Afghanistan

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

Albania

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion.  It stipulates there is no official religion and that the state is neutral in matters of belief, recognizes the equality and independence of religious groups, and prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania (VUSH), a Protestant umbrella organization, pertaining to recognition, property restitution, and other arrangements.  The law stipulates the government will give financial support to faith communities, but the government’s agreement with the VUSH under the law does not specifically designate it to receive such funding.  The VUSH reported, however, that correspondence with the State Committee on Cults included a commitment to provide financial support for evangelical Christian churches.  The Orthodox Church, the Albanian Islamic Community (AIC), and the VUSH noted positively the State Committee on Cults’ engagement with them, although the VUSH expressed concern the government showed indifference towards it relative to other faith communities.  The government legalized 105 buildings owned by religious groups during the year, and the status of 68 additional properties was under review.  In response to a Constitutional Court ruling that some provisions of the 2015 Law on Property were unconstitutional, the Council of Ministers issued two decisions during the year designed to break an impasse in reviewing claims.  The Agency for the Treatment of Property (ATP) reported it rejected 17 claims for title, which allowed the claimants to take their cases to court.  VUSH leaders continued to report difficulties in acquiring land to construct places of worship and problems concerning municipal government fees.  The Bektashi and the AIC reported problems defending title to certain properties.  The Orthodox Church reported problems obtaining ownership of monasteries and churches deemed cultural heritage sites by the government.  As of year’s end, the Council of Ministers had not finished adopting regulations to support implementation of a 2017 law on the rights and freedoms of national minorities, including religious freedom.

The Interreligious Council, a forum for the country’s religious leaders to discuss shared concerns, held its first meeting of the year in October and voted to include the VUSH as a member.  The AIC reported the Polish government presented an award on October 25 in Poland to the Interreligious Council for its efforts to encourage and preserve interfaith harmony in Albania.  Separately, several religious authorities expressed concern about foreign influence and interference in Albanian religious organizations.

U.S. embassy officers again urged government officials to accelerate the religious property claims process and return to religious group’s buildings and other property confiscated from them during the communist era.  The embassy sponsored the participation of the commissioner on cults to participate in an exchange program on interfaith dialogue and religious freedom.  The embassy also provided technical assistance from a U.S. specialist who assisted the Ministry of Education in developing a national policy on, and drafting the outline of, a teacher’s manual for teaching about religion in public and private schools.  Embassy youth education programs continued to focus on respecting religious diversity.  Other embassy-sponsored programs focused on promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities and the compatibility of religious faith and democracy.  The embassy also continued its work with religious communities to discourage the appeal of violent extremism related to religion among youth.

Algeria

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship.  The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam.  The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion as long as they respect public order and regulations.  Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense.  Proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime.  In May authorities charged 26 Ahmadi Muslims in Bejaia with “insulting the precepts of Islam,” “operating an association without approval,” and “collecting money without authorization.”  The courts acquitted three of the Ahmadis while sentencing the others to three months in prison.  According to media reports, authorities charged five Christians from Bouira Province, three of whom belong to the same family, with “inciting a Muslim to change his religion” and “performing religious worship in an unauthorized place.”  On December 25, a judge at the court of Bouira acquitted the five individuals.  In March a court in Tiaret convicted and fined two Christian brothers for carrying more than 50 Bibles in their car.  Prosecutors said the accused planned to use them for proselytism; the brothers said they were for church use only.  The court fined each man 100,000 dinars ($850).  In May another court convicted a church leader and another Christian of proselytizing, sentenced them to three months in prison, and fined them 100,000 dinars.  Leaders of the Ahmadi community reported the government conducted investigations of at least 85 Ahmadi Muslims during the year.  Charges included operating an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations.  There were reports of police confiscating passports and educational diplomas from Ahmadi Muslims, and pressuring employers to put Ahmadi workers on administrative leave.  Authorities closed eight churches and a nursery associated with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) during the year on charges of operating without authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failing to meet building safety codes.  At the end of the year, four churches remained closed.  Some Christian groups continued to report facing a range of administrative difficulties in the absence of a written government response to their requests for recognition as associations.  The government continued to regulate the importation of all books, including religious materials.  Senior government officials continued to oppose calls by extremist groups for violence in the name of Islam.  They also continued to criticize the spread of what they characterized as “foreign” religious influences such as Salafism, Wahhabism, Shia Islam, and Ahmadi Islam.

Media outlets reported the killings of three Sunni imams during the year.  The government attributed the attacks to extremists who opposed the imams’ moderate teachings.  Some Christian leaders and congregants spoke of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity.  Media reported unknown individuals vandalized two Christian cemeteries, smashing tombstones and ransacking graves.  Individuals engaged in religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported they had experienced threats and intolerance, including in the media.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently encouraged senior government officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, Justice, and Interior to promote religious tolerance and discussed the difficulties Ahmadis, Christians, and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas.  Embassy officers in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both Sunni Muslim and minority religious groups, as well as with other members of the public, focused on pluralism and religious moderation.  The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance.  In April the embassy hosted a delegation of nine Americans – a university program officer, one imam, six community and religious leaders, and the executive director of a think tank – for a ten-day tour focused on promoting people-to-people religious ties.  The Ministry of Religious Affairs facilitated the delegation’s visit to six cities – Algiers, Constantine, Oran, Biskra, Tlemcen, and Maskara – where the delegation met with a range of imams, community leaders, and ministry officials to discuss the role of religion in countering extremist narratives and religious communities in the United States.

Andorra

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of individuals to manifest their religion or belief and prohibits religious discrimination.  It names two co-princes – the president of France and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia, Spain – as joint heads of state.  In accordance with the constitution, the government offers the Catholic Church privileges not available to other religious groups.  In July the government submitted a draft equality and nondiscrimination law, including a prohibition of religious discrimination, to parliament.  A vote on the law was expected in early 2019.  The government again did not respond to requests by Muslim and Jewish groups to build a cemetery.  The government only issued religious work permits to Catholics, but it typically allowed non-Catholics to reside and perform religious work in the country under a different status.

The Muslim community used two prayer rooms, but there was no mosque in the country.  The Catholic Church of Santa Maria del Fener in Andorra la Vella continued to lend its sanctuary twice a month to the Anglican community.

During periodic visits, the U.S. Ambassador, resident in Spain, and the Consul General and other officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona continued to meet with senior government officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Justice, and with Jewish and Muslim leaders.  They discussed such issues as the lack of official status for faiths other than Catholicism and the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Angola

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the state as secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of religion.  The religious freedom law requires religious groups to seek government recognition by meeting legally established criteria.  There are 81 recognized religious groups and more than 1,000 unrecognized religious groups.  The government has not recognized any new religious groups since passage in 2004 of a law that requires religious groups to have at least 100,000 citizens as members.  On October 16, the government issued a joint executive decree mandating that all unregistered religious groups operating in the country submit registration documents within 30 days or the government would force them to cease operations.  The decree superseded a 2015 government circular permitting unregistered religious groups to incorporate within ecumenical associations, which the decree abolished.  At year’s end, according to the Ministry of Culture, which oversees the registration process, 94 unregistered religious groups had submitted their files for recognition.  On November 6, the government launched the nationwide Operation Rescue law enforcement campaign to combat criminality, including the operation of unlicensed associations.  At year’s end, the government reported the closure of more than 900 houses of worship, including eight mosques.  On December 1, the Order of Evangelical Pastors of Angola protested in Luanda against the decree’s abolishment of the ecumenical associations and violation of freedom of religion.  The government continued to state its concern about the proliferation of religious “sects,” some of which the government said exploited vulnerable populations.  In President Joao Lourenco’s address to parliament on October 15, he reaffirmed the government’s commitment to respect freedom of religion, but stressed the government would not tolerate churches that operated solely as for-profit businesses and preyed on poor and vulnerable segments of the population.  In July the Supreme Court invalidated a 2015 decree issued by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights (MJHR) recognizing the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the World as the only legitimate Tocoist church in the country.  The court ruled that it was not the role of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights to unify the different religious denominations in the country, but rather only to ensure religious groups obeyed the law.  On December 4, activists asked President Lourenco to review the cases of four Angolan Muslims convicted in 2017 of preparatory acts to establish a terrorist cell and sentenced to three years in prison.  Human rights activists criticized the convictions as politically orchestrated by the government and lacking evidence.  The defendants said the prosecution discriminated against them because of their Muslim faith.

Some leaders of legally recognized religious organizations continued to criticize the proliferation of smaller, unrecognized religious groups, while they also acknowledged the need for greater religious understanding and interfaith dialogue.

Throughout the year, the embassy raised religious freedom issues, including long-pending registration applications and the drafting of the new religious freedom legislation with government officials.  The Ambassador and embassy officials met with representatives of religious groups and civil society organizations and discussed their views regarding the government’s concern with the proliferation of churches, and also discussed efforts to promote interfaith dialogue.

Antigua and Barbuda

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of worship as well as the right to practice and change one’s religion.  The government decriminalized marijuana and publicly apologized to the Rastafarian community for previous discrimination.  During the year the government started subsidizing private Rastafarian-run schools not requiring vaccinations for school entry.

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

U.S. embassy officials engaged representatives of the government and civil society on religious freedom issues, including the importance of respect for religious diversity.  They discussed issues involving government facilitation of religious diversity and tolerance and equal treatment under the law and the required vaccination of children entering the public school system.

Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots

Executive Summary

Since 1974, the southern part of Cyprus has been under the control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus.  The northern part, administered by Turkish Cypriots, proclaimed itself the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”) in 1983.  The United States does not recognize the “TRNC,” nor does any country other than Turkey.  A substantial number of Turkish troops remain on the island.  A buffer zone, or “green line,” patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), separates the two parts.  This report is divided into two parts:  the Republic of Cyprus and the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.  For areas in the north that have different Greek and Turkish names, both are listed (e.g., Kormakitis/Korucam).

IN THIS SECTION: REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS | AREA ADMINISTERED BY TURKISH CYPRIOTS (BELOW)


The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” refers to the “state” as secular and provides for freedom of religious faith and worship consistent with public order and morals.  It prohibits forced participation in worship and religious services and stipulates religious education may be conducted only under “state” supervision.  The “constitution” grants the Islamic Vakf the exclusive right to regulate its internal affairs.  The “government” began allowing mosques to teach summer religious education classes without its prior approval and said it would allow secondary school students to opt out of Sunni Islam classes.  There were reports of detention of persons with alleged ties to the so-called “Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization (FETO).”  Authorities improved access to Greek Orthodox religious sites.  The “Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)” said it approved 118 of 153 total requests to hold religious services during the year.  Greek Orthodox, Maronite, and Turkish-Speaking Protestant Association (TSPA) representatives continued to report police surveillance of their activities.

The TSPA said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths experienced societal criticism.  The TCCH reported it completed restoration of 10 religious sites.  Religious leaders such as Mufti of Cyprus Atalay and Archbishop of the Church of Cyprus Chrysostomos met throughout the year and arranged visits to places of worship across the “green line.”  The RTCYPP published a letter with statements from Mufti Atalay and Greek Orthodox Bishop of Neapolis Porfyrios calling on Turkish Cypriot authorities to return icons stored in the Kyrenia Castle to the Greek Orthodox community.

In March the U.S. Ambassador met with Mufti of Cyprus Atalay, who was also head of the “Religious Affairs Department,” to discuss interfaith dialogue and access to religious sites.  U.S. embassy officials met with representatives at the “presidency” and “MFA” to discuss unrestricted access to religious sites.  In November the Ambassador attended a Maronite celebration at St. George Church in Kormakitis/Korucam.  Embassy officials continued to meet with leaders from Sunni and Alevi Muslim, Armenian and Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities to discuss freedom of worship, access to religious sites, and instances of religious-based discrimination.

Argentina

Executive Summary

The constitution and laws provide for freedom of religion and the right to profess freely one’s faith.  The constitution provides the government will grant the Roman Catholic Church preferential legal status, but there is no official state religion.  By law, public schools are secular, but private schools run by registered religious institutions are eligible for government subsidies.  The government continued its investigation into the 1994 terrorist bombing of the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) community center.  In March the Criminal Cassation Court upheld a federal judge’s petition to arrest Senator and former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on charges of “aggravated concealment” for allegedly attempting to cover up possible Iranian involvement in the AMIA bombing by signing a memorandum of understanding with Iran.  At the September UN General Assembly (UNGA) meeting, President Mauricio Macri urged international support for the country’s demands that Iran cooperate in the continuing investigation of the AMIA attack and the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires.  Investigations into the murder of Alberto Nisman, the former special prosecutor in charge of the AMIA bombing investigation, continued.  On April 17, a group of parents in Tucuman Province filed suit against a religious curriculum in the province’s public schools, citing a 2017 Supreme Court decision that incorporating religious education in public schools was unconstitutional and stating that educators were exclusively teaching Catholicism in schools.  The government sponsored and government officials actively participated in interfaith events throughout the year.

According to media reports, there was considerable civic debate on the separation of church and state in light of a draft bill legalizing abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, which the Senate voted down on August 9.  Protesters supporting and opposing the draft bill, including from many religious groups, held massive and largely peaceful overnight demonstrations in front of congress before voting occurred on June 14 and August 9.  Catholic and evangelical Christian churches reported offensive graffiti throughout the country that they believed individuals protesting religious opposition to abortion had written.

Embassy officials met with senior government officials, including the secretary of worship and officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) human rights office and Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and counteract religious discrimination.  Embassy outreach efforts included regular meetings with government officials and religious and community leaders to discuss interfaith collaboration and encourage the increased participation of religious communities in embassy-sponsored scholarship and educational programs.  A Department of State official met with religious leaders and government officials, including parliamentarians, to discuss religious freedom.

Armenia

Executive Summary

The constitution states that everyone has freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.  It recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) as the national church and preserver of national identity but also establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state.  According to media, in March police attempted to pressure a self-identified atheist youth to return to the AAC.  On several occasions, Nikol Pashinyan, elected prime minister in May following nationwide protests, declared that state and church were separate and the government would not interfere in church matters.  According to local observers, the new government suspended the process of adopting a new draft law on religious freedom of major concern to religious minorities.  According to representatives of the Baha’i community, authorities detained a prominent member of the community in December 2017 and held him until July, when a court released him on bail.  Some civil society and minority religious groups continued to state their concerns that the content of the History of the Armenian Church (HAC) courses taught in public schools discriminated against religious minorities and that the courses did not provide an opt-out mechanism.  According to the Center for Religion and Law, an evangelical Protestant teacher in a public school in the village of Yelpin became a target of religious discrimination.

According to media analysts, following the April “velvet revolution,” individuals affiliated with or sympathetic to the ousted government used religious issues to denounce the new government.  Various private media outlets and social media users stated that minority religious groups, which they referred to as “sects,” had led the revolution and that these “sects” continued to exercise influence over the new government.  According to local observers, these remarks led to a dramatic decrease in objective reporting on religious issues.  Religious minorities said that what they characterized as a “nationalistic climate,” especially outside the capital, had caused their members to experience societal discrimination.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials.  Embassy officials met with AAC leaders to engage the AAC in supporting the rights of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions.  In July the Ambassador hosted an event to foster interreligious dialogue, mutual respect, and cooperation, bringing together representatives of the AAC, religious and ethnic minorities, and civil society and sharing the previous Department of State report on international religious freedom.  The embassy used Facebook and Twitter to send messages in support of religious tolerance.  The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with minority religious groups, including with evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.

Australia

Executive Summary

The constitution bars the federal government from making any law that imposes a state religion or religious observance, prohibits the free exercise of religion, or establishes a religious test for a federal public office.  Prime Minister Scott Morrison planned to introduce new religious freedom laws to “safeguard personal liberty,” while at the same time protect religious schools, charities, and individuals from discrimination, causing a national debate around existing exceptions to antidiscrimination laws for religious schools.  Legislation was not introduced by the end of the year.  The political platform of the One Nation Party, which had two senators in the federal parliament, included cessation of Muslim immigration and limits on some Islamic practices.  Katter’s Australian Party, which had one senator and one representative in the federal parliament, included Christian values and a Muslim immigration ban in its platform.  The Catholic Church rejected a recommendation by a royal commission that priests be obliged to report evidence of pedophilia heard in confession.  The Church accepted the commission’s recommendation on compensation to victims of sexual abuse by its personnel.  In December a Catholic cardinal was found guilty of five counts of “historical child sexual offenses.”

Christian advocacy groups continued to report harassment of group members and protesters at conferences.  Studies continued to show that Muslims received verbal and physical harassment.  Anti-Semitic acts, including harassment and vandalism, continued within the country.

The U.S. embassy and the U.S. Consulates General in Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney regularly engaged government officials and a wide range of religious leaders, faith communities, and groups to promote religious freedom.  Embassy and consulate general officers at all levels, including the Charge d’Affaires, engaged with religious communities and promoted religious tolerance in person and through social media.

Austria

Executive Summary

Historical and modern constitutional and legal documents provide for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and prohibit religious discrimination.  The law bans public incitement to hostile acts against religious groups.  The law divides recognized religious groups into three categories; 16 groups recognized as religious societies receive the most benefits.  Unrecognized groups may practice their religion privately if the practice is lawful and does not offend “common decency.”  The government continued to enforce a ban on face coverings.  Scientologists and the Unification Church said government-funded organizations advised the public against associating with them.  The government tightened controls on ritual slaughter.  Muslim and Jewish groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concerns over anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic sentiment in the Freedom Party (FPOe), the junior partner in the coalition government.  Authorities dropped an investigation of an FPOe politician on anti-Semitism charges because the statute of limitations had run; he resumed his position as party chair in Lower Austria.  The government collaborated with the Muslim community to combat extremism and with a Jewish NGO on Holocaust awareness training for teachers.

The Islamic Faith Community (IGGIO) reported 540 anti-Muslim incidents, a 75 percent increase over the 309 incidents it recorded in 2017.  It attributed the increase in part to its documentation center’s higher public profile.  More than half of the incidents occurred online; others included verbal abuse and vandalism.  Courts convicted individuals of anti-Islamic rhetoric and anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi activity, generally handing down fines or sentences, some of which they suspended.

Embassy representatives regularly engaged with officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior on religious freedom, concerns of religious groups, integration of religious minorities, and measures to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment and encourage interreligious dialogue.  The Ambassador met with leaders from the IGGIO, Jewish Community (IKG), Roman Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, and Orthodox Churches to discuss their relations with the government, instances of discrimination, and interreligious dialogue; the embassy met with the youth branches of religious organizations.  Embassy officials served on the advisory board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency, which promoted Holocaust remembrance, spoke on religious freedom at public ceremonies, and supported programs to combat anti-Semitism and promote religious dialogue and tolerance.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Bahrain

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia to be a principal source for legislation.  It provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and freedom to perform religious rites.  The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine.”  The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.”  In general, non-Muslim religious minorities including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Jews reported they could practice their religion openly without fear of interference from the government.  According to press, the government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics and community members.  Some reports stated a number of clerics were detained over the content of their sermons during the commemoration of Ashura in September; authorities released all of those detained without charge by October 30.  Shia Muslims held processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen throughout the country with limited involvement by the government.  On November 4, the Court of Appeal, after overturning a previous acquittal, sentenced Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of the dissolved, and largely Shia, opposition Wifaq political society, to life in prison on espionage charges for allegedly conspiring with Qatar to undermine the government in 2011.  On November 13, authorities detained Ali Al Asheeri, a Shia former Wifaq member of parliament (MP), for social media posts that the government described as “incitement of non-participation in the elections.”  In February the government provided input to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) regarding the country’s compliance with its ICCPR obligations, noting that the country’s constitution guaranteed freedom of conscience and religious belief, as well as freedom to build and access places of worship without discrimination.  In November the UNHRC, in its final concluding observations on the country’s compliance with its International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) obligations, stated its concern about “reports members of the Shia community have been subjected to restrictions to their rights to worship and profess their religious beliefs” and “reports that the Shia population is underrepresented in political and public life.”  On July 11, the government removed concrete barriers, police checkpoints, and barbed wire that had previously restricted entry into the predominantly Shia neighborhood of Diraz, but local Shia continued to state that authorities prevented nonresidents from leading Friday prayers.  On June 12, the government enacted an amendment to the Exercising Political Rights Law, which prohibited former members of Wifaq, as well as other banned political societies, from running as candidates in municipal and parliamentary elections.  Based on reports it received, Amnesty International (AI) published a report in September stating Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and ill-treatment, and denied access to needed medical care because of their religious and political affiliation.  Shia community representatives said there was ongoing discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system.  In June the government inaugurated the King Hamad Center for Interfaith Dialogue and Coexistence and in July it announced its plan to establish an Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom and Coexistence.  In June the Catholic Church held a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a cathedral to be built on land donated by the king.

Representatives of the Shia community reported the higher unemployment rate and lower socioeconomic status of Shia were exacerbated by continued discrimination against hiring of Shia in the private as well as the public sectors.  Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared on social media, including allegations that some prominent former and current Shia political leaders were “traitors” and “Iranian servants.”  According to non-Muslim religious groups, including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, Buddhist, and Jews, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs, traditions and houses of worship.  Although there is no law that prevents individuals from converting from any religion to another, societal attitudes and behavior discouraged conversion from Islam.

The Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of State, Ambassador, and embassy officers met with government officials to urge respect for freedom of expression; to ensure full inclusion of all Bahraini citizens in political, social, and economic opportunities; and to pursue reconciliation between the government and Shia communities.  U.S. officials also continued to advocate for the government to pursue political reforms, which would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation.  The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to meet regularly with religious leaders of a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and political groups to discuss their freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it relates to religious practices.

Bangladesh

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Barbados

Executive Summary

The constitution and other laws provide for freedom of religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion, and prohibit discrimination based on religious belief.  Rastafarians continued to object to the prohibition of marijuana, stating marijuana was integral to their religious rituals.  They also continued to oppose the government’s vaccination requirement for all children attending school.  Some Muslims said they continued to object to a government policy requiring women to remove the hijab for identification and passport photographs.  They said they were working with the government to review those policies.

Rastafarians continued to report some social discrimination, specifically for their dreadlocks; however, they stated societal attitudes regarding Rastafarianism continued to improve.

U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom and specific cases with government ministries and offices at all levels.  Embassy officials also engaged civil society and religious groups, including the Muslim and Rastafarian communities, on religious expression and societal or governmental discrimination based on religion or belief.

Belarus

Executive Summary

The constitution grants individuals freedom to profess and practice any religious belief but prohibits religious activities directed against the sovereignty of the state, its constitutional system, and “civic harmony.”  The law recognizes the “determining role” of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC).  A concordat grants the BOC rights and privileges not granted to other religious groups, although the law also acknowledges the historical importance of the “traditional” faiths of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism.  By law, all registered religious groups must seek permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing activities, and must obtain prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature.  The law bans all religious activity by unregistered groups.  The government continued to detain or fine individuals for proselytizing, including a Baptist couple in Lepel who were singing Christian songs and distributing Christian literature.  Police also detained Jehovah’s Witnesses and a Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox priest for proselytizing in public.  Minority religious groups continued to have difficulty registering.  Some groups remained reluctant to apply for registration, reportedly due to fear of harassment and punishment.  The government continued its surveillance of minority and unregistered religious groups.  Human rights groups said that while BOC and some Roman Catholic clergy had access to prisoners of their faiths, Muslim and Protestant clergy and clergy from nontraditional faiths did not.  Minority religious groups said they continued to have difficulties acquiring buildings to use as houses of worship.  Roman Catholic groups reported the government denied visas and requests to extend the stay of some foreign missionaries.

Authorities convicted a number of individuals reportedly associated with neo-Nazis or skinhead movements for inciting ethnic and religious hatred against Jews and other religious minorities.  On February 27, a court in the Vitsyebsk region sentenced a resident in Navapolatsk to three years in prison for posting videos on his social media featuring mass killings of Jews in the Holocaust and skinheads beating Muslims.  In a similar case, authorities convicted an individual from the Baranavichy district for posting videos with anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim content and sentenced him to a year and a month in jail on April 18.  Jewish community leaders continued to express concern about the BOC’s annual commemoration of a young child allegedly killed by Jews near Hrodna in 1690 as one of its saints and martyrs.  Despite a government ban, anti-Semitic print and video material continued to be imported from Russia and available locally.  Interdenominational Christian groups worked together on charitable projects and programs.  In a televised interview in November BOC Metropolitan Pavel said Baptists were “a sect,” focused on their “missionary activities,” and called them “annoying” and accused them of spreading “propaganda and not preaching.”  The head of the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Leanid Mikhovich, called the Metropolitan’s remarks “unacceptable.”

In October U.S. embassy officials and a visiting U.S. delegation that included the Chair of the U.S. Commission on Protection of America’s Heritage Abroad and the Deputy Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with officials from the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs as well as prosecutors to discuss concerns related to preservation of Jewish heritage sites.  The delegation also participated in the Foreign Ministry-sponsored international roundtable to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Minsk ghetto on October 22.  Also in October the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs met with senior government officials for discussions that included religious freedom concerns.  The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with Jewish groups to discuss anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage.  Embassy officials also met with Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups, as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups, to discuss government restrictions on registration and the activities of minority religious groups.

Belgium

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the law prohibits discrimination based on religious orientation.  Federal law bans covering one’s face in public.  Jewish and Muslim groups launched legal challenges against laws, scheduled to take effect in 2019 in Wallonia and Flanders, banning the slaughter of animals without prior stunning.  The government maintained its policy of attempting to curb what it described as radical Islam.  The federal government terminated Saudi Arabia’s lease on the Great Mosque in Brussels.  The Brussels regional government recognized two mosques in July, increasing the number of recognized mosques in the country to 85.  Most public schools continued to ban headscarves, and the government maintained its ban on wearing religious symbols in public-sector jobs.

There were reports of incidents of religiously motivated violence, threats, harassment, discrimination, and hate speech against Jews and Muslims.  The Center for Equal Opportunities, Unia, preliminarily reported 101 anti-Semitic incidents (56 in 2017), and 319 incidents in 2017 (390 in 2016) against other religious groups, primarily Muslims.

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials in the Office of the Prime Minister and at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and discrimination.  Embassy officials met with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious leaders to address anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment, and to promote religious tolerance.  The embassy sponsored the visit of a U.S.-based imam to discuss interfaith tolerance and cooperation in meetings with religious groups, civil society, and police.  It also sponsored visits of two young Muslim leaders to the United States on programs that included a focus on religious pluralism and tolerance.  Through small grants, the embassy supported programs that promoted interfaith dialogue and tolerance and raised awareness of religious minorities.

Belize

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom to express one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance.  The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion.  Nondenominational “spirituality” classes, including morals, values, and world religions, are taught in public schools; opt-outs are possible.  The government continued to engage religious groups in the country on its stated commitment to fostering tolerance for religious minorities and for protecting religious freedom and equal protection under the law.

Religious groups routinely collaborated with international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to carry out missionary work in the country.  Thirteen religious radio stations continued to operate countrywide.  The interfaith Belize Chaplain Service (BCS) continued to promote several initiatives, such as counseling services for relatives of crime victims and for police officers, with the stated objective to provide professional, multifaith, compassionate pastoral care to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of the public.

Embassy representatives met with government officials to emphasize the importance of the government’s continued engagement with a wide spectrum of religious groups in the country, including with Christians and non-Christian religious minorities.  The embassy invited representatives of religious groups to participate in embassy programming and outreach and to reinforce the role of religious groups in promoting respect for religious diversity and tolerance.  The embassy also used social media to promote broad messages of religious tolerance.

Benin

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes a secular state and provides for freedom of religious thought, expression, and practice.  All religious groups must register with the government.  In February and March President Patrice Talon met with leaders of the Catholic Church, the Protestant Methodist Church of Benin (EPMB), the Islamic Union of Benin (UIB), and the Group of the Evangelical Church Association of Benin (CAEEB) to discuss government reforms and ways to defuse social discord.

Bishop Antoine Sabi Bio donated furniture, teaching materials, and hardware to private French-Arabic primary and secondary schools in the city of Natitingou and stated that among the aims was to encourage interreligious dialogue.

Embassy staff met with representatives from various religious groups to discuss their roles in promoting interreligious dialogue within the country.  Embassy officials met with imams and Quranic teachers during visits to mosques and Quranic schools in the predominantly Muslim north.  The Ambassador donated foodstuffs to the Muslim community at Ramadan and conveyed a message of religious tolerance.  The Ambassador hosted an iftar with leaders from various religious groups during which she highlighted the importance of religious freedom and respect for religious diversity.

Bhutan

Executive Summary

The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage,” provides for freedom of religion, and bans discrimination based on religious belief.  The constitution states religious institutions and personalities shall remain “above politics.”  The law restricts religious speech promoting enmity between religious groups and requires religious groups to obtain licenses to hold public religious gatherings.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that the lack of clarity in the law addressing “inducements” to conversion placed the activities of minority religious groups at risk of legal sanction by the government.  NGO representatives, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, expressed continued concern over the lack of a clear definition in the constitution and legal code for terms such as “inducement” to religious conversion, which they indicated was tantamount to anticonversion legislation.  Churches that applied for registration continued to await approval from the government’s Commission for Religious Organizations (CRO).  Because of these delays, there was only one registered non-Buddhist religious group in the country:  the Hindu Dharma Samudaya, an umbrella body representing the Hindu population of the country; registered Buddhist groups increased from 95 to 110.  Media reports indicated authorities continued to support construction of Hindu temples, including a major project in the capital.  The NGO Open Doors continued to maintain the country on its watch list, stating the government suppressed Christianity.  NGOs reported that unregistered religious groups continued to be able to worship in private, but according to the law, they were unable to organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature.  Christians said they continued to hold religious meetings discreetly in private facilities; Christians living near the border with India continued to travel to Northeast India to worship and attend workshops, according to one foreign pastor.  Open Doors reported that authorities did not permit a student to graduate because of her Christian faith.

According to NGOs, societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices continued.  One Christian told Open Doors he was fired from his company after discussing his faith with his coworkers.  NGOs reported continuing societal discrimination against Christians in their personal and professional lives, and converts experienced pressure from family members to return to Buddhist beliefs and customs.

The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Bhutan or a diplomatic presence in the country.  During periodic visits, officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi engaged with a wide range of both government and nongovernment figures, including on issues relating to freedom of religious practice and treatment of religious minorities.

Bolivia

Executive Summary

The constitution stipulates the state is independent of religion and provides for “freedom of thought, spirituality, religion, and cult, expressed individually or collectively, in public and in private.”  The constitution and other laws give educational institutions the right to teach religion, including indigenous spiritual belief classes.  Religious leaders of various Christian and non-Christian groups stated that the country’s registration law had the potential to limit their ability to operate independently and could favor particular religious groups.  Church leaders again worked with the government on a legislative proposal exempting churches from the registration requirements with a grace period of five years if the legislation passes.  According to evangelical Protestant community sources, several smaller religious communities with “house churches” still preferred not to register their organizations, stating they did not want to provide the government with access to private internal information.  In January the congress abrogated revisions of the penal code, including an article criminalizing recruitment into “religious organizations or cults.”  In December, following a meeting with evangelical Protestant leaders, the government announced it would introduce a draft religious freedom law in February 2019.  Tensions between Christian church leaders, particularly Roman Catholics, and government officials continued.  Government officials continued to criticize church representatives for speaking out on presidential term limits and other political issues.  Evangelical Protestant leaders again stated the government violated the constitutional separation of religion and state by employing ethnic Aymara rituals and practices during government events and ceremonies.

Evangelical Protestant leaders again cited expulsions by indigenous religious leaders of evangelical pastors from rural areas because the pastors had refused to participate in ancestral practices and rituals.

U.S. embassy access to government officials was still limited despite embassy requests for meetings.  Embassy staff regularly met with religious leaders to underscore the importance of religious freedom.  The Charge d’Affaires hosted interfaith meetings for religious leaders in October and November.  Representatives from the evangelical Protestant, Catholic, Methodist, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jewish, and Muslim religious groups participated.  Topics discussed included the government’s respect for religious freedom and practices and the importance of respect for religious freedom, diversity, and tolerance.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Executive Summary

The constitutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and each of the country’s two entities – the Federation of BiH (the Federation) and Republika Srpska (RS) – provide for freedom of religious thought and practice, prohibit religious discrimination, and allow registered religious organizations to operate freely.  The Federation constitution declares religion to be “a vital national interest” of the constituent peoples.  The RS constitution establishes the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.”  A provision in the state constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, who predominantly belong to the SOC; Croats, who mainly belong to the Roman Catholic Church; and Bosniaks, who are predominantly Muslim – in the parliament and in government positions.  Individuals not belonging to one of the three major ethnic/religious groups reported they continued to be unable to obtain government positions or seats in parliament.  There were few reports of the various levels of government making progress in resolving longstanding issues pertaining to religious freedom and rights.  The Islamic Community (IC) continued to express its discontent over what it said was the Presidency’s continued inaction on the anticipated agreement between the state and the IC on certain accommodations for religious adherents.  Local religious groups in the minority continued to report discrimination by municipal authorities regarding the use of religious property and issuance of permits for new religious properties.  In March the Sarajevo Canton Assembly annulled its 2016 decision to name an elementary school after a World War II-era Ustasha anti-Semite who glorified Hitler; at year’s end, the annulment had not been implemented, and the school still bore the name.  In April seven defendants were charged for a 2015 attack on a mosque and sentenced to one and a one-half years in prison, but their sentences were suspended pending two years of probation.

Of the 209 attacks on religious officials and sites registered by the Interreligious Council (IRC) since 2010, police had identified perpetrators in 73 of the attacks, and the courts had prosecuted 23 of the cases.  In an annual report issued in May on the protection of holy sites, the IRC registered 11 attacks from November 1, 2016, through December 31, 2017:  seven attacks on IC members’ property, three attacks against SOC cemeteries, and one against property of the Catholic Church.  The IRC said again that the failure of authorities to pursue many cases reflected ignorance about hate crimes and a desire to deflect criticism of religious intolerance.  There were several instances of vandalism of religious buildings, including a mosque in Kiseljak (in December 2017), an SOC church in Visoko, and a Catholic church in Zenica.  The IRC continued to take steps to promote interfaith dialogue, including organizing joint visits of senior religious leaders representing each of the major religious groups to sites of suffering in the past wars, supporting open-door days of religious communities, and sponsoring various projects with women believers and youth.

U.S. embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to promote respect for religious diversity and to enforce equal treatment under the law, including for religious minorities.  In regular meetings with religious groups, embassy officials continued to urge these groups to improve interreligious dialogue in order to contribute to the development of a peaceful and stable society.  In December the Deputy Secretary of State met with leaders of the four major religious communities in BiH to discuss religious freedom and interreligious dialogue.  Embassy officials continued to attend significant events in the various religious communities, including events to commemorate Eid al-Fitr, Catholic Christmas, and Orthodox Christmas, to support religious tolerance and dialogue.  In December 2017, embassy officials attended a meeting in Banja Luka with the local mufti, Catholic bishop, and Orthodox bishop to discuss ways to encourage increased interreligious dialogue.

Botswana

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, with certain exceptions, and protection against governmental discrimination based on creed.  In July President Mokgweetsi Masisi said he would begin to permit yearlong visas for missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).  The government reportedly remained concerned that unregulated churches entering the country were demanding payments for routine services, and there were also reports that the government required visas for some pastors from countries for which visas were not required.

Representatives of religious organizations stated interfaith relations were robust, and there was a high degree of tolerance for religious diversity.

The U.S. embassy and senior elected U.S. government officials engaged with the government at high levels regarding residency permits for missionaries and religious freedom.  Embassy officials met with representatives of faith groups to discuss religious freedom, interreligious relations, and community engagement.  The Ambassador hosted an iftar during Ramadan for representatives of the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim communities, who highlighted the importance of empathy and peace between and among different religious groups.

Brazil

Executive Summary

The constitution states freedom of conscience and belief is inviolable, and it guarantees free exercise of religious beliefs.  The constitution prohibits federal, state, and local governments from either supporting or hindering any religion.  On September 19, a court convicted three of 14 defendants of attempted homicide, which the court ruled was motivated by religious and racial discrimination related to a 2005 attack on three men wearing kippahs, Jewish head coverings.  In September the Public Ministry of Sergipe State, in conjunction with the Coordination for the Promotion of Ethnic-Racial Equality (COPIER), filed suit against the municipality of Aracaju for violation of religious freedom.  The Public Ministry filed the case on behalf of Yalorixa Valclides Francisca dos Anjos Silva after police officers accused her of practicing black magic and abusing animals.  In February the government-associated Brasilia-based Religious Diversity and Human Rights Advisory (ASDIR) and the National Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality (SEPPIR) launched a national campaign entitled “Religious Diversity:  To Know, To Respect, To Value.”  The launch coincided with World Interfaith Harmony Week.  In April the Rio de Janeiro State government launched a program incorporating discussions on religious intolerance into the curriculum of 1,249 public schools in the state.  In May the Ministry of Culture, with the Palmares Cultural Foundation and University of Brasilia, released the results of the first ever mapping exercise of Umbanda and Candomble houses of worship, known as terreiros, documenting 330 terreiros in the Federal District.  In June the Human Rights Commission of the Chamber of Deputies held a public hearing on the development of public policies to combat religious discrimination and intolerance.

