapon not in accordance with police procedures, and that the police officer had not taken proportionate alternative measures that were at his disposal.

On June 10, Women of the Wall and the IRAC filed a petition against Rabbi David Yosef of the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, demanding a disciplinary hearing following repeated statements in which he allegedly incited against and disdained Women of the Wall. The case was pending at year’s end.

According to missionary organizations, societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion to other religions continued to be negative. Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity, such as Messianic Jews.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that, following a 2019 complaint regarding an attack on two Jehovah’s Witnesses members during a door-to-door activity in Bat Yam, police summoned one of the members and told her that the individual who had attacked her later submitted a complaint against her for making threats and trespassing in her efforts to convert him to Christianity. According to the government, the investigation into the incident was ongoing at year’s end.

Members of the Lehava antiassimilation organization, described by press as a radical right-wing Jewish group opposing romantic relationships between Jews and non-Jews, continued to criticize or assault Arab men who were in relationships with Jewish women and to harass “mixed” couples. In a September video released online, Lehava indicated that over the previous Jewish year it had “explained to 278 Arabs, in a language they understand, the prohibition on dating Jewish women.” A trial against Lehava director Ben-Tzion Gopstein for offenses of incitement to terrorism, violence, and racism opened on June 8 and was ongoing at year’s end. Lehava and Yad L’Achim continued to stop instances of cohabitation between Jewish women and Arab men by sometimes “launching military-like rescues from ‘hostile’ Arab villages,” according to Yad L’Achim’s website.

There continued to be reports of ultra-Orthodox Jews in public areas of their neighborhoods harassing individuals who did not conform to Jewish Orthodox traditions, such as by driving on Shabbat or wearing clothing that they perceived as immodest. The harassment included verbal abuse, spitting, and throwing stones.

Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community and other citizens, including concerns related to service in the IDF, housing, public transportation, participation in the workforce, and adherence to COVID-19 regulations. Press and NGOs said that the COVID-19 outbreak intensified tensions between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis, as viral videos showing large gatherings at ultra-Orthodox weddings and funerals reinforced a stereotype that the ultra-Orthodox as a whole disregarded state authority and the public good. Many ultra-Orthodox stated they disagreed with COVID-19 restrictions that limited religious gatherings but permitted months of large demonstrations against Prime Minister Netanyahu.

On March 14, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a major figure in the ultra-Orthodox community, ordered his followers to continue studies in their yeshivas and to continue large weddings and funerals, despite Ministry of Health orders to the contrary. In late March, Kanievsky reversed his earlier decision and called for his followers to pray alone. As a result of widespread failure to obey government directives, the ultra-Orthodox community accounted for a disproportionately high percentage of the country’s COVID-19 cases, according to the press. On April 2, the government declared Bnei Brak, one of the country’s poorest and most densely populated cities with a large ultra-Orthodox population, to be a “restricted zone.” The government subsequently ordered the IDF into the city to provide relief services and security. One government expert estimated that up to 38 percent of the city’s 200,000 ultra-Orthodox inhabitants were infected with the COVID-19 virus. The government later closed off other cities and neighborhoods because of the pandemic, many of them ultra-Orthodox.

Ultra-Orthodox communities across the country celebrated the holidays of Lag B’Omer, Sukkot, and Simhat Torah in mass gatherings, despite government restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. On October 6, Haaretz reported that the Jerusalem police allowed several ultra-Orthodox communities in the city to hold mass events as long as there would not be “public documentation” of them. In October, Haaretz published an analysis that said, “On the coronavirus map, Israel is currently divided into two countries: the ultra-Orthodox population and all the rest.” Anat Hoffman, executive director of the IRAC and one of the founders of Women of the Wall, told the UK publication the New Statesman that COVID-19 “magnifies” the already fraught relationship between the ultra-Orthodox minority and the secular majority and that the country is witnessing a “backlash” against the central role of the ultra-Orthodox minority in national politics. In the article, Hoffman said “The feeling among the seculars…is that the [country’s] lockdown is on secular activities.”

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Ziv Medical Center refused to hand over the remains of Druze religious leader Sheikh Abu Zain Aldin Hassan Halabi after he died of the virus there on October 30. Members of the Druze community, however, took his body from the hospital for a funeral and burial on the Golan Heights. According to press, “thousands” attended the event, which was coordinated with police and the Ministry of Health in the city of Majdal Shams, which was under lockdown due to high rates of COVID-19 infection. “Price tag” attacks by Jewish individuals and groups continued to take place during the year against individuals – particularly Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and their property – with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government against the attackers’ interests. On February 11, tires of 170 cars were vandalized and graffiti was sprayed on a mosque and on walls in Gush Halav, also known as Jish, that said, “Jews wake up” and “Stop intermarrying.”

“Price tag” attacks by Jewish individuals and groups continued to take place during the year against individuals – particularly Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and their property – with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government against the attackers’ interests. On February 11, tires of 170 cars were vandalized and graffiti was sprayed on a mosque and on walls in Gush Halav, also known as Jish, that said, “Jews wake up” and “Stop intermarrying.”

Authorities opened an investigation following a suspected arson and price tag attack against a mosque in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem on January 24. Press reported that the suspect left Hebrew graffiti on an outside wall of the building that appeared to be a reference to Kumi Uri, a settler outpost in which the IDF had demolished buildings earlier in the month.

The NGO Tag Meir continued to organize visits to areas where “price tag” attacks occurred and to sponsor activities promoting tolerance in response to the attacks.

Although the Chief Rabbinate and rabbis of many ultra-Orthodox denominations continued to discourage Jewish visits to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site due to the ongoing halakhic debate about whether it is permissible or forbidden for Jews to enter the Temple Mount, some Orthodox rabbis continued to say entering the site was permissible. Many among the self-identified “national religious” Zionist community stated they found meaning in visiting the site. Groups such as the Temple Institute and Yaraeh continued to call for increased Jewish access and prayer there as well as the construction of a third Jewish temple on the site. In some cases, Israeli police prevented individuals from praying and removed them; in other cases, reported by the Waqf, on social media, and by NGOs, police appeared not to notice the activity. According to local media, some Jewish groups escorted by Israeli police performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration. Some Jewish visitors publicly noted that the National Police were more permissive to them in permitting silent prayer. According to the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, visits by activists associated with the Temple Mount movement decreased to 18,500 from 30,000 in 2019, largely due to COVID-19 restrictions.

NGOs reported that some LGBTI minors who revealed their sexual orientation in religious communities faced expulsion from their homes and stigmatization by rabbis. NGOs noted reports of mental illness among the LGBTI minor community, leading some to attempt suicide. Other NGOs noted that an increasing number of rabbis, educators, and community leaders in Orthodox Jewish communities were adopting a more inclusive approach to LGBTI minors.

On February 4, then-Minister of Education Rafi Peretz announced he would grant an Israel Prize for Torah literature to Rabbi Yaacov Ariel, the former rabbi of Ramat Gan, who made public statements against LGBTI persons, including a 2014 call not to rent apartments to lesbian couples. On April 26, the Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by the Israel LGBT Taskforce, an NGO (also known as the Aguda), against the granting of the prize to Ariel, stating the case did not justify the court’s intervention. Ariel refused to retract his statements.

Several religious NGOs, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, sought to break the rabbinate’s monopoly over issues that included kashrut certificates for burial, marriage, and divorce.

According to the NGO Panim, 2,486 weddings took place outside of the rabbinate’s authority in 2019, compared with 2,610 in 2018. These included unofficial orthodox, conservative, reform, and secular ceremonies.

According to Bar Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, thousands of Jewish women were “trapped” in various stages of informal or formal get (divorce) refusals, especially in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. The Rackman Center stated that in some instances a woman’s husband made granting a get contingent on his wife conceding to extortionate demands, such as those relating to property ownership or child custody. One in three Jewish women who divorced faced such demands, according to the Center for Women’s Justice.

NGOs, including Mavoi Satum and Itim, promoted the use of prenuptial agreements to prevent cases of aginut (in which a woman whose husband is unwilling or unable to grant her a get). Such agreements provide financial incentives paid by a refusing spouse until the termination of the marriage.

A variety of NGOs continued to try to build understanding and create dialogue among religious groups and between religious and secular Jewish communities, including Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, the Abraham Fund Initiative, Givat Haviva, the Hagar and Hand-in-Hand integrated Jewish-Arab bilingual schools, Hiddush, Israeli Religious Action Center, Mosaica, Tag Meir, and Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA). For example, IEA held 384 interfaith encounters throughout the year. The number of children studying at integrated Yad BeYad Jewish-Arab schools in the school year beginning in September was 1,800, up from 1,700 in the previous year.

Despite the labor law, some foreign domestic workers stated that some employers did not allow their domestic workers to take off their weekly day of worship.

In its annual Israel Religion and State Index poll of 800 adult Jews published in September, Hiddush found that 65 percent of respondents identified as either secular (47 percent) or “traditional-not-religious” (18 percent), with positions regarding public policy on religion and state close to the positions of secular Israelis. Of those surveyed, 83 percent supported freedom of religion and conscience, and 63 percent supported the separation of religion and state. Sixty-five percent supported equal status for the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform traditions. A large majority did not see the need for religious conversion approved by the Chief Rabbinate as a condition for the state to recognize the Judaism of new immigrants, with only 34 percent considering conversion via the Chief Rabbinate necessary, compared with 38 percent in the previous year. Thirty-six percent stated immigrants should be recognized as Jewish if they identify as such, and 30 percent stated immigrants should be recognized as Jewish if they undergo either an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform conversion. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they opposed the participation of ultra-Orthodox parties in the government in a way that gives the ultra-Orthodox the ability to dictate government policy and legislation on matters of religion and state. Of those surveyed, 22 percent accepted the position of the ultra-Orthodox parties that yeshiva students should be exempted from military or civic service.

According to the Hiddush poll, 65 percent of the country’s adult Jewish population supported recognition by the state of freedom of choice in marriage, doing away with the rabbinate’s monopoly, and equally recognizing civil and non-Orthodox religious marriages. According to the same survey, 51 percent of the public stated that had they been allowed a choice, they would not have married in an Orthodox ceremony, compared with 35 percent who expressed the same sentiment in 2009, 39 percent in 2013, and 47 percent in 2016.

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 77 percent of Israeli respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the highest of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.

In June, the Pew Research Center released a poll completed in 2019 that stated that 48 percent of Israelis surveyed agreed with the statement that belief in God is needed to be moral while an equal number, 48 percent, disagreed. The median for the 34 countries polled showed 51 percent agreeing that a belief in God was needed to be moral, with 45 percent disagreeing.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with Israeli government officials, embassy officials stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for all religious groups. The Ambassador spoke at the Christian Media Summit‎ hosted by the government in October to promote religious freedom in the region, and the Charge d’Affaires hosted a virtual interfaith reception for representatives of the country’s diverse religious groups. In January, the Vice President represented the United States at the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, at Yad Vashem, which press called the largest-ever event focused on combating anti-Semitism.

Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The embassy awarded grants to the Jerusalem Intercultural Center for an interreligious community economic development program in the Old City. Additionally, the embassy presented a grant to the Interfaith Encounter Association to bring together three interfaith groups in Jerusalem’s Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods to meet with U.S. experts, coordinators, and fellow interfaith groups. The embassy also issued public statements condemning attacks on places of worship, including an attempted arson attack on the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane.

On April 20 and 23, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with government and civil society representatives to discuss increasing COVID-19-themed manifestations of anti-Semitic tropes against Israel and Jews, especially online. The Special Envoy and his counterparts agreed that increasing education, monitoring, legislation, and law enforcement could help combat this trend.

Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated a shared society for Arab and Jewish populations. Embassy officials advocated for the right of persons from all faiths to practice their religion peacefully, while also respecting the beliefs and customs of their neighbors.

Throughout the year, embassy officials used social media platforms to express U.S. support for tolerance and the importance of openness to members of other religious groups.

Embassy-hosted events included a virtual interfaith iftar and a virtual interfaith Thanksgiving roundtable discussion. The embassy also promoted the reduction of tensions between religious communities and an increase in interreligious communication and partnerships by bringing together representatives of many faith communities to advance shared goals and exchange knowledge and experience. Embassy programs supported mixed Jewish-Arab educational and community initiatives to reduce societal tensions and violence through sports, the arts, environmental projects, and entrepreneurship. Initiatives included a project by the Citizens Accord Forum that brought together Bedouins and Jews of Ethiopian descent to address violence and build strong relationships between their communities. Another project continued to support joint training sessions for Muslim and Jewish teachers to promote interreligious tolerance in classrooms.

The embassy worked to mitigate interreligious and intercommunal tensions between the country’s non-Jewish and Jewish citizens through the greater integration of the Arab minority into the broader national economy, especially the high-tech sector.

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West Bank and Gaza

Kazakhstan

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion. The Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), part of the Ministry of Information and Social Development (MISD), is responsible for religious issues. According to local and international observers, authorities continued to impose restrictions and additional scrutiny on what the government considered “nontraditional” religious groups, including Muslims who practice a version of Islam other than the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and Protestant Christians. Authorities continued to arrest, detain, and imprison individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation; restrict religious expression; prevent unregistered groups from practicing their faith; restrict assembly for peaceful religious activities; restrict public manifestation of religious belief; restrict religious expression and customs, including religious clothing; criminalize speech “inciting religious discord”; restrict proselytism; restrict the publication and distribution of religious literature; censor religious content; and restrict acquisition or use of buildings used for religious ceremonies and purposes. The government again raided religious services, prosecuted individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and refused to register certain religious groups. In January, an Almaty court sentenced two Muslims to five years of restriction of freedom (probation) for incitement of religious discord and participation in the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization via online chats. In October, a Muslim was retried and sentenced to eight years in prison for supporting terrorism through online posts in 2015, despite an earlier Supreme Court ruling annulling his original sentence. Religious minority groups stated that the authorities used COVID-19 pandemic restrictions to discriminate against them. Five pastors and two church workers were detained, tried, jailed, fined, or warned for reportedly violating pandemic restrictions. The CRA reported 552 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2019, the latest data available. Some religious minority groups faced attempts by local governments to seize their property. In October, four ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens who had crossed the border earlier from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region were granted asylum on the grounds of credible fear of persecution if they returned to China.

Media outlets continued to release articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional.” Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a number of defamatory articles and broadcasts. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and academics said members of some religious groups, including Muslims who wear headscarves or other identifying attire as well as some Christian groups, including evangelicals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.

Despite limitations on in-person meetings and visits during the global pandemic, the Secretary of State, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Ambassador, and other U.S. officials engaged in person and via virtual platforms with the government to urge respect for religious freedom, both in general and with regard to specific cases, including a regular and recurring dialogue with the MISD and CRA. This included raising concerns regarding the restrictive effects on religious freedom of the government’s implementation of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes, especially concerning criminal penalties for peaceful religious speech, praying without registration, and censorship of religious literature. The country’s bilateral Religious Freedom Working Group with the United States met in person in February and virtually in October to discuss cooperation to allow all persons to practice their faiths freely in the country. U.S. officials visited various houses of worship and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities and religious freedom advocates. The embassy also engaged in social media outreach to urge respect for religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

Other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the religious population include Jews, Buddhists, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, and Scientologists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion and belief as well as for the freedom to decline religious affiliation. These rights may be limited only by laws and only to the extent necessary for protection of the constitutional system, public order, human rights and freedoms, and the health and morality of the population. Under the constitution, all persons have the right to follow their religious or other convictions, take part in religious activities, and disseminate their beliefs. These rights, however, are in practice limited to registered or “traditional” religious groups. “Traditional” is not defined by law, but it typically refers to Hanafi Sunni Islam, the Russian Orthodox Church, Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism, and other major or historic religions.

The MISD and its component, the CRA, regulate the practice of religion in the country. By law, the MISD is responsible for the formulation and implementation of state policy on religion as well as facilitating government and civil society engagement. It also considers potential violations of the laws on religious activity and extremism. The MISD drafts legislation and regulations, conducts analysis of religious materials, and makes decisions on censorship. All religious groups are required to submit all religious materials for approval before dissemination. The MISD cooperates with law enforcement bodies to ban religious groups and sanction individuals who violate the religion law, coordinates actions of local government to regulate religious practices, and provides the official interpretation of the religion law.

The counterterrorism law requires religious organizations to secure their buildings of worship against potential terrorist attacks; the government may take action against religious organizations for failure to do so. The law states the government shall not interfere with the choice of religious beliefs or affiliation of citizens or residents unless those beliefs are directed against the country’s constitutional framework, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.

The criminal and administrative codes include penalties for unauthorized religious activity, which includes the arrangement of and participation in activities of unregistered religious groups, participation in religious activities outside permitted areas, unlicensed distribution of religious materials or training of clergy, sale of religious literature without government approval or in places not approved by the government, and discussion of religion for the purpose of proselytization without the required missionary registration.

The criminal code prohibits the “incitement of interreligious discord,” which includes “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority, or inferiority of citizens according to their relation to religion [and other] origin.” It also criminalizes the creation and leadership of social institutions that proclaim religious intolerance or exclusivity, which is punishable by imprisonment from three to seven years.

The extremism law, which applies to religious groups and other organizations, gives the government discretion to identify and designate a group as an “extremist organization,” ban a designated group’s activities, and criminalize membership in a banned organization. The law defines “extremism” as an organization or commission of acts in pursuit of violent change of the constitutional system; violation of the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the country; undermining of national security; violent seizure or retention of power; armed rebellion; incitement of ethnic, religious, or other forms of social discord accompanied by calls to violence; or the use of any religious practice that causes a security or health risk. An extremist organization is a “legal entity, association of individuals and (or) legal entities engaged in extremism, and recognized by the court as extremist.” The law provides streamlined court procedures for identifying a group as “terrorist or extremist,” reducing the time necessary for a court to render judgement and act on a decision to 72 hours. After a legal finding of a violation, the law authorizes officials to immediately revoke the organization’s registration, thus ending its legal existence, and to seize its property. Prosecutors have the right to annually inspect all groups registered with state bodies for compliance with all applicable laws.

Under the law on countering terrorism, the Ministry of Finance may freeze the financial accounts of persons convicted of terrorism or extremism crimes.

The administrative code prohibits “spreading the creed of religious groups (that are) unregistered” in the country, an offense punishable by a fine of 252,500 tenge ($600). A foreigner or stateless person found guilty may also be deported.

A religious organization may be designated “national,” “regional,” or “local.” To register at the local level, an organization must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice that lists the names and addresses of at least 50 founding members. Religious organizations may be active only within the geographic limits of the locality in which they register unless they have sufficient numbers to register at the regional or national level. Regional registration requires at least two local organizations, each located within a different region (province), and each local group must have at least 250 members. National registration requires at least 5,000 total members and at least 300 members in each of the country’s 14 regions and the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent. Only groups registered at the national or regional level have the right to open educational institutions for training clergy.