Media reported Guarani-Kaiowas, an indigenous group from Mato Grosso do Sul, denounced frequent acts of violence, which they said evangelical Christians committed against their shamanic rituals.  According to media reports, unidentified individuals damaged religious buildings at various times throughout the year.  These acts included the destruction of religious objects and spray painting of hateful statements at an Afro-Brazilian terreiro in Rio de Janeiro in May, spray painting of swastikas on a church in Rio de Janeiro in October, and spray-painting “God is Gay” on a Roman Catholic church in Sao Paulo in the same month.  On May 18, unidentified individuals spray-painted messages on the walls of the Jewish Israelite Society of Pelotas building, threatening the Jewish community to “wait” for an “international intifada.”  The individuals also attempted to set fire to the building, causing minor damage.  Attacks on terreiros continued, two occurring in May and one in July.  Religious organizations hosted interfaith community events, including on September 16, the 11th Annual Walk in Defense of Religious Freedom at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, which drew approximately 70,000 participants from across the religious spectrum, and on August 19, the Freedom Circuit three-kilometer and five-kilometer run in Brasilia.  According to the Ministry of Human Rights’ Secretariat of Human Rights (SDH), its hotline received 210 complaints of religious intolerance between January and June compared with 169 complaints during the same period in 2017.  The president of the Council for the Defense and Promotion of Religious Freedom for Rio de Janeiro State attributed the reported increase in religious intolerance to three factors:  “The creation of a service trusted by society, societal understanding that religious discrimination is a punishable crime, and increased aggression in religious confrontations.”

In October embassy officials engaged the Ministry of Human Rights’ coordinator for religious diversity, discussing the status of state religious diversity committees and plans for a potential conference on respect for religious diversity.  In February embassy officials attended the event commemorating the Federal District’s third annual Day to Combat Religious Intolerance.  In December an embassy official discussed with the public defender the increase in societal intolerance of African religions and the importance of applying the law to protect the religious freedom of these groups.  Sao Paulo consulate officials met with several evangelical Protestant leaders in the months leading up to the October elections – discussing the leaders’ views on the participation of religious groups in the political process and their priorities from a religious perspective.  Rio de Janeiro consulate officials visited an Afro-Brazilian terreiro in Duque de Caxias, in the metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro, in June to speak with Conceicao D’Liss, a priest leader of a Candomble terreiro.

Brunei

Executive Summary

The constitution states that while the official religion is the Shafi’i School of Islam, all other religions may be practiced “in peace and harmony.”  A partially implemented Sharia Penal Code (SPC) has operated in parallel with the existing common law-based criminal justice system since 2014 and primarily involves offenses punished by fines or imprisonment, such as propagating religions other than Islam, eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, cross-dressing, close proximity of unmarried persons of the opposite sex, and “indecent behavior,” which is defined broadly.  The SPC applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, with non-Muslims exempted from certain sections.  A government gazette dated December 29 contained an order from the sultan stating the final phases of the SPC, which include corporal and capital punishments, would go into effect on April 3, 2019.  A separate government gazette announced that the Sharia Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), which is necessary to implement the SPC, would go into effect January 1, 2019.  The government permitted Shafi’i Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths but continued to ban several religious groups it considers “deviant.”  The defendant in a long-running sedition case, accused of criticizing religious policy, fled before his verdict to seek refuge in Canada.  In response, the prosecution obtained an arrest warrant and informed the court it intended to apply for judgment in absentia.  The government continued to prohibit non-Muslims proselytizing among Muslims or persons with no religious affiliation but did not caution non-Muslims against publicly celebrating religious holidays as it did last in 2016.  The government periodically warned the population about “outsiders” preaching non-Shafi’i versions of Islam.  In a local press article, a government official said foreigners residing in the country must adopt the national philosophy, Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB).  Islamic authorities organized a range of proselytizing activities and incentives to explain and propagate Islam.

Non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior.  In discussion of religion and religious freedom on social media, some Muslims and non-Muslims posted comments questioning the relevance of the MIB national philosophy, while others called for increased Islamification and increased restrictions on non-Muslims.  Anecdotal reports indicated that some Muslims and Christians who wished to convert to another religion feared social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, other embassy officers, and visiting U.S. government officials regularly engaged with the government regarding the content and implementation of the SPC, ratification of the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT), and protection of religious minority rights.  The same issues were raised in June during a bilateral consultation between the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Minister of Foreign Affairs II, Dato Erywan.  In November Department of State officials met senior officials from the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) to discuss the SPC and preparations for implementation of SPC phases two and three.  The Ambassador and the Charge d’Affaires met frequently with minority religious leaders and discussed their concerns over the implementation of the full SPC.

Bulgaria

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and conscience.  Religious groups may worship without registering, but registered groups receive benefits.  The constitution recognizes Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s “traditional” religion, and the law exempts the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) from registration.  In December after protests by all major religious groups, the National Assembly passed amendments to a 2002 religious denomination law, providing for increased government funding for the BOC and the Muslim community.  A wide range of religious groups opposed earlier versions that placed restrictions on some smaller religious groups.  An appellate court issued guilty verdicts in a retrial of 13 regional Muslim leaders charged with spreading Salafi Islam.  Jehovah’s Witnesses reported fewer cases of assault and harassment.  There were multiple successful court decisions overturning local prohibitions on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious practices.  The Muslim community protested a decision in the Stara Zagora Region to change Turkish and Arabic place names to Bulgarian names, citing “racism and intolerance regarding everything Muslim.”  Jewish organizations denounced attempts by government leaders to distort historical facts at Holocaust-related events, including honoring individuals complicit in deportations of Jews.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported physical assaults, harassment, and threats.  In February the Bulgarian National Union again staged an annual march honoring Hristo Lukov, leader of a pro-Nazi organization in the 1940s.  Jewish nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern about the continued increase of hate speech and other manifestations of anti-Semitism.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, some media outlets continued to misrepresent their activities.  Muslims, Jews, and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported incidents of vandalism of their properties.  Christian, Muslim, and Jewish groups held events to promote religious tolerance.  The National Council of Religious Communities, whose members include representatives of Bulgarian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities, continued its efforts to promote religious tolerance.

The ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials regularly discussed cases of religious discrimination, harassment of religious minorities, and legislative initiatives restricting religious activities, including with representatives of the National Assembly, Directorate for Religious Affairs, Office of the Ombudsman, Commission for Protection against Discrimination, local governments, and law enforcement.  The ambassador protested the march to commemorate Lukov and publicly advocated tolerance and cited lessons from the Holocaust.  Embassy officials met with minority religious groups, including the Jewish, Muslim, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Catholic, Protestant, Armenian, and Jehovah’s Witnesses communities, to discuss their concerns over existing and proposed restrictions on their activities.  A Muslim scholar participated in a Department of State-funded exchange on religious pluralism in the United States.

Burkina Faso

Executive Summary

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 19.7 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2006 census, 61 percent of the population is Muslim, predominantly Sunni, 19 percent is Roman Catholic, 4 percent belong to various Protestant groups, and 15 percent maintain exclusively indigenous beliefs.  Less than 1 percent is atheist or belongs to other religious groups.  Statistics on religious affiliation are approximate because Muslims and Christians often adhere simultaneously to some aspects of indigenous religious beliefs.

 

Muslims reside largely in the northern, eastern, and western border regions, while Christians are concentrated in the center of the country.  Indigenous religious beliefs are practiced throughout the country, especially in rural communities.  The capital has a mixed Muslim and Christian population.  There is no significant correlation between religious affiliation and ethnicity, political, or socioeconomic status.

The constitution states the country is a secular state, and both it and other laws provide for the right of individuals to choose and change their religion and to practice the religion of their choice.  Religious-based attacks and kidnappings continued in the Sahel Region and increased in the East Region.  A number of domestic and transnational terrorist groups operated in the country throughout the year.  The government believed individuals associated with these terrorist and extremist groups carried out the majority of religious-based attacks during the year.  The government continued to subsidize travel costs for Muslim Hajj pilgrims and allocated subsidies to the four largest religious groups (Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, and traditional/animist).

In April individuals affiliated with groups identified by local authorities as terrorist and extremist kidnapped a public schoolteacher in the Sahel Region, based on their stated belief that French is the language of infidels and all education should be conducted in Arabic.  In May individuals affiliated with these groups burned down a public schoolhouse and a Muslim teacher’s house in the Center-North Region, stating the instruction was not Islamic.  In September individuals affiliated with these groups burned and vandalized several schools and teachers’ houses in the East Region with a warning against secular teaching during the upcoming school year.  Individuals affiliated with these groups kidnapped a Catholic catechist and a Christian pastor in the Sahel Region in May and June, respectively; both were later released without incident.  In September individuals affiliated with these groups attacked two separate mosques and killed two imams in the East Region.

In September unidentified individuals vandalized a Catholic church, removing the heads of religious statues in the southwest area of the country.  These incidents highlighted what observers and media described as increased targeting of adherents of all religious denominations across the country.

Embassy staff regularly discussed issues affecting religious freedom with the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization as well as with religious leaders at the national and local levels to promote religious freedom, interfaith tolerance, and civil dialogue.  Embassy staff also discussed the increase in religiously motivated attacks, particularly in the Sahel and East Regions, with the government, including the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, the Ministries of Defense and Security, and the Office of the President.  In May the Ambassador hosted an iftar with Muslim youth from the Mali and Niger border regions to promote and discuss religious freedom, and in July the Ambassador hosted religious leaders from a wide spectrum of religious groups in Kaya in the Center-North Region for a wide-ranging discussion.  The U.S. embassy regularly promoted religious tolerance, particularly with individuals from the regions of the country more affected by conflict, such as during a forum on good governance for mayors from the Sahel Region in March.

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; authorities used these laws to limit freedom of expression and press.  Local and international experts said deeply woven prejudices led to abuses and discrimination against religious minorities by government and societal actors.  It was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity in the country.  Violence, discrimination, and harassment against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State, who are nearly all Muslim, and other minority populations continued.  Following the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that took place in 2017 and resulted in the displacement of more than 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh, Rohingya who remained in Burma continued to face an environment of particularly 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).  In March the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar reported that the government appeared to be using starvation tactics against remaining Rohingya.  On September 17, the UN Fact-Finding Mission, established by the UN Human Rights Council, published its final report on the country, which detailed atrocities committed by the military in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States, as well as other areas, and characterized the “genocidal intent” of the military’s 2017 operations in Rakhine State.  The government denied the Fact-Finding Mission permission to enter the country and publicly disavowed the report.  Some government and military officials used anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim rumors and hate speech circulating on social media in formal meetings, public speeches, and other official settings.  Public remarks by the minister of religious affairs in November were widely understood to denigrate Muslims.  Christians in Kachin State, according to media and NGO reports, stated the military was carrying out a campaign to eliminate them similar to the situation in Rakhine State.  In other areas, non-Buddhist minorities, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, reported incidents in which authorities unduly restricted religious practice, denied freedom of movement to members of religious minorities, closed places of worship, denied or failed to approve permits for religious buildings and repairs, and discriminated in employment and housing.  The military’s selective denial of humanitarian access in some conflict areas, including Kachin, Chin, and Rakhine States, led to severe hardship on religious minorities and others and intercommunal tensions, according to NGOs.  Among Rohingya who fled the country during the year, some cited ongoing abuses in Rakhine State, while others reportedly fled due to government pressure to participate in a citizenship verification campaign, which they stated they did not trust.  NGOs and religious groups said local authorities in some cases worked to reduce religious tension and improve relations between communities.

In the Wa Self-Administered Division, where the government has no administrative control, United Wa State Army (UWSA) authorities detained Christian leaders, destroyed churches, and otherwise interfered with Christian religious practice, according to media reports and the UWSA spokesperson.

Some leaders and members of Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, better known by its former name Ma Ba Tha, continued to issue pejorative statements against Muslims.  In May the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), an independent but government-supported body that oversees Buddhist affairs, reiterated its 2017 order that no group or individual was allowed to operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha.  In spite of the order, many local Ma Ba Tha branches continued to operate with that name.  The SSMNC’s 2017 ban on public speaking by the monk Wirathu, a self-described nationalist, expired in March.  He appeared at a large promilitary rally in Rangoon in October, at which he made anti-Muslim statements.  Other Ma Ba Tha leaders continued propagating anti-Muslim sentiment in sermons and through social media.  Anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya hate speech was prevalent on social media.  Facebook removed pages belonging to Wirathu and a number of senior military leaders and military-affiliated groups for propagating hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric.  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 Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador to the United Nations, USAID Administrator, Ambassador to Burma, and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom advocated for religious freedom and tolerance and consistently raised concerns about discrimination against religious minorities, the treatment of Rohingya and conditions in Rakhine State, and the prevalence of anti-Muslim hate speech and religious tension.  In November the Vice President said, “The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse” and asked State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi about the country’s progress in holding accountable those who were responsible.  In July at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, the USAID Administrator stated, “The Rohingya were victimized by nothing less than ethnic cleansing:  extrajudicial killings, rapes, tortures, beatings, arbitrary arrests, displacement, destruction of property – all driven by intolerance and sectarian hatred.”  The United States has sanctioned five generals and two military units for human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities.  Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, frequently met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, to highlight concerns about religiously based discrimination and abuses 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 November 28, 2018, 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.

Burundi

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the state as secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of conscience and religion.  It prohibits political parties from preaching religious violence or hate.  Laws regulating nonprofit organizations and religious denominations require registration with the Ministry of the Interior, and religious denominations must meet standards including a minimum number of adherents in order to seek registration.  Religious groups that do not seek or receive registration may face scrutiny, and at times harassment or prosecution, by government officials and ruling party members.  On March 14, a man in Cankuzo Province died after being arrested and imprisoned for refusing to register as a voter due to his religious beliefs.  The official cause of death was malaria, but witnesses cited beatings with iron rods and stated that they contributed to his death.  Approximately 2,500 members of a nonrecognized religious group that fled the country to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2013 and 2014 returned to the country in April.  The Ministry of Interior appointed 11 members of a new religious monitoring body, of whom eight were religious leaders, including the president and vice president of the committee.  The committee included one Muslim representative, six representatives from Protestant denominations, and one Catholic representative, who resigned and was not replaced during the year.  The committee reported extensive efforts to promote dialogue among and within religious denominations during the year.  Among the committee’s stated functions was to track what were termed subversive or inflammatory teachings of religious groups.

Religious leaders from different denominations sought to promote improved interfaith relations, which at times were strained by political differences, including through nongovernmental organization (NGO)-supported dialogue programs.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy representatives discussed religious freedom with the government and urged the government to respect the free exercise of religious conscience.  The embassy encouraged societal leaders, including representatives of major faith groups, to support religious acceptance and promote interfaith discussion of the collaborative role religious groups could play in disseminating a message of peace and tolerance to the population.  Embassy representatives met with the Ministry of the Interior’s religious monitoring committee, stressing U.S. support for religious freedom and discussing the group’s work to promote dialogue within and among religious groups.

Cabo Verde

Executive Summary

The constitution and other laws protect the right of individuals to choose, practice, profess, and change their religion.  The law provides for freedom of religion and worship and provides for equal rights in accordance with the constitution and international law.  The law requires religious groups to prove they have 500 members before they may register formally as religious groups, according them certain rights and privileges.  Under a concordat with the Holy See, the government grants privileges to the Roman Catholic Church not received by other groups, including recognition of the legal status of the Catholic Church and Catholic marriages under civil law.  The warden of the country’s largest prison stated that Islamic religious services were now available in the prison.

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

U.S. embassy officials discussed religious freedom and the ability to worship in prisons with government officials.  Embassy representatives discussed interfaith relations with members of civil society, including religious leaders, around the country and promoted respect for religious freedom through social media.

Cambodia

Executive Summary

The constitution states Buddhism is the state religion, and it is promoted by the government through holiday observances, religious training, Buddhist instruction in public schools, and financial support to Buddhist institutions.  The law provides for freedom of belief and religious worship, provided such freedom neither interferes with others’ beliefs and religions nor violates public order and security.  The law does not allow non-Buddhist denominations to proselytize publicly.  The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia sentenced former Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Noun Chea to life imprisonment for ethnic- and religious-based genocide against the ethnic Vietnamese and Cham populations during the Khmer Rouge era from 1975 to 1979.  The government refused to allow the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to permanently accept a group of Christian Montagnards from Vietnam who came to the country to claim refugee status.  There were reports local authorities discriminated against ethnic minorities in the country, including the primarily animist Phnong, such as threatening not to provide public services or sign legal documents.

Villagers killed at least one person suspected of practicing sorcery due to his animist beliefs and practices.  There were continued reports of societal barriers to the integration of the predominantly Muslim Cham ethnic minority as well as Christians.

U.S. embassy officials discussed the importance of religious acceptance and diversity with government representatives, political party leaders, civil society organizations, and leaders of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim groups.  U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom and tolerance with Ministry of Cults and Religion (MCR) representatives and other government officials.  The Ambassador traveled to Mondulkiri in January to meet with an ethnic Phnong community, in the process promoting religious tolerance.

Cameroon

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes the state as secular, prohibits religious harassment, and provides for freedom of religion and worship.  Religious leaders stated that security forces battling armed Anglophone separatists in the Northwest and Southwest Regions killed three clerics.  On several occasions, Christians in these two regions complained that security forces interrupted church services and prevented them from accessing places of worship.  On January 18, soldiers reportedly burned down the presbytery of St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Kwa-Kwa, Southwest Region.  During the year, the government implemented a series of measures that it stated were to preserve order within religious groups undergoing internal disputes.  These included disputes over the creation of new ecclesiastical districts and the election of church leaders in which the government suspended elected executives and temporarily closed down certain places of worship.  For the eighth straight year, the government did not authorize any new religious groups, and many requests remained pending.  Some religious leaders said the government deliberately withheld authorizations in order to maintain leverage over religious organizations.

Boko Haram continued to carry out violent attacks, including suicide bombings against civilians, government officials, and military forces, and harassed and intimidated populations in the Far North Region.  Attacks on civilians included invasions of mosques, church burnings, killings and kidnappings of Muslims and Christians, and theft and destruction of property, including arson.  The insurgents attacked places of worship and private homes.  The government initiated communication campaigns aimed at curbing radical extremism and reintegrating former Boko Haram fighters.

On two separate occasions, unidentified gunmen in the Southwest Region killed a local chief in a church and assassinated a priest, reportedly because of their opposition to the separatist movement in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest Regions.  Separatists in these two regions threatened pastors, kidnapped priests, and sometimes limited Christians’ ability to attend services.  There were reports that more than 90 students were kidnapped from Presbyterian schools in two incidents in October and November.  A traditional council banned activities of a Pentecostal church in the Northwest Region.  Protracted leadership struggles in some Christian communities sometimes prevented the holding of religious services.  Muslim and Christian leaders initiated interfaith activities aimed at promoting interreligious dialogue and peaceful coexistence of different faiths.

U.S. embassy officers discussed religious freedom issues, including the importance of interfaith dialogue, with government officials and leading figures from the principal religious groups.  The embassy continued to discuss the dangers of inter-and intrareligious intolerance and organized an interactive workshop on the importance of interfaith dialogue in promoting social cohesion and religious freedom.

Canada

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, expression, and the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on religion.  The government does not require religious groups to register, but registered groups receive tax-exempt status.  In June the Supreme Court held that the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario had the authority to refuse accreditation to a Christian law school that required students to sign a strict code of conduct.  The court ruled it was permissible to limit religious freedom to ensure equal access for all students and the diversity of members of the bar.  In January an Ontario court affirmed the constitutionality of provincial regulations requiring doctors to refer patients seeking services such as assisted death, abortion, or contraception to another practitioner in circumstances where the physicians object to providing the services on religious or moral grounds.  In June a Quebec court indefinitely extended the suspension of the previous Quebec provincial government’s prohibition of religious face coverings when providing or receiving provincial government services.  In June the British Columbia Supreme Court sentenced two convicted polygamists to house arrest plus a year of probation and community service.  The two men stated the conviction violated their religious beliefs.  In November Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized for the government’s 1939 decision to turn away a ship with more than 900 Jews fleeing the Nazis.

Reports continued of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic activity, including cases of violence, hate speech, harassment, discrimination, and vandalism.  According to Statistics Canada’s hate crime statistics for 2017, the number of religiously motivated police-reported hate crimes was 83 percent higher than 2016, increasing to 842 cases.  In 2017, the most recent year for which there were statistics, the B’nai Brith Canada League for Human Rights reported in its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic occurrences there were 16 cases of anti-Semitic violence nationwide and 327 reports of anti-Semitic vandalism.  In July police arrested two men for a violent attack on a Muslim man.  In January on the one-year anniversary of a shooting at a Quebec mosque, police investigated hate messages posted on the walls and door of an Ottawa mosque.

The Ambassador, embassy and consulate officials, and other U.S. government officials raised respect for religious freedom and diversity with the national and provincial governments.  Embassy officials discussed strategies to combat religious intolerance through engagement with religious leaders, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious minority groups.  The embassy sponsored and participated in public programs and events encouraging interfaith dialogue and freedom of religion.  In January the Winnipeg Consul General and consulate staff visited the Islamic Social Services Agency to promote interfaith dialogue and explore future opportunities for collaboration.  The embassy amplified these activities through social media.

Central African Republic

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and equal protection under the law regardless of religion.  It prohibits all forms of religious intolerance and “religious fundamentalism.”  The law also requires the head of state to take an oath of office that includes a promise to fulfill the duties of the office without any consideration of religion.  The government continued to exercise limited control or influence in most of the country, and police and the gendarmerie (military police) failed to stop or punish abuses committed by militias, such as killings, physical abuse, and gender-based violence, including those based on religious affiliation, according to human rights organizations.  The predominantly Christian anti-Balaka and the predominantly Muslim ex-Seleka militia forces continued to occupy territories in the western and northern parts of the country, respectively, and sectarian clashes between them and Christian and Muslim populations continued.  These clashes often included attacks on churches and mosques, and the deaths of religious adherents at those places of worship.  The Muslim community stated there was continued discrimination by government officials on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation, including exclusion from public services, such as access to education and healthcare.

Armed groups, particularly the predominantly Christian anti-Balaka and predominantly Muslim ex-Seleka, continued to control significant swaths of the country and clashes continued throughout the year.  In April and May a joint government and UN operation to disarm a militia group in Bangui’s predominantly Muslim PK5 neighborhood sparked renewed violence.  On May 1, militia gunmen attacked and killed one priest, Father Toungoumale-Baba, 26 worshipers, and injured more than 100 civilians, in the Notre-Dame de Fatima Catholic Church in Bangui.  The following day, anti-Balaka elements burned two mosques in Bangui.  On November 15, a suspected ex-Seleka militia group set fire to the Catholic cathedral and an adjoining internally displaced person (IDP) camp in the city of Alindao, killing Bishop Blaise Mada and Reverend Delestin Ngouambango and more than 40 civilians.

On May 25, the Platform of Religious Confessions (PCRC) composed of Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants, published a memorandum on the continuing political crisis that started in 2012.  The memorandum expressed concerns about the persistence of violence and called for an end to the clashes among the religiously oriented factions.

In May the White House press secretary issued a statement condemning the attacks on the Notre-Dame de Fatima Church in Bangui and retaliatory attacks on Muslims in the weeks that followed.  The press secretary called on the government to provide security for all citizens, regardless of faith.  At the onset of the violence, embassy staff met with government representatives responsible for human rights and religious freedom and encouraged authorities to implement measures to stem the violence.  They also served as intermediaries to help increase communication and trust between the religious leaders and the government, address claims of religious discrimination, and support reconciliation efforts.  Embassy officials engaged the Christian and Muslim communities, including armed group representatives, to discourage further violence.  There were similar meetings with religious leaders and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  These meetings explored possible solutions and offered assistance to aid the religious communities, promoted the return of IDPs that were dislocated because of religiously based violence, and highlighted the importance of religious tolerance.

Chad

Executive Summary

A new constitution enacted in May establishes the state as secular and affirms the separation of religion and state.  It provides for freedom of religion and equality before the law without distinction as to religion.  It prohibits “denominational propaganda” that inhibits national unity.  The government maintained its ban on the leading Wahhabi association, but enforcement of the ban was difficult.  Those practicing this interpretation of Islam continued to meet and worship in their own mosques.  In April the Catholic Episcopal Bishops Conference criticized the constitutional revision process and called for additional consultation and a referendum.  In May during the inauguration of the new government, two Christian incoming ministers refused to swear the required oath of office in the name of “Allah”; one minister who refused to take any oath in the name of God was immediately fired by President Idriss Deby.  Religious groups and civil society continued to express concern about the required oath of office, stating it was contrary to the secular nature of the state and excluded Christians.

Religious leaders continued to raise awareness of the risks of terrorist attacks and to advocate for security in places of worship.  On National Prayer Day, November 28, religious leaders, including the secretary general of the Chadian Evangelical Umbrella Organization (EEMET), the Catholic Archbishop of N’Djamena, and the head of the High Council for Islamic Affairs (HCIA), publicly stated they supported the president’s statements advocating religious tolerance.

The U.S. Ambassador hosted an iftar in May for religious leaders, including Muslim, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Baha’i representatives, and government officials, and a second iftar specifically for women, including government officials, journalists, and representatives of civil society organizations.  Participants in both events discussed religious freedom and tolerance.  The Ambassador and other embassy representatives maintained a dialogue with Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Protestant leaders on religious freedom and supported outreach programs that encouraged religious tolerance and mutual understanding, such as International Religious Freedom Day in October, in partnership with local nongovernmental organizations.

Chile

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship.  The law prohibits religious discrimination and provides civil remedies to victims of discrimination.  Religion and state are officially separate.  The National Office of Religious Affairs (ONAR), an executive government agency, is charged with facilitating communication between faith communities and the government and ensuring the protection of the rights of religious minorities.  ONAR and media sources reported arsonists burned down 13 churches in Araucania and Santiago Regions between January and October following more than eight similar incidents in 2017.  No one was hurt in the attacks.  President Sebastian Pinera responded in September by announcing the Accord for Development and Peace in the Araucania, home to the country’s largest indigenous community, the Mapuche.  According to the government, the plan aims to address economic, social, and political grievances that have led to violence and destruction.  Media reported Mapuche opposition to the plan.  The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organization whose mandates include documenting and memorializing the Holocaust, wrote an open letter to President Pinera denouncing his meeting in May with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.  The letter stated that government reception of PA delegates over the last year “has led to increasing anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activity, especially on university campuses.”  The government did not respond publicly to the letter.  In March the administration disbanded a government Interfaith Advisory Council formed under the prior administration.  The council’s mandate was to facilitate interreligious dialogue between religious and government leaders and to meet with indigenous groups, religious minorities, and civil society leaders.  ONAR said the new administration, which took office in March, would set up a new council, but the government did not form the council by year’s end.

Jewish community leaders stated concern about a rise in religious tensions, citing a perceived increase in acrimony toward Jews, especially on the part of the country’s Palestinian population, after the U.S. government moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  According to media sources, the Organization of Palestinian Students at the University of Chile Law School denounced a student running for the school’s student council and boycotted the election campaign because of the student’s stated Zionist beliefs.  The Organization of Jewish Students of Chile condemned the boycott in a public statement, saying the statements regarding Zionism were “a way to hide anti-Semitism.”

The Ambassador and other embassy representatives periodically met with government officials and religious leaders to discuss religious diversity and tolerance and to raise incidents of concern, including perceived threats to the Jewish community and church burnings in Araucania.

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

Executive Summary

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


Reports on Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet are appended at the end of this report.  Given the scope and severity of reported religious freedom violations specific to Xinjiang this year, a separate section on the region is also included in this report.

The constitution states citizens have freedom of religious belief but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” and does not define “normal.”  The government continued to exercise control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents when the government perceived these as threatening state or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests, according to nongovernmental organization (NGO) and international media reports.  Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant) 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, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices.

Multiple media and NGOs estimated that since April 2017, the government detained at least 800,000 and up to possibly more than 2 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other Muslim groups, mostly Chinese citizens, in specially built or converted detention facilities in Xinjiang and subjected them to forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity.  There were reports of deaths among detainees.  Authorities maintained extensive and invasive security and surveillance, particularly in Xinjiang, in part to gain information regarding individuals’ religious adherence and practices.  The government continued to cite concerns over the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as grounds to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Muslims in Xinjiang.  Authorities in Xinjiang punished schoolchildren, university students, and their family members for praying.  They barred youths from participating in religious activities, including fasting during Ramadan.  The government sought the forcible repatriation of Uighur Muslims from foreign countries and detained some of those who returned.

Religious groups reported deaths in or shortly after detentions, disappearances, and arrests and stated authorities tortured Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, and members of Falun Gong.  The Church of Almighty God reported authorities subjected hundreds of their members to “torture or forced indoctrination.”  Although authorities continued to block information about the number of self-immolations of Tibetan Buddhists, including Buddhist monks, there were reportedly four self-immolations during the year.  The government began enforcing revised regulations in February that govern the activities of religious groups and their members.  Religious leaders and groups stated these regulations increased restrictions on their ability to practice their religions, including a new requirement for religious group members to seek approval to travel abroad and a prohibition on “accepting domination by external forces.”  Christian church leaders stated the government increased monitoring even before the new regulations came into effect, causing many churches to cease their normal activities.  Authorities continued to arrest Christians and enforce more limitations on their activities, including requiring Christian churches to install surveillance cameras to enable daily police monitoring, and compelling members of house churches and other Christians to sign documents renouncing their Christian faith and church membership.  An ongoing campaign of church closings continued during the year, and authorities removed crosses and other Christian symbols from churches, with Henan Province a particular focus area of such activity.  In September the Holy See reached a provisional agreement with the government that reportedly would resolve a decades-long dispute concerning the authority to appoint bishops.

Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities.  In Xinjiang, tension between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese continued.

The Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other embassy and consulates general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom.  On July 26, the Vice President said, “Religious persecution is growing in both scope and scale in the world’s most populous country, the People’s Republic of China…Together with other religious minorities, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians are often under attack.”  On September 21, the Secretary said, “Hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions of Uighurs are held against their will in so-called re-education camps, where they’re forced to endure severe political indoctrination and other awful abuses.  Their religious beliefs are decimated.  And we’re concerned too about the intense new government crackdown on Christians in China, which includes heinous actions like closing churches, burning Bibles, and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith.”  A statement from the July 24-26 U.S. Government-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom said, “Many members of religious minority groups in China – including Uighurs, Hui, and Kazakh Muslims; Tibetan Buddhists; Catholics; Protestants; and Falun Gong – face severe repression and discrimination because of their beliefs.  These communities consistently report incidents, in which the authorities allegedly torture, physically abuse, arbitrarily arrest, detain, sentence to prison, or harass adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and peaceful practices.  Authorities also restrict travel and interfere with the selection, education, and veneration of religious leaders for many religious groups….”  The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with Chinese officials, members of registered and unregistered religious groups, family members of religious prisoners, NGOs, and others to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom.

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 November 28, 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.

Colombia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right to profess one’s religious beliefs.  It prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The Ministry of Interior (MOI) is responsible for formally recognizing churches, religious denominations, religious federations and confederations, and associations of religious ministers, among other responsibilities.  In March the MOI introduced a new policy, titled “Comprehensive Public Policy of Religious Freedom and Worship,” establishing a Religious Freedom Directorate in the MOI and providing technical assistance to corresponding entities at the regional level.  The MOI started developing protective tools for religious groups as part of its ongoing implementation of the new public policy.  The Mennonite Association for Justice, Peace, and Nonviolent Action (Justapaz) expressed continued concern over a law requiring interagency commissions to evaluate requests for conscientious objector status.  The minister of interior and the high commissioner for peace launched an interagency working group in April on the role of religious organizations in the peace and reconciliation process to strengthen respect for religious diversity.  The Episcopal Catholic Conference of Colombia (ECC) expressed concern about new requirements for tax-exempt status implemented during the year, which the ECC said limited the ability of religious nonprofit organizations to deliver social services in their communities.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that guerillas and organized illegal armed groups threatened leaders and members of religious organizations in many areas of the country.

The ECC stated that on March 10, unidentified individuals tortured and killed 68-year-old Father Dagoberto Noguera Avendano in Santa Marta.  Justapaz reported that an unidentified illegal armed group threatened the organization via a pamphlet issued on July 14, due to its efforts to promote human rights and reconciliation.  Justapaz reported the threat to the Attorney General’s Office and the MOI.  The Jewish community reported continued comments promoting anti-Semitism on some social media sites, including aggressive actions by Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Colombia, an anti-Israel protest movement that used anti-Semitic slogans such as “Jews control the media.”  During the year, the Catholic Church, Mennonite Church, and other religious groups continued to conduct programs focused on religious tolerance, land rights, peace, and reconciliation.

U.S. embassy officials raised issues of religious freedom, including conscientious objection to military service and the effect of illegal armed actors on religious practice, with government officials.  Embassy officials met with the Human Rights Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the International Affairs Directorate of the Attorney General’s Office, and the Religious Affairs Directorate of the MOI.  Embassy officials discussed with the MOI the new public policy on religious freedom and worship, including support for victims of conflict and other vulnerable populations at the national and local levels.  Embassy officials also met with representatives from a wide range of religious groups, including the Jewish and Muslim communities, Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, and Mennonites.  In these meetings, embassy officials discussed issues related to the government’s new policy on religious freedom, conscientious objection, and the importance of eliminating institutionalized discrimination.

Comoros

Executive Summary

The new constitution adopted in August specifies Islam is the state religion and defines the national identity as being based on a single religion – Sunni Islam – but proclaims equality of rights and obligations for all regardless of religious belief.  The constitution also specifies that the principles and rules that will regulate worship and social life be based on Sunni Islam under the Shafi’i doctrine.  Proselytizing for any religion except Sunni Islam is illegal, and the law provides for deportation of foreigners who do so.  The law prohibits the performance of non-Sunni religious rituals in public places on the basis of “affronting society’s cohesion and endangering national unity.”  National leaders explicitly condoned harassment against individuals practicing non-Sunni forms of Islam.  On at least two occasions, President Azali Assoumani said Shia Muslims should leave the country and called for their expulsion.  On February 12, at the conclusion of the “assises nationales” (national convention), President Azali said “those who practice Shia Islam are not welcome; they should leave the country immediately.”  On July 16, he called on citizens to “expel the Shia who have established themselves in our country” and blamed Shia for “[endangering] peace and security of every citizen on earth.”  The interior minister announced that from March onward, no imam or preacher would be permitted to preach or lead prayer, regardless of location, without prior government approval, and that approved imams would receive a license in the form of an identity card.  The system of identity cards was not implemented by year’s end, and the government imposed the prior approval requirement for preaching on only one individual, a former president under house arrest.

There continued to be reports that communities unofficially shunned individuals who were suspected of converting from Islam to Christianity.

Representatives from the U.S. embassy in Antananarivo, Madagascar visited the country and engaged with government officials on issues of religious freedom.  The U.S. Charge d’Affaires met with President Azali and expressed his concerns about statements made by the president and the destruction of mosques in 2017.  Other embassy officials conveyed their concern and alarm over the increasing harassment of religious minorities with the minister of justice, the minister of interior, and the secretary general of the foreign ministry.  Embassy representatives also discussed religious freedom with religious and civil society leaders and others, including members of minority religious groups.

On November 28, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Comoros on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Costa Rica

Executive Summary

The constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as the state religion; the law requires the state to contribute to the Catholic Church’s maintenance.  The constitution prohibits the state from impeding the free exercise of religions that do not impugn “universal morality or proper behavior” and provides for redress in cases of alleged violations of religious freedom.  Some civil society leaders continued to state that the constitution did not sufficiently address the specific concerns of non-Catholic religious groups, in particular regarding registration processes.  The Constitutional Chamber received 12 claims of denial of the free exercise of religious freedom at educational institutions and discrimination by some government entities.  The chamber dismissed 10 of them, stating there was insufficient evidence or no basis for claiming discrimination.  In the other two cases, the chamber ruled in favor of the claimants:  a police officer who wanted to reschedule his work shift to observe the Jewish Sabbath and evangelical pastors denied access to a prison.

Instances of anti-Catholic language on social media continued.  For example, an article posted on Facebook reporting on the Catholic Church’s position on abortion received several comments with slurs against the Catholic clergy, calling them pedophiles and hypocrites in their views on social issues.  There were also reports of anti-Semitism on social media, with the Jewish community reporting instances of stereotypes about Jews controlling the economy being perpetuated on social networks, as well as statements questioning Israel’s right to exist.  An interreligious forum created in December 2017, with participants from Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Lutheran, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Muslim, and indigenous communities, continued to promote dialogue among the country’s faith communities.  The group met periodically throughout the year.

Embassy representatives met with public officials and religious leaders throughout the year, including those representing religious minorities, to discuss their views on religious freedom.  The outreach to religious groups included meetings with leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant communities; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ); and other religious groups.  In November the Ambassador hosted an interfaith Thanksgiving-themed meeting at her residence to promote interreligious dialogue with public officials and religious leaders.  The embassy also nominated a Christian minister who participated in a U.S. government exchange program on religious freedom.  The embassy used social media to send congratulatory messages to religious groups on special religious occasions.

Côte d’Ivoire

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and worship, consistent with law and order, and prohibits religious discrimination in employment.  It emphasizes that religious tolerance is fundamental to the nation’s unity, national reconciliation, and social cohesion.  It forbids speech that encourages religious hatred.  In July authorities charged a Muslim preacher with xenophobia, discrimination, inciting hatred, and being sympathetic toward terrorism.  As in previous years, the government organized and supervised Hajj pilgrimages for Muslims and funded pilgrimages to Europe and Israel for Christians.  In August authorities in Abidjan arrested evangelical Christian Pastor Israel N’Goran for publishing online videos authorities deemed “tribalistic and xenophobic.”

In March, during a speech on the last day of the United Methodist Church of Cote d’Ivoire’s annual conference, a Methodist bishop called on the president to encourage individuals who left the country following the disputed national election in 2010 to return and also to release political prisoners.  In October Muslim and Catholic leaders participated in the sixth Interreligious Conference for Peace hosted by the Sant’Egidio community.

U.S. embassy representatives discussed the importance of religious tolerance with government officials, the political opposition, and the national media.  In January the embassy hosted a discussion on nonviolent resistance and religious tolerance.  In March the Charge d’Affaires led an embassy delegation in a cycling event entitled “Pedaling for Peace” to commemorate the second anniversary of a 2016 attack in Grand Bassam that left 22 persons dead, including the three attackers.  The embassy organized a social cohesion program for youth using soccer as a means for teaching tolerance and respect for diversity.  The program specifically focused on the need for tolerance in a religiously diverse country.

Crimea

Executive Summary

In February 2014, Russian military forces invaded and occupied Crimea.  United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262 adopted on March 27, 2014, and entitled Territorial Integrity of Ukraine, states the Autonomous Republic of Crimea remains internationally recognized as within Ukraine’s international borders.  The U.S. government does not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and considers that Crimea remains a part of Ukraine.

IN THIS SECTION: UKRAINE | CRIMEA (BELOW)


In February 2014, armed forces of the Russian Federation seized and occupied Crimea.  In March 2014, Russia announced Crimea had become part of the Russian Federation.  A UN General Assembly resolution declared continued international recognition of Crimea’s inclusion within Ukraine’s international borders.  The U.S. government continues not to recognize the purported annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and recognizes that Crimea continues to be part of Ukraine.  Occupation forces continue to impose the de facto implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory of Crimea.

In a joint 2014-2018 report for the UN Committee against Torture, Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, Regional Center for Human Rights, and Media Initiative for Human Rights reported religious activists were among victims of torture.  According to the report, despite the health problems of Arsen Dzhepparov and Uzeir Abdullayev, detained by the FSB on suspicion of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, occupation authorities denied medical assistance to them.

The Russian government reported there were 831 religious communities registered in Crimea, compared with 812 in 2017, a number that dropped by over 1,000 since occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available.  According to religious activists, human rights groups, and media reports, Russian authorities in occupied Crimea continued to persecute and intimidate minority religious congregations, Jehovah’s Witnesses, UOC-KP members, and Muslim Crimean Tatars.  Occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to imprisonment and detentions, especially if the authorities purportedly suspected the individuals of involvement in the Muslim political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is legal in Ukraine.

Due to the close links between religion and ethnicity, it was sometimes difficult for human rights groups to categorize incidents as solely based on religious identity.

According to Forum 18, an international religious freedom NGO, administrative court hearings under Russian law imposed on Crimea for “missionary activity” doubled in Crimea compared to the previous year.  There were 23 prosecutions for such activity, most of which ended in convictions with some type of monetary fine.

Greek Catholic leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation authorities.  The UGCC said it continued to have to operate under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church.  The UOC-KP reported continued seizures of its churches.  Crimean Tatars reported police continued to be slow to investigate attacks on Islamic religious properties or refused to investigate them at all.

Religious and human rights groups continued to report Russian media efforts to create suspicion and fear among certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, whom media repeatedly accused of links to Islamist groups designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir.  Russian media also portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.”

The U.S. government continued to condemn the intimidation of Christian and Muslim religious groups by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea and to call international attention to the religious abuses committed by Russian forces.  U.S. government officials remained unable to visit the peninsula following its occupation by the Russian Federation.  Embassy officials, however, continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Crimean Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders to discuss their concerns over actions taken against their congregations by the occupation authorities, and to demonstrate continued U.S. support for their right to practice their religious beliefs.

Croatia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious thought and expression and prohibits incitement of religious hatred.  All religious communities have the same religious protections under the law, and are free to worship, proselytize, own property, and import religious literature.  The government has written agreements with the Roman Catholic Church that provide state financial support and favorable tax and other treatment; 53 other registered religious communities that have agreements with the state receive equivalent treatment that registered religious communities without such agreements and unregistered religious groups do not receive.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations reported instances of border police subjecting migrants to treatment inconsistent with their religious beliefs.  The government denied these reports.  The ombudsperson covering human rights reported some health institutions denied operations to Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused blood transfusions for religious reasons, despite the ombudsperson having issued a recommendation that public hospitals provide treatment in such cases.  Jewish leaders said the government did not take concrete steps to restitute private or communal Jewish properties seized during the Holocaust.  According to observers, the government made no significant progress on such issues during the year.  Atheists and Jewish organizations said non-Catholic children were discriminated against in public schools.  Senior government officials attended an annual commemoration for victims of the World War II (WWII)-era Jasenovac concentration camp.  Jewish and Serb leaders, the latter largely Orthodox, boycotted the commemoration for the third year in a row, the former stating the government failed to address anti-Semitism.  Leaders of the Islamic community reported overall good relations with the government.

Jewish community leaders continued to report Holocaust revisionism and public use of Ustasha (WWII pro-Nazi regime) symbols and slogans.  The Council of Europe and the national ombudsperson reported an increase in religious intolerance, particularly online.  The ombudsperson’s report said comments on various online portals accused Jews of undermining democracy, freedom, and financial institutions.

The U.S. embassy continued to encourage the government to restitute property seized during and after WWII, particularly from the Jewish community during the Holocaust, and advocated amendments to existing legislation that would allow for restitution and compensation claims with a revised deadline for new applications.  The embassy sponsored a visit by two teachers to the United States for a Holocaust education exchange program and sponsored the visit to the United States of the director of the Jasenovac Concentration Camp Memorial Site on a leadership study program.

Cuba

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion; however, the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the government’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life.  Observers said the government continued to use threats, international and domestic travel restrictions, detentions, and violence against some religious leaders and their followers, and restricted the rights of prisoners to practice religion freely.  Media and religious leaders said the government continued to harass or detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom, including Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Fernandez, Christian rights activist Mitzael Díaz Paseiro, his wife and fellow activist Ariadna Lopez Roque, and Patmos Institute regional coordinator Leonardo Rodriguez Alonso.  In March the government registered the New Apostolic Church, which does not have a connection with Apostolic churches, also known as the Apostolic Movement.  The ORA and MOJ, however, continued to use the law on associations to deny official registration to certain religious groups, such as a number of Apostolic churches, or failed to respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Many religious groups said the lack of registration impeded their ability to practice their religion.  A coalition of evangelical Protestant churches, Apostolic churches, and the Roman Catholic Church pressed for reforms in the draft constitution, including registration of religious groups, ownership of church property, and new church construction.  On October 24, the Cuban Catholic Bishops Conference issued a statement calling for the constitution to strengthen protections for religious activities.  In September Protestant groups signed a petition opposing the removal of freedom of conscience in the draft constitution and sought the reinstatement of individual and collective rights to manifest one’s religion and beliefs in private and in public.  Human rights advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported government harassment of religious leaders increased “significantly in parallel with” the churches’ outspokenness regarding the draft constitution.  According to CSW, some religious groups said the government increased its scrutiny of foreign religious workers’ visa applications and visits.  Some religious groups reported an increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects.  According to the religious advocacy group EchoCuba and CSW, the government gave preference to some religious groups and discriminated against others.  During the year, the Sacred Heart of Jesus became the first Catholic church built since the country’s 1959 revolution.  It was the first of three Catholic parishes to be completed and the first Catholic church ever located in Sandino, a remote town in the country’s westernmost province.

The Community of Sant’Egidio again held an interfaith meeting – “Bridges of Peace” – in Havana on October 12-14 to promote interreligious engagement, tolerance, and joint efforts towards peace.  Leaders of different religious groups in the country and participants from 25 countries attended the meeting.

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with government officials and raise concerns about unregistered churches’ inability to achieve legal registration and gain the official status it conveys.  The embassy met regularly with Catholic Church authorities, evangelical Protestants, and Jewish community representatives concerning the state of religious, economic, and political activities.  Embassy officials also met with representatives from Muslim, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and various Protestant communities.  Embassy officials met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), a government-registered organization with close ties to the government composed mostly of Protestant groups and associated with the World Council of Churches, to discuss its operations and programs.  The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country.  In social media and other public statements, the U.S. government continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.

Cyprus

Executive Summary

Since 1974, the southern part of Cyprus has been under the control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus.  The northern part, administered by Turkish Cypriots, proclaimed itself the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”) in 1983.  The United States does not recognize the “TRNC,” nor does any country other than Turkey.  A substantial number of Turkish troops remain on the island.  A buffer zone, or “green line,” patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), separates the two parts.  This report is divided into two parts:  the Republic of Cyprus and the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.  For areas in the north that have different Greek and Turkish names, both are listed (e.g., Kormakitis/Korucam).

IN THIS SECTION: REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS (BELOW) | AREA ADMINISTERED BY TURKISH CYPRIOTS


The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the freedom to worship, teach, and practice one’s religion.  It grants the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and recognizes the Vakf, an Islamic institution that manages sites of worship and land Muslims have donated as a charitable endowment.  Authorities closed the only functioning mosque in Paphos from October 2017 to May due to construction in the area and denied the Muslim community’s request to use the Grand Mosque as an alternative.  The government granted Turkish Cypriots and foreigners in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots access to religious sites in the area it controls, including for three visits to Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque during Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and Mawlid al-Nabi.  On June 11, the government allowed Mufti of Cyprus Talip Atalay to attend an iftar with the Muslim community at Kato Paphos Mosque, marking the first time in more than four decades the mufti visited and prayed with the Muslim community of Paphos during Ramadan.  A Jehovah’s Witnesses representative reported difficulties accessing municipal cemeteries and in distributing pamphlets in Ayia Napa.  The Cyprus Humanists Association said the Ministry of Education (MOE) and public schools discriminated against atheist students, and the MOE on its website advised students to reject atheism.

The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Caritas reported instances of physical attacks and threats against Muslim students in Paphos.  The Jewish community reported incidents of anti-Semitic threats and verbal harassment.  Some religious minority groups reported pressure to engage in religious ceremonies of majority groups.  Greek Orthodox Christians reported they sometimes faced ostracism from that community if they converted to another religion.  Leaders of the main religious groups continued to meet and reaffirmed their commitment to promoting religious freedom across the island.

The U.S. Ambassador attended language classes for interfaith leaders coordinated by the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process (RTCYPP), an initiative of the Swedish embassy that facilitates cooperation among religious leaders to advocate peace and access to and protection of religious sites and monuments.  The Ambassador discussed access to religious sites and interfaith dialogue with Church of Cyprus Archbishop Chrysostomos.  Embassy staff met with the government, NGOs, and religious leaders to discuss religious freedom, including access to religious sites island-wide and discrimination against minority religious groups.  Embassy officials encouraged continued dialogue among religious leaders and reciprocal visits to places of religious significance on both sides of the “green line.”

Czech Republic

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief.  The 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK, however, concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and in many instances, violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity.  In October the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK reported to the UN General Assembly the country’s use of arbitrary executions, political prison camps, and torture amounting to crimes against humanity remained unchanged despite a series of diplomatic engagements between the country and other nations.  In December the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that condemned “the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”  The assembly specifically expressed its very serious concern at “the imposition of the death penalty for political and religious reasons,” and “all-pervasive and severe restrictions, both online and offline, on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association.”  In May, after diplomatic discussions involving the U.S. Secretary of State, the government released a U.S. citizen pastor who had been arrested in 2017.  A South Korean nongovernmental organization (NGO) said defectors who arrived in South Korea from 2007 until March 2018 and other sources reported 1,341 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by DPRK authorities, including 120 killings and 90 disappearances.  The government deported, detained, and sometimes released foreigners who allegedly engaged in religious activity within its borders.  According to NGOs and academics, the government’s policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state.  The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make arrests and punishments difficult to verify.

Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear their activities would be reported to the authorities.  There were conflicting estimates of the number of religious groups in the country and their membership.

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the country.  In July the Secretary of State hosted the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, at which the Vice President said, “…North Korea’s persecution of Christians has no rival on the Earth.  It is unforgiving, systematic, unyielding, and often fatal.”  The United States cosponsored a resolution at the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council condemning the government’s systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations.  In December the Department of State submitted the Report on Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea to Congress, identifying three entities and three North Korean officials responsible for or associated with serious human rights abuses or censorship.  Since 2001, the country 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 November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religious belief.  During the year, international NGOs, media, and religious organizations reported the government subjected religious organizations and leaders, most prominently Catholic, to intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and in some cases violence due to the Catholic Church’s support for credible elections, involvement in protest marches in January and February, and the implementation of the December 2016 Sylvester Agreement between the government and opposition parties.  On January 21, security forces used lethal force to disrupt peaceful protests organized by the Catholic Lay Association (CLC) and some Protestant church leaders in support of credible elections and implementation of the December 2016 agreement.  At least six persons were killed, and as many as 50 injured when government security forces, including members of the Republican Guard, fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition at protesters inside church compounds.  As many as 100 persons were subjected to arbitrary arrest, including several dozen choir girls.  On February 25, state security forces killed two individuals, including Rossy Mukendi Tshimanga, who was shot by a rubber bullet inside a church compound during a protest organized by the CLC.  Due to the political nature of many of the CLC’s activities and practices, however, it is difficult to establish the government’s response as being solely based on religious identity.

Antigovernment militia members in the Kasai region and in North Kivu Province attacked and targeted Catholic Church property, schools, and clergy, according to Church sources.  On April 8, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Father Etienne Nsengiunva in Kyahemba in North Kivu.  In Kasai, media reported the Kamuina Nsapu rebel group continued to threaten members of the Catholic Church.  On April 1, unidentified armed men abducted Father Celestin Ngango in Kihondo in North Kivu after Easter Mass and demanded a ransom.  The kidnappers released Ngango approximately one week later.  Several CLC members said they received threats due to their support for credible elections, implementation of the December 2016 agreement, and peaceful protests.

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers met with the foreign minister, minister of justice, minister of human rights, national police commissioner, and other senior government officials several times during the year to raise concerns about the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters and harassment of CLC members.  U.S. embassy officials met regularly with the government to discuss religious freedom issues, including government relations with religious organizations.  Embassy officials also met regularly with religious leaders and human rights organizations and discussed relations with the government, the electoral process, their concerns about abuses of civil liberties, and the government’s use of excessive force in response to church-led demonstrations.

Denmark

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees the right of individuals to worship according to their beliefs.  It establishes the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) as the national church, which has privileges not available to other religious groups.  Other religious groups must register with the government to receive tax and other benefits.  In August a law to ban masks and face coverings in public spaces, including burqas and niqabs, entered into force.  The government added seven new individuals, including two Americans, to a “hate preachers” list during the year, banning them from entering the country.  In December parliament enacted a law instituting a handshake requirement for persons becoming citizens that critics said targeted Muslims.  In June a citizen-driven petition to ban circumcision for individuals younger than age 18 acquired enough signatures to be debated in parliament.  The measure, strongly opposed by the Jewish and Muslim communities, was scheduled for a vote in 2019, and a majority of political parties said they would vote against it.  In January the government unveiled an action plan against what it called “ghetto” communities, which critics interpreted to mean Muslims, that included mandatory religious teaching on Christmas and Easter during day care for children receiving government benefits.  The immigration and integration minister made statements critical of Islam.

Police reported 142 religiously motivated crimes in 2017, 61 percent more than in 2016.  There were 67 incidents, including assault and a death threat, against Muslims and 38 against Jews.  Separately, the Jewish community in Copenhagen reported 30 anti-Semitic acts in that city in 2017, including aggravated harassment, threats, and hate speech.  Jewish and Muslim community leaders stated most victims did not report incidents because they believed police would not follow up.  The Nye Borgerlige Party adopted a platform critical of Islam.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with foreign ministry and other government representatives, including at the cabinet level, to raise Jewish and Muslim concerns over proposals to ban male circumcision and the prohibition on masks and face coverings.  They also met with religious groups, including Jews, Muslims, the ELC, Buddhists, and humanists and atheists, as well as nongovernmental organizations, to discuss their concerns and stress the importance of religious tolerance and diversity.

Djibouti

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but mandates equality for persons of all faiths.  The government maintained its authority over all Islamic matters and institutions, including assets and personnel of all mosques.  Non-Muslim groups register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which conducts lengthy background checks as part of the registration process.  The government continued to implement a decree for state control of mosques, and the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs’ High Islamic Council closely vetted all Friday prayer service sermons.  Unlike in past years, the ministry did not take any disciplinary action against imams deemed extremist.  The Ministry of Education for the first time permitted refugees (students and teachers) to miss class to observe their respective religious holidays.  Additionally, the ministry launched an initiative to highlight religious tolerance in national civic education.  The government granted the request of the country’s Christian community to allot plots of land on the outskirts of Djibouti City to build the country’s second Christian cemetery.

Norms and customs continued to discourage conversion from Islam.  Islamic religious leaders noted traditional social networks often ostracized converts from Islam.

U.S. embassy officials shared the Secretary of State’s Ramadan and Eid al-Adha messages on the importance of religious freedom with government and civil society leaders at an embassy-hosted iftar and on social media.  U.S. embassy officials met regularly with religious minority leaders to discuss equitable treatment of religious groups by the government.

Dominica

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including freedom of thought, freedom to practice one’s religion, and freedom from oaths contrary to one’s beliefs.  Rastafarians said they continued to press the government to legalize marijuana use.  Representatives of the Rastafarian community reported authorities did not enforce the law against using marijuana when they used it in their religious rites.  Members of the Rastafarian community stated their relationship with the government had improved significantly.

Interdenominational organizations worked to advance respect for religious freedom and diversity regardless of denominational affiliation.  Members of the Dominica Christian Council and the resident Roman Catholic bishop said they did not consider religious freedom to be an issue for Christians or to their knowledge for other religious groups.

Embassy officials raised religious freedom with the government, including with the chief welfare officer of the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, Family, and Gender Affairs.  They discussed Rastafarian allegations of extra scrutiny by police and immigration officials due to Rastafarians’ use of marijuana in their religious rites.  U.S. embassy representatives engaged civil society leaders, including members of the Rastafarian community, members of the Dominica Christian Council, and the resident Catholic bishop, on religious freedom issues, including freedom of religious expression and societal discrimination based on religion.

Dominican Republic

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief.  A concordat with the Holy See designates Roman Catholicism as the official state religion and extends to the Catholic Church special privileges not granted to other religious groups.  Privileges include funding for expenses such as administration and construction, visa exceptions, and exemptions for customs duties.  Some participants in an interfaith event in November said they did not approve of the government’s preference for the Catholic Church, the lack of explicit legal protection for churches beyond what the constitution provided, and the treatment of non-Catholic churches as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  In June the Ministry of Education signed agreements to incorporate 15 Christian schools, including non-Catholic Christian schools, into the national education system and provide them with teaching, administrative, and other support staff.  Some non-Catholic groups said they still paid customs duties and had to apply for refunds even though the law allows for exemptions.  Representatives of some non-Catholic groups stated that while the special privileges given to the Catholic Church through the concordat were unfair, these privileges did not hinder their ability to practice their religion in public and in private.

In February the School of Law at Santo Domingo’s Pontifical University and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) cohosted an international conference called Religious Liberty as a Fundamental Right.  Participants emphasized the importance of laws and the need for the objective administration of justice by judges as a means to guarantee religious liberty.

In November an official from the Ministry of the Presidency participated in an interfaith gathering hosted by the Ambassador.  Representatives from 25 religious groups and faith-based organizations also attended the event, where issues discussed included religious freedom, the concordat, government financial support of churches, and legal protections for churches.  In October an embassy official met with the Interfaith Dialogue Table to discuss religious freedom and the organization’s plans for interfaith initiatives in the country.

Ecuador

Executive Summary

The constitution grants individuals the right to choose, practice, and change religions; it prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The constitution also states secular ethics are the basis for public service and the legal system.  The law requires all religious groups to register with the government; failure to do so can result in the group’s dissolution and liquidation of physical property.  On November 14, President Lenin Moreno signed an executive decree that formally dissolved the Ministry of Justice, Human Rights, and Worship (MOJ), as part of the government’s downsizing.  He stated that the government would integrate responsibilities for issues related to religion and religious groups into the Secretariat of Policy Management (SPM) within 90 days.  According to a MOJ official, by year’s end, the government had not finalized the changeover but had begun transitioning functions to the SPM.  The MOJ continued to manage the registration process during the transition, including the registration process for religious groups.  According to the MOJ, approximately 3,638 religious groups were registered with the office and more than 1,000 additional groups were in the process of registration by the end of the year.  Many religious groups stated that at times the registration process had been onerous and disruptive to their activities but said the difficulties were bureaucratic in nature.  During the year, the interfaith National Council on Religious Freedom and Equality (CONALIR), which includes representatives of the Adventist, Anglican, Baha’i, Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant faith communities, continued to promote a draft religious law to revise the 1937 religion law and foster greater religious freedom and equality.  In August the group began conducting a series of human rights workshops on the importance of religious equality under the law.  Evangelical Christian and Roman Catholic representatives expressed concern about a presidential decree issued in May requiring all schools to teach a definition of gender not in line with their religious beliefs.  In response to religious groups’ stated concerns, President Moreno revised the decree on July 19.  Numerous religious leaders said the Moreno government exhibited greater support for the protection of religious freedom than the previous administration.

Many religious leaders said that societal knowledge of religious traditions and practices outside of Catholicism was generally lacking.  A new interfaith working group, including representatives from the Baha’i, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Muslim communities, formed in October.

Embassy officials met with government officials in the Ministry of Interior and the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman to discuss the registration process and government promotion and protection of religious freedom and other related human rights.  The Ambassador hosted a roundtable with religious leaders on September 6 to discuss challenges facing their communities and changes taking place under the current administration.  Leaders from the Baha’i, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Church of Jesus Christ, and Muslim communities attended the event and met monthly on their own after the roundtable to discuss areas of common interest.  On October 30, President Moreno and Foreign Minister Jose Valencia participated in a ceremony and reception commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Jewish community in the country, which the Ambassador also attended.  The Consul General in Guayaquil hosted a roundtable on September 26 with Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical Christian, and Jewish leaders to discuss coastal communities’ challenges and advances in freedom of religion.  Embassy officials spoke with representatives from CONALIR to encourage the continuation of interfaith and ecumenical dialogue.

Egypt

Executive Summary

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

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

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

El Salvador

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states that all are equal before the law.  It prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The constitution grants automatic official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church and states that other religious groups may also apply for official recognition through registration.  On October 23, a judge issued an arrest warrant for a former military captain suspected of killing Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in 1980 as he celebrated Mass.  On April 17, a court ordered the attorney general to bring new charges against former President Alfredo Cristiani and six senior military commanders for their alleged roles in the 1989 killings of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter.  The court repealed a 2000 ruling that the statute of limitations had expired in the case.

According to international news reports, on March 29, an armed group stopped Father Walter Vasquez Jimenez and parishioners in San Miguel, who were traveling.  The group set the parishioners free but abducted Vasquez and subsequently shot and killed him.  According to media reports, criminals continued to routinely disrupt and target religious communities through extortion, killing, or beating pastors and their congregants, arbitrarily limiting freedom of movement, and stealing religious artifacts.  Leaders of Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and other Christian communities continued to report that members of their churches sometimes could not reach their respective congregations in MS-13 and Barrio 18 gang-controlled territory due to fear of crime and violence.  In certain sectors of the country, gang members controlled access in and around communities, and there were reports that gangs expelled or denied access to church leaders and charity groups with religious affiliations.  Gangs reportedly demanded churches divert charitable items to their families.  Reports continued of gang members extorting organizations with known funding streams, including religious groups, and demanding a “tax” to allow organizations to operate in some territories.  According to media reports, gangs reportedly manipulated or infiltrated religious organizations.

U.S. embassy officials raised with the ombudsman for human rights the importance of government officials’ carrying out their official duties regardless of their religious affiliation or beliefs.  In meetings with Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Baha’i groups, embassy officials discussed the difficulties religious groups experienced in attempting to reach followers in gang-controlled territories, stressing the importance of filing complaints with law enforcement agencies and the ombudsman for human rights.

Equatorial Guinea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation.  The law states that the country has no national religion, but by decree and practice, the government gives preference to the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed Church of Equatorial Guinea, which are the only religious groups not required to register their organization or activities with the Ministry of Justice, Religious Affairs, and Penitentiary Institutions (MJRAPI).  The government provides funds to the Catholic Church and its schools for educational programming.  Catholic masses remained a normal part of official ceremonial functions, such as the nation’s Independence Day.  The law requires a permit for door-to-door proselytism; authorities routinely granted permission for religious groups to proselytize and to hold activities outside of registered places of worship but generally denied permission for religious activities not within the prescribed hours.  Evangelical Christian groups continued to hold activities outside the prescribed period without government intervention.  On December 17, the MJRAPI convened a meeting with representatives of all major religious groups in which the attorney general announced plans to reassess the religious group authorization process and possibly develop new regulations that would allow the ministry to more closely monitor, assess, and support religious groups.  This meeting followed a Ministry of Education inspector’s visit to a public school in which he saw Jehovah’s Witness children refuse to sing the national anthem, in accordance with their religious beliefs.

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

U.S. embassy representatives met with government officials, including the MJRAPI director general of religious affairs, to discuss religious freedom.  Embassy staff members also met with the Imam for Malabo and the Catholic Archbishop of Malabo.  They met as well with the respective presidents of the evangelical Christian and Pentecostal communities to discuss their experiences as minority religious groups.

Eritrea

Executive Summary

The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religiously motivated discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief as well as the freedom to practice any religion.  The government recognizes four officially registered religious groups:  the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea.  Unregistered groups lack the privileges of registered groups, and their members can be subjected to additional security service scrutiny.  The government appoints the heads of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Sunni Islamic community.  International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media continued to report members of all religious groups were, to varying degrees, subjected to government abuses and restrictions.  Members of unrecognized religious groups reported instances of imprisonment and deaths in custody due to mistreatment and harsh prison conditions, and detention without explanation of individuals observing the recognized faiths.  In March Al Diaa Islamic School President Hajji Musa Mohamed Nur died of unknown causes in police custody, where he had been kept since October 2017.  Reports indicated police arrested hundreds of protesters, including minors, at or soon after his funeral.  In 2017, the government closed a secondary school sponsored by an Islamic organization but later allowed the school to reopen for one year; in contrast, a private school sponsored by an Islamic organization remained closed.  NGOs reported two elderly Jehovah’s Witnesses died early in the year in Mai Serwa Prison outside of Asmara.  International media and NGOs reported authorities conditionally released some Christians from unregistered groups from prison during the year after they had renounced their faith in 2014.  Authorities continued to confine Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios under house arrest, where he has remained since 2006.  The government granted entry to prominent Ethiopian television evangelist Suraphel Demissie in June as part of the first set of flights between Addis Ababa and Asmara after the airways reopened; onlookers filmed him preaching on the streets of Asmara.  NGOs reported the government continued to detain 345 church leaders and officials without charge or trial, while estimates of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000.  Authorities reportedly continued to detain 53 Jehovah’s Witnesses for conscientious objection and for refusing to participate in military service or renounce their faith.  An unknown number of Muslim protesters remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and March 2018.  The government continued to deny citizenship to Jehovah’s Witnesses after stripping them of citizenship in 1994.  Some religious organization representatives reported an improved climate for obtaining visas for foreign colleagues to visit Eritrea and increased ability to call their counterparts in Ethiopia.

The government’s lack of transparency and intimidation of civil society and religious community sources created difficulties for individuals who wanted to obtain information on the status of societal respect for religious freedom.  Religious leaders of all denominations and the faithful regularly attended celebrations or funerals organized by the recognized religious groups.

U.S. officials in Asmara and Washington continued to raise religious freedom concerns with government officials, including the March protests surrounding the death of Hajji Musa Mohamed Nur, the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, lack of alternative service for conscientious objectors to mandatory national service that includes military training, and the continued detention of Patriarch Antonios.  Senior Department of State officials raised these concerns during a series of bilateral meetings with visiting senior Eritrean officials in Washington on multiple occasions during the year.  Embassy officials met with clergy, leaders, and other representatives of religious groups, both registered and unregistered.  Embassy officials further discussed religious freedom on a regular basis with a wide range of interlocutors, including visiting international delegations, members of the diplomatic corps based in Asmara and in other countries in the region, as well as UN officials.  Embassy officials used social media and outreach programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom.

Since 2004, Eritrea 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 November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.  Restrictions on U.S. assistance resulting from the CPC designation remained in place.

Estonia

Executive Summary

The constitution declares there is no state church and protects the freedom of individuals to practice their religion.  It prohibits the incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination.  The law provides the procedure for registration of religious associations and religious societies and regulates their activities.  Unregistered religious associations are free to conduct religious activities but are not eligible for tax benefits.  The government continued to provide funds to the Council of Churches for ecumenical activities.  On January 26, the government held an annual memorial event on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.

In August unidentified individuals burned and defaced the Kalevi-Liiva Holocaust memorial with anti-Semitic graffiti.  A police investigation continued at year’s end.  Jewish groups expressed concern about a September 2 demonstration involving the temporary erection of a monument depicting an Estonian soldier in a World War II-era German uniform.  In 2017, the most recent year for which data was available, police registered no hate crime cases involving religion, compared with six cases in 2016.

U.S. embassy officials discussed religious freedom and the importance of religious tolerance with government representatives.  The embassy made use of social media to promote religious freedom, including producing a featured video to commemorate National Religious Freedom Day.  The Ambassador and embassy staff continued to support dialogue on anti-Semitism and Holocaust education in meetings with government officials, religious leaders, civil society, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Eswatini

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the right to worship, alone or in community with others, and to change religion or belief.  Although the law requires new religious groups to register, unregistered groups were able to operate freely.  The 2017 decree requiring public schools to teach only Christianity and excluding the teaching of other religions remained in effect.  Muslim leaders reported cases of not receiving prompt services from government officials.  The government reportedly provided favorable treatment to Christian beliefs and organizations in various circumstances, such as access to free radio and television time.  In contrast with prior years, there were no reports of security officials monitoring prayer sessions in mosques.  The government protected the right of Muslim workers to close businesses in order to attend Friday afternoon prayer sessions, despite government-mandated business operating hours.

Muslim leaders continued to report negative and/or suspicious views of Islam in society.

The Ambassador and other U.S. government officials engaged with government officials on issues such as the directive banning the teaching of non-Christian religions and the importance of developing and maintaining interfaith dialogue in the country.  During an iftar hosted by a senior embassy official, government officials and Muslim and Christian religious leaders participated in a broad discussion of religious freedom issues.

Ethiopia

Executive Summary

The constitution codifies the separation of religion and the state, establishes freedom of religious choice, 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.  On January 20, security forces fired teargas on a group of youth singing politically charged messages in Woldia town during Epiphany celebrations.  The Amhara regional government pledged to investigate the incident.  The local Human Rights Council (HRCO) reported security forces subsequently shot and killed eight Orthodox Church members; this was followed by further protests and killings.  On February 16, the government declared a state of emergency (SOE) that restricted organized opposition and antigovernment protests, which also affected religious activities.  The House of Peoples’ Representatives voted on June 5 to lift the SOE, effective immediately.  There were no reports of religious communities engaging in protests either before or after the lifting of the SOE.  On August 1, representatives of the exiled synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), headed by Patriarch Abune Merkorios, returned to the country and reunited with the synod in Ethiopia headed by Patriarch Abune Mathias.  The reconciliation effort had the direct support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and ended a 26-year schism in the Orthodox Church.  On August 4, three Muslim scholars, Sheik Seid Ahmed Mustafa, Sheik Jabir Abdella, and Sheik Sherif Muhdin, returned to the country after decades of exile in Saudi Arabia.  The scholars told local media they returned in response to Prime Minister Abiy’s calls to return and build the country.

On August 4, in the Somali region, an organized group of Muslim youth reportedly killed six priests and burned down at least eight Ethiopian Orthodox churches during widespread civil unrest in Jijiga.  On August 25, in Bure town, followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church stoned a man to death after accusing him of attempting to set a church on fire.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report some Protestants and Orthodox Christians accused one another of heresy and of actively working to convert adherents from one faith to the other, increasing tension between the two groups.  The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) said it continued to hold foreign actors responsible for the exacerbation of tensions between Christians and Muslims and within the Muslim community.  The Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia (IRCE) stated that the major faith communities in most of the country respected each other’s religious observances and practices while permitting intermarriage and conversion.

U.S. embassy and Department of State officers met officials from the Ministry of Peace, which includes the previous Ministry of Federal and Pastoralist Development Affairs, throughout the year for continued discussions on religious tolerance, radicalization, and ongoing reforms led by Prime Minister Abiy.  Embassy representatives also met with the leaders from the EIASC, Catholic Church in Ethiopia, IRCE, the Jewish Community, and EOC to discuss how these groups could contribute to religious tolerance.  Embassy officials met with members of the Muslim community and with NGOs to discuss their concerns about government interference in religious affairs.

Fiji

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes a secular state and protects freedom of religion, conscience, and belief.  It also mandates the separation of religion and state.  The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious affiliation and inciting hatred or “disaffection” against any religious group.  Religious groups must register with the government.  A law on education permits noncompulsory religious instruction in schools owned and operated by various religious denominations.  The senior management of a leading newspaper was acquitted in May of charges related to publishing a letter to the editor that the government characterized as antagonistic toward the country’s Muslim community.

There were four acts of vandalism at Hindu temples in January.  According to the Fiji Sun daily newspaper, the country experienced a proliferation of anti-Muslim comments on social media in the lead-up to the November 14 national election.

Embassy officials held meetings with senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government officials to promote religious tolerance, in addition to meetings with Christian, Hindu, and Muslim religious leaders with the aim of encouraging and maintaining an active interfaith dialogue.  The embassy used social media to highlight U.S. support of religious diversity in the country.

Finland

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination “without an acceptable reason” and provides for the right to profess and practice a religion and to decline to be a member of a religious community.  The law prohibits breaching the sanctity of religion, which includes blasphemy, offending that which a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies.  Religious communities must register to receive government funds.  In September an appeals court upheld a 2017 lower court ban of the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), the largest neo-Nazi group in the country.  After a court ruled that a long-standing military service exemption which applied only to Jehovah’s Witnesses violated the nondiscrimination clauses of the constitution, parliament began debating a bill to end the exemption.  Some politicians again made negative remarks against Muslims in social media.  The ombudsman for children in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) advocated banning circumcision and stricter religious registration criteria.

The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office received 55 complaints of religious discrimination during the year, compared with 46 in the previous year.  Police reported 235 hate crimes involving members of religious groups in 2017, 10 of which it determined were specifically motivated by the victim’s religion.  After its banning, the NRM continued to publish anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim language online, as did other groups.  Muslim groups continued to seek adequate houses of worship to match their growing population after plans for a “Grand Mosque” in Helsinki failed to materialize.  Groups promoting interreligious dialogue expanded their capabilities during the year, with government support.

U.S. embassy staff met with various ministry officials to discuss government support for religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, religious education, and male circumcision.  Embassy staff also discussed with the Jewish and Muslim communities their concerns about the law banning certain forms of animal slaughter, government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, and a rise in religiously motivated harassment.  They also discussed the state of religious freedom with these communities, other religious minorities, youth groups, and interfaith networks.

France

Executive Summary

The constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice religion.  The president and other government officials again condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts, and the government continued to deploy 7,000 security forces to protect sensitive sites, including religious ones.  In June the government thwarted an attempted extremist plot to attack Muslims.  In April authorities expelled an Algerian imam because of his radical preaching in Marseille.  The government denied an Algerian Muslim woman citizenship after she refused to shake the hands of male officials.  The government announced a 2018-2020 action plan to combat hatred, including anti-Semitism, and a nationwide consultation process with the Muslim community to reform the organization and funding of Islam within France.  In July the interior minister announced expansion of a “precomplaint” system designed to facilitate reporting of crimes, to include anti-Semitic acts.  The government continued to enforce a ban on full-face coverings in public and the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools.  President Emmanuel Macron stated his intent to “fight against Salafism and extremism,” which he described as “a problem in our country.”  In May the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism said the government treated Muslims as a “suspect community” through the application of counterterrorism laws and called the government closure of mosques a restriction on religious freedom.

Religiously motivated crimes and other incidents against Jews and Muslims occurred, including killings or attempted killings, beatings, threats, hate speech, discrimination, and vandalism.  The government reported 1,063 anti-Christian incidents, compared with 1,038 in 2017, most of which involved vandalism or other acts against property.  According to government statistics, there were 100 crimes targeting Muslims, including an attack against Muslim worshippers outside a mosque, a 17 percent decrease compared with the 121 in 2017.  The government also reported an additional 51 acts against Muslim places of worship or cemeteries.  There were 541 anti-Semitic crimes, consisting of physical attacks, threats, and vandalism, an increase of 74 percent compared with the 311 incidents recorded in 2017.  Anti-Semitic incidents included the killing of a Holocaust survivor, an acid attack against a rabbi’s baby, and threatening letters against Jewish groups citing the killing of the Holocaust survivor.  Violent anti-Semitic crimes totaled 81, compared with 97 in 2017.  A student leader at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) generated considerable debate after wearing a hijab on national television.  According to a poll conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) in February, 43 percent of respondents thought Islam was not compatible with the values of the republic.