The law allows the government to deny registration to a religious group based on an insufficient number of adherents or on inconsistencies between the religious group’s charter and any national law, as determined by an analysis conducted by the CRA. According to the administrative code, individuals participating in leading or financing an unregistered, suspended, or banned religious group may be fined between 126,250 tenge ($300) and 505,000 tenge ($1,200).

The administrative code mandates a 505,000 tenge ($1,200) fine and a three-month suspension from conducting any religious activities for registered groups holding religious gatherings in buildings that are not approved for that purpose; importing, producing, or disseminating religious materials not approved by the CRA; systematically pursuing activities that contradict the charter and bylaws of the group as registered; constructing religious facilities without a permit; holding gatherings or conducting charity events in violation of the law; or otherwise defying the constitution or laws. Private persons engaged in these activities are subject to a fine of 126,250 tenge ($300). Police may impose these fines without first going to court. The fines may be appealed to a court.

If an organization, its leaders, or members engage in activities not specified in its charter, it is subject to a warning, a fine of 252,500 tenge ($600), or both. Under the administrative code, if the same violation is repeated within a year, the legal entity is subject to a fine of 378,750 tenge ($900) and a three- to six-month suspension of activities.

According to the administrative code, if a religious group engages in a prohibited activity or does not rectify violations resulting in a suspension, an official or the organization’s leader is subject to a fine of 505,000 tenge ($1,200), the entity is also subject to a fine of 1,262,500 tenge ($3,000), and its activities are banned.

The law authorizes local authorities to “coordinate” the location of premises for religious events outside religious buildings. By law, religious activities may be held in residences, provided that organizers take into account the “rights and interests of neighbors.” Authorities sometimes interpret this as a requirement to receive permission from the neighbors.

The government prohibits individuals who do not pay their fines from traveling outside the country.

The law prohibits coercion to force a person’s conversion to any religion or to force a person’s participation in a religious group’s activities or in religious rites. The law further bans activities of religious organizations that involve violence against citizens or otherwise harm the health or morality of citizens and residents, force them to end marriages or family relations, violate human rights and freedoms, or force citizens to evade performance of duties specified in the constitution and legislation. The law prohibits methods of proselytizing that take advantage of a potential convert’s dependence on charity. The law also prohibits blackmail, violence or the threat of violence, or the use of material threats to coerce participation in religious activities.

The law states that in cases when a prisoner seeks the help of a clergy member to perform a religious rite, he or she may invite a clergy member of a formally registered religious group to a detention facility, as long as this access complies with the prison’s internal regulations. The law bans construction of places of worship within prison territory. Pursuant to the law, religious organizations may participate in monitoring prisons, including creating and implementing programs to improve the correctional system and developing and publicly discussing draft laws and regulations as they relate to the prison system. Religious groups may identify, provide, distribute, and monitor the use of humanitarian, social, legal, and charitable assistance to prisoners. They may provide other forms of assistance to penitentiary system bodies, as long as they do not contradict the law. According to the law, prisoners may possess religious literature, but only if it is approved following an analysis conducted by a CRA religious expert.

The law defines “religious tourism” as a “type of tourism where people travel for performance of religious rites in a country (place) of temporary residence” and requires the MISD to regulate it. Together with the Sunni Hanafi Spiritual Administration of Muslims (SAMK), the MISD oversees the process by which individuals participate in the Hajj or in other travel for the performance of religious rites. The government requires that specially selected guides and imams accompany each group and states that the rules are designed to ensure pilgrims are not recruited by extremist religious groups.

The law prohibits religious ceremonies in government buildings, including those belonging to the military or law enforcement.

The law states production, publication, and dissemination of religious literature and information materials of religious content are allowed only after receiving a positive expert opinion from the CRA. The law allows one copy of published religious materials to be imported for personal use without review by a CRA religious expert.

The law states the government shall not interfere with the rights of parents to raise their children consistent with their religious convictions, unless such an upbringing harms the child’s health or infringes upon the child’s rights.

The law requires organizations to “take steps to prevent involvement or participation of anyone under the age of 18 in the activities of a religious association” if one of the parents or other legal guardians objects. The law bans religious activities, including proselytizing, in children’s vacation, sport, creative, or other leisure organizations, camps, or sanatoria. The extent to which organizations must prevent underage persons’ involvement in religious activity is not specifically outlined and has not been further defined by authorities.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools, colleges, or universities. Homeschooling for religious reasons is also prohibited. The law allows afterschool and other supplemental religious instruction as long as it is provided by a registered religious group. A decree mandates that schoolchildren wear school uniforms that comply with the secular nature of education and prohibits inclusion of any elements that could indicate religious affiliation, such as head coverings.

The election law prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation.

The criminal code prohibits creating, leading, or actively participating in a religious or public association whose activities involve committing acts of “violence against citizens or the causing of other harm to their health or the incitement of citizens to refuse to carry out their civil obligations as well as the creation or leadership of parties on a religious basis.” The code punishes such acts with a fine of up to 15.2 million tenge ($36,100) or up to six years’ imprisonment. To perform missionary or other religious activity in the country, a foreigner must obtain a missionary or religious visa. These visas allow a person to stay for a maximum of six months, with the possibility to apply to extend the stay for another six months. To obtain missionary visas, applicants must be invited by a religious group formally registered in the country. The CRA must approve the letter of invitation. Applicants must obtain consent from the CRA each time they apply. The CRA may reject missionary visa applications based on a negative assessment from CRA religious experts, or if it deems the missionaries represent a danger to the country’s constitutional framework, citizens’ rights and freedoms, or any person’s health or morals. The constitution requires foreign religious groups to conduct their activities, including appointing the heads of local congregations, “in coordination with appropriate state institutions,” notably the CRA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Foreigners may not register religious groups.

Local and foreign missionaries are required to register annually with the local executive body of a region or of the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent and provide information on their religious affiliation, intended territory of missionary work, and time period for conducting that work. Missionaries must submit all literature and other materials intended to support their missionary work together with their registration application. Use of materials not vetted during the registration process is illegal. A missionary must produce registration documents and a power of attorney from the sponsoring religious organization to work on its behalf. The local executive body of a region or the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent may refuse to register missionaries whose work is deemed to “constitute a threat to the constitutional order, social order, the rights and freedoms of individuals, or the health and morals of the population.”

The law does not provide for conscientious objection to mandatory military service on religious grounds, but the government has exempted Jehovah’s Witnesses from mandatory service.

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

Government Practices

According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, 24 Sunni Muslims were serving sentences connected to their religious activities or beliefs. Three Protestant Christians were given prison terms in absentia. Six individuals were serving “restricted freedom” sentences that consist of probation plus compulsory community service; such sentences could also include court-imposed restrictions on their freedom of movement. Sixteen individuals who had completed their prison terms were banned from religious activities.

Media reported that on January 27, the Almaly district court found Karlygash Adasbekova and Daria Nyshanova guilty of incitement of religious discord and supporting Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization banned by the government as extremist, through online posts to a WhatsApp chat group. During the trial, two witnesses withdrew their earlier testimony against the accused, and the witness who made the initial report that led to the Committee of National Security (KNB) investigation could not remember which WhatsApp posts he had cited in his report. Despite these discrepancies, the judge found the defendants guilty and sentenced each of them to five years of restricted freedom.

On January 21, the Supreme Court reviewed the Prosecutor General’s petition challenging the 2018 verdict in the case of Dadash Mazhenov and sent the case back to the appellate court for a new trial on the grounds that the expert who had analyzed Mazhenov’s online posts lacked the appropriate license and that the defense’s statements were not sufficiently verified. Mazhenov, a Sunni Muslim, was sentenced to seven years and eight months imprisonment in 2015 for supporting terrorism in online posts. On October 13, the appeals panel of the Akmola provincial court upheld the 2018 verdict against Mazhenov. In March, Mazhenov filed a complaint stating he was tortured for praying while held in a labor camp in the city of Shymkent in the summer of 2019. In May, the Coalition against Torture, a local NGO that monitors prisons and detention facilities, appointed a lawyer to advocate on Mazhenov’s behalf. The NGO noted that few prison torture cases ever reached court, with few officials found guilty.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that 23 Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors encountered difficulties in obtaining exemption from military service, although all cases were eventually resolved through dialogue with the authorities. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said that local enlistment officers initially considered the certificates issued by the recruits’ local religious communities to be insufficient evidence to exempt the young men. The communities then provided clarification of the applicants’ eligibility for exemption, as well as letters from the conscientious objectors formally asking to be released from military service.

Religious freedom observers consistently reported that authorities continued to use the religion law to harass and restrict minority religious groups with fines and limitations on their activities. Violations included attending worship meetings not approved by the state; offering, importing, or selling religious literature and pictures, including on the internet; sharing or teaching faith; and violating procedures for praying in mosques. The CRA reported 552 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2019, the latest data available.

During the year, authorities dropped the 2019 charges against the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) for conducting a religious event without prior permission from the local government. ISKCON had been charged after a 2019 police raid on an apartment in Atyrau.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, 63 members of the community were detained on charges of illegal missionary activity between January and October. Of these, 38 were given oral warnings, 14 were given written warnings, and 11 were taken to court for alleged violation of the religion law. Of those 11, nine were acquitted and two were found guilty and fined 277,800 tenge each ($660).

On March 15, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued a decree declaring a state of emergency to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of wide-ranging emergency restrictions, religious ceremonies were prohibited and the operations of mosques, churches, and other religious centers were temporarily suspended. On May 11, the state of emergency ended. Beginning May 18, mosques, churches, and other houses of worship were able to operate at 30 percent capacity and with other region-specific public health-related restrictions. Throughout the year, region-specific restrictions changed frequently in efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. At year end, large religious services (i.e., weddings and funerals) were still prohibited on public health grounds.

Religious minority groups stated that authorities used COVID-19 pandemic restrictions to discriminate against them. In April, courts in Karaganda Province found the pastors of three local evangelical Baptist communities liable for violation of the COVID-19 quarantine rules because they allowed parishioners to gather for Sunday services on March 29. The pastors were jailed for three days, and Pastor Dmitry Iantsen in Termirtau was fined 26,510 tenge ($63). The church leaders said the incidents were a result of the lack of clear rules on the allowed size of gatherings. The chief health inspector’s decrees prohibited mass gatherings, but without specifying how many participants constituted such a gathering. The churches said some lawyers and government officials defined 50 to 200 participants as a mass gathering. The pastors said they had taken precautions to prevent the spread of disease, including restricting the number of worshippers present.

On April 22, an evangelical Christian pastor from Shymkent affiliated with the New Life Church received a 10-day prison sentence for conducting missionary activity during the state of emergency. Church representatives said Pastor Zhetis Rauilov was called to a meeting at the mayor’s office by an employee of the local branch of the CRA on April 21 but went home when the official was not in the office, stopping at a supermarket on the way. Police then stopped him, searched his car, and detained him on suspicion of moving through the city to provide groceries to parishioners without permission. (Local restrictions required permission for delivering groceries, but not for simple grocery shopping close to home.) Rauilov said he believed his arrest was orchestrated by local authorities because it took place immediately following the aborted meeting at the mayor’s office. Rauilov served the sentence and was released.

On May 15, according to Forum 18, police raided a shopping center in Aktobe to enforce COVID-19-related restrictions on public gatherings four days after the national pandemic state of emergency had been lifted. The administrator of the shopping center, Gulnar Kurmangaliyeva, was fined 132,550 tenge ($310) for permitting an Islamic prayer room to operate in the shopping center, and authorities closed the prayer room for three months.

Authorities continued to charge individuals under the administrative code for holding unsanctioned religious meetings, offering religious literature for sale, and for other violations of the religion law.

On February 29, police detained Oleg Stepanenko and Nadezhda Smirnova, members of a Christian Evangelical Baptist church in Pavlodar Province, for unsanctioned distribution of religious literature. Local media described them as adherents of a “harmful” religious group. On March 2, the local court found them guilty of breaking the religion law and imposed administrative fines. Authorities also seized and destroyed approximately 200 religious books in their possession.

In September, media reported that the Kokshetau administrative court found an individual guilty of disseminating religious literature, for writing a social media advertisement for books CRA theologians deemed to contain banned extremist content. Government experts found the advertisement while monitoring social media. Police located and charged the author, who was fined 100,000 tenge ($240).

On March 29, Pavlodar police raided the house of worship of the Pavlodar Council of Evangelical Christians and charged a 66-year-old pastor with leading an unregistered religious group. On April 20, the Pavlodar administrative court found the pastor guilty and fined him 194,460 tenge ($460).

The international Christian NGO Open Doors cited the country on its World Watch List for the government’s control over religious expression in the country, including surveillance, raids on church meetings, and arrests. The NGO said Christians from a Muslim background bore the worst persecution.

The government maintained its policy of banning religious clothing in schools. The Ministry of Education and Science continued to prohibit headscarves in schools throughout the country during in-person instruction, but media reported the ban was not strictly enforced during online instruction necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Media reported on September 29 that according to the Aktobe Region Education Department, 11 students chose to study online at their own expense due to the government’s ban on wearing headscarves in schools.

According to Forum 18, some Muslims faced repeated questioning from law enforcement authorities about their faith.

According to CRA statistics for the first nine months of the year, there were 3,818 registered religious associations or branches thereof in the country, compared with 3,770 in 2019.

The government did not approve the registration of Muslim groups apart from those observing the Sunni Hanafi school, which the SAMK oversaw. All other schools of Islam remained unregistered and were officially unable to practice in the country, although religious leaders reported some Muslim communities continued to worship informally without government interference.

The MISD and the SAMK maintained an official agreement on cooperation, and NGOs continued to state this led to the government effectively exercising control over the nominally independent SAMK. By joining the SAMK, Muslim communities relinquished the right to appoint their own imams, subjected themselves to SAMK approval regarding any property actions (such as sales, transfers, or improvements), and were required to pay 30 percent of the mosque’s income to the SAMK. The SAMK also set the curriculum for religious education across the country and provided guidelines and sample texts for sermons during Friday prayers.

The SAMK continued to oversee the opening of new and restored mosques. According to the CRA, there were 2,684 mosques in the country, 46 more than reported in 2019, but the government and news media offered varying and occasionally inconsistent statistics about the number of mosques nationwide.

The SAMK continued to control the activities of all 2,684 formally registered Muslim groups affiliated with the Sunni Hanafi school and had authority over appointment of imams as well as over the administration of examinations and background checks for aspiring imams. The MISD continued to work closely with the SAMK on the training of imams, upgrading madrassahs to the status of degree-granting colleges, and controlling Hajj pilgrimages. The SAMK permitted imams to enroll in baccalaureate, masters, or doctoral programs offered at Nur Mubarak University’s Islamic Studies and Religious Studies departments based on their prior education levels. There were 11 schools for religious training of Sunni Hanafi imams, one for Roman Catholic clergy, and one for Russian Orthodox clergy.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community remained unregistered during the year; authorities denied the group reregistration for the sixth time in 2016. Government experts had previously concluded the community’s teachings were not Islamic and that it must remove the word “Muslim” from its registration materials. Community members reported that since they were not registered, they did not engage in any religious activity.

The Council of Baptist Churches stated it continued to refuse on principle to register under the law, in keeping with its policy of maintaining a distance from the government. Community representatives reported that authorities continued to closely monitor their meetings and travels and that police followed and surveilled them, as in prior years.

The Church of Scientology continued to function as a registered public association rather than as a religious organization. The government allowed the Church, as a public association, to maintain resource centers/libraries where members could read or borrow books and host discussions or meetings, but it did not allow the Church to engage in activity considered religious by the government.

Some religious minority groups faced attempts by local governments to seize their property. On September 17, the Almaty City Court upheld an earlier court decision to seize buildings of the New Life Church in Almaty. In 2019, the Almaty Specialized Interdistrict Court had convicted the Church’s three pastors, who fled the country, of using hypnotism and psychological manipulation to harm and defraud former parishioners, and it ordered the seizure of the Church’s property, including buildings, money, and computers. Neither the New Life Church leaders nor their attorney were present at the court hearing, which was held without their knowledge after the court agreed initially to postpone it. The Church immediately filed an appeal. Church representatives said they were particularly concerned about the seizure of two buildings used to support vulnerable individuals, and they expressed fears that some who lived in the buildings would have no place to go if the buildings were confiscated. At year’s end, the seizure of the buildings had been delayed, pending an appeal hearing.

On February 14, the Mayor of Nur-Sultan issued a decree confiscating land shared by the Presbyterian Grace Church and Pentecostal Agape Church in order to build a government-run kindergarten. The Churches lodged a lawsuit against the mayor’s office, but a city court ruled against the Churches on September 7, accepting the mayor’s countersuit that the seizure decree should be enforced. The judge also ordered the Churches to pay for a panel of experts – mostly officials from the mayor’s office – to assess the value of the property. The Churches appealed the decision, but their appeal was denied on December 12. At year’s end, the land had not been confiscated and the Churches were fighting the decree.

On January 21, two ethnic Kazakh Muslims, citizens of China, were convicted of illegally crossing the border from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China and sentenced to a year in prison. They served shorter sentences and were released. In October, these and another two previously convicted ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens were granted asylum on the grounds of credible fear of persecution if they returned to China.

In August, the government granted an exception to COVID-19 restrictions on public ceremonies to allow a Jewish group to travel to Almaty to mark the 76th anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Scheerson. The government designated the resting place a National Heritage Site.

The Church of Scientology reported that during the year, its members experienced harassment and intimidation by the authorities, including frivolous lawsuits and smear campaigns on national television, harassment, extrajudicial searches, destructive raids of their premises, and seizure of literature.

According to the Penitentiary Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all prisons continued to have dedicated specialists charged with creating programs to counter religious extremism, in accordance with a 2017 order issued by the Minister of Internal Affairs adding the position of “religious specialist” to prison staff as part of the State Program for Counteraction against Terrorism and Religious Extremism. Lawyers familiar with the program said most of the specialists lacked education or specialized training.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Observers and minority Christian religious communities again expressed concerns regarding negative articles and broadcasts about minority religious groups that the media regarded as “nontraditional.”

NGOs continued to report individuals were wary of “nontraditional” religious groups, particularly those that proselytized or whose dress or grooming, including Islamic headscarves and beards, indicated “nontraditional” beliefs. According to a survey by CRA conducted in 2019 and published in 2020, however, Kazakhstani society was increasingly receptive to those wearing religious clothes, particularly hijabs. In the survey, more than half of respondents (38.4 percent) approved of or were neutral (26.6 percent) to people wearing religious clothes, compared to 31.4 percent of respondents who had negative opinions of those wearing religious clothes.

According to NGO Open Doors, Christians from a Muslim background were persecuted by family, friends and their community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Secretary of State, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, other senior U.S. government officials, and embassy officers met with senior government officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MISD, and CRA and advocated for the importance of respecting religious freedom. In January, the Secretary of State met with ethnic Kazakh Muslims whose family members had been detained in internment camps or prisons in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. The Secretary called for the release of all those arbitrarily detained and the end of the program of systematic surveillance and repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, bilateral discussions also took place on virtual platforms. As in previous years, U.S. officials raised concerns over the restrictive effects of the government’s implementation of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes on religious freedom. They also raised concerns about the inconsistent application of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes with regard to “nontraditional” versus “traditional” religious groups.

U.S. officials continued to encourage the government to respect individuals’ rights to peaceful expression of religious belief and free practice of religion in bilateral meetings and at meetings of the U.S-Kazakhstan International Religious Freedom Working Group in person in February and virtually in October. U.S. officials expressed concern about vaguely written laws that were broad in scope and lacked specific definition of legal terms that enabled authorities, particularly at the local level, to apply them in an arbitrary manner. They encouraged the government to eliminate burdensome registration requirements for religious communities and to take other steps to amend the religion law to increase the ability of believers to practice their faith. U.S. officials also raised concerns over anti-Semitic content in local media and encouraged fair and equal treatment for faith organizations in land disputes with the government. On social media, the embassy also engaged in outreach to urge respect for religious freedom.

Embassy officials visited houses of worship in several regions of the country and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities, their leaders, and religious freedom advocates in-person and online. They underscored the importance freedom of religion played in countering violent extremism, expressed concern about further restrictions on religious freedom, and encouraged reform of relevant laws and guidelines so all citizens could conduct peaceful religious activities freely, whether or not they were part of a registered religious group.

Macau

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

Executive Summary

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 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. The SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law on October 7 allowing the Judiciary Police to create national security branches. Some members of the religious community said they were concerned Macau’s implementation of these new provisions could mirror the Hong Kong police force’s national security units and potentially affect civil liberties, although they were uncertain if the new provisions could eventually infringe upon religious freedom. Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. At a Lunar New Year celebration, the Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office told religious community representatives the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support. Falun Gong practitioners held a rally on April 25 to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China.

Falun Gong practitioners continued to be able to discuss their beliefs openly with Macau residents.

In meetings with civil society representatives, representatives from the U.S. Consulate General 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 I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 614,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2015 estimate by the research group Association of Religion Data Archives, 48.1 percent of the population are folk religionists, 17.3 percent Buddhist, 11 percent Taoist, 4.5 percent Catholic, 2.5 percent other Christian, 1.2 percent other religious groups (including Hindus, Muslims, and Jews), and 15.4 percent nonreligious. The SAR Government Information Bureau 2020 yearbook states the majority of the population practices Buddhism or Chinese folk religions. The yearbook does not provide an estimate for Buddhists, but it states they are numerous and individuals often practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religions. The SAR Government Information Bureau estimates 4.5 percent of the population are Roman Catholics, of whom almost half are foreign domestic workers and other expatriates, and 2.5 percent of the population are Protestants. Protestant denominations include the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian Churches. Evangelical Christian and independent local nondenominational churches, some of which are affiliated with officially recognized mainland churches, are also present. Various reports estimate the Muslim population at 5,000 to 10,000. Smaller religious groups include Baha’is, who estimate their membership at more than 2,000, and Falun Gong practitioners, who estimate their numbers at 20 to 50 persons.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states residents have freedom of religious belief and the freedom to publicly preach as well as conduct and participate in religious activities. These rights may be limited in extreme situations for national security reasons. The Basic Law further stipulates the government shall not interfere in the internal affairs of religious groups or in their relations with their counterparts outside Macau. It bars the government from restricting religious activities that do not contravene the laws of the SAR.

Under the Basic Law, the SAR government, rather than the central government of the PRC, safeguards religious freedom in the SAR.

The law states there is no official religion in the SAR and stipulates all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law provides for freedom of religion, including privacy of religious belief, freedom of religious assembly, freedom to hold religious processions, and freedom of religious education. On October 7, the SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law allowing the Judiciary Police to create four new national security branches: the National Security Information Division; the National Security Crime Investigation Division; the National Security Action Support Division; and the National Security Affairs Integrated Service Division.

Religious groups are not required to register to conduct religious activities, but registration enables them to benefit from legal status. Benefits include exemption from taxation (such as property tax, stamp duty, complementary tax [profit tax], and industrial tax) and financial assistance from the government. Religious groups register with the Identification Bureau, providing the name of an individual applicant and that person’s position in the group, identification card number, and contact information, as well as the group’s name and a copy of the group’s charter. Registered charities receive the same benefits as registered religious groups. Religious groups need to be registered as a charity under a similar or different name in order to provide charitable services.

The law states that religious organizations may run seminaries and schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions, and provide other social services.

There is no religious education in public schools. A small number of schools run by religious organizations receive no public funding, and these schools may require students to receive religious education.

By law, religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad.

Government Practices

The government’s stated aim in amending the 2009 National Security Law was to improve external communications about national security and promote law enforcement. Human rights advocates said they were concerned the SAR’s new divisions mirrored the divisions that were created under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which came into effect on June 30 and were being used to threaten civil liberties. Religious leaders said they were uncertain if the new provisions might eventually infringe upon religious freedom.

Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

According to the Central Government Liaison Office in Macau, in January, Zhang Rongshun, Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office, held a Lunar New Year celebration with more than 30 representatives from the Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, Taoist, and Baha’i communities. Zhang said successful implementation of the PRC’s “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support.

On April 25, Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in front of St. Dominic’s Church to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the CCP’s treatment of Falun Gong practitioners on the mainland. According to the Falun Gong website Minghui.org, practitioners set up message boards with information about the history of the group, carried banners, and distributed informational pamphlets.

Some religious groups continued to report they retained their ability to conduct charitable activities on the mainland by working through official channels and officially recognized churches.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Catholic Church in Macau, in communion with the Holy See, continued to recognize the Pope as its head. The Vatican appointed the bishop for the diocese. Sources stated the PRC central government and religious leaders from mainland-authorized churches invited Macau diocese representatives to public events.

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

According to Minghui.org, with fewer foreigners visiting the SAR due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Falun Gong practitioners interacted more with local residents, handing out information on the streets, including publications called CCP Virus Special Editions and MinghuiWeekly. According to the website, “Local residents have always treated Falun Dafa practitioners with kindness.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. Consulate General representatives in Hong Kong, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious diversity and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland. They raised these points in meetings with civil society representatives, religious leaders, and nongovernmental organizations.

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

Russia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion. The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). A constitutional amendment approved in a July referendum cites the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by the country’s ancestors, the first and only reference to God in the constitution. Religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, imprison, torture, and and/or physically abuse persons or seize their property because of their religious faith, including members of groups the government classified as extremist and banned, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jamaat, and followers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi. The human rights NGO Memorial identified 228 persons it said were persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation and whom it considered to be political prisoners, compared with 245 in 2019. Memorial said the actual total was likely three to four times higher. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities again detained hundreds of its members and physically abused some of them, including one whom law enforcement agents beat, strangled, and electrically shocked to force a confession and elicit false statements against his fellow members. Five other Jehovah’s Witnesses detained during raids reported that law enforcement agents beat them while in custody. Religious groups said the government continued to use antiterrorism regulations to restrict religious freedom, including proselytizing and banning religious literature. Authorities designated seven NGOs associated with Falun Gong as “undesirable” foreign organizations and barred them from working in the country. Additionally, a court in Novosibirsk declared an independent regional branch of Falun Gong “extremist” and prohibited it from operating there. The NGO SOVA Center said that proposed amendments to the law regulating religion, pending at year end, might allow for arbitrary government interference among minority religious groups due to vague language prohibiting religious institutions from having connections with individuals the country’s courts declared “undesirable” or “extremist.” A fraud case against representatives of the Church of Scientology remained pending in St. Petersburg. The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to other religious groups, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported workplace harassment of members again increased, and forced resignations continued at some of their workplaces when employers discovered their religious affiliation. The country’s chief rabbi stated anti-Semitism was at a historic low, but the President of the Federation of Jewish Communities said levels of latent anti-Semitism in the country remained high. The Russian Jewish Congress reported that authorities arrested two persons suspected of planning to assassinate the leader of the Jewish community of Krasnodar in September. According to the SOVA Center, media continued to issue defamatory reports about minority religious groups. The same group reported 29 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism. Incidents included setting fire to a synagogue in Arkhangelsk, destroying headstones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg, vandalizing a monument to Holocaust victims in Rostov-on-Don, and breaking a Buddhist stupa near Sukhaya. A priest and former member of the ROC hierarchy made numerous anti-Semitic remarks from the pulpit during the year; he was subsequently expelled from the ROC and a court fined him 18,000 rubles ($240).

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate representatives advocated for greater religious freedom in the country, highlighting the government’s misuse of the law on extremism to restrict the peaceful activities of religious minorities. The Ambassador spoke on the importance of remembering the Holocaust and combating religious persecution at a multifaith gathering at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow in January. In March, the Ambassador discussed cooperation to promote religious freedom with ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye. The embassy condemned the attack on the Jewish synagogue and cultural center in Arkhangelsk and called for a thorough investigation. In November, the embassy coordinated with the Department of State to release tweets condemning raids against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and 20 other regions. The Ambassador then met with Jehovah’s Witness representatives to discuss the group’s ongoing persecution and reiterated the U.S. commitment to religious freedom. The embassy also made extensive use of its social media platforms to disseminate messages advocating for religious freedom.

On December 2, 2020 in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 142.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). A poll conducted in September by the independent Levada Center found that 63 percent of the population identified as Orthodox Christian and 7 percent as Muslim, while 26 percent reported having no religious faith. Religious groups each constituting approximately one percent or less of the population include Buddhists, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), pagans, Tengrists, members of the Church of Scientology, and Falun Gong practitioners. The 2010 census estimates the number of Jews at 150,000. The Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) estimates the Jewish population is 172,500, while the Federation of Jewish Communities assesses there are approximately 1.5 million persons of Jewish heritage. According to Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, there were 25 million Muslims in 2018, approximately 18 percent of the population. Immigrants and migrant workers from Central Asia, which experts estimate at six to seven million, are mostly Muslim. Most Muslims live in the Volga-Ural Region and the North Caucasus. Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia also have sizable Muslim populations.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the state is secular and provides for religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship, including the right to “profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion, or to profess no religion.” It provides for the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and it provides for equality of rights and liberties regardless of attitude toward religion. The constitution bans any limitation of human rights on religious grounds and prohibits actions inciting religious hatred and strife. It states all religious associations are equal and separate from the state. The law acknowledges Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, constituting an inseparable part of the country’s historical heritage. The law recognizes the “special role” of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture.”

Among a set of constitutional amendments approved in a July referendum is one citing the ancestral history of the country and the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by those ancestors. The new language is the first and only explicit reference to God in the constitution. In March, prior to the referendum, the Constitutional Court ruled that the proposed amendment’s reference to God did not contravene the secular nature of the government or undermine freedom of religion but only emphasized the significant sociocultural role of religion in the formation and development of the nation.

The law states the government may restrict religious rights only to the degree necessary to protect the constitutional structure and security of the government; the morality, health, rights, and legal interests of persons; or the defense of the country. It is a violation of the law to force another person to disclose his or her opinion of a religion or to participate or not participate in worship, other religious ceremonies, the activities of a religious association, or religious instruction.

The law states those who violate the law on freedom of conscience, religion, and religious associations will be “held liable under criminal, administrative, and other legislation.” The administrative code and the criminal code both punish obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and belief with imprisonment of up to three years and fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) or 1,000,000 rubles ($13,400), depending upon which code governs the offense.

By law, officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law criminalizes a broad spectrum of activities as extremist, including “assistance to extremism,” but the law does not precisely define extremism or require that an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremist.

Anti-extremism legislation stipulates that speech or actions aimed at “inciting hatred or enmity” based on group affiliation (including religion) are punishable by administrative penalties for first-time offenses if the actions do not contain a criminal offense. These penalties include administrative arrests of up to 15 days or administrative fines of up to 20,000 rubles ($270) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) for legal entities. Individuals are held criminally liable if they commit multiple offenses within a one-year period or for the first offense if they threaten to use violence or use their official position to incite hatred. The criminal penalties include fines up to 600,000 rubles ($8,100), compulsory labor for up to five years, or imprisonment for up to six years.

The law criminalizes “offending the feelings of religious believers.” Actions “in public demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the feelings of religious believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,000), compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to one year. If these actions are committed in places of worship, the punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.

Participating in or organizing the activity of a banned religious organization designated as extremist is punishable by a fine of up to 800,000 rubles ($10,700) or imprisonment for a term of six to 10 years, with deprivation of the right to hold “certain positions” or engage in “certain activities” (without specifying what these might be) for up to 10 years and restrictions on freedom for a period of one to two years. These restrictions may include house arrest or constraints on travel within the country. For persons with official status, a term which applies to anyone working for the government or state-owned entities as well as to persons in management roles at commercial entities or NGOs, the prescribed prison term is seven to 12 years or a fine of up to 700,000 rubles ($9,400). First-time offenders who willingly forsake their membership in banned religious organizations are exempt from criminal liability if they committed no other crimes.

Local laws in several administrative regions, including the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism” but do not define the term. Authorities impose administrative and criminal penalties for violating these laws, in accordance with federal legislation.

According to the 2017 Supreme Court ruling declaring the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center an extremist organization, all Jehovah’s Witness activities, including the organization’s websites and all regional branches, are banned. The court’s ruling states the constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief, but this right is limited by other rights, including “existing civil peace and harmony.”

The Supreme Court has banned the activities of several Islamic organizations on the grounds of extremism, including Hizb ut-Tahrir; Nurdzhular (a Russification of the Turkish for “followers of Said Nursi”); Tablighi Jamaat; and the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community. These organizations are on the Federal List of Extremist Organizations.

The law creates three categories of religious associations, with different levels of legal status and privileges: “religious groups,” “local religious organizations” (LROs), and “centralized religious organizations” (CROs). Religious groups or organizations may be subject to legal dissolution or deprivation of legal status by a court decision on grounds including violations of standards set forth in the constitution or public security.

The “religious group” is the most basic unit and does not require registration with the state. When a group first begins its activities, however, it must notify authorities, typically the regional Ministry of Justice (MOJ), of the location of its activity, its rites and ceremonies, and its leader(s) and members. A religious group may conduct worship services and rituals and teach religion to its members with requisite notification to authorities. It does not have legal status to open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces. A religious group may use property bought for the group’s use by its members, residential property owned or rented by its members, or public spaces rented by its members to hold services.

An LRO may register with the MOJ if it has at least 10 citizen members who are 18 or older and are permanent local residents. LROs have legal status and may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces. CROs may register with the MOJ at the regional or federal level by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination.

To register as an LRO or CRO, an association must provide the following: a list of the organization’s founders and governing body with addresses and internal travel document (“internal passport”) data; the organization’s charter; the minutes of the founding meeting; certification from the CRO (in the case of LROs); a description of the organization’s doctrine, practices, history, and attitudes toward family, marriage, and education; the organization’s legal address; a certificate of payment of government dues; and the charter or registration papers of the governing body in the case of organizations whose main offices are located abroad. Authorities may deny registration for reasons including incorrect paperwork, failure to meet different administrative requirements, national security reasons, or placement on the list of extremist or terrorist organizations. Denial of registration may be appealed in court. By law, CROs and LROs receiving funding from abroad must report an account of their activities, a list of leaders, the source of foreign funding, and plans for how the organization intends to use the foreign funds or property obtained through foreign funding. Reports are annual by default, but the MOJ may require additional ad hoc reports. LROs and CROs may invite foreign citizens to carry out professional religious activities. LROs and CROs may produce, acquire, export, import, and distribute religious literature in printed, audio, or video format, and “other religious items.”

The Expert Religious Studies Council, a committee established by the MOJ to advise it on religious groups, has wide powers to investigate religious organizations. Some of the council’s powers include reviewing organizations’ activities and literature and determining whether an organization is “extremist.” The law does not provide precise criteria on how written religious materials may be classified as “extremist.” The council also advises the MOJ on the issue of granting religious organization status to a religious group.

Foreign religious organizations (those created outside of the country under foreign laws) have the right to open offices for representational purposes, either independently or as part of religious organizations previously established in the country, but they may not form or found their own religious organizations in the country and may not operate houses of worship.

The government (the MOJ or the Prosecutor General’s Office) oversees a religious organization’s compliance with the law and may review its financial and registration-related documents when conducting an inspection or investigation. With advance notice, the government may send representatives to attend a religious association’s events, conduct an annual review of compliance with the association’s mission statement on file with the government, and review its religious literature to decide whether the literature is extremist. The law contains ongoing reporting requirements on financial and economic activity, funding sources, and compliance with antiterrorist and anti-extremist legislation. The government may obtain a court order to close those associations that do not comply with reporting or other legal requirements.

The law allows the government to limit the places where prayer and public religious observance may be conducted without prior approval. LROs and CROs may conduct religious services and ceremonies without prior approval in buildings and facilities or on lands owned or rented by these associations, as well as in cemeteries, crematoria, places of pilgrimage, and living quarters. Baptism ceremonies in rivers and lakes, as well as services conducted in parks, open spaces, or courtyards, do not fall under this exemption. In these cases, LROs and CROs must seek government approval at least one week in advance and provide the government with the names of organizers and participants, as well as copies of any written materials to be used at the event.

A prime ministerial decree requires religious organizations to conform to specific counterterrorism measures to qualify for safety permits for their real property. Among other requirements, all facilities must be guarded during services by members of public organizations. Facilities with maximum building occupancy limits between 500 and 1,000 must have “panic buttons” and video surveillance systems. Buildings with occupancy limits of more than 1,000 must be guarded by private security guards or National Guard personnel. Religious groups are responsible for defraying the costs of these measures. The penalty for noncompliance is a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,300).

The Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program requires members of a religious group to comprise at least 10 percent of a military unit before an official chaplain of that group is appointed. Chaplains are not enlisted or commissioned but are classified as assistants to the commander. Chaplains are full-time employees of the Ministry of Defense, paid from the defense budget. The program allows for chaplains representing only the four traditional religions. There are more than 120 chaplains in the program.