The U.S. embassy, consulates general, and American Presence Posts (APPs) discussed religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in combating violent extremism, and cooperation on these issues with officials at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and with the country’s Ambassador-at-Large for Human Rights and Holocaust Issues.  The Ambassador, embassy, consulate, and APP officials met regularly with religious communities and their leaders throughout the country to discuss religious freedom concerns and encourage interfaith cooperation and tolerance.  The embassy sponsored projects and events to combat religious discrimination and advance tolerance.  The embassy funded a visit to the United States for four nongovernmental organization (NGO) directors on an exchange program that included themes of interfaith cooperation and religious tolerance.  It also sponsored the participation of three imams at a conference in Rabat focused on building interfaith relationships.

Gabon

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion and worship and equality for all, irrespective of religious belief.  It grants religious groups autonomy and the right to provide religious instruction.  The government denied more than 100 applications for registration of religious groups, higher than the previous year.  The government stated that the reasons were often related to documentation, as well as an increase in individuals seeking to use religious cover to scam individuals.  Ministry officials described the religious groups it rejected as often “one-man operations,” practicing a mixture of Christianity and traditional animist beliefs.

Leaders of Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic faiths met regularly, attended each other’s major festivals, and worked together to promote religious tolerance and to defend freedom of religion.

U.S. embassy staff met with senior government officials from the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to encourage continued respect for religious freedom and encouraged government officials to continue their outreach to religious communities to discuss religious freedom.  Embassy staff encouraged Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic leaders to continue their interfaith dialogue and activities promoting interreligious tolerance and understanding.

Georgia

Executive Summary

A new constitution took effect in December and provides for “absolute freedom of religion,” the separation of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) and the state, and equality for all regardless of religion.  It also prohibits persecution based on religion.  Previously, in March the ruling party withdrew proposed amendments to the then draft constitution that generated controversy after critics said the amendments appeared to allow the limiting of freedom of religion on national security grounds.  Laws and policies continue to grant the GOC privileges not accorded to any other religious group, including legal immunity for the GOC patriarch and a consultative role in education.  In July, however, the Constitutional Court declared both the tax and property privileges of the GOC unconstitutional and mandated legislative changes by December 31, although parliament missed this deadline.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report a lack of effective investigations into crimes motivated by religious hatred, but they said the quality of investigations was improving.  The Public Defender’s Office (PDO) reported it received 19 cases of violence based on religious intolerance during the year, compared to five cases the previous year.  Authorities registered seven new religious organizations as legal entities during the year.  They suspended the application for registration of one organization due to legal issues with its application.  Some NGOs and minority religious groups continued to report both national and local government resistance to minority religious groups’ construction of buildings for religious purposes.  After negotiations with the local government about mosque construction in Batumi broke down, Muslim representatives continued to state government delays and opaque decision-making prevented them from building a new mosque.  Some religious organizations and NGOs criticized the State Agency on Religious Issues (SARI, also known as the State Agency for Religious Affairs) for functioning opaquely, practicing favoritism toward the GOC in restitution of buildings confiscated by the state in the Soviet era, and inadequately addressing acts of religious intolerance and discrimination in favor of the GOC in public schools.  The Armenian Apostolic Church petitioned SARI for ownership of 37 churches it operated.

Restrictions continued on religious activities in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which remained outside the control of the central government.  According to the GOC Patriarchate, GOC clergy were unable to conduct religious services in South Ossetia or Abkhazia.  De facto authorities in these occupied territories continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses, classifying the Church as an extremist organization.

During the year, there were eight reported cases of religiously motivated physical assaults on 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses.  There were reports of vandalism against religious minorities, such as graffiti on Armenian churches in Adjara and an attack on a Kingdom Hall building in Gori.  Representatives of minority religious groups continued to report widespread societal beliefs that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and the country’s cultural values.  The NGO Media Development Foundation (MDF) documented at least 140 instances of religiously intolerant remarks in national media, up from 92 the previous year.

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials, including SARI leadership, the prime minister’s adviser for human rights and gender equality, the president’s adviser for minority issues, and officials at various ministries to encourage dialogue between the government and minority religious groups, support government-led efforts to reform the investigative arm of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (responsible for assessing whether crimes were motivated by religious hatred), and promote religious freedom as provided in the new constitution.  The Charge d’Affaires met with the GOC Patriarch several times to stress the importance of the GOC’s role in promoting religious diversity and tolerance.  The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy officials traveled throughout the country to meet with minority religious groups, and the embassy sponsored the participation of various representatives from different faiths in programs in the United States on religious freedom and interfaith issues.

Germany

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of faith and conscience and the practice of one’s religion.  The country’s 16 states exercise considerable autonomy on registration of religious groups and other matters.  Unrecognized religious groups are ineligible for tax benefits.  The federal and some state offices of the domestic intelligence service continued to monitor the activities of certain Muslim groups.  Authorities also monitored the Church of Scientology (COS), which reported continued government discrimination against its members.  Certain states continued to ban or restrict the use of religious clothing or symbols, including headscarves, for some state employees, particularly teachers and courtroom officials.  While senior government leaders continued to condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, some members of the federal parliament and state assemblies from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party again made anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements.  The federal and seven state governments appointed anti-Semitism commissioners for the first time, following a recommendation in a parliament-commissioned 2017 experts’ report to create a federal anti-Semitism commissioner in response to growing anti-Semitism.  The federal anti-Semitism commissioner serves as a contact for Jewish groups and coordinates initiatives to combat anti-Semitism in the federal ministries.  In July the government announced it would increase social welfare funding for Holocaust survivors by 75 million euros ($86 million) in 2019.  In March Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said he did not consider Islam to be a part of the country’s culture, and that the country was characterized by Christianity.  In May the Bavarian government decreed that every public building in the state must display a cross in a clearly visible location near its entrance.

There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents.  These included assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism.  Most anti-Christian incidents involved actions by Muslim migrants against migrant converts.  Jews expressed security concerns after several widely publicized anti-Semitic attacks, coupled with reports of anti-Semitic bullying in schools.  Final federal crime statistics cite 1,799 anti-Semitic crimes during the year, including 69 involving violence, an increase of 20 percent compared with 1,504 anti-Semitic crimes, of which 37 were violent, in 2017.  The federal crime statistics attributed 93 percent of the 2017 crimes to the far right.  A study covering 2007-2017 by the Technical University of Berlin found online anti-Semitism was at its highest level ever recorded.  There were demonstrations expressing anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiment and protests against what participants described as radical Islam.  The Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) continued to make public statements opposing the COS.

The U.S. embassy and five consulates general monitored the government’s responses to incidents of religious intolerance and expressed concerns about anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and anti-Muslim acts.  Embassy representatives met regularly with the newly appointed federal government anti-Semitism commissioner at the Ministry of Interior.  The embassy and consulates general maintained a dialogue with a broad spectrum of religious communities and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on their concerns about religious freedom and on ways to promote tolerance and communication among religious groups.

Ghana

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, stipulates that individuals are free to profess and practice their religion, and does not designate a state religion.  Registration is required for religious groups to have legal status.  In March President Nana Akufo-Addo unveiled plans to build a new national interdenominational cathedral on land provided by the government.  Critics, including some religious leaders, questioned the cost and details of the financing, and an opposition political party member filed a lawsuit to block construction on constitutional grounds.  In June the president spoke at an Eid al-Fitr celebration and declared, “Our country stands unique in West Africa, both in terms of inter- and intra-religious cooperation… We ought to guard this tradition of cooperation and tolerance jealously.”  In August the president met with religious leaders to explore ways to ensure all religious institutions pay statutory taxes required of them on their commercial activities, stating the need for government and faith-based organizations to meet periodically on issues of mutual interest.

Muslim and Christian leaders continued to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance, and reported sustained communication among themselves on religious matters and ways to address issues of concern.

The embassy urged the government to restart dialogue with religious communities regarding concerns over religious accommodations in publicly funded, religiously affiliated schools.  The embassy discussed religious freedom and tolerance with religious leaders and community organizations and sponsored several events to promote interfaith dialogue and tolerance.  The embassy provided funding again to the Islamic Peace and Security Council of Ghana, which held a series of lectures on good governance and encouraged Muslim leaders to take a more active role in governance.  The objective was to increase their visibility in the public sphere and promote tolerance of Muslims generally.  In May the U.S. Ambassador hosted a Ramadan event at a local school with religious leaders from various faiths where embassy officials distributed food kits to schoolchildren to enable them to break the fast with their families.  During the program, the Ambassador emphasized the importance of nurturing interfaith understanding and protecting religious freedom as foundations of peace and security.

Greece

Executive Summary

The constitution states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship with some restrictions.  It recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.”  The law prohibits offenses violating “religious peace,” including blasphemy and “religious insult,” punishable by prison sentences of up to two years.  Police arrested two Jehovah’s Witnesses for religious insult, releasing them the following day.  At least 30 different religious communities are officially registered with the government.  In August parliament passed legislation requiring all Greek Orthodox priests, imams in Thrace, and rabbis to register in the same electronic database used for other registered religious communities.  The same law requires mandatory retirement for muftis at the same age as other judicial officials, authorizes the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs to fund the muftiates, and tasks the Ministry of Finance with their financial oversight.  On March 20, the Council of State deemed changes introduced to religious instruction in primary and middle schools in 2016 were unconstitutional and contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).  In October parliament passed legislation requiring notarized consent from all parties wishing to adjudicate a family matter using sharia instead of the civil courts.  A criminal trial continued for 69 members and supporters of the Golden Dawn (GD) political party accused of a string of violent attacks and arson, including on Muslim migrants.  The government issued 11 new house of prayer permits:  eight to Jehovah’s Witnesses, two to Muslim groups, and one to Pentecostals.  The Greek Orthodox Church, Muslim minority of Thrace, Jewish communities, and Roman Catholic Church continued to receive some government benefits not available to other religious communities.  Some members of the Muslim minority of Thrace continued to oppose the government’s appointment of muftis, advocating that the community elect them.  The government continued to fund Holocaust education programs; on January 19, the parliamentary president announced the government would fund a museum inside the Auschwitz concentration camp commemorating Greek Jews who perished there.

Media reported continued incidents of anti-Semitic discrimination, hate speech, vandalism, and anti-Muslim assaults.  Incidents of vandalism affecting religious properties, including Holocaust memorials and Greek Orthodox churches, continued.  On March 6, a group of self-described anarchists placed an explosive device outside the Diocese of Neapoli and Stavroupolis, near Thessaloniki; the explosion damaged the building entrance.  On December 27, a small explosive device left by self-proclaimed anarchist group “Iconoclastic Sect” detonated outside Greek Orthodox Agios Dionysios Church in central Athens.  A police officer and the churchwarden sustained minor injuries.  On May 4, unidentified individuals destroyed nine marble stones in the Jewish section of a historic Athens cemetery.  The president of the Athens Jewish Community said the destruction was “the most severe [anti-Semitic] incident in Athens in the past 15 years.”  Secretary General for Religious Affairs George Kalantzis condemned the vandalism in a statement that said, in part, “What kind of people are those who hate the dead? . . . The vandalism of the Jewish cemetery should be for us a cause, a reason to intensify even more our efforts so as the poison of anti-Semitism stays away from our society.”  The Mayor of Athens, George Kaminis immediately issued a statement condemning the attack, noting, “Such events have no place in Athens, in a city free and open that is not intimidated.”  The secretary general for human rights said these types of incidents “attack human dignity and harm society as a whole.”  On May 13, national government and municipal officials joined the Jewish community in a silent protest against violence, intolerance, and racism.  Police investigated the case but made no arrests by year’s end.

The U.S. Ambassador, visiting U.S. government officials, and other embassy and consulate representatives met with officials and representatives from the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs, including the secretary general for religious affairs, and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including Deputy Minister Markos Bolaris and Special Secretary for Religious and Cultural Diplomacy Efstathios Lianos Liantis.  They discussed the ability of minority religious communities to establish houses of worship, government initiatives affecting both the Muslim minority in Thrace and immigrants, laws against undermining religious belief through coercion or fraud, and government initiatives promoting worldwide interfaith and interreligious dialogue.  U.S. government officials expressed concern about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric, and attacks on Orthodox churches.  On December 28, the Charge d’Affaires sent a letter to Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos condemning the December 27 attack on Agios Dionysios Orthodox Church.  Embassy officials also engaged Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos and metropolitans, as well as members of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Baha’i, and Jehovah’s Witnesses communities, to promote religious tolerance and encourage interfaith dialogue.  On November 29, a senior embassy official hosted representatives from a range of religious communities and government agencies to discuss legal protections related to religious freedom and challenges faced by various communities.

Grenada

Executive Summary

The constitution protects freedom of conscience, including freedom of thought and religion.  The criminal code prohibits the publishing and sale of blasphemous language; however, the code is not enforced.  The government continued to fund public schools administered by long-established Christian groups, including the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Seventh-day Adventists, and Mennonite communities.  Denominational and ecumenical Christian worship services continued to form part of official festivities on national holidays.  In March the government moved its Religious Affairs Unit to the Ministry of Education.

The Conference of Churches, an ecumenical body, continued to serve as a forum to promote mutual understanding among religious organizations.

The Ambassador and the Principal Officer engaged the government on the importance of respect for religious freedom, diversity, and tolerance and participated in government events that promoted respect for these values.  Embassy officials also met with members of the various religious communities to discuss their views on respect for religious diversity and tolerance in the country.  The Principal Officer participated in denominational, ecumenical, Muslim, and Jewish community events to emphasize U.S. government commitment to these issues.

Guatemala

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including freedom of worship and the free expression of all beliefs.  The constitution recognizes the distinct legal personality of the Roman Catholic Church.  Non-Catholic religious groups must register with the Ministry of Government to enter into contracts or receive tax-exempt status.  Mayan spiritual leaders said the government continued to limit their access to some Mayan religious sites, including some located in national parks and in other protected areas where the government charges entrance fees.  The Mayan community of Chicoyoguito raised concerns in September about continued lack of access to a spiritual site on former Guatemalan Military Base 21, which became a UN peacekeeping training base known as CREOMPAZ, in Coban, Alta Verapaz.  Non-Catholic groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), stated some municipal-level authorities still discriminated against them in processing permit approvals and in local tax collection.  In September the congress requested that migration authorities ban a rock band from performing in the country, stating the band’s lyrics offended Christian values.

Some Catholic clergy continued to report threats and harassment against them because of their engagement in environmental protection.  Some Mayan religious groups reported land owners continued to limit their access to Mayan religious sites on private property.  Interfaith coordination and humanitarian efforts associated with this coordination increased during the year, including campaigns to assist survivors of the June 3 Fuego Volcano eruption, regardless of their religious affiliation.

The U.S. embassy regularly held meetings with government officials from the executive and legislative branches in addition to leaders of religious groups to discuss issues of religious freedom, including threats against Catholic clergy and the reported lack of access to Mayan spiritual sites.  Embassy officials emphasized the value of tolerance and respect for religious diversity, including for religious minorities, in meetings with various civil society and religious groups.

Guinea

Executive Summary

The constitution states the state is secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for the right of individuals to choose and profess their religion.  The High Authority of Communication banned three private radio stations from activity, stating it considered these stations as having a “denominational” character.  The Secretariat of Religious Affairs (SRA) continued to issue weekly themes for inclusion in Friday sermons at mosques and Sunday sermons in churches.  Although the SRA did not control sermons at every mosque and church, its inspectors were present in every region and responsible for ensuring that mosque and church sermons were consistent with SRA directives.  In July the government called for a temporary moratorium on public protests against increased fuel prices in what it said was an effort to ensure that pilgrims going to Saudi Arabia would be able to complete administrative tasks ahead of their trip.  The Governor of Conakry called for all protests to cease while pilgrims prepared to travel to Saudi Arabia and Christian destinations.

Members of religious minority groups continued to report discrimination, and Islamic intrafaith rivalries between the majority Tidjani and the minority Wahhabi communities continued to exist.

On multiple occasions, the Ambassador and other embassy officials met with the secretary of religious affairs and the Grand Imam of Conakry to discuss religious tolerance, reconciliation, and social cohesion among religious groups.  A senior embassy officer hosted an iftar with senior Muslim leaders from throughout the country, conveying the importance of religious freedom and interfaith harmony.

Guinea-Bissau

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes the separation of religion and state and the responsibility of the state to respect and protect legally recognized religious groups.  The governor of Gabu Region expressed concerns about signs of “stricter” Islamic practices and recommended the central government take action.

Media reported imams’ concerns about the increase in Salafist Quranic schools, new mosques with “unvetted” imams, online recruitment of youth to religious radicalism, and the threat that these developments posed to the country’s tradition of religious tolerance.

U.S. diplomats met with high-level government officials as well as leaders of various religious communities to promote religious freedom and tolerance.

Guyana

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship, including the right to choose and change one’s religion.  The government continued its policy to limit the number of visas for foreign representatives of religious groups based on historical trends, the relative size of the group, and the president’s discretion.  Religious groups with foreign missionaries continued to report, however, that the government’s visa quotas allotted to them did not adversely affect their activities because the government did not apply the visa limitation rule.

Continued interfaith efforts conducted by the Inter-Religious Organization of Guyana again led to oral pledges to promote social cohesion and respect for ethnic and religious diversity.

Embassy officials joined the Ministry of Social Cohesion on several occasions throughout the year at interfaith and religious events.  To promote religious tolerance, U.S. embassy officials attended events hosted by Muslim and Hindu communities, including Eid and Diwali celebrations.  Embassy officials used these activities to speak about acceptance, tolerance, and harmony in a multi-faith cultural context.  The embassy amplified its activities through discussions about religious tolerance on social media.

Haiti

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions.  The law establishes the conditions for recognition and practice of religious groups.  The government continued to provide the Roman Catholic Church with funds and privileges other religious groups did not receive.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religious Denominations (MFA) continued to state that it must provide such privileges to the Catholic Church in accordance with an 1860 international convention (concordat) between the government and the Holy See and not due to government preference for the Catholic Church.  Although Vodou was a registered religious group, the government again did not grant Vodou clergy legal certification to perform civil marriages or baptisms.  The MFA still did not approve long-standing requests from the Muslim community for religious registration.  The MFA stated the government did not recognize Islam as an official religion because Islamic practices, such as polygamy, belief in the death penalty, and the practice of adopting Islamic names after conversion were incompatible with the law.

According to media reports, on January 16, police arrested four men suspected of killing well known Catholic priest Joseph Simoly in December 2017.  While some individuals alleged Simoly was killed because of his political activism, others said there was no strong evidence that his death was anything but the result of a violent armed robbery.  Vodou community leaders said Vodou practitioners continued to experience social stigmatization for their beliefs and practices.  According to the leadership of the National Confederation of Haitian Vaudouisants, as in previous years, teachers and administrators in Catholic and Protestant schools at times openly rejected and condemned Vodou culture and customs as contrary to the teachings of the Bible.  Muslim leaders said their community, especially Muslim women wearing hijabs, continued to face social stigma and discrimination from the rest of society.  Muslims also said they faced discrimination when seeking public- and private-sector employment.

U.S. embassy officials met with the MFA to reinforce the importance of religious freedom, in particular the need for equal protection and equal legal rights for religious minority groups.  Embassy representatives also met with faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and Catholic, Protestant, Vodou, and Muslim religious leaders to seek their views on religious freedom and tolerance and to emphasize the importance of respecting religious diversity and the rights of members of minority religious groups.

Honduras

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions; however, the government officially recognizes only the Roman Catholic Church.  It classifies all other religious groups as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or as unregistered religious organizations, according them fewer rights and privileges than the Catholic Church.  On November 21, National Congress President Mauricio Oliva introduced legislation to amend the article of the constitution prohibiting religious leaders from running for elected office.  Religious groups and politicians stated mixed reactions to the proposed reform.  In May a National Party congressman presented a motion before congress to permit reading the Bible in primary and secondary schools.  Diverse faith groups spoke out against the motion, stating that reading the Bible would violate the constitutional provisions that education should be provided to society without discrimination of any kind.  Non-Catholic religious groups again said the government continued to levy income taxes on the salaries of non-Catholic clergy and to tax non-Catholic religious materials received from abroad.  Some sectors of society again opposed the political activism of certain religious groups and the government’s close ties with evangelical Protestant groups and the Catholic Church, including via prayers at official events.  Seventh-day Adventists still stated some public educational institutions did not respect their religious observance on Saturdays.  Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to state that certain public educational institutions required them to salute the national flag and sing the national anthem, activities contrary to their faith.

In June media reported that two unknown assailants killed a pastor in Santa Barbara Department.  The Evangelical Fellowship of Honduras (CEH) reported two near-fatal attacks on local church leaders.  It was unclear if these were gang-related killings; police investigations continued at year’s end.  Some religious organizations continued to state religious leaders were more vulnerable to societal violence, including extortion and threats, because of their prominent positions in society and their ongoing presence and work in areas with minimal state presence.  The CEH reported widespread extortion of church leaders and congregation members.  While stating that unlike in past years it had not recorded killings of pastors or church leaders, the CEH noted an increase in threats against pastors and church leaders located in areas known for gang or narcotics trafficking activities.  The Archdiocese of Tegucigalpa did not record any killings of church officials; however, local media noted killings of Protestant pastors during the year.

In April the U.S. government launched a new program to support civil society organizations, including faith-based organizations, to operate freely and to support their right to association and freedom of expression; the program will evaluate and support transparency in the NGO registration process.  Embassy officials engaged with religious leaders and other members of a wide range of religious communities regarding societal violence and their concerns regarding the government’s dealings with religious groups in the country, including religious observance at school and legal recognition for religious organizations.

Hong Kong

Executive Summary

IN THIS SECTIONCHINA | TIBET | XINJIANG | HONG KONG (BELOW) | MACAU


The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), as well as other laws and policies, states 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).  Falun Gong practitioners reported generally being able to operate openly, however, they reported harassment from groups they said were connected to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and difficulty renting venues for large events, including from the SAR government.  Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in October to raise awareness of what they said was 19 years of CCP persecution of the Falun Gong in the Mainland.

Some Hong Kong pastors’ exchanges with Mainland counterparts reportedly were negatively affected by changed regulations on the Mainland.  Religious leaders reported hosting and participating in interfaith activities, such as a local mosque and a Jewish synagogue maintaining regular interaction between religious leaders of each community.

The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with the government.  The Consul General and consulate general officials met regularly with religious leaders and community representatives to promote religious equality.

Hungary

Executive Summary

The Fundamental Law (constitution) provides for freedom of religion, including freedom to choose, change, or manifest religion or belief, cites “the role of Christianity” in “preserving nationhood,” and values “various religious traditions.”  It prohibits religious discrimination and speech violating the dignity of any religious community and stipulates the autonomy of religious communities.  In December parliament amended the law that had stripped hundreds of religious entities of their legal status.  The amendment enters into force in April 2019; it establishes a four-tier system of churches and makes them eligible for donations from income tax and state funding.  In May the Supreme Court ruled a 2017 government raid on the Church of Scientology (COS) headquarters was lawful; the government continued its criminal investigation of the COS.  Jewish groups expressed concern that the House of Fates museum, which the government said it would open in 2019, would obscure the country’s role in the Holocaust.  There were reports of senior government officials and politicians using anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic speech.  Jewish groups expressed concern about praise by Prime Minister (PM) Viktor Orban and other government officials for World War II (WWII)-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies and public messaging they said could incite anti-Semitism.  PM Orban reiterated “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.”

There were reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents, including assaults.  Muslim leaders said anti-Muslim incidents were at approximately the same level as in 2017.  The Action and Protection Foundation (TEV) a nongovernmental organization (NGO), recorded 32 anti-Semitic crimes, including three assaults, compared with 37 in 2017.  A business magazine’s picture of an article about a prominent Jewish leader was condemned as anti-Semitic.  A Jewish news outlet poll said two-thirds of Jews believed anti-Semitism in the country was a serious problem; 48 percent reported hearing anti-Semitic remarks in the preceding year.  An Ipsos Mori poll reported 51 percent of residents believed a Muslim could never be a “true Hungarian.”

U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. government officials met with the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Human Capacities (MHC) to discuss religious freedom, Holocaust commemoration, and heirless property restitution, and to urge the government to amend the religion law.  U.S. officials expressed concern about government officials’ anti-Muslim rhetoric and the COS investigation.  Embassy officials met a range of religious groups to discuss issues affecting them.

Iceland

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and practice, as long as it is not prejudicial to good morals or public order, and protects the right to form religious associations.  It names the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) as the state church, which the government provided with financial support and benefits not available to other religious groups, including treating ELC ministers as civil servants.  Other religious and “life-stance” groups must register to receive state subsidies.  Parliament enacted laws barring discrimination, including on the basis of religion, in the workplace and elsewhere.

The national police commissioner cited four reports of religious hate crimes during 2017, three against Islam and one against another, unnamed religion.  Jehovah’s Witnesses reported an attack on a Kingdom Hall and a house belonging to one of its leaders during the year.  Police were investigating both incidents at year’s end.

U.S. embassy officials met with representatives from the Ministries of Justice (MOJ) and Foreign Affairs (MFA), members of parliament, and the local authority responsible for registering religious groups to discuss the status and rights of religious groups, including to voice concerns about a bill, which parliament later failed to pass, to ban male circumcision.  Embassy officials also maintained contact with representatives of religious groups and life-stance organizations to discuss their views on religious tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and the role of religious groups in education and refugee integration.

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 citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health.  Nine of the 29 states have laws restricting religious conversions.  Some human rights groups stated that these laws fostered hostility against minority communities.  There were reports by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that the government sometimes failed to act on mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government.  Some senior officials of the Hindu-majority Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made inflammatory speeches against minority communities.  Mob attacks by violent extremist Hindu groups against minority communities, especially Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumors that victims had traded or killed cows for beef.  According to some NGOs, authorities often protected perpetrators from prosecution.  As of November, there were 18 such attacks, and eight people killed during the year.  On June 22, two Uttar Pradesh police officers were charged with culpable homicide after a Muslim cattle trader died of injuries sustained while being questioned in police custody.  In a separate incident, a court in Jharkhand sentenced 11 individuals, including a local BJP official, to life in prison for beating to death a Muslim, whom his killers believed to be trading in beef.  On July 17, the Supreme Court said violence in the name of “cow vigilantism” was unacceptable and the onus of preventing such incidents lay with the states.  Attacks on religious minorities included allegations of involvement by law enforcement personnel.  On January 10, Jammu and Kashmir police arrested eight men, including four police personnel, in connection with the kidnapping, gang rape, and killing of an 8-year-old girl.  The men allegedly kidnapped the victim, took her to a nearby temple, and raped and killed her in an effort to drive her nomadic Muslim community out of the area.  In September Uttar Pradesh authorities suspended three police officers after videos surfaced of them abusing a Hindu woman in Meerut for reportedly consorting with a Muslim man.  The central and state governments and members of political parties took steps that affected Muslim practices and institutions.  The government continued its challenge in the Supreme Court to the minority status of Muslim educational institutions, which affords them independence in hiring and curriculum decisions.  Proposals to rename Indian cities with Muslim provenance continued, most notably the renaming of Allahabad to Prayagraj.  Activists said these proposals were designed to erase Muslim contributions to Indian history and had led to increased communal tensions.

There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice their religious beliefs and proselytize.  According to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data presented in the lower house of parliament on February 6, communal incidents increased by 9 percent from 2015 to 2017, with 822 incidents resulting in 111 deaths and 2,384 injuries in 2017.  Authorities often failed to prosecute perpetrators of “cow vigilante” attacks, which included killings, mob violence, and intimidation.  On July 21, a group attacked and killed Rakbar Khan, a Muslim dairy farmer from Haryana, while he was transporting two cows at night.  In December an estimated 300 persons, angered by reports of cows being slaughtered in the area, set fire to the police station in Chigrawati and killed a police officer.  An 18-year-old protester was also killed in the violence.  A mob assaulted two Muslim men, killing one, in Madhya Pradesh’s Satna District on May 17, alleging they were slaughtering a bull.  Police arrested four assailants and filed a complaint alleging cow slaughter against the injured survivor.  On January 20, a Christian pastor was found dead at his residence in Tamil Nadu.  Members of his congregation alleged he had been murdered, and that he had been a victim of frequent past harassment by Hindu fundamentalist organizations.  According to the NGO Persecution Relief’s 2017 Annual Report released in January, there were 736 incidents of persecution against Christians in 2017 compared to 348 in 2016.  Tradition and social custom continued to deny entry to women and members of Dalit communities (former untouchables) into many places of worship.  In December the Shiv Sena Party published an editorial calling for government to curb the growth of the country’s Muslim population through such measures as compulsory family planning for Muslims.  On September 28, the Supreme Court overturned a ban on females aged 10 to 50 years from entering the Hindu Sabarimala temple in Kerala, a move that, according to media, sparked political controversy across the country.

Senior U.S. government officials underscored the importance of respecting religious freedom and promoting tolerance throughout the year with the ruling and opposition parties, civil society and religious freedom activists, and religious leaders belonging to various faith communities.  In March a U.S. expert discussed racial and ethnic tolerance with audiences in Chennai and Mumbai.  In June the Ambassador and the visiting U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations stressed the importance of religious freedom during interactions with multiple religious leaders in Delhi.  In almost every visit the Ambassador made in India, he engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths.  In August the Department of State Senior Bureau Official for South and Central Asian Affairs visited India and convened a roundtable with senior leaders representing a number of faith groups to exchange views on religious freedom and tolerance.  In December the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met with government officials, religious minority groups, and civil society representatives in Delhi and Lucknow to discuss the challenges faced by religious minorities in India.

Indonesia

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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”).  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 to form religious societies “within the limits of the law.”  The government continued to execute individuals on charges of moharebeh, including two Kurdish minority prisoners at Rajai Shahr Prison on September 8.  Human rights groups raised concerns regarding the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel.  On June 18, the government executed Mohammad Salas, a member of the minority Gonabadi Sufi Dervish Order, for allegedly killing three police officers during clashes between Gonabadi Sufis and security forces in February.  Human rights organizations widely decried Salas’ conviction and execution, noting marked irregularities in his case and allegations of forced confession under police torture.  The authorities reportedly denied Salas access to a lawyer and dismissed defense witnesses who could have testified to the fact that Salas was already in custody at the time of the police officers’ deaths.  Salas’ execution and alleged show trial was largely seen by the international community as being part of the region’s broader crackdown on Sufi dervishes.  International media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities detained more than 300 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes after police open fired on them during February 19-20 demonstrations in Tehran where they were protesting the house arrest of their spiritual leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh.  One of the Sufi dervishes arrested in February, Mohammed Raji, died in police custody.  The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced 20 of the detained Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms for crimes of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disturbing public order,” “disobeying law enforcement agents,” and “propaganda against the state.”  The Iran Prison Atlas, compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 272 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners.  The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Baha’is, Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing.  The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported that the government banned Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the country’s leading Sunni cleric and Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, from traveling outside of Zahedan.  Mohabat News, a Christian news website, reported the detention and abuse of Karen Vartanian, an Armenian Christian.  Vartanian reportedly experienced physical and psychological abuse and suffered a heart attack as a result of beatings.  According to media and NGO reports in early December, the government arrested 142 Christians across multiple cities in one month, including 114 in one week.  According to Sufi media and NGOs, Shia clerics and prayer leaders continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements, and the government closed Sufi websites, such as the Gonabadi Sufi Order’s websites, in an attempt to erase their online identity.  Yarsanis stated they continued to face discrimination and harassment by authorities.  The government reportedly denied building permits for places of worship and employment and higher educational opportunities for members of religious minorities, and confiscated or restricted their religious materials.  There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down.  On November 23, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in multiple cities in the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan, Mazandaran, and East Azerbaijan over the course of two weeks.  On October 16, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in Shiraz, Karaj, and Isfahan on unknown charges in August and September.  CHRI reported the government detained Shiraz city council member Mehdi Hajati for 10 days for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees.  The judiciary subsequently placed Hajati under judicial surveillance and banned him from his seat on the council.

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, and employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private sector jobs.  Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.

The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country.  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.  In July the Secretary of State called attention to the situation of religious freedom in the country in a speech and USA Today op-ed piece.  In his opinion piece, he said, “Hundreds of Sufi Muslims in Iran remain imprisoned on account of their beliefs, with reports of several dying at the hands of Iran’s brutal security forces.  The religious intolerance of the regime in Iran also applies to Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other minority religious groups simply trying to practice their faiths.”  At the July U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S. and four other governments issued a statement on Iran.  In the statement, the governments said, “As representatives of the international community, we stand together in condemning the systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom taking place in Iran and call on authorities to ensure religious freedom for all.”  During a September press briefing, the Special Representative for Iran called for an end of religious persecution in the country, stating:  “What we are demanding of the Iranian regime…stop persecuting civil society, please provide all Iranian citizens with due process regardless of their political and religious beliefs.”  In June a Department of State spokesperson condemned the “the Iranian government’s execution of Mohammad Salas, a member of the long-persecuted Iranian Gonabadi Sufi dervish community.”  The United States supported the rights of members of religious minority groups in the country through actions in the UN, including votes to extend the mandate of the special rapporteur.  The U.S. government also supported resolutions expressing concern over the country’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

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 November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC.  The following sanction accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Iraq

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.”  The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice for Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but not for followers of other religions or atheists.  The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.  The constitution also provides for freedom from religious coercion and requires the government to maintain the sanctity of religious sites.  Institutional and societal restrictions on freedom of religion as well as violence against minority groups remained widespread, according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) focused on religious freedom.  NGO leaders said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process.  Community leaders continued to state forced conversion was the de facto outcome of the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, even children born as a result of rape, be listed as Muslim.  Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces closed some roads between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) and areas subject to territorial disputes between the KRG and the country’s central government for much of the year, impeding the movement of Yezidis between Dohuk Province and the Sinjar area.  Most roads were reopened by year’s end.  Yezidis, Christian leaders, and NGOs reported harassment and abuses by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias, which also includes Sunni and other minority units originally formed to combat ISIS.  Christians reported harassment and abuse at numerous PMF-operated checkpoints, restricting their movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain.  Christians in PMF-controlled towns reported harassment of Christian women by PMF members.  They also said elements of the central government in Baghdad were attempting to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas.  Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but some faced harassment and restrictions from local authorities.  Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration.

According to Yazda, an NGO focused on Yezidi issues, more than 3,000 Yezidis still remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014.  In November the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the United Nations Human Rights Office documented the existence of 202 mass graves in the provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Anbar, and cautioned that there may be “many more.”  The UN offices stated they believed the graves held anywhere from eight to as many as “thousands” of bodies.  UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “These graves contain the remains of those mercilessly killed for not conforming to [ISIS’s] twisted ideology and rule, including ethnic and religious minorities.”

Although according to media and human rights organizations security conditions in many parts of the country improved somewhat from 2017, there were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups.  Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs.  On July 23, three gunmen, who KRG authorities said had links to a terrorist group, forcibly entered a government building in downtown Erbil.  Unable to gain entry to the Erbil governor’s office, they killed a Christian employee whom authorities believed was targeted because of his religion, before police killed the attackers.  In March local media reported the killing of a Christian family in Baghdad.  Some Christian leaders, including Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Louis Sako, said they considered the killing a hate crime; others said the killers sought to force Christian owners of prime real estate to surrender their property.  In February several gunman shot and killed a Christian man in front of his house in Baghdad.  According to Christian sources, the victim had received threats to stop working in the alcohol business near a Muslim neighborhood.  Sabean-Mandean leaders continued to report threats, abuses, and robberies.  In Friday sermons, Shia religious and government leaders urged PMF volunteers not to commit such abuses.  Armed groups continued to target Sunnis for execution-style killings and the destruction of homes and businesses.  Christian leaders in the Ninewa Plain reported multiple instances of theft and harassment of Christians by the PMF.

The U.S. government continued to raise religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, speeches, coordination groups, and targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects.  Visits by the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator, representatives of the office of the Vice President, and other senior U.S. officials to minority areas reinforced the U.S. government’s commitment to preserve and support religious diversity through increased support to minority communities.  The Ambassador and other embassy and consulates general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and Shia, Sunni, and minority group representatives, to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of religious minorities.  The Department of State issued a press statement on U.S. support for vulnerable minorities in Iraq on June 11, saying, “This Administration has made the protection of Iraq’s diversity of faiths and its threatened religious minorities a top and unceasing priority.  Those who survived genocide, crimes against humanity, and other atrocities, as well as those who perished as a result of these acts, deserve nothing less.”  The United States announced over $178 million in new U.S. foreign assistance to support ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq on October 16.  On December 11, President Trump signed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act.  The act promotes justice for the victims and survivors of those minority communities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, targeted by ISIS.

Ireland

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion.  In an October 26 constitutional referendum, 65 percent of voters approved the removal of blasphemy as a punishable offense from the constitution, paving the way for it to be formally removed as a legal offense in 2019 pending legislation from parliament.  Some parents of children not belonging to the denomination of a religious school, usually Catholic, could not enroll their children in oversubscribed schools.  The government continued to encourage patrons to open more schools with nonreligious or multidenominational patronage.  Prime Minister Leo Varadkar participated in the national Holocaust Day Memorial commemoration and in his remarks emphasized the importance of Holocaust education to prevent such horrors happening again.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to lobby for more stringent hate crime legislation, including for incidents motivated by religion, and to ensure prejudice would be taken into account as an aggravating factor in sentencing criminals.