Federal law defines “missionary activity” as the sharing of one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbelievers with the aim of involving these individuals in the “structure” of the religious association. According to the law, to share beliefs outside of officially sanctioned sites (which include buildings owned by a religious organization, buildings whose owners have given permission for activities to take place, pilgrimage destinations, cemeteries and crematoria, and indoor spaces of educational organizations historically used for religious ceremonies), an individual must have a document from a religious group or registered organization authorizing him or her to share beliefs. The law explicitly bans any beliefs from being shared in residential buildings without such documentation (unless in the form of a religious service, rite, or ceremony), or on another organization’s property without permission from that organization. Materials disseminated by missionaries must be marked with the name of the religious association providing the authorization.

Violations of the law regulating missionary activity may be punished by a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($67 to $670) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300 to $13,400) for legal entities, which includes LROs and CROs. Foreign citizens or stateless persons who violate restrictions on missionary activities may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($400 to $670) and are subject to administrative deportation.

Within the MOJ, the Scientific Advisory Board reviews religious materials for extremism. Composed of academics and representatives of the four traditional religions, the board reviews materials referred to it by judicial or law enforcement authorities, private citizens, or organizations. If the board identifies material as extremist, it issues a nonbinding advisory opinion, which is then published on the MOJ website and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation. In addition to the Scientific Advisory Board, regional board experts also may review religious materials for extremist content.

Prosecutors may take material to a court and ask the court to declare it extremist, but materials introduced in court during the consideration of administrative, civil, or criminal cases may also be declared extremist of the court’s own accord. By law, publications declared extremist by a federal court are automatically added to the federal list of extremist materials. Courts may order internet service providers to block access to websites containing materials included on the federal list of extremist materials. Courts review and reissue lists on a regular basis. If the courts determine the material is no longer “extremist,” the MOJ is required to remove the material from the lists within 30 days. Very rarely, courts, in response to a legal challenge, may also reverse a decision to blacklist material deemed extremist. The law makes it illegal to declare the key texts (holy books) of the four traditional religions in their original languages – Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Tibetan Buddhist Kangyur (Kanjur) – to be extremist. The law does not specify that foreign language translations of these texts cannot be declared extremist.

According to the administrative code, mass distribution, production, and possession with the aim of mass distribution of extremist materials by private individuals may result in 15 days’ imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($13 to $40), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($27 to $67) for public officials, as well as confiscation of these materials. Courts may suspend for 90 days the operations of legal entities found to be in possession of extremist materials and fine them 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300 to $13,400). Individuals who produce materials later deemed extremist may not be punished retroactively but must cease production and distribution of those materials.

The law allows the transfer of state and municipal property of religious significance to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and movable property. The law grants religious organizations using state historical property for religious purposes the right to use such property indefinitely. The law prohibits the transfer of living quarters for religious use and the use of living quarters for missionary activity, unless the activity is a part of a “religious service, rite, or ceremony.”

The law allows religious organizations to use buildings that were not originally authorized for religious purposes if they are part of a property that serves a religious purpose. The law allows, for example, a group to establish a Sunday school in a warehouse on the property of a church. If such a structure does not meet legal requirements or is not made legal by submitting proper paperwork by 2030, it will be destroyed.

Religious education or civil ethics classes are compulsory in all public and private secondary schools. Students may choose to take a course on one of the four traditional religions, a general world religions course, or a secular ethics course. Regional and municipal departments of education oversee this curriculum at the local level in accordance with their capacity to offer the courses and according to the religious makeup of the given location. There is no requirement for representatives of religious organizations to be licensed to conduct religious education in schools affiliated with a religious organization or in-home schools. Religious instructors in any other state or private school must be licensed to teach religious courses.

The Office of the Director of Religious Issues within the Office of the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman handles complaints about the government’s actions on religious freedom. The ombudsman may intercede on behalf of those who submit complaints; however, the ombudsman may not compel other government bodies to act or directly intervene in complaints not addressed to the government.

The law entitles individuals and organizations to take religious freedom cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France. The state must pay compensation to a person whose rights were violated as determined by the ECHR and ensure his or her rights are restored to the extent possible. The Constitutional Court determines whether judgments by international and regional courts, including the ECHR, are consistent with the constitution.

Military service for men between the ages of 18 and 27 is compulsory, but the constitution provides for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience, including religious belief. The standard military service period is 12 months, while alternative service is 18 months in a Ministry of Defense agency or 21 months in a nondefense agency. Failure to perform alternative service is punishable under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from a fine of 80,000 rubles ($1,100) to six months in prison.

By law, LROs and CROs may not participate in political campaigns or the activities of political parties or movements or provide material or other aid to political groups. This restriction applies to religious organizations but not to their individual members.

The ROC and all members of the Civic Chamber, a state institution composed of representatives of public associations, are granted the opportunity to review draft legislation pending before the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on a case-by-case basis. No formal mechanism exists for permanent representation of religious organizations in the Civic Chamber, as the chamber convenes for three-year terms. Individuals from traditional religions and other religious groups may be selected to serve in the chamber for a term, either in the initial selection of 40 representatives by the President of the Russian Federation or in one of the subsequent rounds of selection, where existing chamber members choose an additional 128 representatives representing national and regional civil society groups. The State Duma passed legislation in 2007 barring any member of an organization that had been accused of extremism from serving in the Civic Chamber.

The law states foreigners or stateless individuals whose presence in the country the government deems “undesirable” are forbidden from becoming founders, members, or active participants in the activities of religious organizations. The same is true for individuals whose activities are deemed extremist by the courts or who are subject to prosecution under the law on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The law restricts any foreign citizen or stateless person from entering the country if he or she “participates in the activities of the organizations included in the list of organizations and individuals in respect of whom there is information about their involvement in extremist activities or terrorism.”

Foreigners engaging in religious work require a contract with a legally registered religious organization and a work visa. Religious work is not permitted on “humanities visas,” which allow foreigners to enter the country to strengthen academic or cultural ties or take part in charitable work. There are no missionary visas.

The law grants religious organizations the exclusive right to manage pilgrimage activities.

Under the criminal code, an individual convicted of committing an act of vandalism motivated by religious hatred or enmity may be sentenced to up to three years of compulsory labor or prison.

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

Government Practices

Religious groups and human rights NGOs reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, arrest, imprison, torture, and/or physically abuse persons on account of their religious belief or affiliation. Authorities continued to accuse religious minority groups of extremism.

At year’s end, Memorial identified 228 persons persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation whom it considered to be political prisoners, meaning they were either already imprisoned or were in custody or under house arrest awaiting a sentence to enter into force. The figure represented a seven percent decrease from the 245 reported in 2019. Memorial stated that the actual number of cases of persecution was likely three to four times higher, given the number of cases the organization identified as similar to those designated as political prisoners; however, the organization said it lacked the supporting, corroborating evidence to make designations in those instances. Memorial’s list of political prisoners included 61 Jehovah’s Witnesses and 142 persons accused of involvement with the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that Memorial characterized as a “non-violent international Islamic organization.” According to Memorial, none of the political prisoners being persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation called for violence or planned violent acts.

At year’s end, a case filed in 2019 by Jehovah’s Witnesses with the ECHR stating the government violated their members’ freedom of thought, conscience, and religion remained pending.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and NGOs stated Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism, police officers, and riot police continued to carry out raids in the homes and places of worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses and again detained hundreds of suspected members. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated authorities had raided more than 1,100 homes of members between early 2017 and November throughout the country, including in Moscow for the first time. The group reported 477 searches of homes and apartments during the year, compared to 489 in 2019 and 289 in 2018. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses sources, during these raids, authorities entered homes, often in the early morning, conducted unauthorized, illegal searches, and verbally and physically abused members. Authorities often entered residences by forcing open the door. They held individuals, including children and the elderly, at gunpoint and seized personal belongings, including religious materials, personal correspondence, money, mobile phones, and other electronic devices.

In February, Jehovah’s Witnesses and various media sources reported the FSB and other law enforcement personnel searched 50 houses in the city of Chita and other towns of the Transbaikal Region and committed numerous abuses. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported security forces handcuffed and beat a minor in front of his family. They also stated authorities beat and strangled Vadim Kutsenko, as well as subjected him to electric shocks while handcuffed to force a confession and elicit false statements against fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses. Authorities released Kutsenko from detention after five days and placed him under house arrest. After 50 days, authorities released him on his own recognizance. At year’s end, Kutsenko remained a suspect in the ongoing investigation connected to the raids.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18 also reported authorities took five other Jehovah’s Witnesses seized in the raids in the Transbaikal Region to Orenburg Labor Camp No. 1, where they beat them. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, because of the abuse, one Witness suffered a broken rib, a punctured lung, and damage to his kidneys. The European Union (EU), joined by six non-EU states, issued a statement expressing deep concern over the incident and calling upon the government to permit the peaceful expression of religion by all persons, including Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In April, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Viktor Malkov, a 61-year-old Smolensk resident, died three months after his release from eight months in detention, during which he was denied care for chronic health problems.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that two of their members, Roman Makhnev and Dmitriy Kuzin, whom authorities had arrested and detained for six months in Kaluga in 2019, were released in late December of that year. After their release, a court sentenced the two to a further two months of house arrest. By year’s end, both were released from house arrest and were awaiting the results of a preliminary investigation.

On May 27, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the FSB conducted raids of adherents’ homes in Khabarovsk and Vyazembsky. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated one masked FSB agent entered the house of 68-year-old Yen Sen Li, struck him, and injured his hands while placing him in handcuffs. The FSB detained Li for 13 hours before releasing him after he agreed to sign a statement of self-incrimination. He was alleged to have organized a worship group among Jehovah’s Witnesses.

On July 13, according to widespread media reports and an official press release from the government of the Voronezh Region, investigators, local police, and National Guard troops carried out 110 raids on the homes of dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses in that region. Jehovah’s Witnesses said authorities physically abused adherents during the raids and that security forces tortured five Witnesses while in detention, demanding that they incriminate themselves. Jehovah’s Witnesses Yuri Galka and Anatol Yagupov stated the security forces placed bags over their heads and beat them during their interrogations, and in the case of Galka, twisted his arms behind his back, tightened the bag on his head until he began to suffocate, and broke one of his ribs. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, security forces also repeatedly put a plastic bag over Alexander Korol’s head and tied it around his neck to coerce him to divulge information about other Witnesses until the bag broke. Korol said agents hit him in the face several times and threatened “to use needles” before transporting him 40 kilometers (25 miles) to another location for further interrogation and placing him in a holding cell for 48 hours. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported Korol was forced to ask strangers for funds to return home when authorities released him without explanation after confiscating his phone.

On November 24, law enforcement officers carried out raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and more than 20 other regions across the country. The Federal Investigative Committee said the raids and subsequent arrests were part of a new criminal case against Jehovah’s Witnesses, which they stated had illegally been carrying out activities at the organization’s headquarters in Moscow and at its regional branches since June 2019, charges the group denied. The committee did not say how many worshippers had been detained, stating only that they were both organizers and participants in the movement. Jehovah’s Witnesses said there were at least 10 raids and four detentions in Moscow. During one of the raids, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported law enforcement officers hit Vardan Zakaryan in the head with an automatic rifle. Zakaryan was hospitalized before being placed into custody. A court released Zakaryan from detention and placed him under house arrest on November 30.

Forum 18 reported officials tortured individuals detained for exercising freedom of religion or belief with impunity. Following accusations of torture by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Blagoveshchensk, Surgut, and Kaluga, Forum 18 said authorities had taken no steps to hold the officials accountable, as none had been arrested or tried in court.

As a result of what they described as increasing government persecution since a Supreme Court ruling banning the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in 2017, representatives of the group said that their members continued to flee the country but that there were still more than 150,000 adherents remaining.

The SOVA Center reported authorities had initiated criminal cases against 424 Jehovah’s Witnesses in 60 regions throughout the country since 2017; 110 new criminal cases were opened during the year, compared with 213 in 2019. Jehovah’s Witness representatives said that of those accused, 49 adherents were placed into pretrial detention and another 23 spent a few days in temporary detention facilities before being released.

The SOVA Center reported that of previously initiated cases, courts passed at least 25 sentences against 46 Jehovah’s Witnesses. Representatives from Jehovah’s Witnesses stated district courts convicted 39 adherents of extremism; of these, 21 were awaiting appellate hearings. At year’s end, the representatives said 46 adherents remained behind bars, including 36 in pretrial detention facilities and 10 in penal colonies.

Prior to the sentencing of Gennady Shpakovsky to 6.5 years in prison in February, the longest prison term given to a Jehovah’s Witness was the six-year sentence Danish citizen Dennis Christensen received in 2019, in the Kursk Region. In June, Christensen was scheduled for early release after agreeing to pay a fine in lieu of his remaining prison time. According to various media sources and NGOs, however, the prosecutor’s office, which had previously endorsed the early release, filed a last-minute appeal to reverse it, stating Christensen had violated prison rules, including by failing to wear a special prisoner’s jacket and being in the prison canteen at the wrong time – assertions Jehovah’s Witnesses and human rights NGOs said were spurious. Christensen reported that during his ongoing imprisonment, he suffered from numerous health problems, including pneumonia, and was repeatedly refused treatment because his medical card was “lost.” In October, the Lgov District Court denied Christensen’s appeal for early release. Christensen, detained since May 2017, remained in prison at year’s end and was reportedly scheduled to complete his sentence in May 2022, which included time served during pretrial detention.

Forum 18 reported that on September 2, the Beryozovsky City Court sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergey Britvin and Vadim Levchuk to four years’ imprisonment at a labor camp for organizing the activities of a banned extremist organization. The two men had already spent more than 520 days in detention and 250 days under house arrest prior to the judge’s decision. They appealed the court’s decision and at year’s end were awaiting the decision while detained in Investigation Prison No. 4 in Anzhero-Sudzhensk.

On October 7, the Kabardino-Balkaria’s Maisky District Court acquitted Jehovah’s Witness Yuri Zalipaev, who had been charged with possession of extremist materials and inciting others to violence. Prosecutors appealed the decision, and, as of November, the case was pending in the appellate court. On October 9, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, a court in the Kostroma Region, near Moscow, pronounced suspended jail sentences of eight and seven years, respectively, for Sergei and Valeria Rayman, a married Jehovah’s Witnesses couple. Sergei’s sentence was longer than the seven-year conditionally suspended sentence requested by the prosecutor and was the longest conditionally suspended jail sentence yet given to a Jehovah’s Witness. As part of their suspended sentences, the Raymans remained subject to multiple restrictions, including on personal travel and access to telephones and the internet. After a 2018 house raid, authorities had charged the Raymans with participating in religious extremism and holding a Bible discussion in their home.

The trial of Vyacheslav Popov and Nikolay Kuzichkin, two Jehovah’s Witnesses whom authorities arrested in 2019 and charged with “organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization,” remained pending. On April 16, the Krasnodar Regional Court ordered Kuzichkin released from pretrial detention and placed him under house arrest, where he was prohibited from correspondence and contact with other persons. On December 18, a district court in Sochi found Popov and Kuzichkin guilty of organizing extremist activities, sentencing Kuzichkin to 13 months and Popov to 22 months in prison. The court credited the time spent in pretrial detention and under house arrest towards both men’s sentences. Popov was subsequently released into house arrest from the pretrial detention center on December 29, where he had been held for 15 months.

Authorities charged 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses detained as a result of the July 13 raids in Voronezh with organizing an extremist community, preaching, and recruiting new members between 2018 and 2020. In December, a Voronezh city court released six of the Witnesses from pretrial detention and the other four from house arrest. The 10 Witnesses still faced restrictions on their personal travel and communication with others. At year’s end, the investigations remained open and trials had not been scheduled.

For the first time, authorities stripped a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses of his citizenship. Felix Makhammadiev had moved to Saratov from Uzbekistan with his mother as a minor and subsequently became a Russian citizen. Makhammadiev had been convicted in 2019 of organizing extremist activities. While serving his sentence, Makhammadiev reported he was tortured and had to undergo surgery to drain fluid from his lung caused by a beating. The Ministry of Internal Affairs in Saratov nullified Makhammadiev’s citizenship on April 17, citing his conviction for extremist activity. On December 31, authorities released him from prison before immediately placing him in a deportation center. Authorities in Saratov stripped Konstantin Bazhenov, who was convicted in the same case as Makhammadiev, of his citizenship on April 20. Bazhenov, who was born in Russia but moved to Ukraine as a child, had both Russian and Ukrainian citizenship.

According to Jehovah’s Witness representatives, at the end of the year, the group had 59 applications pending with the ECHR, 12 pending complaints under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with the UN Human Rights Committee, and six complaints against the government pending with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, including for detentions of practitioners, censorship of religious literature and the organization’s website, and raids on or other interference with religious meetings. On May 6, the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released a nonbinding decision concerning 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, calling the cases brought against them unlawful and urging the authorities to immediately release those arrested. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said delays in the ECHR process were at least partially due to COVID-19.

According to Memorial, authorities had convicted, investigated, or charged 237 persons for alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir since the Supreme Court first labeled the group a terrorist organization and banned it in 2003; of those, 199 had been tried and convicted. Human Rights Watch characterized Hizb ut-Tahrir as a group that aimed to establish an Islamic caliphate, but which renounced violence. Since 2003, courts have sentenced 65 persons to between 10 and 15 years in prison, and 78 to 15 years or more. The total excluded individuals from Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula whom Russian occupation authorities initially detained in Crimea before transferring them to Russia, where they were tried and sentenced. While banned in Russia, Hizb ut-Tahrir remained legal in Ukraine.

On February 10, Human Rights Watch and Memorial reported the Central Military District Court convicted Eduard Nizamov, whom the government stated was the head of the country’s branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and sentenced him to 23 years in a maximum-security prison. Authorities arrested Nizamov in October 2018 and charged him with financing terrorism and “preparing for a violent seizure of power.” Nizamov denied the charges and said authorities beat him and verbally abused him while in pretrial detention.

Individuals continued to receive harsh sentences for their alleged involvement with Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Human Rights Watch and Memorial reported that on February 5, a military court sentenced 10 members of Hizb ut-Tahrir to prison terms ranging from 11 to 22 years. The prosecution asserted the members were involved in the creation of a local terrorism cell, assisted in terrorism, and distributed propaganda that supported terrorism. The prosecution did not allege the defendants planned or carried out any specific acts, but rather that they held meetings to discuss their faith and political views, printed leaflets, and organized public recruitment events. The accused all denied the charges, stating they condemned terrorism and questioned the validity of the evidence brought against them in the court.

On September 21, the Supreme Court upheld the verdicts and sentences of 18 defendants prosecuted for their membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, according to Memorial. The individuals, all originally convicted in Ufa in 2018, received sentences of between 10 and 24 years in a maximum-security prison colony.