U.S. embassy officials discussed issues of discrimination and integration of religious minorities into the community with members of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Education and Skills, and the national police.  Underscoring the importance of tolerance, diversity, and religious freedom, embassy officials met with religious groups and NGOs to discuss their concerns.

Israel, West Bank and Gaza

Executive Summary

IN THIS SECTION: ISRAEL (BELOW) | WEST BANK AND GAZA


This section includes Israel, including Jerusalem.  In December 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties.  The Palestinian Authority (PA) exercises no authority over Jerusalem.  In March 2019, the United States recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.  A report on the West Bank and Gaza, including areas subject to the jurisdiction of the PA, is appended at the end of this report.

The country’s laws and Supreme Court rulings protect the freedoms of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation, and the 1992 “Basic Law:  Human Dignity and Liberty” protects additional individual rights.  Citing a need to anchor the country’s Jewish character in a basic law, on June 19, the Knesset passed the “Basic Law:  Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People.”  According to the government, the “law determines, among other things, 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.”  Druze leaders, other non-Jewish minorities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized the new law for not mentioning the principle of equality to prevent harm to the rights of minorities.  Supporters said it was necessary to balance the 1992 basic law and restate the country’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state, noting the Supreme Court had already interpreted the 1992 law as mandating equality.  The government continued to control access to religious sites, including the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.  Some Members of the Knesset (MKs) and civil society organizations called for reversing the practice of banning non-Muslim prayer at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (the foundation of the first and second Jewish temples) and the Haram al-Sharif (site containing the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque), based on post-1967 status quo understandings.  Police closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours on July 27, following clashes with Muslim protesters.  The government permitted persons of all faiths to pray individually and quietly at the main Western Wall plaza in separate gender sections, and Jewish men to conduct Orthodox Jewish prayer in groups.  The government continued, however, to enforce a prohibition on performance of “a religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, which harms the feelings of the public towards the place,” which authorities interpreted to include mixed gender Jewish prayer services and other ceremonies that did not conform to Orthodox Judaism.  The government continued to implement policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law.  Following an appeal by the State Attorney’s office, the Supreme Court added 18 months to a four-year sentence for Yinon Reuveni, who vandalized a church in Tabgha in 2015.  In June police officers injured an Ethiopian monk while evicting him and other monks from their church in Jerusalem, and in October police arrested a Coptic monk and removed others from the Deir al-Sultan monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem after they refused to allow the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) to enter and perform restoration work.  Some minority religious groups complained of what they said was 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 members of nonrecognized religious groups remained free to practice their religion.  Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community, police, and other Israelis, particularly related to service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), resulting in clashes such as those on March 22 between ultra-Orthodox protesters and police.  On December 2, the Supreme Court granted the Knesset (parliament) an extension into 2019 to pass legislation regulating ultra-Orthodox military service.

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.  Jehovah’s Witnesses reported in February an unknown man pepper-sprayed two Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ashdod.  According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in October vandals damaged tombs and broke crosses at the cemetery of the Salesian Monastery at Beit Jimal near Beit Shemesh, the third attack on the monastery in three years.  Following the attack, the Israeli government offered to pay for repairs.

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 Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.  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.

Italy

Executive Summary

The constitution protects freedom of religion and the right of religious communities to establish their own institutions.  The constitution specifies the state and the Catholic Church are independent, their relations governed by treaties, including a concordat granting the Church a number of privileges and benefits and financial support.  Twelve other groups have accords granting most of the same benefits in exchange for a degree of government monitoring.  Religious groups must register to request an accord.  Unregistered religious groups operate freely but are not eligible for the same benefits as groups with accords or must apply for them separately.  The government did not submit any new accords to parliament for approval despite reports it had negotiated several accords with religious groups in the previous year.  The Muslim community, which did not have an accord, continued to experience difficulties in acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques or keep them open; there were approximately 800 unofficial Muslim places of worship.  Politicians from several political parties, including leader of the League (Lega) Party Matteo Salvini, who in June became deputy prime minister and minister of interior, made statements critical of Islam and against the construction of new mosques.  As chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the country hosted several events promoting religious tolerance.

There were reports of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents, including harassment, discrimination, hate speech, and vandalism.  A Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO) reported 185 anti-Semitic incidents, most involving hate speech on social media, compared with 130 in 2017.  A local Arab NGO reported a 35 percent increase in incidents against Muslims in schools, hospitals, and on public transport in 2017 compared to the previous year.  In April a pig’s head was left in front of a building in Reggio Emilia Province that Muslims planned to convert into a place of worship.  The press reported examples of anti-Semitic graffiti and posters in major cities and elsewhere.  Jewish leaders called for greater vigilance against anti-Semitism.

Representatives from the U.S. embassy and consulates general met with national and local government officials to encourage respect for religious freedom and equal treatment for all faiths and discussed the integration of new migrants, many of whom were Muslim, Orthodox, or Hindu, and of second-generation Muslims.  Embassy, consulate, and Department of State representatives met with religious leaders and civil society to promote interfaith dialogue and awareness, social inclusion of immigrants, and the empowerment of faith groups through social media and the mobilization of youth leaders among faith groups.

Jamaica

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom to worship and to change religion.  It prohibits discrimination based on belief.  A colonial-era law criminalizing the practices of Obeah and Myalism remains in effect, but it is not enforced.  In August the Supreme Court ruled that a five-year-old girl with dreadlocks could attend a Kingston primary school until the court could hear her case, overriding the school’s policy of preventing her attendance until she cut off her dreadlocks.  Religious rights advocates viewed the case as a significant development toward removing discrimination against Rastafarians seeking government services.  The government reviewed private religiously-based schools receiving public funding with the aim of ensuring the schools’ practices did not contravene government policies on individual rights.  The government mandated a nondenominational religious curriculum in schools and sponsored public events to promote interfaith engagement and respect for religious diversity.

Rastafarians stated that while prejudice against their religion continued, there was increasing acceptance of their practices and more societal respect.  They cited their continued progress in achieving higher positions in both the private and public sectors.  Seventh-day Adventists welcomed an April pronouncement from the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica (PSOJ) that the PSOJ would criticize and possibly expel members of the organization who adopted policies limiting Seventh-day Adventists’ ability to gain employment because of their observance of a Saturday Sabbath.  Local media outlets continued to provide a forum for religious dialogue open to participants from all religious groups.  The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Jamaica Council for Interfaith Fellowship, which includes representatives from Christian, Rastafarian, Hindu, Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Baha’i, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist organizations, continued to hold events to promote religious tolerance and diversity.

U.S. embassy officials met regularly with leaders of religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Rastafarians.  In January the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith dialogue with leaders from 10 religious groups in recognition of Religious Freedom Day.  Participants discussed religious pluralism, tolerance, and the role of religion in addressing social issues.  Embassy officials promoted religious tolerance through official remarks, press releases, social media venues, and public engagements.

Japan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits religious organizations from exercising any political authority or receiving privileges from the state.  The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) reported that in 2017 (latest statistics available) its human rights division received 214 inquiries related to potential religious freedom violations, compared with 274 in 2016.  Catholic bishops and others questioned governmental funding for aspects of the 2019 imperial accession ceremony that they said contained religious rituals.  The government said such funding did not violate the constitutional separation of religion and state.  In October an appellate court upheld a lower court ruling that the 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine by the prime minister did not violate the constitutional religious freedom rights of the plaintiffs because it did not interfere with the plaintiffs’ faith.  The government continued to grant protective status to some religious adherents claiming persecution in their native countries, including Falun Gong practitioners, members of the Rohingya Muslim community from Burma, and Uighur Muslims from China.  Authorities in Mie Prefecture’s Ise City announced the cancellation of a plan to improve prayer accommodations for Muslim visitors after the city reportedly received complaints from the local community about the close proximity of the planned facility to a major Shinto shrine.

Press reported both public and private Japanese institutions continued to expand access to halal food and prayer rooms for Muslims.

The U.S. embassy engaged with the government, as well as with faith-based groups, religious minority leaders, and their supporters, to promote religious freedom and acceptance of diversity.

Jordan

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam the religion of the state but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality.  The constitution stipulates there shall be no discrimination based on religion.  The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so.  The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims and allow these courts to prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion.  Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates.  According to the constitution, matters concerning the personal and family status of Muslims come under the jurisdiction of sharia courts, while six of the 11 recognized Christian groups have religious courts to address such matters for their members.  The government continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  In December the attorney general ordered the detention of media personality Mohammad al-Wakeel and an editor working at his website, Al-Wakeel News, for posting on Facebook a cartoon deemed offensive to Jesus.  The post was taken down a few hours later, and al-Wakeel published an apology to the public.  Authorities released the two men two days later.  The government continued to monitor sermons at mosques and to require preachers to refrain from political commentary and stick to approved themes and texts during Friday sermons.  An official committee chaired by the grand mufti regulated which Islamic clerics could issue fatwas.  Converts to Christianity from Islam reported that security officials continued to question them to determine their true religious beliefs and practices.  Members of unregistered groups continued to face problems registering their marriages, the religious affiliation of their children, and renewing their residency permits.  Security forces increased their presence in and protection of Christian areas, especially during special events and holidays, following an August 10 attack targeting security forces near a music festival outside the predominantly Christian city of Fuhais.  Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of a government effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including security for worshippers.

Interfaith religious leaders reported continued online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and moderates, frequently through social media.  Social media users also defended interfaith tolerance, condemning videos and online posts that criticized Christianity or tried to discourage interfaith dialogue.  Some converts to Christianity from Islam continued to report ostracism as well as physical and verbal abuse from their families and communities, and some converts worshipped in secret as a result of the social stigma they faced.  The government did not prosecute converts from Islam for apostasy, but some reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels to support the rights of religious minorities to practice their faiths freely and to promote interfaith tolerance, raising issues such as the renewal of residency permits for religious volunteers.  The Charge and other embassy officers met with Muslim scholars and Christian community leaders to encourage interfaith dialogue.  The embassy supported exchange programs promoting religious tolerance as well as civil society programs to preserve the cultural heritage of religious minorities.

Kazakhstan

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion.  The Committee for Social Accord (CSA), part of the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), is responsible for religious issues.  According to local and international observers, authorities imposed restrictions and scrutiny on what the government considers “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 raided religious services, prosecuted individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and refused to register “nontraditional” religious groups.  In April a Karaganda court convicted three men accused of being members of the Sunni missionary organization Tabligi Jamaat for disseminating ideas and recruiting members on the group’s behalf; the court sentenced them to three years imprisonment.  In May a court sentenced a high school student to four years’ imprisonment for incitement of religious discord in connection with the creation of a group on social media and the dissemination of religious material it labeled as extremist.  In January an Almaty court sentenced a Muslim to seven years imprisonment after he posted an interpretation of Quranic verses online.  According to the local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Association of Religious Organizations of Kazakhstan (AROK), authorities reduced their pressure on minority religious communities, with fewer arrests and less harassment.  Forum 18, an international NGO based in Norway, noted 165 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2018 and 284 such prosecutions in 2017.  Forum 18, however, released a religious freedom survey for the period 2014 to 2018, noting increasing numbers of prisoners of conscience jailed for exercising freedom of religion and belief; unfair trials and torture of prisoners; and making exercise of freedom of religion and belief dependent on state permission.  The government considered draft legislation that would place additional restrictions on religious attire, symbols, education, and literature, as well as proselytizing and membership and participation in religious communities; civil society representatives and religious experts stated they feared such amendments would further infringe religious liberty.  Government officials indicated at the end of the year that the draft legislation was unlikely to become law.

AROK reported that fewer media organizations released articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional,” compared to 2017.  In March the Aktobe Times web newspaper posted an article entitled, “The ‘Truth’ Poisons Children,” with negative coverage of the activity of Baptist churches in Aktobe and Martuk.  The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) and other civil society organizations reported they received many letters containing citizens’ complaints about “nontraditional” faiths and their harmful impact on society.  NGOs and academics reported that members of certain religious groups, including Muslims who wear headscarves or other identifying attire, as well as Christian groups perceived as proselytizing, such as evangelical, Baptist, and Jehovah’s Witness churches, continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.

The Vice President, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, and other U.S. officials engaged in dialogue 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 MSD and CSA.  This included raising concerns over the restrictive effects on religious freedom of the government’s implementation of both 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.  U.S. diplomatic officials visited various houses of worship and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities and religious freedom advocates.

Kenya

Executive Summary

The constitution and other laws and policies prohibit religious discrimination and protect religious freedom, including the freedom to practice any religion or belief through worship, teaching, or observance and to debate religious questions.  The constitution provides for special qadi courts to adjudicate certain types of civil cases based on Islamic law.  Human rights and Muslim religious organizations stated that certain Muslim communities, especially ethnic Somalis, continued to be the target of government-directed extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention.  The government denied directing such actions.  The Registrar of Societies did not register any new religious organizations pending completion of revised Religious Societies Rules, which had not been finalized at year’s end.  According to the Alliance of Registered Churches & Ministries Founders, more than 4,400 religious group applications were pending as of the start of the year.  The High Court in Nairobi overturned a decision to suspend the registration of the Atheists in Kenya Society (AIK), following 2017 court hearings regarding the attorney general’s suspension of the group’s registration.  A 2016 appeal by the Methodist Church opposing the wearing of hijabs as part of school uniforms remained pending as of the end of the year.  In May filings to the Supreme Court, the attorney general and Teachers Service Commission continued to support the right to wear a hijab in school.

The Somalia-based terrorist group Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (al-Shabaab) again carried out attacks in Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, and Lamu Counties and said the group had targeted non-Muslims because of their faith.  In September al-Shabaab reportedly stopped a bus in Lamu County and killed two Christian travelers.  In October a group of residents in Bungale, Magarini Sub County, burned and demolished a Good News International Ministries church.  The government reported that local residents took action following claims the pastor was indoctrinating local residents with false Christian teachings promoting extremism among followers.  A police investigation continued at year’s end.  In June the Kenya National Union of Teachers presented a report to the Senate Education Committee detailing religious and gender discrimination against nonlocal teachers in Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa Counties.  Muslim minority groups, particularly those of Somali descent, reported continued harassment by non-Muslims.  There were again reports of religiously motivated threats of societal violence and intolerance, such as members of Muslim communities threatening individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity.  According to religious leaders, some Muslim youths responded to alleged abuses by non-Muslim members of the police who came from other regions by vandalizing properties of local Christians.

U.S. embassy officials emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom in meetings with government officials, especially underscoring the role of interfaith dialogue in stemming religious intolerance and countering violent extremism.  Embassy representatives regularly discussed issues of religious freedom, including the importance of tolerance and inclusion, with local and national civic and religious leaders.  The embassy urged religious leaders to engage in interfaith efforts to promote religious freedom and respect religious diversity.  The embassy supported interfaith and civic efforts to defuse political and ethnic tensions.

Kiribati

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion.  Religious groups with memberships equal to or greater than 2 percent of the population are required to register with the government.

Two islands in the southern part of the country continued to uphold a “one-church-only” policy due to a stated deference to the first Protestant missionaries that visited the islands in the 1800s.

The U.S. Ambassador to Fiji is accredited to the government, and officials from the U.S. Embassy in Fiji discussed religious tolerance and practices with the government when visiting the country.  The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials also met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) to discuss religious tolerance and the treatment of minority groups.

Kosovo

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion, subject to limitations to ensure public order, health, and safety or to protect the rights of others.  The law does not allow religious groups to register as legal entities, creating obstacles for them in conducting their affairs.  In 2017 the parliament voted to consider a draft law that would allow religious groups to register as legal entities so they would be able to conduct business and legal matters with the state and private entities, but the law had not received final approval at year’s end.  On March 23, a Pristina Basic Court panel acquitted Shefqet Krasniqi of a February 2017 indictment by Kosovo’s Special Prosecution (SPRK) on charges of incitement for terrorism, incitement to religious hatred, and tax evasion.  While religious groups stated they generally had collaborative relationships with local governments, some groups said municipal governments did not treat religious organizations equally on property issues, including building permits.  Representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) said the government violated the SOC’s property rights, including by refusing to implement court decisions in the SOC’s favor or pursuing construction in Special Protective Zones (SPZs).  Decan/Decani authorities, including the mayor, continued to refuse to implement a 2016 Constitutional Court decision awarding 24 disputed hectares (59 acres) around the Visoki Decani Monastery to the SOC; government authorities did not hold any municipal officials accountable.  The municipality, with central government support, began constructing a road through the SPZ around Visoki Decani Monastery in breach of a Kosovo law banning construction in SPZs.  The Kosovo Islamic Community (BIK) continued to report social and employment discrimination against devout Muslims, particularly in the public sector.  The government continued to work with the BIK to combat violent extremism and condemned vandalism of religious sites.

According to police reports, protestors assaulted Serbian Orthodox pilgrims and prevented church services from taking place in Gjakove/Djakovica and Istog/Istok.  Religious groups met each other regularly to discuss property rights, legislative priorities, and local community issues.  Religious leaders participated in numerous interfaith discussions on property rights, legislative priorities, and local community issues.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) continued to coordinate some activities among religious groups, including meetings with municipal mayors, to discuss issues such as permits to construct religious buildings.  On January 6 and August 28, ethnic Albanians staged protests against planned pilgrimages in front of the local Serbian Orthodox Church in Gjakove/Djakovica.  Ethnic Albanian protesters in Istok/Istog and elsewhere attacked or intimidated Serbian Orthodox pilgrims on multiple occasions.  On October 21, media reported local ethnic Albanians threw rocks at two buses transporting Serb pilgrims to religious services near Istog/Istok.  Police arrested five ethnic Albanians for disturbing public order and three ethnic Albanian minors for causing damage to the buses.  A prosecutor later released the suspects following a decision not to file charges.  The prosecutor did not provide an explanation for the decision.  Police initiated a disciplinary procedure against the officers in charge of security for the religious services, suspending one lieutenant for 48 hours.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy representatives met frequently with government officials to urge religious tolerance and the issuance of public condemnations of incidents of violence or cases of intimidation.  The Ambassador and U.S. embassy representatives also pressed for passage of legislation to allow religious institutions to obtain legal status and for the full implementation of the constitution and the law protecting religious sites.  The embassy advocated regularly at all levels of government for full implementation of judicial decisions in favor of minority religious communities and encouraged the resolution of property disputes involving religious groups.  The Ambassador and other embassy representatives pressed the government at the highest levels to prosecute perpetrators of violence or intimidation against the SOC, and to respect the SOC’s property rights.  The embassy discouraged public officials, educational institutions, and other entities from engaging in discriminatory hiring practices against Muslims who self-define as religiously observant or other religious groups.  Embassy officials regularly discussed religious tolerance with leaders of all major religious communities.

Kuwait

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the state but declares freedom of belief is “absolute.”  It declares the state will protect the freedom to practice one’s religion, provided such practice does not conflict with established customs, public policy, or morals.  Defamation of the Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), publication or broadcast of material the government deems offensive to religious groups, and practices the government deems inconsistent with Islamic law are prohibited by law.  The law does not specifically prohibit proselytism, but individuals promoting proselytism may be prosecuted under laws criminalizing contempt of religion.  The government continued to appoint and pay the salaries of Sunni imams and provide the full basic text for weekly sermons preached at Sunni mosques.  It did not exercise the same oversight of Shia imams.  The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs (MAIA) fined, reprimanded, or suspended several Sunni imams for giving sermons perceived as politically motivated, insulting to other religious groups, and violating the national unity law.  In September the government fined a Member of Parliament (MP) for insulting a Shia parliamentarian and defaming Shia Islam via Twitter posts.  In June the Court of Appeals reduced the sentence of a journalist and secular activist convicted of blasphemy charges in 2017 for “contempt of Islam” and “slander of sharia.”  MAIA organized several courses for imams promoting tolerance and countering radicalization.  The government continued to provide added security at religious sites to all recognized non-Sunni religious groups.  It required all religious communities to conduct religious events indoors.  Minority religious groups said they could worship in private spaces without government interference provided they did not disturb their neighbors or violate laws regarding assembly and proselytizing.  MAIA permitted the construction of five new Shia mosques during the year; however, most minority religious groups reported a continued lack of sufficient facilities for worship and difficulty obtaining permission to construct new facilities.  The government did not accredit any religious schools or establish Shia religious training institutions.  Religious minorities said they practiced self-censorship to avoid conflict with authorities.  Some Shia leaders continued to report discrimination in clerical and public sector employment.  Members of most non-Abrahamic faiths and unregistered churches were not able to get married locally.  In July the press reported that two parliamentarians submitted a request to halt enforcement of a prohibition against registering local Baha’i marriages.  The Ministry of Education continued to ban or censor instructional materials referring to the Holocaust or Israel.

Muslims continued to face societal pressure against conversion from Islam but there were no legal prohibitions to doing so.  It remained illegal, however, for individuals of other faiths to convert Muslims within the country.  Some citizens who converted outside the country said their families harassed them due to their conversion from Islam.  Hotels, stores, and businesses continued to mark non-Islamic holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali.  News media continued to publish information about the celebrations of religious holidays, including such material as the religious significance of Christmas.  Some Muslim clerics continued to express disapproval via social media of the celebration of non-Islamic holidays and called for more government action to restrict public expression of these holidays.  According to the NGO Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), there were instances of anti-Semitic commentary in print and on social media, including by a public university lecturer and a licensed imam.

Senior embassy officials and senior MAIA officials discussed the ministry’s function to promote tolerance and religious freedom in the country, including for members of religious minority groups.  In March the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met with government officials, including MAIA senior officials and MPs from the Human Rights Committee, and with religious leaders, and attended a large private interfaith meeting.  In December the U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials hosted an annual event for representatives of officially recognized non-Muslim faiths to discuss religious freedom and the challenges they faced in the country, as well as the importance of religious tolerance.  A senior embassy official also hosted a roundtable at which leaders of non-Abrahamic faiths discussed their communities’ needs.  Senior embassy officials attended religious events throughout the year and discussed issues related to religious tolerance with participants and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to international religious freedom.

Kyrgyz Republic

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion and bans religious groups from undertaking actions inciting religious hatred.  It establishes the separation of religion and state and prohibits pursuit of political goals by religious groups.  The law requires all religious groups to register with the government and prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups.  Authorities maintained bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups they considered extremist and, in an increase in the number of arrests from 2017, arrested hundreds of individuals they accused of participating in what they termed as extremist incidents.  The State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA) substantively revised draft amendments to the 2009 religion law to address public concerns on restrictions to religious freedom.  The proposed amendments, however, include a ban on “door-to-door proselytizing.”  Some religious groups believed the changes would also increase the difficulty of registering as a religious organization.  As of year’s end, the SCRA had not submitted the amendments to parliament for review.  According to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), in the course of conducting counterterrorism measures against extremists, authorities arrested dozens of citizens for possession of vaguely defined “extremist” materials.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continued to face difficulties registering as official religious groups.  The government did not provide religious materials to prisoners convicted of affiliation with banned religious groups, according to NGOs.

In January unidentified individuals burned the Baptist church in Kaji-Sai village, an incident that church leaders said was a deliberate arson attack.  Also in January the international NGO Forum 18 reported a mob led by a local religious figure denied a Christian burial in a public cemetery in Jeti-Oguz District.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups and proposed revisions to the religion law.  The embassy regularly met with religious leaders, including office directors of the grand muftiate, and with representatives of NGOs to discuss tolerance and respect for religious groups.  Embassy outreach programs, especially for local youth, emphasized religious tolerance and dialogue.

Laos

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Latvia

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Lebanon

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Lesotho

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Liberia

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Libya

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

Liechtenstein

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Lithuania

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Luxembourg

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Macau

Executive Summary

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


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

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

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

Madagascar

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious thought and expression and prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace.  Other laws protect individual religious freedom against abuses by government or private actors.  The government began implementation of the nationality law passed in 2017, and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported an increase in requests for nationality certificates.  Muslims born in the country continued to report they were unable to obtain citizenship documentation based on nationality laws that fail to provide a mechanism for some stateless children born in country to naturalize.

Members of the Muslim community and adherents of some evangelical Protestant churches reported they sometimes had limited access to employment due to their religious affiliation, while members of a small Jewish community continued to report general improvement regarding their interaction with society.

U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged with Ministry of Interior officials responsible for registration of religious groups.  Embassy officials continued to engage with international community representatives to minimize the impact of the nationality code on stateless persons, including Muslims with long-standing ties to the country.  The embassy regularly met with religious leaders throughout the year and organized an interfaith virtual discussion to encourage solidarity among different religious faiths around a common concern.

Malawi

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion and provides for freedom of conscience, religion, belief, and thought.  Rastafarian children continue to be denied enrollment in public school unless they shaved their dreadlocks.  A test case remained pending and, by court order, the child involved was attending school with his hair intact pending conclusion of litigation.  The Malawi Human Rights Commission sided with the child and joined the case amicus curiae.  Muslim leaders reported that Muslim female students were required to remove their headscarves to attend class in some public schools.

In February United Religious Initiative, a global interfaith network, organized its annual “World Interfaith Harmony Week,” which entailed a tour of houses of worship, speeches highlighting the importance of interfaith dialogue, soccer and netball matches, and activities encouraging peaceful coexistence.  More than 7,000 persons from various religious groups attended.

In an effort to foster collaboration with influential interfaith leaders, the Charge d’Affaires hosted a luncheon with 30 representatives from various religious groups to celebrate the U.S. Religious Freedom Day.  The Ambassador and senior embassy officials attended iftars, engaging with local Muslim leaders on issues affecting their coreligionists.  U.S. embassy officials also regularly sought input from leaders of religious groups on issues of religious freedom and tolerance.  To encourage interfaith and civil dialogue among religious, civil society, and political leaders, the embassy regularly invited religious leaders of different faiths to its events.

Malaysia

Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the “religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.”  Federal and state governments have the power to mandate doctrine for Muslims and promote Sunni Islam above all other religious groups.  Other forms of Islam are illegal.  Those differing from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices.  Sedition laws criminalize speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.”  The government maintains a parallel legal system, with certain civil matters for Muslims covered by sharia.  The relationship between sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system.  In January the country’s highest court unanimously overturned a 2015 Court of Appeal decision and ruled minors could only convert to Islam with the consent of both parents.  The court held it had jurisdiction over the administrative decisions of sharia authorities and such jurisdiction could not be abrogated by a constitutional amendment by parliament.  In December the country’s human rights commission concluded an investigation into the 2017 abduction of a Christian pastor and was expected to report to parliament in 2019.  The wife of a social activist who reportedly promoted Shia teachings and disappeared in 2016 said a police officer told her security forces were responsible for the disappearance of both her husband and the Christian pastor.  The retired local head of the security force who was named by the wife denied responsibility.  The government continued to bar Muslims from converting to another religion without approval from a sharia court and imposed fines, detentions, and canings on those classified under the law as Muslims who contravened sharia codes.  Religious converts from Islam to another religion had difficulty changing their religion on their national identification cards.  The High Court ruled in July that Selangor State religious authorities did not have jurisdiction over the Ahmadiyya community because they were not recognized as Muslims.  State religious authorities appealed the decision.  Non-Muslims continued to face legal difficulty in using the word “Allah” to denote God.  Non-Sunni religious groups continued to report difficulty in gaining registration as nonprofit charitable organizations or building houses of worship.  Some political parties criticized the government for appointing non-Muslims to high-level positions, including attorney general.

Local human rights organizations and religious leaders again stated society continued to become increasingly intolerant of religious diversity.  In October a member of parliament received death threats after urging the government to ratify a UN declaration on the elimination of religious intolerance.  A Sarawak State legislator received online death threats in February for representing four individuals who sought to convert from Islam.  In November violence broke out after as many as 200 individuals, reportedly hired by a real estate developer claiming ownership of the land, entered a Hindu temple and attempted to forcibly evacuate devotees.  Police arrested a man for two incidents of vandalism at a church and Hindu temple in Kelantan State.

U.S. embassy officials regularly discussed with government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Prime Minister’s Department, among others, issues including constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, increasing religious intolerance and avoiding the denigration of religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children by one parent without the permission of the other, and the disappearances of three Christians and a Muslim activist.  Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups, including minority groups and those whose activities were limited by the government, to discuss the restrictions they faced and strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom.  The embassy enabled the participation of religious leaders and scholars in visitor exchanges and conferences that promoted religious tolerance and freedom.  A visiting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor urged officials to lift restrictions on religious freedom, including discrimination against the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and impediments to conversion for Muslims, and raised concerns about the disappearance of the Christian pastor and social activist.

Maldives

Executive Summary

The constitution designates Islam as the state religion, requires citizens to be Muslim, and requires public office holders, including the president, to be followers of Sunni Islam.  The constitution provides for limitations on rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.”  The law states both the government and the people must protect religious unity.  Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense.  The law criminalizes “criticism of Islam” and speech “in a manner likely to cause religious segregation.”  Antiterror legislation bans the promotion of “unlawful” religious ideologies.  The penal code permits the administration of certain sharia punishments, such as stoning and amputation of hands.  In November the parliament repealed the Anti-Defamation Act, which had criminalized expression deemed to be at odds with Islamic tenets.  In July then President Abdulla Yameen publicly stated his government intended to impose harsh legal punishment against individuals who insulted Islam, including stripping them of state benefits.  In April then Minister of Defense and National Security Adam Shareef Umar said the government would not allow religions other than Islam in the country.  Also in April the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MIA) published a policy paper proposing financial penalties and either prison or house arrest for individuals who insult Islam.  In September police destroyed a semi-submerged sculpture gallery installed by a resort after a court ruled the installation posed a threat to “Islamic unity and the peace and interests of the Maldivian state.”  In February the Civil Service Commission dismissed a teacher and a school janitor for refusing to take off their niqabs in compliance with civil service dress code guidelines.  The MIA continued to maintain control over all matters related to religious affairs, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday prayers.  The government continued to prohibit resident foreigners and foreign tourists from practicing any religion other than Islam in public.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stated that religiously motivated violent extremists continued to target other individuals on social media, including employees of human rights organizations, and label them “secularists.”  They also reported continued community pressure on women to wear a hijab.  In April police briefly arrested a male taxi driver who threatened to kill a woman for not wearing a hijab but did not press charges.  In May a woman moved away from her island due to harassment after appearing in an online video speaking about societal pressure to wear the hijab and her wish to remove it.  NGO representatives also stated they continued to see a rise in what they termed Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism among the populace, asserting the government actively encouraged this trend.

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country, but the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka is also accredited to the country, and U.S. Embassy Colombo staff represent U.S. interests there.  In meetings with government officials in both Colombo and Male, embassy officials regularly encouraged the government to be more tolerant of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam and to ease restrictions preventing non-Sunnis from practicing freely.

Mali

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and grants individuals freedom of religion in conformity with the law.  The law criminalizes abuses against religious freedom.  On January 31, the government adopted a new national Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategy that included interfaith efforts and promotion of religious tolerance.  The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship was responsible for administering the national CVE strategy, in addition to promoting religious tolerance and coordinating national religious activities such as pilgrimages and religious holidays for followers of all religions.

Terrorist groups used violence and launched attacks against civilians, security forces, peacekeepers, and others they reportedly perceived as not adhering to their interpretation of Islam.  In the center of the country, affiliates of Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) attacked multiple towns in Mopti Region, threatening Christian, Muslim, and traditional religious communities, reportedly for heresy.

Muslim religious leaders condemned extremist interpretations of sharia, and non-Muslim religious leaders condemned religious extremism.  Some Christian missionaries expressed concern about the increased influence in remote areas of organizations they characterized as violent and extremist.  Religious leaders, including Muslims and Catholics, jointly called for peace among all faiths at a celebration marking Eid al-Fitr in June hosted by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.  In January Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic religious leaders called for peace and solidary among faiths at a conference organized by the youth of the Protestant community.  The president of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCI) and other notable religious leaders announced the necessity for all religious leaders to work toward national unity and social cohesion.

The U.S. embassy supported programs to counter violent extremism related to religion and promote peace and reconciliation.  The secretary general, second-ranking official of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship, participated in an exchange program on countering violent extremism.  Embassy officials met with the president and vice president of the HCI and called upon their interlocutors to promote peace and tolerance among religions.  The Ambassador spoke about religious tolerance at public events and on social media.  The U.S. government sponsored numerous programs to support religious diversity and tolerance.

Malta

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religious worship and prohibits religious discrimination.  It establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion and mandates Catholic religious education in state schools, but allows students to opt out of the classes.  In July the government postponed making a decision for six months on a Russian Orthodox application to build a new church.  The government continued to expand its ethics program as an alternative to Catholic instruction in public schools and appointed an education officer specifically for ethics education.

The self-styled nationalist Maltese Patriots Movement advocated a “Christian Europe,” and opposed Islamic teaching in Catholic schools and the existence of unofficial Muslim prayer rooms.  The Catholic Church offered premises for worship to a Russian Orthodox parish while it awaited a government decision on its application to build a new church.

In meetings with government officials at two ministries and with religious leaders, the U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed religious tolerance and religious groups’ efforts to establish places of worship.  During an iftar for members of the Muslim community and others and attended by two government ministers, the Ambassador stressed the importance of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

Marshall Islands

Executive Summary

The constitution provides protections for religious freedom with “reasonable restrictions” to ensure public order and the rights of other individuals.  The constitution provides for the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief and to the free exercise of religion.  Members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community said authorities did not allow them to use the government conference center that other religious groups use, and said they experienced longer waits at government hospitals than others.

Members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community reported societal religious intolerance, which they attributed to international news reports linking Islam to terrorism.  One Ahmadi Muslim leader said leaders of local Christian congregations tried to dissuade fellow Christians from converting to Islam by saying Islam promoted violence and Muslims used bribery to entice new members or influence their congregation.  There were instances of anti-Semitic graffiti in several locations in Majuro.  Christian parishioners reported feeling increased pressure to give more of their income to their church or face severe penalties from church leaders, including excommunication, if donation quotas were not met.

Embassy officials met with leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ,) Assembly of God, Seventh-day Adventist, and Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.  The Ambassador spoke at the Fourth Annual National Conference of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at in Majuro.  The organizers said the objective of the conference was to promote a better understanding of the Ahmadis as a peaceful and contributing element of society so as to reduce societal suspicion and promote greater freedom for the community.

Mauritania

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Islam as the sole religion of the citizenry and state.  Only Muslims may be citizens.  In April the National Assembly voted to amend the penal code to remove the discretion of the courts in imposing death sentences for apostasy or blasphemy.  The amendment removed all references to repentance, essentially making the death penalty a mandatory sentence in both cases.  Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheytir, a blogger sentenced to death in 2014 for apostasy after he allegedly posted statements on social media critical of the Prophet Muhammad, hereditary slavery, and discrimination, remained detained in an unknown location, despite a 2017 appeals court decision that he be released.  On May 28, government authorities closed a Shia religious center, the Ali bin Abi Talib complex in Nouakchott’s Dar al-Na’im district, after which the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Traditional Education (MIATE) confiscated the property.  In September authorities closed a religious training center and Abdallah Ibn Yasin University, a private Islamic studies graduate school, that had affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamist political party, Tawasoul.  For the first time in the country’s history, the government accredited an ambassador of the Holy See to the country.  The MIATE continued to collaborate with independent Muslim religious groups as well as with foreign partners to combat extremism, radicalization, and terrorism through a series of workshops in all 15 provinces.

During the annual Eid al-Adha observance, Imam Ahmedou Ould Lemrabott Ould Habibou Rahman, the imam of the Grand Mosque of Nouakchott, renewed his warnings about the growing influence of Shia Islam in the country and stated the government should sever ties with Iran in order to stop the spread of Iranian-backed Shia Islam.

U.S. embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, discussed religious tolerance with senior government officials, such as the minister of Islamic affairs.  Embassy officials raised apostasy and religious freedom-related issues with authorities on multiple occasions and urged them to follow through on the court decision concerning Mkheytir.  The Ambassador and embassy officials hosted two iftars, during which they discussed religious tolerance with government officials and religious and civil society leaders.

Mauritius

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on creed and provides for the right of individuals to change, manifest, and propagate their religious beliefs.  The government grants subsidies to six religious groups:  Hindus, Roman Catholics, Muslims, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Seventh-day Adventists, based on their relative numbers in the population.  Other groups must register with the government to obtain tax-exempt status but receive no subsidies.  Christians and Muslims continued to state they were underrepresented in the civil service and elsewhere in the government, including at the highest levels.

Tensions between Hindus and Muslims continued.  The Council of Religions, a local organization composed of representatives from 18 different faiths and denominations, hosted regular religious ceremonies and celebrations to foster mutual understanding and enhance interfaith collaboration among faith communities.

The embassy promoted religious tolerance and understanding through engagement with government officials.  Embassy officials met with religious leaders, including those affiliated with the Council of Religions.  The Charge d’Affaires hosted a dinner for Muslim civil society and religious leaders to highlight religious tolerance and emphasize ways to continue to foster interreligious tolerance.

Mexico

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees all persons religious freedom, including the right to engage in religious ceremonies and acts of worship.  Under the constitution, indigenous communities enjoy a protected legal structure allowing them to practice their own particular “uses and customs.”  The General Directorate for Religious Associations (DGAR) within the Interior Ministry (SEGOB) continued to work with state and local officials on criminal investigations involving religious groups.  During the year, DGAR investigated 11 cases related to religious freedom at the federal level, compared with six in 2017.  Government officials stated a continued wave of killings and attacks on Catholic priests reflected high levels of generalized criminal violence throughout the country rather than targeting for religious beliefs.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), however, said criminal groups targeted Catholic priests because communities viewed them as moral authority figures.  NGOs said criminal groups sought to remove these moral authority figures so communities would more likely overlook organized crime activities.  According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), in March community authorities in San Miguel Chiptic, Chiapas State, threatened three indigenous families for converting from Catholicism to the Seventh-day Adventist Church and later did significant damage to three of their properties.  Members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church sought assistance from municipal and state authorities, who declined to intervene, according to CSW.  On May 23, local police in San Miguel Chiptic arrested two Seventh-day Adventist men for preaching beliefs other than Catholicism.  At year’s end, six families remained displaced and sheltered with other Seventh-day Adventist Church members in Chiapas.  Evangelical Protestant leaders continued to state local indigenous leaders pressured some evangelical Protestants in mainly rural and/or indigenous areas in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca to support financially and/or participate in Catholic cultural and religious events, and in some cases convert or return to Catholicism.  In September CSW reported representatives from Rancheria Yocnajab, located in the Comitan de Dominguez municipality of Chiapas, did not allow the burial of an evangelical Protestant in the community public cemetery because she had not participated in Catholic religious festivals.

The Catholic Multimedia Center (CMC) reported criminal groups continued targeting priests and other religious leaders in some parts of the country, which included killings, kidnappings, death threats, and extortion.  The CMC reported unidentified individuals killed seven priests and kidnapped another during the year, and in August asserted Mexico was the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 10th year in a row.  In March unidentified individuals detonated two homemade bombs in two Catholic churches in Matamoros, Tamaulipas.  CSW reported unidentified individuals killed four non-Catholic clergy.

U.S. embassy and consulate officials met with government counterparts throughout the country to discuss concerns about violence toward religious leaders as well as reports of discrimination toward religious minorities in some communities.  Embassy officials met with members of religious groups and NGOs to gather details about specific cases.

Micronesia

Executive Summary

The constitution states no law may be passed respecting the establishment of a state religion or impairing the free exercise of religion.  The government may provide assistance to religiously affiliated schools for nonreligious purposes.  Observers stated Kosrae State government leaders expressed differing opinions regarding tolerance and respect for smaller religious groups.  The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Kosrae State reported it did not receive police responses to physical threats to individuals and incidents of vandalism and stated the government did not extend public services to their community.

Some Christians continued their advocacy of amending the constitution to prohibit the presence of non-Christian religious groups.  The Inter-Denominational Council in Pohnpei continued to address social problems and promote official cooperation among most Christian groups.  Other groups, including members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated the council’s charter was not inclusive.  Ahmadi Muslims continued to report incidents of vandalism targeting their religious centers and homes.

The U.S. embassy discussed religious freedom and tolerance with national and state governments.  The embassy also had discussions with religious leaders and sponsored educational events to promote religious tolerance.

Moldova

Executive Summary

The constitution protects the right of individuals to practice their religion and states religious groups are autonomous and independent from the state.  The law, however, recognizes the “exceptional importance” of Orthodox Christianity.  Minority religious groups and others reported the government continued to provide preferential treatment to the Moldovan Orthodox Church (MOC), and that the MOC exerted strong influence over government policies and electoral politics.  Several legal cases involving minority religions continued to be unresolved.  Throughout the year, President Igor Dodon expressed his support for Orthodox Christianity and particularly the MOC.  In May the Jewish community submitted a request to renew a building permit with the Chisinau mayor’s office to renovate property on which a historical Jewish synagogue stands, following a favorable Supreme Court of Justice decision in 2017 and the 2016 endorsement by parliament of the Wiesel Commission’s Report on the Holocaust.  The government also adopted a 2017-19 action plan based on the commission’s recommendations.  In October it adopted a decision to establish a National Holocaust Museum in Chisinau, renovate the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau, one of the largest in Europe, and approve a high school curriculum on historic lessons of the Holocaust, to be introduced in the 2019 school year.  There was progress on other commitments taken under the action plan, such as holding special sessions of parliament and government to commemorate Holocaust victims and developing content on the Holocaust for history textbooks.  In July the Supreme Court of Justice upheld a decision recognizing the validity of a building permit for a Kingdom Hall in Ceadir-Lunga.  After more than two years of opposition from local authorities, Jehovah’s Witnesses were able to proceed with the building’s construction.  A number of religious entities benefited from a 2017 law allowing individuals to direct 2 percent of their income tax to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or religious organizations.  The Islamic League of Moldova (Islamic League) reported an increase in actions taken against girls in public schools for wearing the hijab.  The Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research (Ministry of Education) did not take action following complaints submitted by the parents and advised them to take the case to the Anti-Discrimination Council.

In the separatist Transnistria region, NGOs continued to report the de facto authorities discriminated against, restricted the activities of, and monitored activities of, minority religious groups.  Jehovah’s Witnesses’ attempts to reregister their charters in Transnistria were unsuccessful.  The Muslim community said it continued to refrain from overt religious activities because of past intimidation by the de facto authorities.  The imam who led Friday prayers fled the region after the local Committee for State Security put him on their “wanted” list.  Three Jehovah’s Witnesses’ complaints of discriminatory acts in Tiraspol to the UN Human Rights Committee involving the de facto authorities and the Russian Federation remained pending at year’s end.

Representatives of the Pentecostal Church said that on February 20, unknown individuals entered a Pentecostal church’s premises in Pirlita Village in Falesti District and beat and threatened the guard with retaliation if he attempted to thwart their actions.  The individuals set several new doors in the church on fire.  This was the second attempt since 2010 to set the church on fire.  There were also arson attacks and other forms of destruction against churches in the Falesti District during the year.  The Jewish community reported an increase in hate speech during the year, particularly in online forums.  A Chisinau-based representative of the World Jewish Congress reported the presence of anti-Semitic comments and hate speech on social media sites such as VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Facebook, and in the comments section of local news websites.  The Jewish community reported one act of vandalism in which unknown individuals drew swastikas in a Jewish cemetery in Balti.

The chairman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad and embassy officials held discussions in August with the government on the treatment and maintenance of Jewish heritage sites and the opening of a Jewish heritage museum in Chisinau.  The embassy also sponsored several events that focused on religious freedom and tolerance.  On June 1, the embassy hosted an iftar with leaders and representatives of the Muslim community and diplomatic representatives.  The community discussed its concerns over rising societal intolerance toward Muslims in media, politics, education, and employment.  The Ambassador and embassy officials called for enhancing interfaith tolerance and dialogue.  Embassy officials discussed respect for the rights of religious minorities and combating religious intolerance with representatives of religious groups.  In December the Ambassador hosted an event with leaders of minority religious groups to facilitate dialogue and cooperation between religious communities in the country.  The Ambassador also met with the heads of the MOC, Bessarabian Orthodox Church (BOC), and Roman Catholic Church in the country to discuss the prospects of creating an official platform for cooperation among various faiths.

Monaco

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and its public expression and prohibits compelling participation in religious ceremonies.  Roman Catholicism is the state religion and state ceremonies often include Catholic rituals.  Religious groups have to apply to the government to build a public place of worship and to receive recognition, which provides certain legal rights and privileges.  Optional Catholic religious instruction is available in public schools.  In February the government again refused to recognize the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the group again appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, where the case was pending at year’s end.  Without recognition, the group said it could not open a place of worship in the country.

The only private religious schools were Catholic.  According to the government, there was insufficient demand for non-Catholic private religious schools.  The government said it did not receive any requests from religious groups during the year to build places of worship.

In October representatives from the U.S. Consulate General in Marseille inquired about the government’s nonrecognition of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Consulate officials also discussed religious issues with members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities.

Mongolia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for “freedom of conscience and religion,” prohibits discrimination based on religion, and mandates the separation of the activities of state and religious institutions.  The law requires religious institutions to register with authorities but provides little detail on registration procedures, leaving most specifics of implementation to local authorities.  The law prohibits hindering the free exercise of faith but limits proselytization.  The law also prohibits religious legal entities from engaging in government or political activity, organizing religious activities at public premises, including schools, and recruiting children against their will.  Some religious groups reported continued difficulties in some localities obtaining and renewing registration due in part to differing registration guidelines among provinces, uncertain registration practices, frequent staffing changes, and the necessity for each branch of a religious group to register separately.  The government considered a new law on religion, which included registration issues, and invited public comment.  Some regions reportedly delayed new registrations for years.  A Christian group reported that an Ulaanbaatar government official stated its registration application was refused based on the large number of Christian organizations already registered.  Foreign citizens seeking to enter the country to proselytize must obtain religious visas, and some reportedly faced difficulty doing so.  The foreign minister created the position of and appointed an ambassador at large for religious freedom issues following his attendance at the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington.

There were reports of social media-based harassment of individual Christians, Muslims, and members of other minority religious groups.  For example, a Christian church reported that a Facebook posting of baptism photographs received many negative comments.

U.S. officials discussed religious freedom concerns, including uneven application of visa laws and the registration difficulties religious groups face, with high-level officials in the Office of the President, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs, parliament, provincial governments, and the Ulaanbaatar Assembly.  In July the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with Foreign Minister Damdin Tsogtbaatar to encourage improvements in the law on religious freedom.  In October the Ambassador at Large met with his newly appointed counterpart to identify areas of cooperation.  Embassy officials met regularly with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom and tolerance.  In January the embassy hosted an interfaith youth discussion focused on increasing interreligious dialogue and promoting religious tolerance with young representatives from several religious communities in honor of International Religious Freedom Day.  The embassy invited Buddhist, Christian, Shamanist, and Muslim leaders to an embassy roundtable in October that focused on promoting respect for religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, and religious tolerance.  The embassy also promoted religious freedom on social media.

Montenegro

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion as well as the right to change one’s religion.  It specifies there is no state religion and guarantees equality and freedom for all religious communities.  The law prohibits religious discrimination and hate speech.  Religious groups, particularly the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), continued to say the laws governing their legal status were inadequate.  The SOC said the Ministry of Interior (MOI) denied visas to its clergy based on discriminatory registration procedures.  Police on occasion prevented Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC) and SOC members from engaging in religious activities at Orthodox sites at the same time, citing security concerns over potential clashes.  Construction was halted for several months during the year on a new synagogue in Podgorica begun in 2017 by the Jewish community, pending the granting of necessary permits and documentation, which the Jewish community said was a bureaucratic issue rather than discrimination.  The government maintained its policy of not restituting religious properties confiscated by the communist government, although it discussed a new religion law that could potentially address restitution.  The prime minister said that an SOC church in a spot revered by Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox would have to be removed because it did not have the proper permits.  SOC Metropolitan Amfilohije stated, “The destruction of the church would be equal to a crime.”

The SOC and the MOC continued to dispute ownership of religious sites, and to call on the government to protect their interests.   

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials met throughout the year with government representatives to discuss relations between the government and religious groups, specifically regarding the new religion law and outreach the government reports it is conducting.  The Ambassador spoke with MOC Metropolitan Mihailo about the MOC’s status and interreligious relations; the Charge d’Affaires held similar talks with Rifat Fejzic, the Islamic Community Reis (leader).  In June the Ambassador hosted an iftar with representatives of different religious communities to discuss interfaith tolerance and moderation.  The embassy also hosted the visit of a U.S. law enforcement specialist who discussed countering violent extremism with representatives of the Islamic Community.

Morocco

Executive Summary

According to the Moroccan constitution, Islam is the religion of the state, and the state guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly.  The constitution also says the state guarantees to everyone the freedom to “practice his religious affairs.”  The constitution states the king holds the Islamic title “Commander of the Faithful,” and he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country.  It also prohibits political parties founded on religion and political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments that denigrate or infringe on Islam.  Moroccan law penalizes the use of enticements to convert a Muslim to another religion and prohibits criticism of Islam.  According to the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report, the only non-Muslim citizens who could freely practice their religion were Jews.  Local Christian and Shia leaders reported the government detained and questioned some Christian and Shia citizens about their beliefs and contacts with other Christians and Shias.  Christian and Shia Muslim citizens also stated their fear of government and societal harassment led to their decision to practice their faiths discreetly.  According to press reports, in April police in Rabat detained a Christian citizen for 24 hours after finding Christian literature in his backpack.  On April 3, a group calling itself the Moroccan Christian Coordinating Group met with the National Council of Human Rights (CNDH) to submit a petition calling for the government to recognize rights for Christian citizens such as freedom to worship, celebrate civil marriages, establish and operate cemeteries, use biblical names for children, and the right of children to decline Islamic classes at school.  In May human rights organizations and media reported local authorities denied two citizens who had converted to Christianity the necessary documents to register to marry because of their religious beliefs.  Foreign clergy, because of fear of being criminally charged with proselytism, said they discouraged the country’s Christian citizens from attending their churches.  Although the law allows registration of religious groups as associations, some minority religious groups reported the government rejected their registration requests.  The authorities continued to introduce new religious textbooks during the school year following a review they said was aimed at removing extremist or intolerant references.  The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism.  According to media reports, in September the government requested regional MEIA representatives identify and monitor imams (morchidines) and female Muslim spiritual guides (morchidates) who have accounts on social media to ensure only official religious positions were conveyed through these personal accounts.  The government restricted the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.  On June 14, Minister of State for Human Rights Mustafa Ramid stated in an interview that “freedom of belief does not pose a short-term threat to the state but is certainly a long-term danger” to national cohesion.  On June 19, Minister of Justice Mohamed Aujjar denied the existence of Christian, Baha’i, and Ahmadi citizens on national television, but he said throughout history, Morocco has allowed Jewish citizens and visiting Christians from Europe and Africa to practice their religious affairs freely.  In May the Archives of Morocco signed a cooperation agreement with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).  The government hosted the second International Conference on Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue in Fez from September 10 to 12, where King Mohammed VI delivered remarks underscoring the tradition of coexistence in Morocco between Muslims and Jews and openness to other religions.

According to the Assabah newspaper, in July Christian citizens in the city of Nador received death threats, which the government investigated and reported were unfounded allegations.  According to media reports, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts, Christian citizens face pressure from non-Christian family and friends to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith.  They also reported the government did not respond to complaints about frequent societal harassment.  Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors, but feared extremist elements in society would try to do them harm.  According to an interview with TelQuel magazine, however, Baha’i citizens reported they did not feel they were treated differently from the average Moroccan.  Shia Muslims said in some areas, particularly in large cities in the north, they did not hide their faith from family, friends, or neighbors, but many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.

The Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officials, and other U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in visits with key government officials, members of religious minority and majority communities, religious leaders, activists, and civil society groups, where they highlighted on a regular basis the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.

Mozambique

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the right to practice or not to practice religion freely and prohibits discrimination based on religion.  These and other rights may temporarily be suspended or restricted only in the event of a declaration of a state of war, siege, or emergency.  The constitution prohibits faith-based political parties and the use of religious symbols in politics.  Religious groups have the right to organize, worship, and operate schools.  In the northernmost province of Cabo Delgado, the government responded to attacks on security forces and killings and beheadings of civilians by a group sometimes referred to as Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah and which was termed jihadist by the government and the media, with significant security force operations and the arrest of hundreds of suspected jihadists.  These operations were characterized by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and news media as sometimes heavy-handed and contributing to a “growing cycle of grievance and revenge” between militant Islamists and security forces.  The government reopened all seven mosques it ordered closed in 2017.  The Greek Orthodox Church reported no progress in its efforts to regain property the government seized following independence.

Religious leaders at the national and provincial level called for religious tolerance and condemned the use of religion to condone violence.  For example, Muslim leaders joined former liberation fighters condemning those who allegedly use religion for illicit and criminal purposes.

The Ambassador discussed the challenge and importance of sustaining the country’s tradition of religious tolerance, especially in light of the attacks in the northern region, with President Filipe Nyusi, the minister of justice, and other high-level contacts.  The Ambassador hosted an iftar at the Anwaril Mosque during which religious tolerance was discussed with members of Islamic civil society organizations and religious leaders.  Embassy representatives discussed the importance of religious tolerance with Catholic Church representatives and Islamic religious leaders in the provinces of Cabo Delgado, Sofala, and Nampula.

Namibia

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of belief and the right to practice, profess, and promote any religion.  Some religious groups again noted the difficulty of obtaining work visas for foreign religious workers; however, they also said all organizations were subject to strict visa enforcement and this policy was not targeted at religious groups.

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

Embassy representatives engaged with the government-run Ombudsman’s Office about complaints regarding religious freedom.  U.S. embassy officials engaged with religious groups and leaders to discuss religious freedom and the creation of an interfaith council.

Nauru

Executive Summary

The constitution and other laws provide for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, and for freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs.  Smaller churches continued to find the 750-member requirement for registration difficult to meet, although religious groups stated they could conduct most normal functions without registration.

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

The U.S. Ambassador to Fiji is accredited to the government.  Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Suva discussed religious pluralism, tolerance, and registration requirements during visits with government officials in November.

Nepal

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes the country as a “secular state” but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.”  It provides for the right to profess and practice one’s own religion.  The constitution prohibits converting persons from one religion to another and bans religious behavior disturbing public order or contrary to public health, decency, and morality.  A new criminal code, which became effective in August, reduces the punishments for “convert[ing]… the religion of another person” or for engaging in any act that undermines the religion, faith, or belief of others from six to five years’ imprisonment.  It also criminalizes “harming the religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class, either in speech or in writing.  The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries.  All other religious groups must register as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or nonprofit organizations to own property or operate legally.  In several locations, police arrested individuals accused of slaughtering cows or oxen.  Christian groups continued to report difficulties registering or operating as NGOs.  Christian and Muslim groups continued to face difficulties in buying or using land for burials.  Tibetan community leaders said government authorities generally permitted them to celebrate Buddhist holidays in private ceremonies but drastically curtailed their ability to hold public celebrations since 2016, a break from historical practice.  The government once again rescinded its recognition of Christmas as a public holiday, a decision Christian groups said was a reflection of anti-Christian sentiment.  For the first time under the constitution that went into effect in 2015, officials deported numerous foreigners for seeking to convert Hindus to Christianity.  In July authorities fined a Filipino and Indonesian couple and revoked their visas.  Christian religious leaders expressed concern about the emphasis placed by some politicians on the re-establishment of the country as a Hindu state, which they said had a negative impact on the public perception of Christians.  On July 2, police arrested four Christians in Taplejung District, accusing them of forcible conversion in a case involving the non-Christian husband of a Christian woman who had asked for help with her husband’s alcoholism.  Authorities arrested two Christians on April 30 in Chitwan District on charges of forceful conversion and hurting religious sentiment, releasing the men a few days later.  According to an online Christian media outlet, on May 9, police in Kathmandu arrested three women at a church on charges of attempting to convert through inducement.  Authorities arrested six Christians in Terhathum District on charges of proselytizing in early May.  On July 9, a court acquitted them of distributing literature.  Police arrested nine Jehovah’s Witnesses in November for proselytizing.  Police deported three to their countries of origin, released three on bail and three remained in prison.  Police arrested nine Jehovah’s Witnesses in November in Bardiya and Rupandehi Districts on charges of proselytizing.  Among these, authorities detained and deported three foreigners, two Japanese and one Australian.  The district courts released three of the Nepali citizens on bail in December, while three remained incarcerated without access to religious material since their arrests in November.

In May assailants bombed the Mahima Church in Kailali District and arsonists targeted three churches in other districts.  On April 28, arsonists attacked a Catholic church building in the Banke District, and members of Hindu Jagaran Nepal, which local experts described as a small pro-Hindu group with little influence, on April 30 threatened to destroy it.  Eight to 10 unidentified men broke into St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Banke District and set it on fire on May 5.  The fire caused minor damage; there were no injuries reported.  Christian leaders stated their belief the attacks during the year on churches, as well as the 2017 arson attack on the Assumption Roman Catholic Cathedral in Lalitpur and 2017 shooting of a Federation of National Christians Nepal (FNCN) employee, represented an effort to foment panic among the Christian community.  They also expressed concern about lack of police willingness to investigate the cases thoroughly.  Police filed charges against 28 individuals accused of participating in Hindu-Muslim interreligious clashes in 2016 during which two persons in the Banke District were killed; as of year’s end, the case remained pending.  Muslim leaders expressed disappointment at the district court’s decision to set the arrested individuals’ bail at a low amount.  According to NGOs, Hindu priests and other high-caste individuals continued to prevent persons of lower castes, particularly Dalits, from accessing Hindu temples and performing religious rites.

Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador, embassy officers, and other U.S. government representatives met with government officials to express concern over restrictions on freedom of religion posed by provisions in the constitution and the new criminal code, including the continued criminalization of conversion and new measures to criminalize proselytization.  They also met with representatives of civil society groups and religious groups to discuss concerns about access to burial grounds, public celebrations of religious holidays, the prohibition against conversion, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians.  Following May’s multiple arson attacks, U.S. embassy officers met with victims and police, and urged the latter to investigate the cases thoroughly.  Embassy outreach and assistance programs continued to promote religious diversity and tolerance.

New Zealand

Executive Summary

The constitution provides the right to manifest religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private.  The law prohibits discrimination based on religious belief.  In response to 2017 media reports that a little-used blasphemous libel law was still in the statutes, the minister of justice proposed in March to repeal the law as part of broader amendments to the criminal code.  In July a long-running dispute over the teaching of religious education in schools was relocated from the Human Rights Review Tribunal (HRRT) to the High Court.  Advocates for secular education had complained that provisions of the law authorizing religious instruction in state schools were inconsistent with the more recent Bill of Rights Act.  The High Court did not make a decision during the year.  In September the Ministry of Education released draft guidelines on religious instruction in state primary and intermediate schools to help clarify the legal obligation of the schools’ boards of trustees when allowing religious instruction.  The Catholic and Anglican Churches asked the government to broaden the terms of reference of a commission on child abuse in institutions of care to include faith-based institutions.

The government-funded Human Rights Commission (HRC) received 65 complaints of discrimination based on religious belief for 2017-18.  In July after media reported on anti-Semitic posters and leaflets in two cities, the New Zealand Jewish Council said anti-Semitism was increasing, particularly online.

The ambassador, as well as embassy and consulate general officers, continued to meet with the government and representatives of various religious groups throughout the country to discuss religious freedom and the role of religion in society.  The embassy supported religious tolerance through activities such as the ambassador’s attendance at the UN Holocaust Memorial Day service in Wellington in January.  In March the embassy sponsored a Holocaust-themed exhibition appearing in schools.  In August the ambassador met with Auckland Sikh and Muslim leaders, discussing among other things, interreligious cooperation on trafficking in persons.

Nicaragua

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion; provides for freedom of belief, religion, and worship; and states no one “shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare his or her ideology or beliefs.”  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported “serious human rights violations in the context of social protests in Nicaragua” surrounding demonstrations opposing social security reforms in April, which resulted in “excessive and arbitrary use of police force,” stigmatization campaigns, and other human rights abuses.  Amnesty International reported that in October the state had implemented a strategy of repression.  On July 13, police killed two students and injured at least 10 others in a 15-hour attack on a Roman Catholic Church in Managua providing refuge to student protesters from a nearby university campus.  Catholic leaders reported physical attacks and verbal insults, death threats, and intimidation campaigns by progovernment groups and ruling party (Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN) activists associated with President Daniel Ortega and Vice President and spouse Rosario Murillo.  Media reported Deputy Chief of Police Ramon Avellan physically assaulted Father Edwin Roman in Masaya on September 9, after the priest asked government supporters to turn down ruling-party propaganda music playing outside the church during a funeral service.  Observers said Bishop Silvio Baez was a frequent target of government harassment because he condemned its human rights abuses.  According to religious leaders and media, there were many incidents of vandalism and the desecration of sacred items in Catholic churches throughout the country.  Progovernment supporters frequently disrupted religious services by playing loud music through speakers positioned outside of churches.  Many religious leaders said the government politicized religion in the context of what the IACHR and other international bodies characterized as an ongoing political crisis and social conflict in the country.  Religious leaders said the government retaliated against clergy perceived as critical of the government.  According to religious leaders, Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders who provided shelter and medical assistance and defended human rights of peaceful protesters were routinely victims of government retribution, including slander, arbitrary investigations by government agencies on unfounded charges, withholding tax exemptions, reducing budget appropriations, and denying religious services for political prisoners.  Catholic leaders said the government continued to use religious festivities, symbolism, and language in its laws and policies to promote its political agenda, a practice that Catholic leaders said undermined the Church’s religious integrity.

According to media, on December 5, a Russian national woman threw sulfuric acid at a priest at the Managua Metropolitan Cathedral during confession.  By year’s end, the priest was still at a local hospital with burns over his entire body and a serious infection.  While some civil society leaders familiar with the case stated they believed the government sent her to the church, there was no evidence linking the attack to government officials.  A Jewish leader said his group’s interfaith director met regularly with Christian and Muslim counterparts as part of relationship-building efforts.

The Vice President of the United States repeatedly called on the government to cease violence and attacks on the Catholic Church and expressed the U.S. government’s support for faith communities in their fight for human rights, democracy, and freedom.  U.S. embassy officials met with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials to raise concerns over religious freedom in light of the country’s sociopolitical crisis.  Senior U.S. government leaders and the embassy used social media to express concern over attacks on the Catholic Church and other religious groups.  Additionally, embassy officials engaged like-minded members of the diplomatic corps to address concerns over religious freedom in the country.  Embassy representatives met regularly with a wide variety of religious groups, including Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Moravian Lutherans, Muslims, and the Jewish community, to discuss the groups’ concerns about politicization of religion and governmental retaliation against politically active religious groups.

Niger

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion and worship consistent with public order, social peace, and national unity.  It provides for the separation of state and religion and prohibits religiously affiliated political parties.  The government prohibits full-face veils in the Diffa Region under state of emergency provisions to prevent concealment of bombs and weapons.  The government also prohibits open-air, public proselytization events due to stated safety concerns.  An Islamic Forum, created by the government in 2017 with the stated goal of standardizing the practice of Islam in the country and preventing the use of Islamic institutions to spread Islamic extremism, continued to meet regularly and produced draft legislation for the regulation of religious practice.  The government’s Commission for the Organization of the Hajj and Umrah came under criticism again when some of the 15,000 sponsored Hajj pilgrims complained of difficulties with high costs, cancelled flights, lost luggage, poor hotels, bad food, and unfair business practices, leaving some travelers unattended in Saudi Arabia.

Representatives of both Muslim and Christian communities reported effective ongoing interactions through a Muslim-Christian forum.  Sources from both Muslim and Christian communities agreed, however, that an underlying stress surrounded the forum, with some Muslim leaders expressing discontent about its existence.

The U.S. ambassador and embassy representatives continued to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance through meetings with government leaders.  Embassy representatives conveyed messages of religious tolerance when they met with Muslim and Christian representatives and hosted an interfaith iftar during Ramadan.  The embassy sponsored programs with religious leaders nationwide focused on countering violent extremism and amplifying moderate religious voices.

Nigeria

Executive Summary

The constitution bars the federal and state governments from adopting a state religion, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for individuals’ freedom to choose, practice, propagate, or change their religion.  Members of the armed forces fired on Shia Muslims participating in the Arba’een Symbolic Trek organized by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) on October 27, killing at least three persons, and again on October 29, killing 39 and injuring over100, according to human rights organizations.  The government reported t conducted an investigation into these incidents but did not release its findings publicly.  The government did not keep its commitments to ensure accountability for soldiers implicated in the December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report, left at least 348 IMN members and a soldier dead, with IMN members buried in a mass grave.  On November 7, the Kaduna State High Court denied the bail request for the leader of the IMN Shia group, despite a December 2016 court ruling that the government should release him by January 2017.  Authorities arrested a Christian man for inciting violence after attempting to convert a Muslim girl.  A Muslim law graduate was called to the bar wearing her hijab after initially being denied.  The federal government launched military operations in Middle Belt states with the stated aim of stemming resource-driven rural violence, which frequently played out along ethnic and religious lines.  Members of regional minority religious groups continued to report some state and local government laws discriminated against them, including by limiting their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and in obtaining government employment.

Terrorist organizations Boko Haram and Islamic State-West Africa (ISIS-WA) continued to attack population centers and religious targets.  On January 3, a Boko Haram suicide bomber attacked a Gambaru mosque, killing 14 and injuring 15.  According to international news, on April 22, two suicide bombers killed three in a Bama, Borno State mosque.  On May 1, twin suicide bombings in Mubi, one in a mosque and another in a market, killed at least 27 and injured more than 60 persons.  According to Christian news outlets, on June 12, Boko Haram burned 22 buildings, including part of a Catechetical Training Center in Kaya, Adamawa State.  On June 16, two Boko Haram suicide bombers attacked the town of Damboa, killing 31 persons returning from Ramadan celebrations on Eid al-Fitr.  On July 23, a Boko Haram suicide bomber killed eight worshippers in a mosque in Mainari.  Boko Haram also conducted limited attacks in Adamawa, while ISIS-WA also attacked targets in Yobe.  Although government intervention reduced the amount of territory these groups controlled, the two insurgencies maintained the ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the Northeast.

There were incidents of violence reflecting tension between different ethnic groups involving predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and predominantly Christian farmers.  Scholars and other experts assessed that ethnicity, politics, and increasing competition over dwindling land resources were among the drivers of the violence, but religious identity and affiliation were also factors.  In January and May Fulani herdsmen attacked several villages in northern Benue State, resulting in the deaths of more than 200, mostly Christian, Tiv farmers.  During the year, clashes between farmers and herders in Adamawa and Taraba States resulted in more than 250 deaths.  In June Fulani herdsmen attacked several villages in Barkin Ladi Local Government Area (LGA) of Plateau State, killing approximately 200 ethnic Berom farmers.  The following day, Berom youth set up roadblocks and killed dozens of Muslim passersby.  In March the Nigerian Interreligious Council (NIREC), which includes the nation’s most influential religious leaders and addresses interfaith collaboration, met for the first time in five years.  In September religious leaders throughout the country met in Abuja to sign a peace pact and pledged to combat ethnoreligious divisions.

U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and interreligious tolerance in discussions throughout the year with government officials, religious leaders, and civil society organizations.  The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials hosted interfaith dinners, participated in interfaith conferences, and conducted press interviews to promote interfaith dialogue.  The embassy sponsored training sessions for journalists who report on ethnoreligious conflicts to help reduce bias in their reporting and prevent tensions from becoming further inflamed.  The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Abuja, Kaduna, and Lagos to engage with relevant stakeholders and highlight U.S. government support for interfaith cooperation.

North Macedonia

Executive Summary

The constitution and laws prohibit religious discrimination and guarantee freedom of religion and religious expression.  They provide for equality before the law for all individuals regardless of religious belief.  The constitution cites five religious groups by name; other religious groups may register with the government to receive benefits equivalent to those received by the five named groups.  In December hate crimes were added to the criminal code, including crimes based on the religion or belief of the victim.  During the year, the court in charge of registering religious entities accepted two applications and did not rule on two others.  The Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid (OAO) remained unable to register as a religious entity.  In April the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected the government’s appeal of the court’s November 2017 ruling that the government had violated the OAO’s rights by refusing it registration.  Also in April the ECHR reached a unanimous verdict in favor of the Bektashi Community and determined the government had violated the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms by denying the community registration.  As of the end of the year, both the OAO and the Bektashi Community registration applications were pending with Skopje Basic Court II.  In June the government paid the last tranche of compensation to the Holocaust Fund of the Jews from Macedonia (Holocaust Fund) based on previous restitution claims.  The Islamic Religious Community in Macedonia (ICM) said the government continued to show favoritism toward the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Ohrid Archbishopric (MOC-OA), and smaller religious groups continued to report unequal government treatment compared with the five constitutionally named groups.  Some MOC-OA clergy protested the change of the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia, while ICM religious leaders supported it.  In March the country marked the 75th anniversary of the deportation of Jews with a tribute at the Jewish cemetery in Bitola and a March of the Living in Skopje.

Representatives of the Bektashi Community objected to the ICM’s claims to full ownership of, and plans to renovate the Harabati Baba Teqe, the complex where the unregistered Sufi Bektashi Community of Macedonia’s headquarters are located.  Additionally, the representatives reported harassment by ICM-affiliated individuals.  There were several incidents of vandalism or theft of Orthodox Church property, one at the Harabati Baba Teqe, one case of fire at the Turkish Islamic cemetery in Bitola, and one incident in which a mosque was burned near Prilep.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with representatives from government and parliament to discuss religious freedom issues, including improved interfaith cooperation, MOC-OA autocephaly, religious freedom, and governmental respect for and equal treatment of faith groups.  The Ambassador met with the justice minister to discuss the then draft legislation on hate crimes.  The Ambassador also discussed these issues with the heads of the Bektashi Community and MOC-OA.  Embassy officials met with representatives from a variety of minority religious groups, including the Bektashi, Jewish, and Christian minority denominations, and with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with religious freedom.  The embassy supported Holocaust education efforts and sponsored civil society and government representatives on visits to the United States for programs that focused on promoting religious tolerance.  The embassy also continued to fund a television documentary series featuring prominent religious leaders, academics, and citizens promoting tolerance of different ethnic, linguistic, and religious communities.

Norway

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the right to choose, practice, or change one’s religion.  A hate crime law punishes some expressions of disrespect for religious beliefs.  The Council of Religious and Life Stance Communities (STL), an umbrella organization for religious and humanist communities, said a draft law could affect funding for 650 of 800 groups receiving state support; some religious groups expressed concerns the draft law might allow the government to impose conditions on those receiving support.  The government continued to implement an action plan to combat anti-Semitism, which included a strategy that addressed anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate speech through a combination of education, engagement with civil society organizations, and increased support for investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.  Representatives from all registered religious communities began a review of the content of mandatory religion and ethics classes in public schools, half of whose content was devoted to Christianity.  The government continued to provide exclusive benefits to the Church of Norway, including covering the salaries, benefits, and pensions of clergy and staff.  The government provided financial support for interreligious dialogue, including to the Muslim Dialogue Network (MDN), to support dialogue between the Muslim community and other religious or life stance communities.

In 2017, police reported 120 religiously motivated hate crimes, a 24 percent increase from 2016.  There were reports of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim speech on the internet.  A rapper used a profanity against Jews during a concert to celebrate diversity, and a major newspaper published an anti-Semitic political cartoon.  The MDN replaced the Islamic Council Norway (IRN) as the principal organization representing the Muslim community.

U.S. embassy staff met with officials from the Ministry of Culture (MOC) to discuss the draft law on religion, public financing for faith and life stance organizations, and perceptions by some religious groups of financial preferences for the Church of Norway.  Embassy staff discussed with officials from the Ministry of Justice and Public Security (MOJ) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) the government’s efforts to prosecute religiously based hate crimes.  Embassy staff continued to meet with individuals from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), faith groups, including Muslims and Jews, and humanists to discuss religious freedom, integration of minority groups, and life as a religious person.

Oman

Executive Summary

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion but prohibits discrimination based on religion and protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.”  According to the law, offending Islam or any Abrahamic religion is a criminal offense.  There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief.  In January the government issued a new penal code which significantly increased penalties for blasphemy and criminalized groups that promote a religion other than Islam.  Proselytizing in public is illegal.  In April Hassan Al-Basham, who had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in 2016 for blasphemy and disturbing religious values in his comments on social media, died in prison.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) based outside the country had previously reported he had won an appeal on medical grounds to commute his sentence, but reportedly a court later overturned it.  The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA) monitored sermons and distributed approved texts for all imams.  Religious groups continued to report problems with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration.  Nonregistered groups, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and others, remained without permanent, independent places of worship.  Non-Muslim groups said they were able to worship freely in private homes and government-approved houses of worship, although space limitations continued to cause overcrowding at some locations.  The MERA continued to require religious groups to request approval before publishing or importing religious texts or disseminating religious publications outside their membership.  According to religious observers, in practice the ministry did not review all imported religious material for approval, and non-Muslims were often able to import literature without government scrutiny.

Members of religious minorities reported conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community.  The Protestant-run interfaith group Al-Amana Center and the MERA continued to host programs to introduce Protestant seminary students to Islam.

At various times throughout the year, embassy officers met with government officials to encourage the government to continue to support religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.  In November the Ambassador hosted a lunch for various religious minority community leaders to express continued U.S. support for religious freedom and offer a forum for exchanging best practices.