Authorities continued to investigate and detain alleged members of other Islamic organizations. Local media reported on June 6 that FSB agents in Moscow conducted searches and detained several supporters of Tablighi Jamaat, an organization that Memorial characterized as a peaceful, international Islamic missionary movement. FSB investigators opened a criminal case against the individuals on the grounds that they were participating in a banned religious organization. On July 31, local media reported that FSB officers detained six members of Tablighi Jamaat in the Volgograd Region. Authorities said banned extremist literature was found on the individuals and opened a criminal investigation.

In September, according to press reports, the FSB, police, and other security agencies launched a raid in Krasnoyarsk Region in Siberia and arrested Sergei Torop, known to his followers as Vissarion, and two of his aides. Torop is the founder and leader of the Church of the Last Testament. The Novosibirsk Central District Court ordered the detention of Torop, and the prosecutor’s office in Krasnoyarsk Territory filed a suit seeking dissolution of the Church. Authorities alleged the Church was an illegal religious organization and that Torop had extorted money from his followers and subjected them to emotional abuse. As of the end of the year, Torop remained in custody while authorities conducted psychiatric evaluations, and his trial date remained pending.

The Times of Israel reported October 21 that Jewish prisoner Danil Beglets, sentenced to two years in a penal colony in 2019 for pushing a policeman during a Moscow protest, went on a hunger strike to protest being forced to work on the Jewish Sabbath. Beglets stated authorities punished him for declining to work on the Sabbath and did not provide him with kosher food. Beglets further appealed to Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar to intervene on his behalf.

Memorial said the average length of sentences for religious prisoners on their list continued to increase. The group stated that between 2016 and 2018, the average prison sentence for these persons increased from 6.6 to 9.1 years.

Forum 18 stated authorities also sought to prosecute citizens living abroad who exercised their freedom of religion or belief. The NGO said the government had issued three Red Notices (requests to law enforcement worldwide to locate and detain individuals) through Interpol, two during the year and one in 2018, to attempt to detain and extradite at least three citizens living abroad to face criminal charges under the extremism law. Two of the Red Notices were against followers of the Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. At year’s end, none of the individuals had been detained or extradited.

The SOVA Center reported in April that Dagestan authorities arrested Ibrahim Murtazaliev for his alleged involvement in Nurdzhular (also known as Nursi Readers), a group the government listed as extremist, and placed him in pretrial detention for two months before eventually releasing him. According to the government, members of Nurdzhular are students of Nursi’s works, which are banned. The SOVA Center continued to state that it did not believe the group existed in the country.

Yevgeny Kim, whom authorities stripped of citizenship in 2019 because of what they said were actions that promoted the works of Nursi, remained stateless and in a pre-deportation detention center for foreign nationals. After Kim’s release from prison in 2019, authorities had charged him with violating immigration law and ordered his deportation to Uzbekistan. Kim was born in Uzbekistan but did not have Uzbek citizenship.

At year’s end, the Neva District Court in St. Petersburg accepted, but did not begin to hear, a case against Ivan Masitsky, head of the Church of Scientology in St. Petersburg, and three other church officers, Konstantsiya Yesaulkova, Galina Shurinova, and Anastasiya Terentyeva; authorities accused them of financial fraud. The case was initially launched in 2017 after an FSB raid on Church offices in which authorities claimed to have found evidence that the group had illegally received 276 million rubles ($3.71 million) in compensation for Church services.

Authorities also investigated individuals for violating the law prohibiting offending the feelings of religious believers. In January, for example, comedian Aleksandr Dolgopolov left the country after police opened an investigation following media reports that an audience member at one of his shows complained that Dolgopolov had insulted his religious feelings, apparently for making a joke about Jesus and his mother Mary. Dolgopolov returned to the country in March, and the status of the investigation was unknown at year’s end.

According to the MOJ, as of December, there were 31,392 registered religious organizations (LROs and CROs) in the country, most of which were ROC-affiliated, compared with 31,379 in 2019 and 30,896 in 2018. In 2019, Orthodox organizations made up more than half of the new organizations, followed by Muslim and Protestant organizations. Among Protestants, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Adventists had the most newly registered organizations. According to the SOVA Center, laws creating and regulating the activities of religious groups, LROs, and CROs contained imprecise language that left room for interpretation by local and national authorities.

Forum 18 reported that between January 2019 and June 2020, authorities prosecuted 76 registered religious organizations and 22 individuals for carrying out their activities without indicating their official full name on their materials. According to the Administrative Code, a religious organization’s “official name” must include its religious affiliation and its organizational and legal form – the use of abbreviations may incur prosecution. Most of the cases resulted in guilty verdicts and fines, with a conviction rate of 72.5 percent.

The SOVA Center, independent media, and religious groups continued to say Expert Religious Studies Council members lacked appropriate academic and religious credentials to advise the MOJ on which groups should be permitted to register as religious organizations or to review an organization’s literature and activities to determine whether the organization was “extremist.”

The country’s 83 federal subjects (administrative divisions, excluding illegally Russian-occupied Crimea and Sevastopol) had varying policies on wearing the hijab in public schools and/or government institutions. Stavropol and Mordovia continued to prohibit the wearing of hijabs in schools, while Chechnya permitted schoolgirls to wear them. In September, the Education Department of Tatarstan instituted a policy permitting Muslim schoolgirls to wear the hijab in all primary schools of the republic after receiving complaints from Muslim parents regarding the prohibition of the hijab in one school.

Representatives of minority religious associations, human rights NGOs, and some independent scholars continued to state authorities at times employed the Yarovaya-Ozerov amendments (Yarovaya package), enacted in 2016 for the stated purpose of enhancing the country’s antiterrorism capability, to limit religious freedom. Experts pointed to the government’s actions in revoking or suspending the licenses of Christian educational institutions, particularly those of Baptists, Pentecostals, and evangelicals. Experts also noted the government and ROC often viewed these institutions as sources of foreign influence. ROC educational and missionary institutions, by contrast, were not subjected to similar scrutiny by government authorities. NGOs, including the SOVA Center, Amnesty International, and Memorial, issued regular updates on individuals they deemed political prisoners due to what they described as the government’s overly broad application of the Yarovaya package.

The SOVA Center stated in its annual report that the persecution of religious organizations for “illegal” missionary activity on the basis of the Yarovaya package appeared to have increased from 2019, according to data available at the end of the year. Despite a slight decrease in 2019 compared to 2018, the 2020 numbers showed 201 cases reviewed by the courts, compared to 174 in the same period in 2019. Ninety individuals, three officials, and 39 legal entities received penalties, mainly in the form of administrative fines. The SOVA Center calculated the total amount of fines imposed by courts was 1,581,000 rubles ($21,200), compared with 1,452,000 rubles ($19,500) for the same period in 2019.

In July, according to press reports, the MOJ barred seven NGOs associated with Falun Gong from working in the country, citing unspecified national security concerns, and designated them “undesirable” foreign organizations. Six of the NGOs were from the United States, and the seventh was from the United Kingdom. As a result, the government froze the groups’ assets and banned them from distributing informational materials, implementing projects, and creating branches in the country. On November 10, the Novosibirsk Fifth General Court of Appeal declared a regional branch of Falun Gong “extremist” and barred its activities in the region.

According to the Interfax news agency, the Pushkinsky District Court of St. Petersburg declared informational materials promoting deceased U.S. preacher William Branham’s teachings extremist and prohibited their circulation in the country. The materials related to The Evening Light Christian organization. In its decision, the court cited a 2017 review of Branham’s works by St. Petersburg State University in which the works were deemed to contain elements of “neurolinguistic programing” and insulted the feelings of certain religious believers.

Religious minorities, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Falun Gong, said local authorities continued to use the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred religious texts and other books relating to religion, other than the four holy books recognized by law. The MOJ’s list of extremist material grew during the year to 5,130, compared with 5,003 in December 2019 and 4,514 in October 2018.

The SOVA Center reported that Tartarstan’s Almetvevsk City Court banned two books by Islamic theologians as extremist. According to the center, the two books did not contain any direct appeals for violence or terrorism and, as such, were incorrectly labeled as extremist.

The SOVA Center also reported that in January, the St. Petersburg City Court upheld the May 2019 Nevsky District Court decision to ban the Falun Gong book Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party from distribution in the country. The center said the book did not promote violence and that there were no grounds for banning its distribution.

Amendments to the law, initially considered by the State Duma in September, would require clergy who received religious education abroad to undergo mandatory recertification in a Russian educational institution. Proponents said the amendments were intended to prevent the dissemination of “an extremism religious ideology.” However, after significant opposition from the Buddhist community, which does not have any religious educational institutions in Russia, the proposed amendments were modified so that they would apply only to clergy arriving in the country after implementation of the updated law. The proposed amendments would also prohibit religious institutions from having connections with individuals suspected of financing terrorism and those whom Russian courts declared “undesirable” or “extremist.”

According to the SOVA Center, the vagueness of the proposed amendments might permit the government to arbitrarily interfere with the activities of religious minorities and unpopular religious groups. The ROC was the only religious institution to declare support for the amendments. At year’s end, the State Duma was considering the legislation, which was expected to pass sometime in 2021.

In January, the Constitutional Court upheld the right of the Church of Jesus Christ to hold religious services in an administrative building owned by the Church. The case was an affirmation of a 2019 decision by the Constitutional Court acknowledging the right of an individual to use his or her own residential property to provide a religious organization with a place to conduct worship services and other religious rituals.

Forum 18 reported in February that three Pentecostal churches in different parts of the country – Nizhny Novgorod, Kaluga, and Oryol – faced possible closure and demolition for what local authorities said were building code violations. While the court cases were still ongoing at year’s end, each of the churches said they had resolved any reported issues. According to Forum 18, the congregations were forced to spend time and money to challenge the charges and could lose access to their places of worship during court proceedings. The Jesus Embassy Church in Nizhny Novgorod remained closed after authorities shut it down on December 31, 2019, due to what they said were fire safety violations. Alexander Verkhovsky, SOVA Center director, challenged the idea that authorities were interested in fire safety, given what he said were discrepancies in the number of violations cited and the apparent hostility state security officials had demonstrated toward the church’s operations. The churches in Kaluga and Oryol remained open during the court proceedings.

According to press reporting, the city administration in Novorossiysk filed a lawsuit and asked a local court to order the demolition of Baptist community leader Vitaliy Bak’s home in April. The city administration accused Bak of holding illegal religious worship services in the house. Local authorities had closed the house in July 2019. Following a series of failed appeals, in December 2019, the NGO Alliance Defending Freedom International filed an application with the ECHR on behalf of Pastor Bak, saying the authorities’ actions violated freedom of religion. The appeal remained pending at year’s end.

The Russian Bible Society reported that Moscow authorities on September 16 ordered the group to demolish the warehouses where it stored its publications within five days. The society said that the letter from the authorities warned the group that if they did not demolish the warehouses and remove the materials therein, the authorities would do it and charge the group for related expenses.

On January 17, members of the Yekaterinburg Muslim community held Friday prayers outside during inclement weather to bring attention to the destruction of the Nur-Usman Mosque, which the government tore down in 2019 to make room for a new ice arena. Members of the mostly migrant community stated city officials had granted a new plot of land for the construction of a mosque but that the plot was smaller than the members believed was appropriate.

According to NGOs and independent experts, the government continued to cooperate more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations, with officials often interpreting the law that recognized the “special role” Orthodox Christianity plays in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture” as granting special privileges or benefits to the ROC as an institution. For example, in August, religious scholar Roman Lunkin cited the government’s interest in promoting the ROC as a source of symbolic patriotism during an interview with online news site Lenta.ru. According to Lunkin, the ROC continued to benefit from several formal and informal agreements with government ministries that gave it greater access than other religious organizations to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, the police, and the military. The government also continued to provide the ROC Patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded to no other religious organization. In its annual report, the SOVA Center stated the ROC was the most frequent recipient of properties the government granted to religious organizations.

The Moscow Theological Seminary of Evangelical Baptists reopened as the Theological Seminary of Moscow following a 2019 decision by federal education inspectorate Rosobrnadzor to revoke the seminary’s status as a nationally licensed graduate school. Authorities allowed it to reopen as a training institution under the Russian Baptist Church. Rosobrnadzor had reported finding fault with the organization’s bachelor’s degree program and the qualifications of its staff.

In October, following the killing of teacher Samuel Paty in France by a Russian Muslim immigrant from Chechnya, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov accused French President Emmanuel Macron of inspiring terrorists by justifying cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as protected by free speech rights. In an Instagram post, Kadyrov said Macron was forcing people into terrorism and creating conditions for extremism to grow.

Claims by Jehovah’s Witnesses for government seizures of properties valued at 79.2 million euros ($97.18 million) remained pending before the ECHR at year’s end.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Experts from Russia’s Jewish community had varying assessments of the level of anti-Semitism in the country. Chief Rabbi of Russia Lazar stated in January that the level of anti-Semitism was at its lowest point historically. He said the community felt comfortable openly demonstrating its religion and was respected by the state and others. President of the Federation of Jewish Communities Alexander Boroda said in June that he was concerned about the level of latent anti-Semitism in the country, citing public opinion polls showing the number of respondents who openly considered themselves anti-Semitic rose from 15 percent in 2017 to 17 percent in 2019.

The Russian Jewish Congress reported a taxi dispatcher in Tver refused to take an order from a customer in January after learning she had attended a Holocaust exhibition, telling her, “What they did to them [Jews] was all right.” The customer complained to the taxi company, and the dispatcher was fired. The congress reported that in September, authorities uncovered a plot to assassinate the leader of the Jewish community of Krasnodar, Rabbi Yuri Tkach, and arrested suspects affiliated with the group “The USSR Citizens.” The congress also reported that it and the World Jewish Congress had received threatening emails from an internet user.

Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report that employers often dismissed Witnesses who had been detained by authorities, were being investigated, or received suspended sentences, and that those Witnesses were often unable to find another job, given the stigma surrounding them. Jehovah’s Witnesses also continued to report that adherents were harassed at their workplaces and, in some cases, dismissed or forced to resign when their coworkers became aware of their religious belief.

According to the SOVA Center, national and local media continued to publish and/or broadcast defamatory material about minority religious groups, shaping the public perception that certain religious groups were dangerous. The mass-circulation daily Izvestia, widely regarded as progovernment, published a piece against Jehovah’s Witnesses following the November raids on the group that occurred across the country. The article, citing what it described as an expert in “sectology,” stated Jehovah’s Witnesses had taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to recruit vulnerable members into the group to acquire their property. The “sectologist” concluded that Jehovah’s Witnesses did not value human life and were therefore susceptible to becoming terrorists.

The Russian Jewish Congress reported examples of anti-Semitism in media but stated that a trend toward a reduction in such content, observed in previous years, continued. According to the congress, anti-Semitic content was relatively infrequent on social media and was condemned or was the subject of administrative action when it appeared. The group cited an anti-Semitic statement on television station Russia-1 by Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of National Defense magazine, who said that a number of Jewish opposition figures, including musician Andrei Makarevich, in the time of Hitler “could be turned either into ashes in the crematorium or into a lampshade.” According to President of the Russian Jewish Congress Yuri Kanner, none of the other participants in the program objected to Korotchenko’s remarks. The congress also pointed to anti-Semitism in publications by the North-West Political News Agency.

Some religious figures made anti-Semitic remarks publicly. Father Sergey Romanov, a former member of the ROC hierarchy, made multiple anti-Semitic statements from his pulpit during the year, calling the Jewish community an “accursed, ignorant” people and accusing the “Jewish regime” of being responsible for the closing of churches in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 20, the Verkhnepyshminsky City Court fined Romanov 18,000 rubles ($240) (of a maximum 20,000 rubles, $270) for “incitement of hatred or enmity, as well as the humiliation of human dignity” stemming from anti-Semitic remarks made during one of his sermons. In September, an ROC court expelled him from the Church, but he continued to perform services at a convent outside of Yekaterinburg, according to press reports. According to press reports, on December 29, authorities arrested him on suspicion of encouraging minors to commit suicide in a sermon he gave entitled “For Faith in Christ, Let Us Face Death” that was posted on YouTube. At year’s end, he remained in detention, and his lawyer said he was not permitted to communicate with Romanov in private.

The SOVA Center reported 29 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism during the year, compared with at least 20 incidents (revised number) in 2019, 32 in 2018, and more than 100 such incidents at their peak in 2010.

Media reported on April 15 that police detained a woman who broke a Buddhist stupa with a sledgehammer near the village of Sukhaya. The Ministry of Internal Affairs announced it would open a criminal case against her on charges of vandalism and destruction of a religious structure.

Media reported several cases of anti-Semitic vandalism. For example, on April 13, unidentified perpetrators set fire to the Star of the North Synagogue and Jewish cultural center in Arkhangelsk. No one was injured, but a Jewish community leader estimated property damages at 1.5 million rubles ($20,100). Two months after the incident, police detained a suspect. Authorities initiated a criminal case based on intentional damage to property rather than anti-Semitism. In July, according to press reports, vandals smashed dozens of headstones at Aleksandrovskaya Farm Avenue Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg. Police did not identify any suspects. In September, police arrested a man for painting a cross and pouring yellow paint on a monument for Holocaust victims in Aksay, a village outside the city of Rostov-on-Don near the border with Ukraine. Also in September, the Russian Jewish Congress reported that a drunken man shouting anti-Semitic slogans tried unsuccessfully to enter the Shamir Jewish Community Center in Moscow. He then threw down a chanukiah from the front steps, tore off a nameplate, broke a mailbox, and tore off the license plate of the rabbi’s car.

A variety of religious congregations stated they pursued ties with other faith communities. For example, ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye said the ROC held regular meetings with faith leaders in the city, including with leaders from the Muslim and Jewish communities. Kirill also said the ROC regularly communicated with Protestant groups in Yekaterinburg, including the local Methodist, Baptist, and evangelical communities. The leaders of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Republic of Tatarstan said they communicated and cooperated with other faiths, holding interfaith events, such as soccer tournaments, in Kazan.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate representatives advocated for greater religious freedom in the country, highlighting the government’s misuse of the law on extremism to restrict the peaceful activities of religious minorities.

In January, the Ambassador spoke at a multifaith gathering hosted by the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. In his remarks, the Ambassador underscored the unwavering U.S. commitment to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and doing everything possible to prevent similar acts of genocide and religious persecution from happening again. The embassy also highlighted this message on its social media platforms.

In March, the Ambassador and Yekaterinburg Consul General met with ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye. During the visit, the Ambassador toured the Church on the Blood, built on the site of the 1918 killing of the Romanov family, and he relayed a message of cooperation between the people of the two countries, including in the promotion of freedom of religion.

Embassy officials continued to monitor the situation of U.S. citizens working with religious institutions and organizations in the country to ensure authorities did not improperly target them for their faith or religious work.