Pakistan

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam.  The constitution also states, “subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.”  It also states “a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), is a non-Muslim.”  The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, punishment for which ranges from life in prison to execution for a range of charges, including “defiling the Prophet Muhammad.”  According to civil society reports, there were at least 77 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 28 of whom had received death sentences, although the government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy.  Some of these cases began before the beginning of the year but were not previously widely known.  According to data provided by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), police registered at least seven new blasphemy cases against seven individuals.  On October 31, the Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010.  In what was described as an effort to end widespread violent protests orchestrated by the antiblasphemy movement Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) against the government in the wake of Bibi’s acquittal, the government promised protestors it would not oppose a petition seeking further judicial review of the case.  Following violent antistate threats, the government later undertook a sustained campaign of detentions and legal charges against the TLP leadership and violent protestors.  The original accuser’s petition for a judicial review of Bibi’s case remained pending at year’s end, although most sources believed it was likely to be dismissed.  In October Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Noor-ul Haq Qadri said the government would “forcefully oppose” any change to the blasphemy laws.  NGOs continued to report lower courts often failed to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases.  Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders and human rights organizations continued to express concerns that the government targeted Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, and Ahmadis continued to be affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation that denied them basic rights.  Throughout the year, including during the general election campaign, some government officials engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community.  NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities, and perpetrators of such abuses often faced no legal consequences due to what the NGOs said was a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases.  Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in public schools and tertiary education, and in private and civil service employment.  In September the newly-elected government withdrew its invitation to economist and Ahmadi Muslim Atif Mian to join the Economic Advisory Council after significant public criticism, including from religious leaders.  In a conference organized by UN-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed in October, Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Qadri said the “Government and the Prime Minister of Pakistan will always stand against Ahmadis.”  In March the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued a judgment requiring citizens to declare an affidavit of faith to join the army, judiciary, and civil services and directed parliament to amend laws to ensure Ahmadis did not use “Islamic” terms or have names associated with Islam.

Armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government as extremist, as well as groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, continued to stage attacks targeting Christians and Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community.  According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) however, both the number of sectarian attacks by armed groups and the number of casualties decreased compared to 2017, corresponding with an overall decline in terrorist attacks.  On November 23, a suicide bombing near a Shia prayer hall in Orakzai district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa killed 33 people, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as some Sikhs.  Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) claimed responsibility.  There were multiple reports of targeted killings of Shia in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, although it was often unclear whether religion was the primary motivation.  In February and May several Shia residents were killed by alleged Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militants, the same group believed to be responsible for multiple subsequent killings in the same area in August.  On April 2, gunmen shot and killed a Christian family of four traveling by rickshaw in Quetta, Balochistan.  An affiliate group of ISIS-K claimed responsibility.  The government continued to implement the 2014 National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism, as well as military and law enforcement operations against terrorist groups; however, according to Ahmadi civil society organizations, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, despite this being a component of the NAP.  Civil society groups expressed ongoing concerns about the safety of religious minorities.

Throughout the year, unidentified individuals targeted and killed Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazaras, who are largely Shia, and Ahmadi Muslims in attacks believed to be religiously motivated.  The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear.  According to the SATP, attacks against Shia members of the minority Hazara ethnic group decreased relative to 2017.  In four separate incidents, unidentified assailants shot and killed six members of the Hazara Shia community in Quetta in April.  Assailants killed a member of the Ahmadiyya community in Lahore on June 25 in what appeared to be a targeted attack, and robbers shot and killed another man in his jewelry shop in Syedwala on August 29 after singling him out as an Ahmadi.  Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam, including forced conversions of young women; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities.  There also continued to be reports of attacks on the holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of the Christian and Ahmadiyya minorities.

Senior officials from the U.S. Department of State, including the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, the Charge d’Affaires, and embassy officers met with senior advisors to the prime minister, the minister for foreign affairs, the minister for human rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss the need to combat sectarian violence, to ensure the protection of religious minorities, and blasphemy law reform.  Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts to discuss ways to combat intolerance and promote dialogue on interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom.  Visiting U.S. government officials met with minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of the Shia, Ahmadiyya, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and other minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion.  The U.S. government provided training for provincial police officers on human rights and protecting religious minorities.  The Department of State publicly condemned terrorist attacks throughout the year, including the November attack near a Shia place of worship in Orakzai District, Khyber Pakhtunkha.

On November 28, the Secretary of State designated Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.

Palau

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for religious freedom and prohibits the government from taking any action to compel, prohibit, or hinder the exercise of religion.  On January 11, the government commemorated the National Day of Prayer that “welcomes all expressions of religion, no matter of his or her choosing without reservation or reproach.”  The government invited all faiths and denominations to the Capitol for a program of prayers and singing praises.

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

Embassy officials met with senior government officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and religious groups throughout the year to discuss the importance of government protection of religious freedom for all groups.  Groups with which the embassy interacted included the Palau Baptist Church, Palau Catholic Mission, Palau Seventh-day Adventist Mission, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Panama

Executive Summary

The constitution, laws, and executive decrees provide for freedom of religion and worship and prohibit discrimination based on religion.  The constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as the religion of the majority of citizens but not as the state religion.  In March the Ministry of Education issued a resolution allowing girls attending public schools in the provinces of Panama City and Herrera to wear the hijab.  Public schools continued to teach Catholicism, but parents could exempt their children from religion classes.  Some non-Catholic groups continued to state the government provided preferential distribution of subsidies to small Catholic-run private schools for salaries and operating expenses and cited the level of government support given to the Catholic Church in preparation for the January 2019 World Youth Day.  Local Catholic organizers continued to invite members of other religious denominations to participate.  Some social media commentators criticized the use of public funds for the religious event.

On August 16, the Interreligious Institute of Panama, an interfaith organization, held a public gathering entitled, “Interfaith Coexistence towards a Culture of Peace.”  Approximately 100 individuals attended.  The institute’s objectives included providing a coordination mechanism for interfaith activities and promoting mutual respect and appreciation among various religious groups.  On August 29, the Panama Chapter of the Soka Gakkai International Buddhist Cultural Center hosted its Second Interreligious Dialogue with panelists from the Baha’i Spiritual Community, Kol-Shearith Jewish Congregation, Krishna-Hindu community, and Catholic Church.

Embassy officials met on several occasions with government officials and raised questions about fairness in distribution of education subsidies for religious schools and the need for equal treatment of all religious groups before the law.  The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy officials met frequently with religious leaders to discuss government treatment of members of religious groups, interfaith initiatives promoting tolerance and respect for religious diversity, and societal perceptions and treatment of members of religious groups.

Papua New Guinea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion and the right to practice religion freely.  In February soldiers on Manus Island allegedly attacked three asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan, which required the victims to seek medical attention.  There was no public information on an investigation into the incident or any arrests.  Since religion, national origin, and refugee status are often closely linked, it was difficult to characterize the incident as being based solely on religious identity.  The Constitutional Review Commission and the minister for community development, youth, and religion continued considering the possibility of defining the country as Christian.  The minister of education stated that Christian-based religious education in public schools would be compulsory starting in 2019.  The government continued to fund churches to deliver health and education services through the Church-State Partnership Program.  The speaker of parliament began to implement a 2016 national court order to reinstall indigenous cultural artifacts to the parliament house.  The previous speaker had planned to replace the artifacts with Christian symbols.

According to media reports, local residents on Manus Island attacked at least four refugees and/or asylum seekers, three of whom were from Muslim-majority countries, although observers stated that xenophobia as well as religious identity played a role in these attacks.  There continued to be reports that established churches criticized the role of new Christian and missionary groups.  The Papua New Guinea Churches Council (PNGCC) organized dialogues among its members and fostered cooperation on social welfare projects.

Embassy officials discussed religious freedom and government funding of religious groups with the government, including at a church-state partnership forum in June, where they encouraged the government to be more inclusive of which churches received government funding as development agents and ensuring the freedom of religion as guaranteed in the constitution.  The Ambassador and other officials met with local religious leaders and provided support to religiously affiliated clinics working in health care management.

Paraguay

Executive Summary

The constitution accords individuals the right to choose, change, and freely practices their religion and prohibits religious discrimination.  It specifically recognizes the right of indigenous communities to express their religion freely.  The constitution states the relationship between the state and the Roman Catholic Church is based on independence, cooperation, and autonomy.  The constitution does not address relations between the state and other religious groups.  Representatives of the Catholic Christian Apostolic National Church of Paraguay (ICCAN) said that in October the Vice Ministry of Worship (VMW) rejected its second request during the year to register as a religious entity.  ICCAN representatives said they believed the Roman Catholic Church had “blocked” ICCAN’s request because the Catholic Church claimed exclusive use of the word “catholic” in a church title.  Roman Catholic Church representatives responded that they believed ICCAN leaders’ claims of apostolic succession from the historical National Catholic Church were dubious and they perceived any registration issues to be a result of issues inherent in ICCAN.  Religious groups not affiliated with the Catholic Church said the government disproportionately supported and subsidized teacher salaries at Catholic schools.

Catholic, Protestant, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Jewish representatives initiated an interreligious dialogue, including participation at a VMW-organized symposium on family in August to advocate for the creation of a new Ministry of Family.

U.S. embassy representatives met with the vice minister of culture at the VMW and discussed challenges ICCAN and some other religious groups faced with registration, the processing of claims of religious discrimination, and the unequal provision of state funding for salaries at schools run by religious groups.  Embassy officials met with representatives of the Catholic, Mennonite, Catholic Christian Apostolic, and Jewish communities to discuss interfaith respect for religious diversity and hear their views on the status of religious freedom in the country.

Peru

Executive Summary

The constitution bars discrimination based on religious affiliation or belief and provides for freedom of conscience and religion, either individually or in association with others.  It provides for the separation of religion and state but also recognizes the historic importance of the Roman Catholic Church.  In July the government removed the requirement that religious entities seeking to register must have at least 500 adult members, allowing any group to register voluntarily regardless of its size or categorization.  According to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and interfaith groups in the country, the changes in the registration regulations encouraged more minority religious groups to register with the MOJ’s Directorate of Justice and Religious Freedom.  Small non-Catholic groups said they were pleased with the removal of the registration prerequisite to receive certain tax and visa benefits and other government services.  Some Catholic Church members and members of religious minorities continued to criticize aspects of the 2011 religious freedom law, stating it maintained institutional preferences for the Catholic Church, particularly regarding tax exemptions.

Jewish community leaders said some individuals continued to engage occasionally in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews and Israel.  They said the government and both private and government-run media did not engage in this activity.  Both Jewish and Muslim leaders said some public and private schools and employers occasionally did not give their members leave for religious holidays.  The Interreligious Council of Peru continued to engage the MOJ for equal access to government benefits for all religious groups, including taxation exemptions on income, imports, property, and sales; visas for religious workers; and the opportunity to serve as military chaplains.  The council continued to discuss the government’s revisions of its religious freedom regulations with religious communities.  Religious groups and interfaith organizations coordinated with the government, civil society, and international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance to more than 600,000 displaced Venezuelans in the country during the year, regardless of religious affiliation, with no reported efforts to proselytize, and to promote religious tolerance.

U.S. embassy officials discussed the 2011 religious freedom law and its 2016 implementing regulations with government representatives, emphasized the importance of equal treatment of all religious groups under the law, and discussed how religious groups were assisting the humanitarian response to the influx of Venezuelans regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation.  Embassy officials also engaged leaders from the Catholic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), evangelical Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities to promote tolerance and respect for religious diversity.

Philippines

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of religion by law.  On July 26, President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which the government said would address the aspirations of Muslim and other separatist groups in Mindanao.  The signing took place after years of negotiations between the government and separatist groups in Mindanao, aimed at creating lasting peace in the region.  The Catholic Church expressed concern over the killings of three priests that the press reported were politically motivated.  Church leadership criticized the president’s policies, and the president made several statements critical of the Catholic Church and its doctrines.  In December he stated people should kill bishops, but his spokesperson said this was hyperbole.  He also made statements aimed at improving his relationship with the Catholic Church and the government’s relationship with persons of all faiths.  The Office of the President’s National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) continued to promote the rights of Muslims at the national and local level, and the Department of Education continued to promote the standardization of Arabic language and Islamic values curricula for Muslim students in private madrassahs and public schools with 10 percent or more Muslims.  In November the NCMF began to issue standardized identification cards to Muslims to enable better access to services in government and private institutions.

During the year, ISIS-affiliated and other militant groups carried out killings, bombings, and kidnappings for ransom.  ISIS claimed responsibility for several attacks, including a July vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack in Basilan that killed 10 persons and wounded several others.  In April a bomb explosion outside St. Anthony’s Cathedral in the capital of South Cotabato Province injured two persons; police blamed the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) for the attack.

In July police officers shot and killed a gunman who entered an archbishop’s residence, with media suggesting several possible motives of the gunman.  There were instances of clan violence and societal discrimination against Muslims pursuing housing and employment opportunities, including on the basis of names and religious attire.  Public statements on the internet and social media denigrated the beliefs or practices of religious groups, particularly Muslims.

In meetings with government officials, U.S. embassy representatives discussed the implementation of the BOL and its implications for religious minorities and emphasized the importance of supporting all communities of faith, particularly in conflict areas.  In meetings with religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), embassy representatives highlighted the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue and cooperation.  In September the embassy organized an orientation seminar for interfaith-based organizations.  The two-day seminar encouraged the integration of community-based interventions and facilitated the formulation of community-level cooperation between religious groups and authorities.  The Ambassador gave remarks at public events on the importance of the value of religious freedom and tolerance.

Poland

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion.  It states religion is a personal choice, and all churches and religious organizations have equal rights.  A concordat with the Holy See defines relations with the Roman Catholic Church.  Statutes and agreements determine relations between the government and 15 religious groups.  The law prohibits public speech offensive to religious sentiment.  The government registered one new religious group and decided 87 religious communal property restitution cases out of 3,240 outstanding cases.  After amending the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) law to criminalize ascribing Nazi crimes to the Polish state, the government removed the criminalization provisions, while retaining civil penalties for violators.  Governing party parliamentarians, other politicians, and commentators on state television made anti-Semitic statements during the year.  The prime minister and the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) leader denounced anti-Semitism.  The president participated in several Holocaust remembrance events.  PiS parliamentarians voted down a motion to ask the prime minister to review an appeal to protect Muslims in the country.

The government investigated 328 anti-Muslim and 112 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, compared with 360 and 160 incidents, respectively, in 2016.  Civil society groups said the figures were not comprehensive.  Several Jewish groups expressed concern over what they called increasing anti-Semitism and threats and said they felt unsafe in the country.  News media, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and Jewish groups reported an increase in anti-Semitic speech.  There were incidents of vandalism at Jewish and Roman Catholic sites.

On January 27, the U.S. Secretary of State delivered remarks and laid a wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Monument to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.  The U.S. Ambassador, embassy staff, and visiting U.S. government delegations raised concerns with government officials about the IPN law and its potential impact on freedom of speech and academic research related to the Holocaust.  In February the Ambassador released a video on social media expressing concerns about the amended IPN law.  The Ambassador, other embassy staff, and visiting U.S. officials also discussed with government officials and Jewish groups the status of property restitution and anti-Semitism.  On September 14, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom discussed religious freedom and antidiscrimination issues with government officials and religious leaders.  The embassy and Consulate General in Krakow engaged with Jewish and Muslim leaders on countering anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and sponsored exchanges, roundtables, cultural events, and education grants promoting interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.

Portugal

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.  The government, via the High Commission for Migration (ACM), sponsored activities to promote religious tolerance and acceptance, published religious texts, and organized education for teachers and workers interacting with persons of diverse religious backgrounds.  The government granted citizenship during the year to 3,525 descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled during the Inquisition.  President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and other senior officials advocated religious tolerance and harmony at public events throughout the year, including during regular visits to churches, mosques, and other places of worship.

In February the European Jewish Congress reported in a newsletter that government officials, whom it did not name, characterized the country as having an almost nonexistent level of public anti-Semitism.  According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey cited in September, 52 percent of residents of the country believed Muslim women should be free to wear any religious clothing without restriction; 44 percent favored at least some restrictions.  A series of 2015-17 Pew surveys cited in October found 70 percent of non-Muslims would be willing to accept Muslims as members of their family, and 73 percent of non-Jews would be willing to accept Jews as members of their family.

U.S. embassy representatives continued to meet regularly with the independent Commission for Religious Freedom (CLR) and ACM officials and discussed the importance of mutual respect and understanding among religious communities and the integration of immigrants, many of whom belonged to religious minority groups.  The ambassador and other embassy officials met with Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Orthodox religious leaders, including from the Ismaili Imamat, Jewish Community of Lisbon, and Islamic Center of Bangladesh in Lisbon, to discuss religious tolerance and interfaith collaboration.  The embassy hosted a multimedia theatrical presentation on ways to combat religious intolerance and funded the visit of a Muslim youth leader to the United States to participate in a program on religious freedom and interfaith dialogue.

Qatar

Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation.  The constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with “the maintenance of public order and morality.”  Religious groups must register with the government to acquire property, raise funds, or hold bank accounts.  Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations constitute the only registered religious groups in the country.  Unregistered religious groups are illegal but generally may practice their faith privately.  The Ministry of Interior (MOI) continued to allow more than 100 house churches to operate in the country.  In the wake of the severing of relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and continuing security concerns for Qatari citizens in Saudi Arabia, the government again discouraged citizens and residents from taking part in the Hajj or Umrah.  The government reviewed, censored, or banned print and social media religious material it considered objectionable.  The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported several instances in which the government promoted strident anti-Semitic preachers and stated the government-owned al-Jazeera media network continued “to be a major exporter of hateful content against the Jewish people.”  On May 21, the government submitted documents to the United Nations, following cabinet approval on March 14, to accede to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  The government formally stated in its accession documents that it would interpret the ICCPR’s Article 18, paragraph 2 (“No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”) “based on the understanding that the article does not contravene” sharia, and that it reserved the right to implement the article in accordance with its understanding of sharia.  The government also declared it would interpret several other provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including Article 27 (regarding the rights of minorities “to profess and practice their own religion”), which could impinge upon freedom of religion.  New leadership within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) worked to engage with Christian leaders and reported direct contact and dialogue with the Christian Church Steering Committee (CCSC) concerning the Christian community’s desire to develop a positive relationship with the MFA and develop channels of communication for addressing concerns such as the impact of security measures.  The Ministry of Culture and Sports approved the staging of a two-day Christian musical concert in Doha that was attended by 18,000 persons.  In April the Maronite Patriarch laid the cornerstone for the first Maronite church in the Gulf region on government-owned land at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex.

Media based in the country periodically published anti-Semitic material.  Following the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in May, national newspapers published a number of anti-Semitic editorial cartoons.  One appeared in al-Watan on May 15, showing a pig marked with the Star of David resting on a pillow with the pattern of the U.S. flag, with its stars replaced by Stars of David.  In December the ADL criticized the Doha International Book Fair for including anti-Semitic books.  Members of the CCSC stated pamphlets containing anti-Christian and anti-Semitic content that had previously been removed from some public places such as schools and hospitals had sporadically reappeared.

In November embassy officials met with the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) to discuss means to spread tolerance and raise awareness of the rights of religious minorities.  After outreach from the U.S. embassy to the Ministry of Culture, which organized the book fair, the government reported removing the offensive content and pledging to take a more proactive approach to prohibiting anti-Semitic content in the next book fair.  The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers continued to meet with relevant government bodies, as well as quasi-governmental religious institutions, concerning the rights of religious minorities, Sunni-Shia relations in the country, interest in international exchange programs for imams and MEIA officials, and government efforts to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies within mosques.  In November the embassy participated in the eighth roundtable discussion by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), which was an opportunity for Christian church leaders to meet with Muslim scholars.  In December the embassy hosted a Thanksgiving dinner with an interfaith theme.  Participants represented a wide spectrum of faiths, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists.

Republic of Korea

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Republic of the Congo

Executive Summary

The constitution states that the country is secular, prohibits religious discrimination, provides for freedom of religion, bans the use of religion for political ends, and stipulates impositions on freedom of conscience stemming from “religious fanaticism” shall be punishable by law.  The government continued to grant Christians and Muslims access to public facilities for special religious events.

The Catholic and Protestant communities conducted public outreach and evangelization campaigns in stadiums and other public spaces during the year.  In support of the atmosphere of religious harmony, the Islamic Council encouraged the country’s Muslims to lead ethically sound lives and to be respectful of other religious communities in the country.  According to Muslim, Catholic, and other Christian leaders, there were no reports of religiously motivated incidents or actions directed against their respective communities.  Sources stated there were varying views on the practice and acceptance of religious syncretism.

The U.S. embassy continued to promote religious freedom and tolerance in engagements with leaders in government, the diplomatic community, and civil society groups.  The Ambassador celebrated National Religious Freedom Day by hosting an interfaith dinner with six prominent religious leaders where the Ambassador and guests discussed religious freedom, the state of interfaith cooperation, and religious syncretism.  The U.S. embassy supported multiple events with religious leaders and youth groups to discuss community engagement and countering violent extremism related to religion.  Embassy officials met separately with Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim leaders to discuss the state of religious tolerance and cooperation.

Romania

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits restrictions on freedom of conscience and belief, as well as forcing an individual to espouse a religious belief contrary to the individual’s convictions.  It stipulates all religions are independent from the state and have the freedom to organize “in accordance with their own statutes.”  According to law, the state recognizes the “important role” of the Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC) in the history of the country.  The law specifies a three-tiered classification of religious organizations; civil associations wishing to perform religious functions may organize under a separate provision of the law.  The government approved applications for two Christian associations – The “Philadelphia” Roma’s Union of Pentecostal Assemblies and God’s Union of Pentecostal Churches.  There were continued reports of the slow pace of restitution of confiscated properties, especially to the Greek Catholic Church and the Jewish community.  During the year, the government rejected 609 restitution claims for confiscated religious properties and approved 52; it approved no claims for the Greek Catholic Church.  Minority religious groups continued to state that national and local governments gave preference to the ROC, and they reported incidents of discrimination against them.  In July President Klaus Iohannis promulgated a law on countering anti-Semitism that criminalizes the promotion of anti-Semitic ideas and the establishment of anti-Semitic organizations.

Minority religious groups continued to report harassment of their congregations by ROC priests and adherents, along with the blocking of their access to cemeteries.  A study on values shared by middle school and high school teachers reported that approximately one-third of teachers did not want persons belonging to a different religion as neighbors.  There was a case of anti-Semitic vandalism of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s childhood home in Sighetu Marmatiei.  According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), local media outlets depicted largely Muslim refugees as a threat because of their religion.

In meetings with the general secretary of the government, U.S. embassy officials continued to raise concerns about the slow pace of the restitution process and the low number of properties restored to minority religious groups.  Embassy officials facilitated meetings between the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and government officials to help speed the processes of property restitution and pensions for Holocaust survivors.  In meetings with President Iohannis, Prime Minister Danila, Bucharest Mayor Firea, and other officials, the embassy continued its support for the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania (Wiesel Institute) and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in its efforts to establish a museum of Jewish history.  The Ambassador participated in commemorations of the Holocaust and spoke out against religious intolerance in the country.

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 lists Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).  Authorities continued to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist” and reportedly detained at least 47 Witnesses and put 72 under investigation.  Authorities banned Jehovah’s Witnesses literature, raided homes, seized personal property and religious literature, and subjected individuals to lengthy interrogations.  Authorities continued to detain, fine, and imprison members of other minority religious groups and minority religious organizations for alleged extremism, including followers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi.  At least 11 of his followers were tried or jailed during the year, with four convicted of allegedly belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir, and seven more detained on the suspicion that they were members of the organization.  In one case, according to the nongovernmental human rights organization (NGO) Memorial, authorities beat and verbally abused an individual allegedly from Hizb ut-Tahrir in a pretrial detention facility.  Memorial stated the government held 177 political prisoners who were jailed because of their religious beliefs, the majority of whom were Muslim.  Authorities convicted and fined several individuals for “public speech offensive to religious believers.”  In some cases, it was difficult for minority religious organizations to obtain state registration.  The government prosecuted members of many Christian denominations and others for alleged unlawful missionary activity under the amendments to antiterrorism laws passed in 2016, known as the Yarovaya Package.  Police conducted raids on the private homes and places of worship of religious minorities.  Religious minorities said local authorities used anti-extremism laws to add to the government’s list of banned religious texts.  Local officials continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land and denied them construction permits for houses of worship.  The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to any other church or religious association, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions.  The government fined and issued deportation orders for foreign nationals engaging in religious activity, including a rabbi and two African Pentecostals.

Media, NGOs, and religious groups reported a number of attacks on individuals based on their religious identity.  For example, since the 2017 Supreme Court ruling classifying the religion as “extremist,” Jehovah’s Witnesses reported beatings, arson attacks on their homes, and employment discrimination.  Reports also indicated that hundreds fled the country in fear of persecution.  According to the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis (SOVA Center), a local NGO, there were several reported cases of vandalism during the year targeting religious properties.  These included unknown assailants knocking down crosses and desecrating Jewish cemeteries.  In separate instances, arsonists attacked two Orthodox churches and set fire to a Jewish leader’s vehicle.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials met with a range of government officials to express concern over the treatment of religious minorities, particularly the use of the law on extremism to restrict the activities of religious minorities, and the revocation of the registration of some minority religious organizations.  Throughout the year, the Ambassador met with representatives of the ROC and minority faiths to discuss concerns about religious freedom in the country, including with leaders of the Russian Jewish Congress (RJC), the National Coalition of Supporting Eurasian Jewry, the Church of Scientology (COS), and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).  In addition, consular officers participated in many administrative hearings involving U.S. citizens accused of violating visa or other administrative requirements.  Some of the U.S. citizens in these cases said the government targeted them because they were members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or other religious minorities.  Other representatives from the embassy and Consulates General in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok met regularly with religious leaders and representatives from multiple faiths to discuss developments related to religious legislation, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases.  The embassy sponsored visits of members of different faiths from several regions of the country to the United States to engage in the topics of religious freedom and countering violent extremism.  The embassy also used its social media platforms during the year to highlight religious freedom concerns.

On November 28, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Russia on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Rwanda

Executive Summary

The constitution and other laws prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of religion and worship.  In September the government enacted a new law requiring faith-based organizations (FBOs) to obtain legal status before beginning operations.  It also calls for legal representatives of FBOs and preachers with supervisory responsibilities eventually to hold academic degrees.  In February the government closed more than 6,000 churches, mosques, and other places of worship it deemed in violation of health and safety standards and/or noise pollution ordinances.  In March police arrested six pastors for organizing to defy the government’s order to close church buildings.  All six were released later that month.  Later in the year, the government permitted some of the places of worship to reopen after they made required infrastructure improvements.  Muslim community leaders reported effective collaboration with police and local authorities, including collaboration on programs to combat extremism.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported Roman Catholic schools, including government-subsidized schools, required all students to attend Mass regardless of personal faith.  Religious leaders reported numerous faith-based groups and associations contributed to greater understanding and tolerance by participating in interfaith meetings, organizing activities under the auspices of an interfaith religious leaders’ forum, and collaborating on community development projects.

Embassy representatives engaged the government and religious leaders on religious freedom and hosted interfaith events, including an iftar, where religious freedom and tolerance were among the key messages.  The Ambassador hosted an interfaith lunch and emphasized the importance of interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.

Saint Kitts and Nevis

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The government continued to ban the use of marijuana, including for religious activities, which affects some practitioners of the Rastafarian religion.  Civil society sources stated Rastafarians still faced some police harassment for the possession and use of marijuana, but on a legal, not religious, basis.  The Ministry of Health continued to require the immunization of children before enrolling in school, but it offered waivers for unvaccinated Rastafarian children.

According to media reports, Rastafarians continued to face some societal discrimination, particularly in seeking private sector employment.  Media also reported some businesses continued to place restrictions on dreadlocks in some instances when required by safety and hygiene regulations.

U.S. embassy officials engaged representatives of the government and civil society on religious freedom issues, including government promotion of religious diversity and tolerance, equal treatment under the law, and the required vaccination of children entering the school system.

Saint Lucia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and individuals’ right to change, manifest, and propagate the religion of their choosing.  Rastafarian community representatives reported their reluctance to use marijuana for religious purposes because marijuana use was illegal and subject to punitive fines.  Rastafarians said they continued to face discrimination in the school system because the Ministry of Education required vaccinations for all children attending school; Rastafarians continued to oppose vaccination, which they stated was part of their religious beliefs.  Government officials and Rastafarian community members said some Rastafarian families decided to vaccinate their children or to homeschool.  They also reported national insurance plans did not cover traditional doctors used by the Rastafarian community.  Rastafarians said the number of targeted searches by police and immigration officers decreased during the year.  They also reported that officials from the Ministry of Equity, Social Justice, Empowerment, Youth Development, Sports, and Local Government engaged in constructive dialogue and outreach with the Rastafarian community.

According to the Islamic Association, some male and female members of the Muslim community continued to experience occasional harassment when they wore head coverings and clothing that identified them as Muslim.  The Catholic Church and the Evangelical Association of the Caribbean continued to hold interfaith meetings to promote respect for religious diversity and tolerance.

U.S. embassy officials discussed respect for religious minorities with officials of the Ministry of Equity, Social Justice, Empowerment, Youth Development, Sports, and Local Government, which is responsible for ecclesiastical affairs.  Embassy officials also met and discussed issues related to religious freedom with leaders of the Rastafarian, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom of individuals to change their religion.  Rastafarians continued to disagree with the government’s ban on marijuana, stating it was integral to their religious rituals.  They said, however, that draft legislation introduced in September allowing marijuana use for religious purposes, if passed, would positively affect their community.  The possibility of exemption from vaccinations currently required for school enrollment remained under discussion between Ministry of Health officials and Rastafarians with school-age children.  Ministry of Education, Reconciliation, Ecclesiastical Affairs, and Information officials continued to permit dreadlocks at some workplaces, such as construction sites, provided they were covered with appropriate headgear when health and safety considerations required it.

Rastafarians said they still faced societal discrimination because of their religious practices, in particular their marijuana use.  Some Rastafarians stated, however, that they believed societal acceptance of and tolerance for Rastafarians continued to increase, noting the draft legislation on marijuana use and cultivation introduced in parliament as an example of a positive change in societal attitudes.

Embassy officials continued to raise the issue of Rastafarian dreadlocks with the Ministry of Education, Reconciliation, Ecclesiastical Affairs, and Information and with the Ministry of National Mobilization, Social Development, Family, Gender Affairs, Persons with Disabilities, and Youth.  Embassy officials also met with individuals from the Christian, Muslim, and Rastafarian communities to discuss governmental and societal support for religious freedom, including respect for religious minorities.  The embassy used Facebook to promote messages about the importance of religious freedom and respect for religious diversity across the Eastern Caribbean.

Samoa

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the right to choose, practice, and change one’s religion, and it defines the country as a Christian nation.  There was a dispute between the government and the largest church over a new tax on the income of ministers of religion.  In June, however, parliament adopted a law that amended the taxation of pastors to exempt income they receive as donations from funerals, weddings, and other traditional occasions.  Media reported, as of November, authorities charged eight pastors of the Christian Congregational Church for not filing their tax returns.  The minister of revenue subsequently charged additional pastors, making a total of at least 16 charged by the end of the year.  The cases of all the pastors were adjourned until February 2019.

There were continued reports that village leaders resisted attempts by new religious groups to establish themselves in village communities, forbade individuals to belong to churches outside their village, and did not permit individuals to abstain from participating in worship services.  There was reportedly strong societal pressure at the village and local levels to participate in church services and other activities, and in some cases to give large proportions of household income to support church leaders and projects.  A national report on the prevalence of domestic violence cited church monetary obligations as a contributing factor to hardship and family violence.

The U.S. embassy maintained contact with various religious groups.

San Marino

Executive Summary

The law prohibits religious discrimination, prevents restrictions on religious freedom, and includes provisions for prosecuting religious hate crimes.  An agreement with the Holy See, ratified in September, confirmed Catholic religious instruction must be offered in all public schools, but the law guarantees the right of nonparticipation without penalty.  Catholic symbols remained common in government buildings.  In August at a Catholic-organized annual conference in Rimini, Italy, the foreign minister advocated dialogue and religious freedom while on a panel with the secretary general of the Muslim World League.

In June a local bank organized a conference on interreligious dialogue, and, in October the University of San Marino participated in an event to remember the introduction of anti-Semitic “racial laws” in Italy and San Marino in 1938.

During periodic visits, officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Florence, Italy, continued to stress the importance of religious tolerance in meetings with staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Sao Tome and Principe

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and equality for all, irrespective of religious belief.  It grants religious groups autonomy and the right to teach their religion.  Religious groups must register with the government.

Religious leaders affirmed good relations among religious groups.

U.S. embassy staff based in Gabon, in periodic visits to the country, met with key government officials in the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights and religious leaders to encourage continued respect for 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 Muhammad).  The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted within the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.  Freedom of religion is not provided under the law.  The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion.  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 March UN experts said 15 Shia were convicted of spying for Iran and financing terrorism and were facing execution after legal processes that human rights organizations deemed lacking in fair trial guarantees and transparency.  In January the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib to seven years in prison after the Public Prosecution’s objection to his 2017 acquittal.  Some human rights organizations stated convictions of Shia on security charges, including several carrying the death penalty, stemming from 2017-18 clashes were motivated by sectarianism, while the government stated the individuals were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced as a result of security-related crimes and in accordance with the law.  A December report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism expressed concern at the “systemic repression against the country’s Eastern Province, where the majority Shia population lives.”  Charges announced by the government during the year for prominent clerics, religious scholars, and academics, reportedly detained in September 2017, include alleged connections to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or MB-affiliated groups.  The government continued to censor or block some religion-related content in the media, including social media and the internet.  The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV, commonly known outside the country as the “religious police”) monitored social behavior to encourage obedience to laws and regulations protecting “public morals.”  Many observers noted a continued decreased public presence of CPVPV officers in major cities, with the exception of Mecca and Medina, and fewer reports of CPVPV harassment.  On March 4, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met publicly with Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral.  On November 1, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Riyadh.

Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment.  Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.”  In addition, terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in public discourse.

Embassy, consulate general, and other U.S. government officials continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs.  In discussions with the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other relevant ministries and agencies, senior embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.  Embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained and imprisoned individuals and discuss religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia Muslims and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.

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 November 28, 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.

Senegal

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free practice of religious beliefs and self-governance by religious groups without government interference.  By law, all faith-based organizations must register with the government to acquire legal status as an association.  The government restarted a lapsed campaign to combat forced child begging, which often takes place at some Islamic religious schools.  The government also continued its programs to assist religious groups to maintain places of worship, to fund and facilitate participation in the Hajj and Roman Catholic pilgrimages, to permit four hours of voluntary religious education at public and private schools, and to fund schools operated by religious groups.  The government continued to monitor religious groups to ensure they operated according to the terms of their registration.

Local and international NGOs continued their efforts to focus attention on the abuse of children, including forced child begging, at some traditional Islamic religious schools (known locally as daaras); the organizations continued to urge the government to address the problem through more effective regulation and prosecution of offending teachers.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with senior government officials to discuss conditions faced by students at daaras as well as the government’s efforts to combat forced child begging.  The Ambassador and embassy officers also discussed these issues with religious leaders and civil society representatives in Dakar and across the country.  In meetings with civil society and religious leaders, including leaders of the main Islamic brotherhoods, embassy officers continued to emphasize the importance of maintaining religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue.

Serbia

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, as well as the right to change one’s religion, forbids the establishment of a state religion, guarantees equality for all religious groups, and prohibits incitement of religious hatred.  Some religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized the government for granting special privileges to seven religious groups it defined as “traditional” and protested difficulties in the registration process, without which religious groups lacked property rights, tax exemptions, and legal status.  Four religious groups applied for registration or had applications pending during the year, and the government approved two of them, the Buddhist Religious Community Nichiren Daishonin and the LOGOS Christian Community in Serbia.  In March the government appointed a chairperson to the supervisory board charged with overseeing the proper implementation of the law on Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed property, enabling the board to commence work.  During the year, the government restituted to religious groups 1,151.4 hectares (2,845 acres) of land and 1,618 square meters (17,416 square feet) of office and residential space confiscated since 1945.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported two incidents of physical assault and two instances of verbal death threats against their members and said prosecutors failed to respond adequately to the incidents.  Protestants said persons frequently branded their religious groups as “sects,” which has a very strong negative connotation in the Serbian language.  One Protestant group said its members sometimes hid their religious affiliation for fear of discrimination.  Many smaller or nontraditional religious groups reported low-level public bias or discrimination against their members without citing specific examples.  A Baptist group said religious documentaries critical of Protestant groups occasionally played on conservative television stations but did not cite specific examples.  Anti-Semitic literature was available in some bookstores, and the Jewish community reported one incident of pro-Nazi graffiti at a public park in Belgrade.

U.S. embassy officials urged the government to continue implementing restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property and closely monitored plans for a memorial at the World War II (WWII)-era Staro Sajmiste concentration camp site.  The Ambassador met with the head of the Restitution Agency to express support for the agency’s work in restituting WWII-era Jewish heirless and unclaimed property.  Embassy staff met with local and national officials in efforts to assist these restitution efforts and advocated the appointment of a chairperson to the supervisory board charged with oversight of the Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed property law.  Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of a wide range of religious groups to discuss issues of religious freedom and tolerance, cooperation with the government, interaction between traditional and nontraditional religious groups, and property restitution.  In May the embassy hosted an iftar that brought together representatives of the two different Islamic communities, which rarely met, to encourage the groups to work together and overcome long-standing divisions.  An embassy officer visited a series of religious sites in Belgrade in January and February, spotlighting U.S. support for religious tolerance via the embassy’s social media outlets.  In December the embassy hosted an interfaith discussion and networking event for 20 religious leaders and others.  One speaker said it was the first occasion in almost 20 years that brought together such a wide cross-section of the religious community.