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, the embassy moved its outreach efforts online and continued to use its social media platforms to highlight religious freedom issues. On February 18, the embassy expressed concerns on Twitter over the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses; the embassy spokesperson posted, “We welcome news that Jehovah’s Witness Vadim Kutsenko was released today, after reports that Chita law enforcement abducted & tortured him on basis of his peaceful religious beliefs. We urge Russian authorities to fully investigate incident, respect #humanrights #religiousfreedom,” and on June 9, “#JehovahsWitness Gennady Shpakovsky was sentenced today to 6.5 years in prison for reading the Bible and collecting donations for his community. Russia must stop selectively prosecuting believers and let them practice their religion in peace.” On April 14, the embassy posted about anti-Semitism on Twitter, writing, “We strongly condemn the April 13 attack on the Star of the North Synagogue and Jewish cultural center in Arkhangelsk, the third such attack since 2015. We urge a thorough investigation into this heinous act. #CombatAntisemitism.”

The embassy also communicated the importance of religious freedom by celebrating major religious holidays of Christians, Jews, and Muslims via its social media platforms. These messages included video greetings from the Ambassador to mark Easter and the end of Ramadan; posts marking the contributions of various religions to American history and culture; and posts highlighting events that underscored tolerance and that commemorated victims of violence motivated by religious hatred.

On September 2, the embassy sponsored a virtual commemoration concert entitled “Music of World War II: Remembering the Shared Sacrifice of the Allied Nations.” Among the repertoire were compositions by Jewish artists of the World War II era: Polish-Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Piano Quintet, a performance by the Moscow Male Jewish Cappella Choir of the prayer “Ki lekach tov,” and Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” composed and first performed in a concentration camp. The virtual concert attracted 6,400 viewers on Facebook and 1,200 on YouTube, as well as drawing media coverage on various online and broadcast outlets. The embassy also highlighted the liberation of concentration camps during its World War II commemorations, posting videos about the Allied Forces’ liberation of Dachau and Ravensbruck.

On November 25, the embassy coordinated with the Department of State to release tweets condemning the November 24 raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and 20 other regions. On November 30, the Ambassador met with Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives to discuss the most recent raids and the group’s ongoing persecution. The Ambassador said the United States would continue to highlight the government’s violations of the rights of members of their group and reiterated the U.S. commitment to religious freedom.

On December 2, 2020 in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Mohammed). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In practice, there is some limited tolerance of private, non-Islamic religious exercise, but religious practices at variance with the government-promoted form of Sunni Islam remained vulnerable to detention, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. According to Shia community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities, and Ashura commemorations (of the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed) were marked by improved sectarian relations and public calls for mutual tolerance. Shia activists stated, however, that authorities continued to target members of their community on a religious basis with security operations and legal proceedings. In July, Shia Rights Watch (SRW) reported that security forces raided the largely Shia town of Safwa, resulting in several arrests and one injury. In September and October, rights groups reported the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics arrested in 2017, sentencing them to between three to 10 years in prison. In February, rights groups reported the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against Shia activist Mustafa al-Khayat, who was convicted on charges including disrupting security and participating in demonstrations. On May 24, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a member of the Council of Senior Scholars (CSS), delivered an Eid al-Fitr sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.” Government leaders, including the head of the government-sponsored Muslim World League, continued to advocate for interreligious tolerance and dialogue and to denounce religious extremism. In September, following the UAE and Bahrain’s agreement to normalize ties with Israel, the government-appointed imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca said in a televised sermon that the Prophet Mohammed was good to his Jewish neighbors, and he urged listeners to avoid “passionate emotions.”

The Saudi-owned MBC television network aired a historical drama series during the prime Ramadan viewing season centered on a Jewish midwife living in an unnamed multireligious Persian Gulf community in the 1930s to 1950s. Observers praised the series for promoting a vision of a tolerant Middle East; one writer called it “daring” to explore the social history of Jewish presence in the Arab world. Journalist Wafa al-Rashid wrote two editorials in the daily Okaz urging authorities “to adapt religious perceptions to the spirit of the times and not be afraid of concepts such as secularism, the civil state, or the separation of religion and state.” She emphasized that separating religion from the state did not mean abolishing religion or fighting it, and that this notion in fact conformed to certain ideas in the Quran. Some social media platforms for discussion of current events and religious issues included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in social media discourse. Anti-Semitic comments appeared in the media.

In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. officials, including the Ambassador, continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 34.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). In 2019, the UN estimated that approximately 38.3 percent of the country’s residents are foreigners. Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 21 million Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population and an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the Eastern Province’s population. Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (Shia who recognize 12 imams) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. The Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region. Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000. Twelver Shia adhere to the Ja’afari school of jurisprudence. Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Ja’afar as the Seventh Imam). Seveners number approximately 500,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they are believed to constitute a majority of the province’s inhabitants. Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, reportedly number several hundred, most of South Asian origin. Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering in total approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state, the religion of which is Islam. The Basic Law defines the country’s constitution as the Quran and the Sunna (sayings and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed) and states the “decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia.” The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion. Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland. Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize. The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority. Children born to Muslim fathers are deemed Muslim by law.

The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna. All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects. In several areas, including commercial and financial matters and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts. Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person CSS that reports to the King. By law, these fatwas must be based on the Quran and Sunna. The Basic Law also states that governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality, according to sharia.

The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions. The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters. The CSS is headed by the Grand Mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i). There are no Shia members. Scholars are chosen at the King’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

The counterterrorism law criminalizes, among other things, “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.” It criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”

According to the Basic Law of Governance, “The Judiciary is an independent authority. The decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia. The courts shall apply rules of the Islamic sharia in cases that are brought before them, according to the Holy Quran and the Sunna, and according to laws which are decreed by the ruler in agreement with the Holy Quran and the Sunna.” In the absence of a common law system and comprehensive criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely. Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts, where in some instances, appellate decisions have resulted in a harsher sentence than the original court decision. Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali school.

In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation sometimes differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff. In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, a court may rule the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation that a Muslim male would. In some circumstances, other non-Muslims may only receive one-sixteenth the amount a male Muslim would receive.

The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia. The HRC, a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints. There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC. During the year, the commission had approximately 26 members from various parts of the country, including four Shia members.

Blasphemy against Islam is legally punishable by death, but courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy since 1992. Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences. Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

In April, the Supreme Court instructed all courts to end flogging as a ta’zir (discretionary) criminal sentence and to replace it with prison sentences or fines. As a result of this decision, flogging may no longer be used against those convicted of blasphemy, public immodesty, sitting alone with a person of the opposite sex, and a range of other crimes. However, judicial officials noted that flogging still may be included in sentences for three hudood offenses (crimes that carry specific penalties under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law): drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery.

In April, a royal decree abolished ta’zir death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors. (The Juvenile Law sets the legal age of adulthood at 18, based on the Hijri calendar.) Minor offenders, however, who are convicted of qisas, a category of crimes that includes various types of murder, or hudood offenses could still face the death penalty. The royal decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.

The country is the location of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites. The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering central Mecca or religious sites in Medina. Muslims visit these cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and during Umrah pilgrimage throughout the rest of the year. The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims. The King employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities. Citing reasons of public safety and logistics, the government establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.

Sunni Muslim clerics are vetted and employed by the MOIA. Only government-employed clerics are permitted to deliver sermons, which must be vetted by the MOIA in advance.

Clerics traveling abroad to proselytize must be granted approval by the MOIA and operate under MOIA supervision. The stated purpose of this regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel or to preach overseas and to prevent the actual or apparent interference by clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.

Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Private schools are not permitted to deviate from the official, government-approved religious curriculum. Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students sometimes receive a course on Islamic civilization or alternative coursework in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; courses entail one hour of instruction per week. Private international schools may also teach courses on other religions or civilizations.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency charged with monitoring social behavior and reporting violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities. The CPVPV’s powers have been significantly curbed in recent years and its activities are now limited to providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to police. The CPVPV may not detain, arrest, pursue, or demand the identification documents of any person; these actions are explicitly reserved to the purview of law enforcement officials. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the King’s behalf. According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Mohammed.” CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges.

A royal decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the Grand Mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”

Social media users who post or share content considered to attack religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Anticybercrime Law. Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order, public morals, or religious values may also be subject to a fine of three million riyals ($800,000).

The law does not allow for political parties or similar associations. The law does not protect the right of individuals to organize politically and specifically bans a number of organizations with political wings, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as regional and local terrorist groups.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and Shia activists said authorities committed a range of abuses against members of Shia communities. While NGOs and Shia activists stated that the prosecution of Shia was often based on religious affiliation, observers said that members of other religious groups faced arrest and trial for similar offenses.

In February, online activists reported that the Supreme Court upheld a death sentence against Shia activist Mustafa al-Khayat. The court convicted al-Khayat on charges including participating in demonstrations, disrupting security, and carrying weapons, according to the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR).

On June 8, ESOHR reported that on January 24, 2019, the Public Prosecutor’s Office sought the hudood penalty for hirabah (unlawful warfare or insurgency) against Shia Jalal Hassan Labbad on a variety of charges, including participating in protests, some of which dated to when he was a minor. ESOHR also stated that authorities tortured Labbad during his imprisonment.

In July, SRW stated that security forces raided the predominately Shia town of Safwa, resulting in several arrests and one individual being shot and injured.

As many as 53 individuals, most believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution, according to an October report by ESOHR. The trials of 25 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing at year’s end, and one of those convicted was awaiting a Supreme Court ruling. International human rights NGOs stated that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture” during pretrial detention and interrogation. Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

On October 29, ESOHR reported the SCC held a new hearing in the trial of eight Shia detainees, including five minors (Ahmed Abdul Wahid al-Faraj, Ali Mohammed al Bati, Mohammed Hussein al Nimr, Ali Hassan al-Faraj, and Mohammed Issam al-Faraj). Human Rights Watch reported that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty for the eight men under hudood, which would leave them ineligible for pardons if sentenced to death. They faced charges that included “seeking to destabilize the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” and “chanting slogans hostile to the regime.” ESOHR reported that a total of 13 Shia youth who were arrested for crimes committed as minors faced possible execution, including Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher.

On August 26, the HRC said in a statement that the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered a review of the death sentences of al-Nimr, al-Zaher, and al-Marhoon as part of the implementation of a royal decree announced in April abolishing ta’zir death sentences for crimes committed as minors. The HRC stated that under the decree, the three will be resentenced based on the Juvenile Law, which provides for a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

The Washington Post reported that authorities refused to return the bodies of at least 33 Shia Muslims executed in April 2019, ignoring repeated pleas from the families. ESOHR stated this refusal was “part of a cycle of persecution” against Shia and reported that from 2016 through the end of 2019, the bodies of at least 84 Shia men executed or killed in Saudi security raids were not returned for burial.

Shia inmates were in some cases held in separate wings of prisons and reportedly faced worse conditions than Sunnis.

On August 25, ESOHR reported that the Public Prosecutor’s Office no longer sought the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained in 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests, but that the Public Prosecutor’s Office was still pursuing the death penalty for her codefendants, including her husband Moussa al-Hashim. At year’s end, she was on trial at the SCC along with five other Shia individuals.

On September 4, the Twitter account Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, reported that in August, security forces arrested Quran reciter Sheikh Abdullah Basfar, an associate professor of sharia and Islamic studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. It added that authorities also arrested the former head of the Faculty of Sharia at Imam Mohammed ibn Saud Islamic University, Dr. Saud al-Fanisan, in March. There was no further information on the charges; observers noted that persons of any religious affiliation who expressed views not supported by the government did so at personal risk, and when clerics were arrested, it was often for expressing views that are counter to government policy.

In February, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC in Riyadh upheld an eight-year prison sentence and travel ban against Murtaja Qureiris, a 20-year-old Shia whom authorities had arrested as a juvenile after he participated in protests when he was between the ages of 10 and 13. The SCC issued its verdict following a 2019 decision that had reversed the death sentence initially imposed on Qureiris. On May 11, seven UN special rapporteurs sent a letter to the government regarding Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed Hassan al-Habib and Murtaja Qureiris expressing concern at the use of torture and mistreatment to extract confessions and possible incriminating evidence.

The government continued to incarcerate individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, and engaging in “black magic” and sorcery.

Raif Badawi remained in prison based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols. On April 30, Badawi’s wife said authorities referred Badawi’s case to court after he staged a hunger strike to protest poor treatment and because he did not feel safe in prison after he was attacked by a fellow inmate. Badawi had originally been sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, but a court increased his sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes. Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes. The impact on Badawi’s case of the April Supreme Court directive ending flogging and replacing it with prison sentences or fines remained unclear at year’s end.

According to media reports, authorities arrested Ahmad al-Shammari and sentenced him to death for apostasy in 2017 after he posted videos to social media in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. He was believed to be incarcerated as of year’s end. It was unknown whether any appeals in his case remained pending.

In September, local media reported authorities arrested an Arab expatriate of unspecified nationality for sorcery. A court in Jeddah sentenced an African businessman to six years in prison and deportation after serving his sentence on charges of fraud, impersonating a diplomat, and sorcery.

On March 21, Prisoners of Conscience reported the arrest of Islamic scholar Abdullah al-Saad after he posted a video online denouncing the government decision to suspend all prayers at mosques to limit the spread of COVID-19. Prisoners of Conscience reported in April that authorities released al-Saad 10 days after his arrest. On March 27, the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered the arrest of four individuals for claiming the spread of novel coronavirus was a “punishment from God.” The Public Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement that it ordered the arrest of another three individuals who “exploited social media to interpret God’s will amid the coronavirus.”

On July 12, the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) issued a statement announcing the suspension of the children’s television show Green Wish after the host asked members of the audience to pin their wishes on a wishing tree and hope they would come true, which many viewers said was “a call for polytheism.” In the statement, the SBC affirmed the adherence of its programs to “tolerant” Islam.

On March 21, local media reported that Mecca police arrested a Saudi man and two female Yemeni residents in Jeddah for “mocking Islamic religious rituals” after the man appeared in a photo kneeling down before one of the women as a sign of worship in front of a mosque in Jeddah.

On April 30, local media reported that Riyadh police arrested a man for posting a Snapchat video “mocking prayers.”

During the year, the SCC held at least three hearings in the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by Human Rights Watch as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017. Following a December 25 hearing, his son tweeted that the public prosecutor sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed). According to Human Rights Watch, the charges against him also included criticism of several early Islamic figures, insulting the country’s rulers and the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, and describing them as extremist.

The SCC, which specializes in terrorism and national security cases, continued trials of some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government continued to regard as a terrorist organization, a view also expressed by the CSS, which stated the Muslim Brotherhood did not represent the true values of Islam. The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari, who were arrested in 2017. According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty against them. Most of the 37 charges against al-Odah concerned alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Qatari government as well as his public support for imprisoned dissidents. Al-Odah’s son stated in a December press article that his father’s physical and mental condition had declined during three years of solitary confinement and that he had partially lost his sight and hearing due to medical negligence. Beginning in mid-May through mid-September, activists said authorities denied al-Odah access to family telephone calls.

Prisoners of Conscience stated a number of clerics were detained, charged, or sentenced for offenses related to their religious opinions, although the charges were not specified. In September, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics and religious leaders arrested in 2017 and charged for offenses related to free expression and their religious views, including Dr. Ibrahim al-Harthi, Abdullah al-Maliki, Khalid al-Ajeemi, Ahmed al-Suwayan, Dr. Yousef Ahmad al-Qasem, Sheikh Ghorom al-Bishi, Rabea Hafez, Fahad al-Sunaidi, and Dr. Ibrahim al-Faris. According to Prisoners of Conscience, the SCC sentenced them to between three and 10 years in prison.

On October 9, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC sentenced cleric Naif al-Sahafi to 10 years in prison. Authorities arrested al-Sahafi in a wide-ranging crackdown on Shia clerics in 2017.

On October 14, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC sentenced cleric Ali Badahdah, detained since 2017, to six years in prison. On October 15, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC sentenced Habib bin Mualla, in detention since 2017, to three-and-a-half years in prison. Mualla previously served as an advisor at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

On October 12, Prisoners of Conscience said authorities suspended clerics Khaled al-Mushaiqeh and Abdulrahman al-Aqel from preaching and giving religious lectures.

Human rights NGOs and legal experts continued to criticize antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.

The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religion. According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to detention, discrimination, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. Members of the expatriate Christian community said that congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities. Members of other minority faith communities similarly reported less interference in private religious gatherings than public ones.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance to Sunni imams on the substance of Friday sermons. It restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. According to local observers, Shia clerics did not receive guidance on their sermons from MOIA and did not submit them for preapproval. However, Shia clerics continued to exercise significant self-censorship in light of the government’s well-known views on the scope and substance of acceptable preaching.

Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship, although husseiniyas (prayer halls) were found in areas inhabited by Shia residents. The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence. The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any reported violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques. MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as in urban areas. In 2018, the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable. An MOIA mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) allowed mosque-goers to monitor sermons and rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.

There were media reports that some Sunni clerics who received government stipends used anti-Semitic and religiously intolerant language in their sermons. During the year, the MOIA issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. On May 26, Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdullatif al-Sheikh announced Sunni imams were required to select their sermons from among those published on the MOIA portal. Unlicensed imams, however, continued to express discriminatory or intolerant views in internet postings or unsanctioned sermons in areas without government monitoring.

According to a report in the newspaper al-Watan, the government fired 100 imams and preachers for failing to condemn the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as instructed by MOIA.

On February 27, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, authorities suspended the Umrah for pilgrims traveling from outside the country and did the same on March 4 for citizens and residents of the country. The MOIA announced that on March 17, it was suspending daily prayers and weekly Friday prayers at all mosques in the country, except for the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. The government also closed Shia husseiniyas, allowing them to reopen in late-July to be used for August Ashura commemorations. On March 20, the Grand Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques announced that it would stop worshippers from entering the two Holy Mosques. Prayers resumed at mosques outside Mecca on May 31 and resumed in Mecca on June 21.

On June 22, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that the 2020 Hajj would be limited to approximately 1,000 pilgrims, all living in-country, approximately 700 of whom would be noncitizens representing 160 nationalities. On September 23, the government announced that it would start allowing pilgrims to perform Umrah in gradual stages beginning on October 1. On October 18, the government allowed citizens and noncitizen residents to pray in Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

The government continued to mandate that imams and muezzins of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina be “moderate” and “tolerant,” among other requirements, including holding a degree from a Saudi sharia college.

Authorities continued to permit public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the country’s largest Shia population, a practice begun in 2016. According to community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities; such events were also scaled down during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They stated that the Shia Ashura commemoration was marked by improved sectarian relations and publicity for mutual tolerance. In one instance, a photograph of a Sunni police officer aiding an elderly Shia follower was shared across social media platforms, drawing praise for the message of tolerance it depicted. In Qatif, authorities eased restrictions imposed after civil unrest in 2011-2012 and took steps to encourage development and tourism to improve conditions for the town’s predominantly Shia residents.

On October 6, according to SRW, authorities arrested two orators, Muhammad Bou Jabara and Ali Khulayya, for their participation in Arbaeen ceremonies (the Shia mourning observance occurring 40 days after the Day of Ashura).

In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer. In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer. In smaller Shia villages, community members stated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times, per Sunni practice) or in some instances not to close at all. Residents in Sunni and Shia communities noted that although businesses historically were required to close after the call to prayer, there appeared to be a gradual but growing tendency for businesses to remain open during prayer times.

According to the NGO SRW, on April 17, authorities bulldozed Shia graves in Awamiya, Qatif, damaging historical structures and monuments. SRW also reported that on May 14, military forces raided the neighborhood of Umm al-Jazm in Qatif, to prevent use of the Shia variant of the call to prayer. According to SRW, raids by government forces occurred in Shia-dominant neighborhoods in October, July, February, and January.

The al-Awamiyah mosque of former Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was demolished by authorities in December.

While authorities indicated that they considered members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community to be Muslims, the group’s legal status remained unclear, and community members said the mainly foreign-resident Ahmadi Muslims hid their faith to avoid scrutiny, arrest, or deportation.

In January, Muslim World League (MWL) secretary-general Mohammed al-Issa announced that Saudi Arabia will stop funding mosques in foreign countries. According to the Swiss newspaper Le Matin Dimanche, the country planned to establish local administrative councils for each of these mosques in cooperation with the local authorities, in order to transfer these mosques to “secure hands.”

Observers stated that judges sometimes discounted the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam and favored the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims. Under their interpretation of sharia and the Quran, judges may place the value of a woman’s testimony at half that of a man’s in certain cases, such as financial disputes or criminal charges.

The government continued to enforce Islamic norms, such as prohibiting eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan. On October 13, local media reported that the CPVPV in Khobar Governorate intensified its field presence with foot and vehicle patrols in markets, malls, and streets to implement the programs and events of the “Prayer is Light” campaign, which aimed to highlight the importance of prayer. According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The government stated that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasigovernmental organization), and, when appropriate, the MFA.

According to government policy, non-Muslims generally were prohibited from being buried in the country. There were, however, public non-Islamic cemeteries in Jeddah and Riyadh that, according to officials, were used in cases where repatriation was not possible, such as when there were no claimants for a body, the family did not accept the body, or the deceased received the death penalty. There also was a private, non-Islamic cemetery in Dhahran only available to Saudi Aramco employees. Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.

The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam. According to a February report by the Israeli NGO Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), Saudi curricula for the years 2016-2019 taught students that non-Muslims – including Christians and Jews – were infidels and described them as enemies of Islam. Christians were referred to derogatorily as “polytheists.” In addition, textbooks also taught students to consider Jews “monkeys” and “assassins” and “eternally treacherous, murdering prophets, committing irreparable evil, and determined to harm Muslim holy places.” In a separate study published in December on a review of textbooks used in the 2020-2021 school year, IMPACT-se found a notable reduction in anti-Semitic content. In a statement about the report, the NGO said, “While the latest…report did not find that new tolerant material had been injected into the curriculum, it did find that a substantial amount of offensive material had been removed.” IMPACT-se’s CEO said, “The Saudi authorities have begun a process of rooting out anti-Jewish hate.”

On February 19, Minister of Education Hamad bin Mohammed al-Sheikh dismissed Dr. Jamil bin Abdulmohsin al-Khalaf, dean of the Sharia Faculty at Imam Mohammed Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, after he reportedly invited “people with deviant ideology” to a faculty event. In a statement, the university said the decision was intended to “purify” its campus of intellectual impurities that could harm national security or contradict moderate Islam.

Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import Bibles for personal use, but the government regularly exercised its ability to inspect and confiscate personal non-Islamic religious materials.

Some academic experts reported the government continued to exclude perspectives at variance with the Salafi tradition within Sunni Islam from its extensive government-owned religious media and broadcast programming.

The government continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring “objectionable” content, such as views of religion it considered extremist or misinformed. The government shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for “religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users under the cybercrimes law. The government also shut down websites it regarded as being used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence. In 2017, authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain applications, including FaceTime and Facebook Messenger. However, some users continued to report that the calling features of WhatsApp and Skype remained blocked.

Members of the Shia community complained of discrimination based on their religion when seeking government employment. Representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population. They were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including in the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, Shia representation was higher in the ranks of traffic police and employees of municipalities and public schools. A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Shia were also underrepresented in employment in primary, secondary, and higher education. According to HRW, the government systematically discriminated against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in the justice system, education, and employment.

The 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, who has held the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs since 2014. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders. Although Shura Council members’ religious affiliations are not publicly announced, there were an estimated seven or eight Shia on the 150-member council. A small number of Shia Muslims occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Saudis reside, had large proportions of Shia Saudis as members to reflect the local population, including a majority in Qatif and 50 percent in al-Ahsa.

Shia stated the government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious training centers for employment credit and that the government did not apply the same standards to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions applying for government positions and religious jobs.

According to human rights groups, Shia Muslims were not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals were Sunni, although some teachers were Shia. Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.

Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province had significant proportions of Shia members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia Muslims held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils. The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, with the remaining 30 percent located in private residences or built and endowed by private persons. The construction of any new mosque required permission from the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits. The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerics.

The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques; Shia congregations self-funded construction, maintenance, and repairs. Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars. Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to officially endorse these mosques, according to some NGOs. Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques. Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques. Two Shia mosques in Dammam licensed by the government served approximately 750,000 worshippers. There were no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers, such as Jeddah and Riyadh. Shia in those areas had to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment. Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship.

Following ISIS attacks against Shia mosques and gathering places in 2015, security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province. Media and other sources additionally reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.

Reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations. Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts. The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari school of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in Qatif and al-Ahsa. Community sources reported Sunni judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.

On April 16, Minister of Islamic Affairs al-Sheikh said the MOIA would refer to the Public Prosecutor’s Office a number of women preachers who delivered religious sermons and lectures without prior permits from the MOIA, which constituted a violation of the law.

The government required noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.” Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicated other religious designations, such as “Christian.”

The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials. The government also provided the names of offices to which one should report violations of this policy.

Authorities generally permitted Muslim detainees and prisoners to perform Islamic religious observances such as prayers.

The government did not officially permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain in-person contact with clergy not resident in the country, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries.

On January 23, MWL secretary general al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim leaders to visit the Auschwitz death camp to mark the 75th anniversary of its liberation. The visit was part of a joint enterprise between the MWL and the American Jewish Committee. In a June 9 online ceremony, the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement and the American Sephardi Federation presented al-Issa with their inaugural Combat Anti-Semitism Award. On February 20, King Salman received a delegation from the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue that included Israeli Rabbi David Rosen, who became the first Israeli rabbi to meet with a Saudi king in recent history.

In February, a delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations visited the country and met with senior government officials and MWL secretary-general al-Issa to discuss countering violent extremism in the Middle East. This was believed to be the first official visit to the kingdom by an American Jewish organization since 1993, when the American Jewish Congress sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia to endorse the Oslo agreements.

On June 14, MWL Secretary-General al-Issa said that Jews and Muslims working together could defeat “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or any other form of prejudice.” In a speech delivered at the American Jewish Committee Virtual Global Forum 2020 and posted to YouTube, he said the MWL was proud to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Jewish brothers and sisters to build understanding, respect, love, and interreligious harmony.”

In August 22 remarks to an online media forum, al-Issa stressed the need for promoting coexistence among different faiths and cultures, and he called for confronting perpetrators of the ideology of hatred and racism to achieve lasting global peace.

On September 4, shortly after the UAE and Bahrain agreed to normalize ties with Israel, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Abdulrahman al-Sudais, said in a televised sermon that Muslims should avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” toward Jews, and he emphasized that the Prophet Mohammed was good to his Jewish neighbors and the best way to persuade Jews to convert to Islam was to “treat them well.”

On October 13, the country hosted a virtual global interfaith forum as part of its presidency of the Group of 20, with participation from Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, and Christian leaders, among other religious representatives. The online forum was accessible to Saudis and international participants.

Instances of anti-Semitic statements by public officials continued. On May 24, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered an Eid al-Fitr sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In February, cleric and former director of the CPVPV in Mecca Ahmed al-Ghamdi said during a media interview that secularism was not tantamount to atheism and that it did not force people to renounce their religion or deny them the right to religious exercise.

In April and May, during the prime viewing month of Ramadan, the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based MBC network aired Umm Haroun, a historical drama series centered on the life of a Jewish midwife in an unnamed, multireligious Persian Gulf community. The New York Times stated, “Fans laud the program, set in the 1940s and 1950s, for highlighting an often-overlooked aspect of the region’s past – Jewish communities in the Persian Gulf – while providing a much-needed example of coexistence among different faiths.” Observers praised the series for promoting a vision of a tolerant Middle East; one writer called it “daring” to explore the social history of Jewish presence in the Arab world.

Journalist Wafa al-Rashid wrote two editorials in the daily Okaz urging authorities “to adapt religious perceptions to the spirit of the times and not be afraid of concepts such as secularism, the civil state, or the separation of religion and state.” She emphasized that separating religion from the state did not mean abolishing religion or fighting it, and that this notion in fact conformed to certain ideas in the Quran. She called for embracing change, religious enlightenment, and the application of reason in religious interpretation to bring the younger generation closer to Islam.

Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, but self-censorship was common, given the risk of official reprisals. While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, self-censorship on social media remained prevalent when discussing topics such as religion or the royal family. Online discussions included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms like “rejectionists” (of the first three caliphs that Sunni Muslims recognize as the Prophet Mohammed’s legitimate successors), which Shia consider insulting, were common in public discourse. In September, cleric Nasser Saleh al-Muazaini referred to Shia as “rejectionists” in a tweet under the hashtag “rejectionists’ creed.”

Community members reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution. The NGO Open Doors reported that women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy and consulate officials engaged Saudi leaders and officials at all levels on religious freedom and tolerance issues. The Ambassador and embassy officers raised religious freedom principles and cases with the HRC, the National Society for Human Rights, members of the Shura Council, the National Committee for Interreligious and Multicultural Dialogue, the MFA, the MOIA, the MWL, and other ministries and agencies during the year. Senior U.S. officials pressed the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs.

Senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and restrictions of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices. Embassy representatives also met with non-Islamic religious leaders to discuss their ability to gather and practice their faith.

Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to inquire about the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns with members of religious minority communities, including Shia and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents. Embassy officials attended or sought access to a number of trials related to religious freedom. The embassy and Department of State officials also engaged Saudi officials regarding these detainees.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Tajikistan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the right, individually or jointly with others, to adhere to any religion or to no religion, and to participate in religious customs and ceremonies. The constitution states “religious associations shall be separate from the state” and “shall not interfere in state affairs.” The law restricts Islamic prayer to specific locations, regulates the registration and location of mosques, and prohibits persons younger than the age of 18 from participating in public religious activities. The government Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies (CRA) maintains a broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature. The government continued to detain and prosecute Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusal to serve in the military. In some cases, there were allegations of physical abuse. Jehovah’s Witnesses have unsuccessfully sought registration since 2007, and some adherents have claimed harassment by authorities. In April, a Shohmansur district court in Dushanbe convicted independent journalist Daler Sharifov of “inciting religious hatred,” sentencing him to one year in prison. Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at Hanafi Sunni mosques. Government officials continued to take measures to prevent individuals from joining or participating in religious organizations identified by authorities as extremist and banned, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The government continued to imprison approximately 20 imams in Sughd Region for membership in banned “extremist organizations.” In March, Prosecutor General Yusuf Rahmon said that law enforcement officials had arrested 154 individuals suspected of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. In August, a Sughd Region court sentenced 20 alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood to between five and seven years of prison for their membership in a banned organization. Law enforcement agencies continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or support of groups banned by the government, including groups that advocated for Islamic political goals and presented themselves as political opponents to the government, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Authorities continued a pattern of harassing men with beards, and government officials again issued statements discouraging women from wearing “nontraditional or alien” clothing, including hijabs. According to international NGOs, the CRA levied heavy fines on four Protestant churches between August 2019 and January 2020 for arranging translation of the Bible into Tajik without prior CRA approval, as required by law. The CRA denied the NGO report, stating that translation of religious literature does not fall under its purview. The government noted its intent to reschedule a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to assess the religious situation in the country and make suggestions to address concerns. The visit planned for 2020 did not take place due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Individuals outside government continued to state they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, due to fear of government harassment. Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations among members of different religious groups, remained a subject they avoided.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials encouraged the government on a frequent basis during in-person meetings, virtual gatherings, and calls to adhere to its commitments to respect religious freedom. Embassy officers raised concerns regarding the participation of women and minors in religious services, restrictions on the religious education of youth, the situation facing Jehovah Witnesses in the country, and harassment of those wearing religious attire.

In 2016, the country was designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the required sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to local academics, the country is more than 90 percent Muslim, of whom the majority adheres to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. Approximately 4 percent of Muslims are Ismaili Shia, the majority of whom reside in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, located in the eastern part of the country.

The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox. There are small communities of evangelical Christians, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, and nondenominational Protestants. There also are smaller communities of Jews, Baha’is, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares the country a secular state and “religious associations shall be separate from the state and shall not interfere in state affairs.” According to the constitution, everyone has the right individually or jointly with others to profess any religion or no religion and to take part in religious customs and ceremonies. Since October 2007, the government has banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses for carrying out religious activities contrary to the country’s laws, such as refusing obligatory military service.

The establishment and activities of religious associations promoting racism, nationalism, enmity, social and religious hatred, or calling for the violent overthrow of constitutional order or organizing of armed groups is prohibited. The constitution prohibits “propaganda and agitation” that encourages religious enmity. In accordance with provisions of the constitution, no ideology of a political party, public or religious association, movement, or group may be recognized as a state ideology.

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

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

The law prohibits individuals from joining or participating in what it considers to be extremist organizations. The government maintains a list of “extremist organizations” that it alleges employ terrorist tactics in an effort to advance Islamic political goals, including the National Alliance of Tajikistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, al-Qaida, Muslim Brotherhood, Taliban, Jamaat Tabligh, Islamic Group (Islamic Community of Pakistan), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Party of Turkestan (former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), Lashkar-e-Tayba, Tojikistoni Ozod, Sozmoni Tablighot, Salafi groups, Jamaat Ansarullah, and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).

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

The law defines a religious association as any group composed of persons who join for religious purposes. A religious association is a voluntary association of followers of one faith, with the purpose of holding joint worship and celebration of religious ceremonies, religious education, as well as spreading religious beliefs. To register a religious association, a group of at least 10 persons older than the age of 18 must obtain a certificate from local authorities confirming the adherents of their religious faith have lived in a local area for five years. The group must then submit to the CRA proof of the citizenship of its founders, along with their home addresses and dates of birth. The group must provide an account of its beliefs and religious practices and describe its attitudes related to education, family, and marriage. A religious association must provide information on its houses of worship, which includes religious centers, central prayer houses, and religious educational institutions. The group must specify in its charter the activities it plans to undertake, and once registered as a religious association, must report annually on its activities or face deregistration.

The government subdivides associations formed for “conducting joint religious worship” into religious organizations and religious communities, which also are defined by law. To operate legally, both are required to register with the government, a process overseen by the CRA.

A religious organization provides for religious education and the spreading of religious faith. Types of religious organizations include the Republican Religious Center, central Friday mosques, central prayer houses, religious education entities, churches, and synagogues. Religious organizations are legal entities and function on the basis of charters. They may be district, municipal, or national organizations.

A religious community, unlike a religious organization, is not a legal entity. Its members gather to conduct other religious activities, which are not defined by law. For example, individuals gather for joint prayer, attend funeral prayers, and celebrate religious holidays. Types of religious communities include Friday mosques, five-time prayer mosques, prayer houses, and other places of worship. A religious community functions on the basis of a charter after registering with the CRA, and the nature and scope of its activities are determined by the charter. A religious community must adhere to the “essence and limits of activity” set out in its charter.

The law provides penalties for religious associations that engage in activities contrary to the purposes and objectives set out in their charters, and it assigns the CRA responsibility for issuing fines for such activities. The law imposes fines for carrying out religious activities without state registration or reregistration; violating provisions on organizing and conducting religious activities; providing religious education without permission; performing prayers, religious rites, and ceremonies in undesignated places; and performing activities beyond the purposes and objectives defined by the charter of the religious association. For first-time offenses, the government fines individuals 406 to 580 somoni ($36-$51), heads of religious associations 1,160 to 1,740 somoni ($100-$150), and registered religious associations, as legal entities, 5,800 to 11,600 somoni ($510-$1,000). For repeat offenses within one year of applying first fines, penalties are increased to 696 to 1,160 somoni ($61-$100) for individuals, 2,320 to 2,900 somoni ($200-$260) for heads of religious associations, and 17,400 to 23,200 somoni ($1,500-$2,000) for registered religious associations. If a religious association conducts activities without registering, local authorities may impose additional fines or close a place of worship.

The law allows restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion deemed necessary by the government to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of the foundations of constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country. In addition, religious organizations annually must report general information about worship, organizational, educational, and outreach activities to the state, and the state must approve the appointments of all imams.

The Law on Freedom of Conscience (the Law) stipulates that no party, public or religious association, movement, or group may be recognized as representing state ideology. The Law also asserts that the state maintains control over religious education to prevent illegal training, propaganda, and the dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and hostility.

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

The CRA oversees activities of religious associations, such as the performance of religious rites, and the development and adoption of legal acts aimed at the implementation of a state policy on the freedom of conscience and religious associations. Religious associations must submit information on sources of income, property lists, expenditures, numbers of employees, wages and taxes paid, and other information upon request by the CRA.

The Freedom of Conscience Law recognizes the special status of Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence with respect to the country’s culture and spiritual life. This status is aspirational, however, and does not have any specific legal bearing.

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

Mosques function according to their charters in buildings constructed by government-approved religious organizations or by individual citizens, or with the assistance of the general population. The Law states the selection of chief-khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders at a central Friday mosque), imam-khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders in a Friday mosque, who deliver a sermon at Friday noon prayers), and imams (government-sanctioned prayer leaders in five-time mosques) shall take place in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.” The CRA must approve imam-khatibs and imams elected by the founders of each mosque. Local authorities decide on land allocation for the construction of mosques in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.” The CRA disseminates recommended talking points for Friday sermons drafted by the Islamic Center. Individual imam-khatibs can modify or supplement the talking points, and, according to the CRA, there is no penalty for noncompliance.

The Law on Regulation of Traditions and Celebrations regulates private celebrations, including weddings, funeral services, and observations of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, including limiting the number of guests, and it controls ceremonial gift presentations and other rituals. The statute also states that mass worship, religious traditions, and ceremonies must be carried out according to the procedures for holding meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and peaceful processions. This statute also bans the traditional sacrifice of animals at ceremonies marking the seventh and 40th day after a death. Traditional sacrifices are permissible during Ramadan and Eid al-Adha.

According to the Law on Regulation of Traditions and Celebrations, “Individuals and legal entities are obliged to protect the values of the national culture, including the state language and national dress.” According to customary (not official) interpretation, “national dress” does not include the hijab, although it does include a traditional Tajik form of covering a woman’s head, known as ruymol. The Code of Administrative violations (the Code) does not list the wearing of a beard, hijab, or other religious clothing as violations.

The Law allows registered religious organizations to produce, export, import, and distribute religious literature and materials containing religious content after receiving CRA approval. Only registered religious associations and organizations are entitled to establish enterprises that produce literature and material with religious content. Such literature and material must indicate the full name of the religious organization producing it. The Code allows government authorities to levy fines for the production, export, import, sale, or distribution of religious literature without CRA permission. According to the Code, violators are subject to confiscation of the given literature, as well as fines of 1,740 to 4,060 somoni ($150-$360) for individuals; 2,900 to 8,700 somoni ($260-$770) for government officials; and 5,800 to 17,400 somoni ($510-$1,500) for legal entities, a category that includes all organizations. According to the Code, producing literature or material containing religious content without identifying the name of the religious organization producing it entails fines of 2,900 to 5,800 somoni ($260-$510) and confiscation of the material.

The Law on Parental Responsibility for Education and Upbringing of Children prohibits individuals younger than the age of 18 from participating in “public religious activities,” including attending worship services at public places of worship. Individuals younger than 18 may attend religious funerals and practice religion at home, under parental guidance. The statute allows individuals younger than 18 to participate in religious activities that are part of specific educational programs in authorized religious institutions.

The Law requires all institutions or groups wishing to provide religious instruction to meet the Ministry of Education and Science’s statutory requirements. In practice, however, such permission is usually not granted because madrassahs are not able to meet the ministry’s requirements relative to classrooms, qualified teachers, and curriculum. Central district mosques may operate madrassahs, which are open only to high school graduates. Other mosques, if registered with the government, may provide part-time religious instruction for younger students in accordance with their charter and if licensed by the government.

With written parental consent, the Law allows minors between the ages of seven and 18 to obtain religious instruction provided by a registered religious organization outside mandatory school hours. According to the Law, this may not duplicate religious instruction that is already part of a school curriculum. As part of the high school curriculum, students must take general classes on the “history of religions.” The CRA is responsible for monitoring mosques throughout the country to ensure implementation of these provisions.

According to the CRA, parents may teach religion to their children at home provided they express a desire to learn. The Law forbids religious instruction at home to individuals outside the immediate family. The Law also restricts sending citizens abroad for religious education and establishing ties with religious organizations abroad without CRA consent. To be eligible to study religion abroad, students must complete a degree in religious studies domestically and receive written consent from the CRA. The Code stipulates fines of 2,900 to 5,800 somoni ($260-$510) for violating these restrictions.

The Law on General Military Duty and Service requires men to serve one year in the armed forces if they have a university degree and two years if they have not graduated from a university. This same statute allows for alternative service, although the government has yet to adopt implementing regulations that specify acceptable forms of alternative service.

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

Government Practices

In January, authorities charged independent journalist Daler Sharifov with “inciting racial and religious hatred.” According to international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, police raided his apartment in January and confiscated religious books and materials and his computer. In February, the Prosecutor General’s Office said that Sharifov had published more than 200 articles and notes containing extremist content aimed at inciting religious intolerance. According to government religious experts, Sharifov published a treatise extolling the Muslim Brotherhood movement and jihadist ideology. In April, a Shohmansur district court sentenced Sharifov to a one-year prison term.

In November, Forum 18 reported that authorities arrested Rustamjon Norov, a 22-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, in the northern city of Khujand for refusing military service on grounds of conscience. Prosecutors accused him of falsifying his medical history to evade military service, which he denied. Norov had offered to perform alternative civilian service. He filed an appeal, which was dismissed on October 28, according to Forum 18. At year’s end, he was in pretrial detention in Khujand.

On April 2, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that a military court in Dushanbe sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Jovidon Bobojonov to two years in a labor camp, beginning in January, for refusing compulsory military service, rejecting his offer of alternative service, according to Forum 18. On November 1, Bobojonov was freed by the 2020 nationwide amnesty decree signed by President Emomali Rahmon. In October 2019, enlistment officers had forcibly put Bobojonov on a train to an assigned military unit. According to Forum 18, Bobojonov was tortured while in the unit, transferred to prison in Dushanbe in January, and lost his appeal of his sentence in April. In 2019, government and military authorities denied that Bobojonov had the right to claim conscientious objection, stating that although the Law on General Military Duty and Service referred to the possibility of alternative service, there was no alternative in practice because the government had not defined acceptable forms of alternative service. The authorities said Bobojonov’s refusal to serve therefore was a crime and that the actions of enlistment officers were lawful. The Dushanbe’s military prosecutor’s office stated that Bobojonov was given the option to serve in construction battalion that did not carry arms but refused.

Another Jehovah’s Witness, Shamil Khakimov, remained in prison at year’s end, serving five-and-a-half years for “inciting religious hatred,” with his release scheduled for May 2024, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives. The Sughd Regional Court dismissed his appeal on October 26. Khakimov also received a three-year ban on proselytizing once he is released from prison.

In July, Forum 18 reported a climate of impunity for security officials accused of torture in the country, citing lack of official action on allegations of torture from Nilufar Rajabova, Bobojonov, and other prisoners detained or arrested in connection to their religious beliefs.

Authorities continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or supporting banned extremist organizations. International NGOs continued to state that some of these organizations were considered to be potential political opponents of the government but in fact had never advocated for or participated in acts of violence. Local and international human rights organizations continued to say that the government “intimidates and arrests” opposition figures on the pretext of combating terrorism and extremism.

In January, Forum 18 reported that Khayriddin Dostakov had been arrested at Dushanbe Airport upon his return from visiting relatives in Russia. According to Forum 18, police questioned him about whether he had become a Shia Muslim or spread Shia beliefs and beat him and used electric shocks on him in prison. On August 25, authorities dropped all criminal charges and released Dostakov from custody after an eight-month detention.

On January 20, Radio Ozodi, the Tajik-language outlet of RFE/RL, reported that law enforcement officials had arrested approximately 70 alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization banned in the country since 2006. On March 20, according to RFE/RL, Prosecutor General Yusuf Rahmon said that law enforcement officials had identified 314 individuals and arrested 154 of them, including the 70 mentioned in January, for their suspected ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to a June 8 RFE/RL report, Imam-Khatib Muhammadsayid Akramov and three of his brothers were convicted by the Khatlon regional court of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. They reportedly were in custody for approximately four months prior to the trial, at which point their sentences were suspended and they were released.

On July 7, the Supreme Court began considering criminal cases against 116 alleged Muslim Brotherhood members, including 114 Tajik citizens and two Egyptian citizens. The defendants were charged with financing terrorist activities, making extremist statements, and organizing extremist activities. At year’s end, the Supreme Court continued prosecuting these cases.

The government continued to imprison approximately 20 imams in Sughd Region, most of whom had received religious education abroad, for membership in banned extremist organizations.

In January, RFE/RL reported that a district court in Dushanbe sentenced Sadriddin Mulloyev, a member of Jamaat Tabligh, a Salafist movement banned by the government, to 12 years in prison for terrorism and extremism activities. Authorities had arrested Mulloyev in September 2019 after he returned to the country in response to a government amnesty program, according to Forum 18. Forum 18 said in January that Mulloyev had served an earlier prison term, from 2008 to 2013, for being a member of the same movement.

On November 12, according to his relatives, State Committee for National Security (GKNB) officers detained Sirojiddin Abdurahmonov, widely considered to be the leader of the Salafi movement in the country. Although law enforcement agencies did not comment on Abdurahmonov’s arrest, RFE/RL cited an anonymous judiciary source in reporting that a Dushanbe court authorized his detention. Abdurahmonov’s relatives told RFE/RL that authorities confiscated the cleric’s computer and religious texts at the time of his arrest. He was previously arrested in 2009 on charges of inciting religious hatred but released from prison in 2013 following an amnesty. He remained in detention at year’s end.

Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council that prohibited women from praying at mosques. Ismaili Shia women were permitted to attend Shia services in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region and Dushanbe.

The CRA stated that it did not receive any new applications for registration from non-Islamic religious associations during the year. The CRA reported that there remained 66 registered non-Islamic religious organizations, including the Russian Orthodox Church and the Baha’i Faith.

In its October census, the government included a question on religious identity for the first time since 1937. According to Forum 18, some religious groups expressed fear that census answers could be used to target individuals and organizations because of their faith. Government officials were unclear on why the question was included, according to Forum 18. The Statistics Agency, responsible for conducting the census, stated the data was solely to collect demographic information and that it would publish the results in 2022.

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

In a 2019 submission to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), which international observers stated remained factual, HRW stated the government “severely curtails freedom of religion or belief, proscribing certain forms of dress, including the hijab for women and long beards for men.” While there remained no legal prohibition against wearing a hijab or a beard, NGOs reported authorities continued to discourage “nontraditional or alien” clothing. In a 2019 submission to the UN, the NGOs Human Rights Vision Foundation, Eurasian Dialogue Institution, and the Tajik Freethinkers Forum said official media stigmatized and persecuted religious women and that local police and ruling party activists organized surprise public inspections of women wearing hijabs, requiring them to remove the headwear. The NGOs also said female patients wearing hijabs were refused treatment in public health clinics and faced restricted access or were denied entrance to educational establishments and administrative buildings. Local women were permitted to cover their hair in a ruymol, in which the scarf covers a woman’s hair and is tied in the back.

On January 22, RFE/RL reported that a court in Dushanbe denied Nilufar Rajabova’s appeal after she was fined 550 somoni ($49) for insulting a law enforcement official. According to December 2019 press reports, she accused Dushanbe police of insulting her and threatening her after she was detained, along with two dozen others, in a raid targeting women wearing hijabs. She told Forum 18 that she had also been hit by an officer, falling and injuring her spine as a result.

On February 13, Hilolbi Qurbonzoda, the chairwoman of the Committee on Women and Family Affairs, said during a press conference that the issue of women wearing hijabs would not be sensitive if it were not for terrorist attacks involving women wearing hijabs in other countries. Qurbonzoda added that the international community was taking steps to protect state interests and some countries had already adopted rules on women wearing hijabs. Qurbonzoda said it is important for Tajik women to keep their identity and not be confused with Arab women.

In August, RFE/RL reported that Vanj District officials said a group of individuals protested against being forced to shave, since officials in that area regarded beards as a foreign intrusion on local culture or a sign of religious extremism. Vanj District chairman Jabbor Qosim told RFE/RL that he would hold discussions with these individuals to look into their complaints.

The government mandated that anyone wishing to study religion abroad should receive government approval and should study at a government-approved religious institution.

In July, CRA chairman Davlatzoda said 3,901 citizens who had been illegally studying abroad at religious educational institutions had returned home over the previous 11 years. Some of these individuals reportedly returned involuntarily. The government sometimes sent these students to government boarding schools for secular reeducation. For example, on September 16, a member of the banned IRPT told RFE/RL that his 15-year-old son was “being held hostage” at a boarding school for children who misbehave. Mahmadzarif Saidov, who lives in exile in Europe, said that his son had been studying at a Bangladeshi madrassah when he was detained in Dubai and returned to the country in 2019. He said authorities had placed him in a special boarding school and prohibited contact with relatives. A district government source told RFE/RL on September 16 that Saidov’s son had been “brainwashed” at the madrassah for nearly four years and needed time to receive a secular education.

In its 2019 review (the most recent) of the government’s adherence to its commitments under the ICCPR, which international observers stated remained accurate, the UNHRC stated that it remained concerned “that interference by the State in religious affairs, worship, and freedom of religion and the ensuing restrictions… are incompatible with the Covenant.” The UNHRC identified these restrictions as including: (a) interference with the appointment of imams and the content of their sermons; (b) control over books and other religious materials; (c) the requirement of state permission for receiving religious education abroad; (d) the prohibition against entering a mosque for those younger than 18 years of age; (e) the regulations regarding the registration of religious organizations; (f) the regulations on wearing clothes during traditional or religious celebrations and the prohibition of certain attire in practice, such as the hijab; and (g) restrictions imposed on Christian religious minorities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses.

A planned visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to assess the government’s actions as they pertain to religious practice did not occur due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At year’s end, the government was coordinating with the special rapporteur to reschedule the visit once conditions permitted.

According to Forum 18 in March and Voice of the Martyrs in May, between August 2019 and January 2020, the CRA fined four Protestant churches 7,000 to 11,000 somoni ($620-$970) each for arranging translation of the Bible into Tajik. One congregant told Forum 18 that these fines were “huge,” given that the average monthly collection in some churches was only 500 somoni ($44). The CRA denied the NGO report, stating that translation of religious literature does not fall under its purview.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Individuals outside government continued to state they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, due to fear of government harassment. Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations among members of various religious groups, remained a subject they avoided. Individuals said they were more comfortable discussing abuses of civil rights than discussing sectarian disagreements or restrictions on religious freedom.

The NGO Open Doors 2021 World Watch List report, which covers events in 2020, stated that because the country’s ethnic identity is directly tied to Islam, Christians who have converted from Islam face criticism by family, friends, and community.

Leaders of some minority religious groups continued to state their communities enjoyed positive relationships with the majority Hanafi Sunni population, who, they said, did not hinder their worship services or cause concern for their congregations. Other minority religious group leaders stated that converts from Islam experienced social disapproval from friends and neighbors.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In separate meetings throughout the year with the Foreign Minister, Deputy Foreign Minister, CRA senior representatives, and other government officials, the Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to raise concerns regarding restrictions on minors and women participating in religious services, the situation of Jehovah Witnesses in the country, and restrictions on the religious education of youth. Embassy officers also raised the issue of harassment of women and men for religious dress and grooming.

Because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the embassy did not host any in-person public events dealing with freedom of religion issues. Embassy officials had limited engagements in virtual formats with civil society, NGOs, and religious leaders from Christian organizations on the issue of religious freedom.

U.S. officials emphasized with government representatives the importance of steps to ameliorate restrictions on freedom of religion through national legislation and with regards to alternative service. U.S. embassy officers sought amnesty for conscientious objectors and prisoners of conscience. Embassy officials also discussed with religious leaders how they conducted services during the pandemic amid closures of religious associations, such as mosques and churches throughout the country, in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Since 2016, Tajikistan has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions as required in the important national interest of the United States.

Tibet

Read A Section: Tibet

China | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Executive Summary

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities,” without defining “normal.” CCP regulations allow only Chinese citizens to take part in officially approved religious practices and stipulate religious activity “must not harm national security.” CCP regulations control all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, including religious venues, groups, personnel, and schools, and prohibit “accepting domination by external forces,” which authorities said included Tibetans in exile, particularly the Dalai Lama. The CCP continued to promote “Sinicization” policies that aimed to interpret religious ideas in accordance with CCP ideology and to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state. The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations regulation, released in February, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions, including Tibetan Buddhism. In the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas there were reports of forced disappearances, arrests, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detentions without trial of individuals due to their religious practices. There were reports of individuals dying in custody after being beaten, and one nun in a detention facility committed suicide. There were multiple reports of individuals who had been released from detention dying as a result of long-term illnesses and injuries suffered following beatings and mistreatment during incarceration. According to nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and academic research, the PRC government undertook a large-scale and aggressive campaign of “reeducation” or “vocational training” in military-style camps to conduct forced political indoctrination and to transform traditional farmers and herders into laborers in other industries; the vocational training process required “diluting the negative influence of religion.” In some cases, this program involved transferring Tibetans away from their home districts as part of so-called labor transfer programs. Authorities arrested multiple writers, singers, and artists for promoting Tibetan language and culture. Media and human rights groups reported that local officials in Tibetan areas explicitly stated supporters of the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders could be arrested under the government’s nationwide anti-organized-crime program and that Tibetans were told to inform security officials of anyone who “links up with the Dalai clique.” The PRC government continued to restrict the size of Buddhist monasteries and other institutions and to implement a campaign begun in 2016 to evict monks and nuns from monasteries and prohibit them from practicing elsewhere. While exact numbers were difficult to ascertain because access to Tibetan areas remained restricted, according to multiple sources, between 2016 and 2019, authorities evicted between 6,000 and 17,000 Tibetan and Han Chinese monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes. Satellite imagery and photographs showed that thousands of dwellings at these locations had been destroyed since 2018. PRC authorities continued to restrict the religious practices of monks, nuns, and laypersons. Travel and other restrictions hindered monastics and laypersons from engaging in traditional religious practices and pilgrimages. Repression, including arbitrary surveillance, increased around politically sensitive events, religious anniversaries, and the Dalai Lama’s birthday. The government canceled some religious festivals, citing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, although some sources stated this was a pretext. The government surveilled religious sites, encouraged families to inform on their neighbors, and attempted to control access to social media. It continued to force monasteries to display portraits of CCP leaders and the national flag and required Tibetans to replace images of the Dalai Lama and other lamas with portraits of prominent CCP leaders, including Chairman Mao and General Secretary and PRC President Xi Jinping, in their homes. Media and NGOs reported that authorities erected two Chinese-style pagodas in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site generally considered to be the most sacred temple in Tibet, and closed the square in front of the temple to worshippers. PRC authorities continued to restrict children from participating in many traditional religious festivals and from receiving religious education. As part of efforts to Sinicize the population, schools in some areas required instruction in Mandarin, and some students were sent to other parts of the country to expose them to Han culture. Authorities continued to engage in widespread interference in monastic practices, including by appointing government and CCP personnel and government-approved monks to manage religious institutions. The government continued to control the selection of Tibetan Buddhist lamas and supervised their religious and political education. It continued to force monks and nuns to undergo political training in state ideology. Religious leaders and government employees were often required to denounce the Dalai Lama and express allegiance to the government-recognized Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama and promoting the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism. In a statement issued in December, the Standing Committee of the Tibetan People’s Congress stated reincarnations of lamas were to take place in accordance with state laws regulating religious affairs and the reincarnation of living buddhas. The statement said the 14th Dalai Lama’s o