Seychelles

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination on any grounds as well as laws establishing any religion.  It provides for freedom of religion, including the right of individuals to change, manifest, and propagate their religion.  Through the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Act, the government continues to bar religious groups from owning and operating radio or television stations; however, it continued to grant larger religious groups programming time on state-funded radio, subject in most cases to advance review, editing, and approval.  Smaller religious groups did not have access to dedicated broadcast time.  Although the constitution prohibits compulsory religious education, non-Catholic students in public schools providing Catholic instruction did not have access to alternative activities during those classes.  The government regularly consulted with an interfaith grouping, the Seychelles Interfaith Council (SIFCO), on national issues such as prison reform.  Members of SIFCO were appointed to various government boards.

SIFCO hosted an interfaith forum in February as part of its activities to mark World Interfaith Harmony Week.  The forum included presentations by representatives of the Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and Baha’i faiths.  Following the forum, SIFCO officials commented on the challenges to interfaith harmony and the progress made compared with the past.

The U.S. embassy in Mauritius monitored religious freedom in Seychelles and regularly engaged with government officials and civil society to promote freedom of religious expression.

Sierra Leone

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, which includes freedom of thought and religion, subject to the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, and health, and to the protection of other persons’ rights and freedoms.  The law prohibits religious discrimination and allows all persons to observe their own religious practices and to change religions without interference from the government or members of other religious groups.  Government registration is not mandatory for religious groups, but necessary to obtain tax and other benefits.  On January 8, the constitutionally mandated political parties monitor, the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC), ordered the Citizens Democratic Party (CDP) leader, Musa Tarawally, to remove his campaign posters and billboards stating, “Allah is One” as his election campaign slogan across the country.

Religious leaders expressed concern that the CDP leader’s Islamic preaching at political rallies and campaign posters constituted a possible threat to the country’s religious harmony.

The U.S. embassy promoted religious freedom through dialogue with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the Inter-Religious Council (IRC) and the Council of Imams.  The ambassador during Ramadan hosted an interfaith dinner with religious leaders.  The embassy sponsored the participation of a chief imam of a mosque in Freetown in an exchange program in the United States emphasizing interfaith dialogue and religious freedom.

Singapore

Executive Summary

The constitution, laws, and policies provide for religious freedom, subject to restrictions relating to public order, public health, and morality.  The government continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church).  The government restricted speech or actions it perceived as detrimental to “religious harmony.”  There is no legal provision for conscientious objection to military service, including on religious grounds, and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported nine conscientious objectors remained detained as of December.  A court convicted three Hindus in February on charges related to actions during the 2015 Thaipusam religious procession, including insulting a Muslim police officer’s religion.  The government continued to ban all religious processions on foot, except for those of three Hindu festivals, including Thaipusam, and retained limitations on the use of music in these processions.  In September the authorities introduced changes to the process for religious groups to acquire sites.  The government said these changes aimed to reduce the cost of leases and increase the number of sites available.  The government made multiple high-level affirmations of the importance of religious harmony and respect for religious differences.  Government organizations initiated regional interfaith programs and funded community-led interfaith initiatives.

A visiting foreign preacher’s reportedly anti-Muslim comments at a Christian evangelical conference in March attracted public condemnation.  The church responsible for inviting the individual initially filed a police complaint against reports on the preacher’s comments, but a church pastor later offered a public apology to the Muslim community and said that his church would be more vigilant in its selection of foreign speakers.  The Mufti of Singapore accepted the pastor’s apology.  There were numerous community-led initiatives to promote religious tolerance and build interfaith understanding.

The U.S. embassy engaged with senior government officials and religious leaders at a May iftar, during which the Charge d’Affaires gave a speech embracing religious diversity.  The Charge hosted a round table on religious freedom with young religious leaders, and met with the Imam of Ba’alwie Mosque.  Embassy representatives engaged with a variety of groups to support religious freedom including the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), the government’s Islamic Religious Council (MUIS), the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS), and representatives from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, humanist, Jewish, Shia Muslim, Sikh, Sunni Muslim, and Taoist groups.  The embassy used social media to highlight its religious outreach and demonstrate appreciation of and respect for the country’s religious diversity.

Slovakia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and states the country is not bound to any particular faith.  Religious groups faced increased registration requirements, including the need to present a petition with signatures of at least 50,000 adherents, up from 20,000 in 2017, which made it more difficult to attain official status.  Some groups utilized registration procedures for civic associations in order to perform economic and public functions.  Unregistered groups continued to report difficulties in ministering to their adherents and obtaining permits to build places of worship.  Members of parliament, from both the government coalition and opposition parties, continued to make anti-Muslim statements.  In January then Prime Minister Robert Fico stated that he rejected the creation of Muslim communities in the country.  The Central Union of Jewish Communities in Slovakia (UZZNO) reported that anti-Semitic hate speech increased after then Prime Minister Fico indirectly accused a U.S. philanthropist of organizing antigovernment protests.  Some members of the People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) faced criminal prosecution for producing materials defaming minority religious beliefs and for Holocaust denial.  The president, speaker of parliament, and prime minister agreed in August with political, social, and religious communities the state would adopt a “zero-tolerance approach toward extremism” and fight the spread of hatred and insults over the internet.  In November parliament codified a new legal definition of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, which its sponsors said would facilitate criminal prosecution of hate crimes and hate speech.

The Muslim community continued to report anti-Muslim hate speech on social media.  Muslim community members reported that a man verbally and physically assaulted an Iraqi woman wearing a headscarf in Bratislava due to her religious affiliation.  Christian groups and other organizations described in media as far right continued to organize gatherings and commemorations of the World War II fascist state and to praise its leaders, although without statements formally denying the Holocaust.  Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said the increased legal requirements for registration of religious groups, including Muslims, also continued to make it difficult to alter negative public attitudes that viewed unregistered small minority groups as “fringe cults.”

The Ambassador and other embassy officers discussed with government officials religious freedom and the treatment of minority religious groups, as well as measures to counter the increase in anti-Semitism and public expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment.  Embassy officials also met regularly with registered and unregistered religious organizations and NGOs to discuss hate speech and the role of churches and religious groups in countering extremism and promoting tolerance.  The embassy awarded a grant to an NGO to develop a curriculum to foster religious tolerance through interfaith discussions in secondary schools.

Slovenia

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs in public and private.  It declares all religious communities shall enjoy equal rights and prohibits incitement of religious hatred or intolerance.  Religious groups do not have to register with the government but must register to obtain status as legal entities with tax and other benefits.  In September the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and Ministry of Justice launched a project to establish the scope of Jewish heirless properties seized by the Nazis or their collaborators.  Muslims asked the government to expand their access to cemeteries and to provide pork-free meals in public institutions.  Muslim and Orthodox groups reported difficulties in providing services in hospitals, prisons, and the military.  In April the Constitutional Court upheld a law prohibiting the slaughter of animals without prior stunning.

Muslim groups reported obstacles in accessing halal food, spiritual care, and circumcising their male children.  These groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also reported anti-Muslim sentiment at public events, in news media, and online.  Vice Chair of the Jewish Community of Slovenia Igor Vojtic expressed concern about what he described as a negative disposition towards Jews, especially among left-leaning citizens.  Anti-Muslim hate speech was prevalent, especially online.  Construction of the country’s first mosque continued after delays due to funding shortages.  Muslims held services elsewhere in the interim.

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with government officials responsible for upholding religious freedom, including the Ministry of Culture’s (MOC) Office for Religious Communities, to discuss issues such as interfaith dialogue, the prohibition of animal slaughter without prior stunning, and the status of circumcision of male children.  In April the Ambassador hosted representatives of the Roman Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities to discuss issues such as legal restrictions on the ritual slaughter of animals and circumcision of boys.  The embassy amplified its engagement on religious freedom issues through social media.

Solomon Islands

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for religious freedom, including the freedom to change religions, proselytize, and establish religious schools.  Laws “reasonably required” to achieve certain listed public goals may restrict these rights.  In 2017 parliament passed a motion to explore the possibility of amending the preamble of the constitution to declare Solomon Islands a Christian country.  As of the end of the year, the Constitutional Review Committee had not finalized a draft of the proposed change.  Prime Minister Rick Houenipwela maintained a program of visiting different churches throughout the country with the expressed intention of fostering fellowship beyond his own church and asking for prayers for the government.

The five largest religious groups that make up the Solomon Islands Christian Association organized joint religious activities and encouraged religious representation at national events.  Police began to monitor a religious movement known as the Kingdom Movement in January for reportedly encouraging its members to sell their land and monitored threats made toward its leader.

The U.S. government, through the Embassy in Papua New Guinea and its consular agency office in Solomon Islands, discussed religious tolerance with the government during the year, including a recommendation that the proposed change to the preamble of the constitution not discriminate against non-Christian religious organizations or activities.  Officials discussed with religious minorities whether groups believed they could freely exercise their religious beliefs and if they had concerns about the proposed change to the constitution.  Representatives from the embassy also met with religious leaders of larger groups and leaders of the Solomon Islands Christian Association.

Somalia

Executive Summary

The provisional federal constitution (PFC) provides for the right of individuals to practice their religion, makes Islam the state religion, prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and stipulates all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia.  Most areas of the country beyond greater Mogadishu remained outside federal government control.  Federal Member State (FMS) administrations, including Puntland, Jubaland, South West State, Hirshabelle, Galmudug, and self-declared independent Somaliland, governed their respective jurisdictions through local legislation but did not fully control them.  The constitutions of Somaliland and Puntland State declare Islam as the state religion, prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion, bar the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and require all laws to comply with the general principles of sharia.  In August Somaliland officials arrested a U.S. citizen employed by a Catholic relief organization in Burao, Somaliland and accused her of proselytizing.  The federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education unveiled a national curriculum framework, announced in 2017, and new legislation for public and private primary and secondary schools in an effort to develop a national curriculum.  These initiatives would require Arabic language and Islamic religion, taught in Arabic, as mandatory subjects.

The terrorist group al-Shabaab killed, maimed, or harassed persons suspected of converting from Islam or those who failed to adhere to the group’s religious edicts.  During the year, al-Shabaab was responsible for the killings of civilians, government officials, members of parliament, Somali national armed forces, police, and troops from contributing countries of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).  Al-Shabaab continued its campaign to characterize the AMISOM peacekeeping forces as “Christians” intent on invading and occupying the country.  According to Morning Star News reports, in March al-Shabaab forces continued to seek out 35 orphans of underground Christians living in Mogadishu.  In July the militant group attacked the Baar Sanguni military camp in the lower Juba region, killing four Somalia National Army (SNA) soldiers and resulting in the deaths of seven al-Shabaab militants.  In March al-Shabaab attacked the position of Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) troops serving in Bulamarer as a component of AMISOM, killing at least eight troops.  Al-Shabaab, which launched a primary and secondary curriculum in June 2017, continued during the year to threaten parents, teachers, and communities who failed to adhere to al-Shabaab’s precepts.

Strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islamic traditions continued.  Conversion from Islam to another religion remained illegal in some areas and socially unacceptable in all.  Those suspected of conversion faced harassment by members of their community.

In December the U.S. government reestablished a permanent diplomatic presence in the country for the first time since 1991.  Travel by U.S. government officials to the country continued to increase from previous years, although trips remained limited to areas when security conditions permitted.  In late August and September embassy officials engaged with Somaliland authorities to secure the release of an American citizen arrested on charges of proselytizing.  U.S. government engagement to promote religious freedom focused on supporting efforts to bring stability, reestablish rule of law, and advocate for freedom of speech and assembly.

South Africa

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.  The government does not require religious groups to register; however, registered groups receive tax-exempt status.  In September Rastafarians welcomed a Constitutional Court ruling that declared unconstitutional a ban on marijuana cultivation and personal consumption by adults in private homes.  Throughout the year, religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concerns that two separate draft laws, one requiring religious groups to register with the government and the other criminalizing, defining, and punishing hate crimes and speech, could potentially infringe on religious freedom and freedom of speech.

On May 10, three men attacked the Imam Hussain Mosque, a Shia mosque, located in Durban, in what many stated they believed was a sectarian attack.  The assailants stabbed two worshippers, cut the throat of another, and set parts of the mosque on fire, leaving one dead.  In July police discovered five explosive devices around Durban.  Police affidavits stated the 11 men arrested in connection with the devices and the mosque attack had links to ISIS.  The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) recorded 62 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, compared with 44 in 2017.  Numerous individuals made anti-Semitic comments throughout the year.

The U.S. consulates in Durban and Cape Town coordinated with several U.S. government agencies to offer workshops on social cohesion and peaceful religious coexistence to local audiences including government officials, law enforcement, NGOs, civil society organizations, religious leaders, academics, and representatives of refugee and immigrant communities.  U.S. government officials met with religious groups and NGOs, including Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and Jewish representatives, to gauge and discuss issues of religious freedom, including cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, and a proposed draft bill that would require religious institutions to register with the government in order to operate.

South Sudan

Executive Summary

The transitional constitution stipulates separation of religion and state, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides religious groups freedom to worship and assemble, organize themselves, teach, own property, receive financial contributions, communicate and issue publications on religious matters, and establish charitable institutions.  Both government and opposition forces reportedly engaged in attacks on religious buildings and killings of religious workers.  On May 16, government forces attacked Emmanuel Christian College in Yei, killing at least 10 persons, five of them children.

On May 12, attackers killed a local pastor and his wife in a home invasion in Juba.  On July 23, a protest by a group of youths demanding employment turned violent in Maban, and the rioters attacked and destroyed the compounds of several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including those of several missionary groups.  The country’s religious institutions reportedly remained a crucial source of stability in an otherwise unstable country.  Religious leaders stated that a diverse network of Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim domestic and international organizations provided shelter from the fighting.  Sources said that at times their generally outspoken attitude toward what they stated were the forces driving the conflict made them targets, similar to humanitarian workers.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy representatives promoted religious freedom through discussions and outreach with religious leaders and civil society organizations.

Spain

Executive Summary

The constitution protects freedom of religion and states the government shall consider the religious beliefs of society and form cooperative relations with the Roman Catholic Church and other religious faiths.  The government has a bilateral agreement with the Holy See that grants the Catholic Church additional benefits not available to three other groups with which the government has agreements:  Protestants, Muslims, and Jews.  Groups without agreements may register with the government and receive some benefits.  Various politicians and civil society actors continued to criticize compulsory religious education, which is under the control of regional governments.  The Ministry of Justice’s (MOJ) 2017 annual report on religious freedom cited concerns regarding unequal treatment of religious groups, different financing of religious assistance, difficulties in opening places of worship, proselytizing, and providing spiritual services in public institutions, and the inability of the state to respond to religiously motivated incidents.  Between January and September the government granted citizenship to approximately 4,000 descendants of Jews expelled in 1492.  Muslims, Jews, and especially Buddhists reported problems with cemetery access.  Leaders of other religious groups said the state allowed citizens to allocate part of their taxes to the Catholic Church or its charities but not other religions.  The government continued outreach to Muslims to combat religious discrimination and promote integration.

There were incidents of assaults, threats, incitement to violence, other hate speech, and vandalism against Christians, Muslims and Jews.  The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Observatory for Religious Freedom and Conscience (OLRC) reported 142 religiously motivated incidents – including two assaults – in the first nine months of the year, 20 more than in the same period in 2017.  Of the 142 cases, 65 percent were against Christians.  The Ministry of Interior (MOI) documented 103 hate crimes with religious motivations in 2017, compared with 47 in 2016.  The NGO Citizens’ Platform against Islamophobia reported 546 anti-Muslim incidents in 2017, of which hate speech on the internet accounted for 70 percent.  The MOJ reported 43 hospitals throughout the country denied treatment to Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused blood transfusions.  Christians, Muslims, and Jews reported increased hostility against them in media.

U.S. embassy and consulate officials met regularly with the MOJ’s Office of Religious Affairs, as well as with regional governments’ offices for religious affairs and with religious leaders who participated in the governmental Pluralism and Coexistence Foundation (the Foundation).  Topics discussed included anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anticlerical sentiment, the failure of some regional governments to comply with legal requirements to treat religious groups equally, concerns about societal discrimination against religious minorities, access to religious education and cemeteries for religious groups, and pensions for clergy.  In January the embassy hosted religious leaders for a discussion on religious freedom and equality in the country.  In June the Ambassador hosted an iftar focused on strengthening government engagement with, and inclusion of, the Muslim community.  In May the Consulate General in Barcelona organized an iftar where Muslim leaders and public officials discussed ways of promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Sri Lanka

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion.  The law recognizes four religions:  Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity.  The constitution and other laws give Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and commit the government to protecting it while respecting the rights of religious minorities.  According to representatives of religious minority communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government officials at the local level continued to engage in systematic discrimination against religious minorities, especially Muslims and converts to “free” (nondenominational and evangelical) Christian groups.  Local government officials and police reportedly responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated violence against Muslim and Christian minorities.  There were some reports of government officials being complicit in physical attacks on and harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship.  In March the government declared a 10-day nationwide state of emergency, restricted social media access, and arrested more than 100 persons in response to anti-Muslim riots in Kandy District in which mobs attacked Muslim civilians, shops, homes, and mosques, resulting in at least two deaths, 28 injured, and extensive property damage to Muslims’ houses, shops, and mosques.  According to the media, in February the government deployed police after at least five persons were wounded and several shops and a mosque damaged in anti-Muslim riots in Ampara District.  Evangelical and nondenominational Christian churches continued to state police harassed them and local government officials often sided with the religious majority in a given community.  Activists reported that on April 29, a group of Buddhists and Hindus forcibly entered the Sunday service of the Apostolic Church in Padukka in Colombo and threatened congregants.  Police demanded the Christians stop the worship service immediately.  According to activists, on July 8, a group of villagers and Buddhist monks disrupted a Living Christian Assembly service in Sevanapitiya, Polonnaruwa, stating it was a Hindu-majority village.  The police ordered the Christian group to stop holding services.  At year’s end, the government had not formally registered any free Christian groups as religious organizations.  Local police and government officials reportedly continued requiring places of worship to obtain approval to conduct religious activities, citing a 2011 government circular that was no longer in effect.  Police and local officials continued to cite a 2008 government circular to prohibit the construction of or to close down Christian and Muslim places of worship, despite the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs (Ministry of Buddha Sasana) determining in May that the circular only applied to Buddhist facilities.

Attacks on religious minorities continued.  As of October the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented 74 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services.  According to civil society groups, social media campaigns targeting religious minorities fueled hatred and incited violence.  Buddhist nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, Buddhist Power Force) continued to promote the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrate religious and ethnic minorities, especially via social media during the Kandy riots in March.  Civil society organizations continued efforts to strengthen the capacity of religious and community leaders to engage in peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees that were created following the end of the civil war in 2010 between the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority (mainly Hindu with a significant Christian minority).

The U.S. embassy repeatedly urged political leaders to defend religious minorities and protect religious freedom for all, emphasizing the importance of religious minorities in the national reconciliation process.  Embassy personnel met often with religious and civic leaders to foster interfaith dialogue.  The U.S. government also funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith and interreligious cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building.  In March the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities attended a conference led by the Religious Freedom Institute and engaged with the government and civil society leaders.  He met with religious and community leaders and senior government officials to discuss religious freedom.  The Ambassador publicly condemned the anti-Muslim violence in Kandy in March.

Sudan

Executive Summary

The Interim National Constitution provides for freedom of religious creed and the rights to worship, assemble, and maintain places of worship.  Some laws and government practices are based on the government’s interpretation of a sharia system of jurisprudence, which human rights groups state does not provide protections for some religious minorities, including minority Muslim groups.  The law criminalizes apostasy, blasphemy, conversion from Islam to another religion, and questioning or criticizing the Quran, the Sahaba (the Companions of the Prophet), or the wives of the Prophet.  While the law does not specifically address proselytizing, the government has criminally defined and prosecuted proselytizing as a form of apostasy.  According to international reports, on October 13, a group of security agents raided the private home of Tajedin Yousif in South Darfur and arrested 13 Christian men who were participating in a series of prayer meetings.  Nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports stated that of the 13 persons arrested, 10 were of Darfuri origin and converts from Islam.  The reports said the individuals were abused in detention, threatened with apostasy charges, and forced to denounce Christianity.  Authorities released the detainees within two weeks and dropped the charges against them.  Human rights groups continued to accuse the government of interfering in internal religious community disputes over the sale of church lands to investors, including on cases related to the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) and the Sudan Church of Christ (SCOC), and to highlight the inability of these Christian groups to seek legal recourse.  According to church leaders, authorities continued to influence the internal affairs of churches through intimidation, harassment, and arrests of those opposed to government interference within evangelical Christian churches.  In February authorities demolished a church belonging to the SCOC in the Haj Youssef neighborhood of Khartoum North and confiscated the property of the church, including Bibles and pews.  As of year’s end, the government had not provided compensation for the damage nor provided an alternative space for worshipping, according to church leaders.  While the law does not prohibit the practice of Shia Islam, authorities took actions against Shia Muslims.  Some Shia Muslims reported authorities continued to prevent them from publishing articles about Shia beliefs.  According to multiple sources, authorities again regularly charged and convicted Christian and Muslim women with “indecent dress” for wearing pants and fined and lashed them.  The Ministry of Education for Khartoum State continued to mandate that Christian schools operate on Sundays in order to meet minimum required instruction hours.

Muslims and non-Muslims said a small and sometimes vocal minority of Salafist groups that advocated violence continued to be a concern.  Some Christian leaders noted the lack of representation of minority religious groups within government offices and the lack of a strong Council of Churches to advocate for the legal rights of churches and their members.

In high-level discussions with the government, U.S. officials encouraged respect for religious freedom and the protection of minority religious groups.  The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officials raised specific cases of demolitions of houses of worship and court cases against religious leaders with government officials, including officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  They also emphasized the government’s need to take concrete steps to improve religious.  Embassy officials stressed that respect for religious freedom is crucial to improved relations with the United States and a precursor to peace in the country.  In meetings with the minister of foreign affairs, the Charge d’Affaires raised the denial of licenses for new churches, the demolition of houses of worship without an alternative, the harassment of Muslim religious minorities, government interference in internal church affairs, and enforcement of “indecent dress” laws.  The embassy maintained close contact with religious leaders, faith-based groups, and NGOs, and embassy representatives monitored and attended many of the legal proceedings for those prosecuted in connection with their religious beliefs.  In May the embassy cohosted a workshop on interreligious dialogue with the Canadian embassy in Khartoum and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  In his opening remarks, the Charge d’Affaires stressed the importance of leaders from different faith backgrounds and professions ensuring that their laws and actions are in line with international guiding principles of religious freedom.

Since 1999, Sudan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.  On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated Sudan as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the restriction in the annual Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act on making certain appropriated funds available for assistance to the Government of Sudan, currently set forth in section 7042(i) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2018 (Div. K, P. L. 115-141), and any provision of law that is the same or substantially the same as this provision, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Suriname

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion; both the constitution and the penal code prohibit discrimination based on religion.  Any violation may be brought before a court of justice.  Religious groups seeking financial support from the government must register with the Ministry of Home Affairs.  Limited government financial support remained available, primarily as a stipend for clergy.  The government continued to pay wages for teachers managed by religious organizations; however, its other designated subsidies for operational expenses of these schools were either late or not paid.  To cover the budgetary shortfall, schools managed by religious organizations introduced a school fee for the 2018-19 school year.  In September President Desire Delano Bouterse reinforced the commitment of the government to religious freedom in a public speech honoring the U.S. Ambassador.

The Inter-Religious Council (IRIS), an organization of the country’s different religious groups, including two Hindu and two Muslim groups, the Jewish community, and the Catholic Church, continued to discuss planned interfaith activities and positions on government policies and their impact on society.  The IRIS collaborated with nonmember religious organizations on efforts to promote religious freedom.  In October, as part of an interfaith effort to promote respect for the country’s religious diversity, IRIS, the Committee for Christian Churches (CCK), and various tribal leaders and dignitaries took part in a conference hosted by the Cultural Center of the Islamic Association in Suriname (SIV).  Islamic associations issued condemnations in response to a terror threat posted on Facebook in May in the name of ISIS, calling for respect for each other’s religion and ethnicity.

Embassy officials continued to highlight U.S. government policy on the importance of protecting religious freedom and tolerance in meetings with government officials.  The Ambassador wrote an op-ed article in a local newspaper in January in honor of Religious Freedom Day highlighting the importance of religious freedom in democracies.  Embassy officials met with members of the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian communities to encourage tolerance and discuss promotion of respect for religious diversity within their communities.

Sweden

Executive Summary

The constitution protects “the freedom to practice one’s religion alone or in the company of others” and prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The government more than doubled security funding for religious organizations.  Christian organizations stated the Migration Agency denied asylum to Christians fleeing religious persecution.  One Christian committed suicide in September after authorities denied his asylum application.  The government gave funding to 43 religious groups and facilitated revenue collection for 17 of them.  The prime minister and other politicians condemned anti-Semitism and other religious intolerance.  There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim remarks by members of the Sweden Democrats and other political parties, and party members proposed bills to prohibit the Muslim call to prayer, nonmedical circumcision of boys, and students and teachers from wearing the hijab in school.  The Social Democratic Party, Sweden Democrats, and Left Party proposed bans on independent religious schools.

There was a report of an attack against a Christian convert seeking asylum and reports of threats, harassment, and discrimination against Jews and Muslims and attacks on their property.  An Uppsala University survey released in June found 52 percent of 106 Muslim congregations responding had received threats, and 45 percent reported at least one attack against their properties in 2017; 15 percent reported more than 10 incidents.  Jewish-owned houses were set on fire on two occasions in Lund.

The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy representatives continued to meet with the Ministries of Justice and Culture, parliament, the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities (SST), police, and local government on religious freedom issues, welcoming government efforts to improve security for religious groups and highlighting threats to member of some religious minorities, including immigrants.  Embassy officials spoke about religious tolerance with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives in Malmo and Stockholm.  The Department of State Senior Advisor for Combating Anti-Semitism met with government officials and Jewish and Muslim leaders in Stockholm and Malmo, calling for more efforts to protect religious groups.  The embassy hosted a function at which grandchildren of a Nazi SS officer and a Holocaust survivor spoke about religious tolerance.

Switzerland

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of faith and conscience, and it and the penal code prohibit discrimination against any religion or its members.  The constitution delegates regulation of the relationship between government and religious groups to the 26 cantons.  Voters in St. Gallen Canton approved a referendum on new legislation barring the wearing of facial concealments in public.  Basel Canton prohibited all court officials from wearing publicly visible religious symbols in court.  Lausanne authorities denied a Muslim couple Swiss citizenship after they refused to shake hands with officials of the opposite sex during their citizenship interview.  The Federal Court upheld a 2017 ruling by the Cantonal Parliament of Valais that invalidated a referendum that called for a ban on wearing headscarves in schools.  The number of Muslim burial plots and sites increased, as did funding for education and awareness efforts aimed at improving the protection of religious minorities, notably Jews and Muslims.

The government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and Jewish and Muslim groups reported religiously motivated incidents against Jews and Muslims increased in 2017, the most recent year for which data were available.  There were four physical altercations against Jews and a rise in anti-Semitic incidents by right-wing individuals and on social media.  Incidents against Muslims were primarily verbal.  Muslim representatives attributed an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment to the increasing politicization of Islam and negative media reporting.  Two research studies reported evidence of anti-Muslim sentiment and discrimination in society and media.  There was repeated vandalism of a kosher butchery in Basel, and an activist in Ticino Canton established a “Swiss Stop Islam Award,” giving a prize of 2,000 Swiss francs ($2,000) to each of the first three recipients.

U.S. embassy officials discussed religious freedom with the federal government, focusing on its projects aimed at promoting religious freedom and tolerance, and with cantonal government officials regarding cantonal recognition of minority religions, especially Islam.  Embassy officials met with NGOs and civil society and with religious leaders from the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities and other religious minorities, eliciting their views on the nature and extent of religious discrimination.  The embassy hosted an iftar and a Rosh Hashanah celebration that included discussions of religious tolerance and religious diversity.  The embassy cohosted a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony with the chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and the embassy of Israel on January 29.  Embassy staff spoke about the importance of religious freedom and tolerance at an iftar organized by an association working to strengthen religious dialogue, at a Baha’i festival, and during a visit to a Hindu temple.

Syria

Executive Summary

The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.”  There is no official state religion.  Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees, including by imprisonment or death.  A new law passed on April 2 allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” that will be slated for reconstruction; multiple reports indicated the government planned to utilize the law to reconfigure religious demographics in certain areas at the expense of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims.  There were continued media reports the government and its Shia Muslim militia allies (consisting mostly of foreigners) killed, arrested, and physically abused members of opposition groups which were predominantly Sunni Muslim.  According to multiple observers, the government continued to employ tactics aimed at bolstering the most violent elements of the Sunni Islamist opposition in order to shape the conflict with various resistance groups so it would be seen as one in which a religiously “moderate” government was facing a religiously “extremist” opposition.  As the insurgency continued to be identified with the Sunni population, the government reportedly targeted opposition-held towns and neighborhoods for siege, mortar shelling, and aerial bombardment, including the bombardment of East Ghouta and Daraa, and an April chemical weapons attack against the Damascus suburb of Douma, resulting in mostly Sunni casualties.  The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented 67 attacks by government forces against places of worship during the year.  According to nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, Iran further exacerbated the conflict in areas that remained under its influence by continuing to recruit Shia Afghan refugees and migrants from Iran to travel to Syria and assist the government in its conflict against majority Sunni opposition forces.  The government continued to monitor sermons, close mosques between prayer times, and limit the activities of religious groups, and to say the armed resistance comprised “extremists” and “terrorists.”  According to international media reports, a number of minority religious groups viewed the government as their protector against violent Sunni extremists.  According to multiple human rights groups, the government continued its widespread and systematic use of unlawful killings, including through the repeated use of chemical weapons, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, including civilians, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims.

The United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) and numerous independent sources reported nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the UN, U.S. and other governments, such as ISIS and al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the areas of the country they controlled throughout the course of the conflict.  ISIS lost the vast majority of the territory it once controlled and was reduced largely to a small area in the eastern part of the country by the end of the year.  As a result, ISIS witnessed a significant decline in its ability to target religious groups.  ISIS claimed credit for a wave of suicide attacks against the majority Druze-inhabited city of Sweida in late July.  The attacks left over 250 people dead, and resulted in the capture of more than 30 Druze hostages by ISIS fighters, one of whom was executed by ISIS.  Until military operations largely removed ISIS from control of the country’s territory, ISIS killed hundreds of civilian men, women, and children through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and cursing God.  ISIS continued to hold thousands of enslaved Yezidi women and girls kidnapped in Iraq and trafficked to Syria because of their religious beliefs to be sold or distributed to ISIS members as “spoils of war.”  While many Yezidi women were liberated when coalition forces and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated ISIS-held territory, thousands remained missing.  ISIS punished individuals with floggings or imprisonment for what ISIS said were religious offenses, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammad or failing to comply with standards of grooming and dress.  ISIS required Christians to convert, flee, pay a special tax, or face execution.  It destroyed churches, Shia shrines, and other religious heritage sites, and used its own police force, court system, and a revised school curriculum to enforce and spread its interpretation of Islam.  HTS replaced governmental courts with sharia councils in areas it controlled, authorizing discrimination against members of religious minorities.  HTS also continued to indoctrinate children with its interpretation of Salafi-jihadist ideology, including through schools and youth training camps.  In January the Turkish Army, along with Turkish-sponsored opposition groups, including elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), launched an air and ground campaign against the enclave of Afrin, held by the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Unit (YPG), displacing approximately 167,000 people, including Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians.  According to media reports, displaced Yezidis said FSA forces in Afrin rounded up Yezidis, forced them to convert to Islam, and destroyed Yezidi places of worship.

There were reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, exacerbated by government actions, ISIS and HTS targeting of religious groups, and sectarian rhetoric.  Alawites reportedly faced attacks because other religious groups believed government policy favored Alawites; sectarian conflict was one of the driving factors of the insurgency, according to observers.  Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence, including kidnappings, at the hands of violent extremist groups.  Once religiously diverse neighborhoods, towns, and villages were increasingly segregated between majority Sunni neighborhoods and communities that comprised religious minority groups, as displaced members of religious groups relocated seeking greater security and safety by living with coreligionists.  There were more than 6.1 million internally displaced Syrians and more than 5.48 million Syrian refugees.

The U.S. President and the Secretary of State stressed the need for a political transition in the country leading to an inclusive government that would respect the right of all persons to practice their religion freely.  The Secretary of State highlighted that ISIS was guilty of genocide against religious groups during his remarks in July at the Department of State-sponsored Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.  Although the U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012, the Special Representative for Syria Engagement, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Levant, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, and other senior U.S. officials continued to meet elsewhere with leaders of minority religious groups to discuss assistance to vulnerable populations and ways to counter sectarian violence.

Taiwan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief.  In October a parliamentary committee suspended consideration of a new law on “religious autonomy” after criticism it would put religions above the law.  Domestic service workers and caretakers are not covered under the labor standards law and are therefore not legally guaranteed a weekly rest day.  Due to this exclusion, many domestic workers are not able to attend religious services.  Authorities continued to state they viewed the domestic service workers’ inability to attend religious services as a religious freedom issue that is part of a broader labor issue.  Tibetan Buddhist monks reported they continued to be unable to obtain resident visas for religious work, which authorities said was due to general rules governing foreigners who use travel permits instead of passports.  A Muslim association objected to the relocation of remains from a Muslim cemetery in Kaohsiung, which Kaohsiung City authorities developed into a park.  The association said Kaohsiung City authorities did not follow Islamic practices during the relocation of the remains.  Kaohsiung City authorities stated they worked with the imam of the Kaohsiung Mosque and relocated the remains in accordance with Islamic tenets.  City authorities also stated the majority of the Muslim community agreed to the move.

A Tibetan Buddhist group said a local Buddhist organization, which reportedly was Chinese-funded and which stated Tibetans were not true Buddhists, had yet to publish an apology as directed by the Supreme Court.

Staff of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) regularly met with authorities as part of its efforts to promote religious freedom and tolerance.  AIT representatives consulted with Taiwan authorities and lawmakers, including on the issues of Tibetan Buddhist practitioners and labor rights, as they affect domestic service workers’ ability to attend religious services.  AIT representatives also met with religious leaders and representatives of faith-based social service organizations to promote religious tolerance.

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 both that “[t]he citizen shall have the right to participate in the creation of political parties, including parties of democratic, religious and atheistic character” and, separately, that “[r]eligious organizations 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 under 18 from participating in public religious activities.  Amendments to the religion law, which came into effect in January, require religious organizations to report all activity to the state, require state approval for the appointments of all imams, and increase control over religious education within the country and on those traveling abroad for religious education.  The amendments allow restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of foundations of the constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country.  The government Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies (CRA) maintains a very 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.  A Khujand city court sentenced Abdullo Saidulloev, former imam of Sari Sang mosque in Khujand to six years’ imprisonment for promulgating Salafi ideas.  Since 2016, authorities sentenced approximately 20 imams to prison in Sughd Region for membership in banned extremist organizations.  A Khujand city court sentenced Shukrullo Ahrorov, former imam of Ikhlos Mosque, to five years in prison for involvement in an extremist organization.  Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at mosques.  Officials continued to prevent members of minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, from registering their organizations.  Both registered and unregistered religious organizations continued to be subject to police raids, surveillance, and forced closures.  On October 5, the State National Security Services (SNSS) detained a group of 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including minors, who were leaving a private home in Dushanbe after a religious service.  After holding 10 of the members for most of the day, the SNSS released them but threatened they soon would be charged and prosecuted.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a separate incident on January 21, when authorities summoned a male Jehovah’s Witness to the police station in Khujand; the police had raided his home in 2017.  During the four-hour interrogation, Jehovah’s Witnesses sources stated that a police officer beat the individual so severely that he suffered a concussion and sought immediate medical treatment.  Authorities continued a pattern of harassing women wearing hijabs and men with beards, and government officials again issued statements discouraging women from wearing “nontraditional or alien” clothing, including religious dress.  According to the NGO Forum 18, on September 28, authorities set up a roadblock on the outskirts of the capital to stop cars carrying men with beards and women in hijabs.  Police forced the bearded men into a barber’s shop to have their beards shaved off and forced the women to take off their hijabs and wear shawls showing their necks.

A group pledging allegiance to ISIS claimed responsibility for the July killing of four foreign tourists, including two Americans, and the injuring of three others when the attackers drove a car into a group of cyclists.  Authorities said the leader of the attack was a member of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, which the government outlawed in 2015.  Members of the Christian community reported that cemeteries in southern Khatlon Region were desecrated, with fences, crosses, memorial plates, and tomb ornaments looted for the value of their metal.  Citizens generally remained reluctant to discuss societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, and some individuals who converted from Islam reported they experienced social disapproval.

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy staff encouraged the government to adhere to its commitments to respect religious freedom.  Embassy officers also raised concerns about government restrictions on religious practices, including the participation of women and minors in religious services; rejection of attempts of minority religious organizations to register; restrictions on the religious education of youth; harassment of those wearing religious attire; and limitations on the publication or importation of religious literature.  Embassy officers met with religious leaders and civil society groups to address the same issues and discuss concerns over government restrictions on the ability of minority religious groups to practice their religion freely.

On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a Country of Particular Concern (“CPC”) under section 402(b) of the Act, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  The Secretary also 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.

Tanzania

Executive Summary

The constitutions of the union government and of the semiautonomous government in Zanzibar both prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of religious choice.  Since independence, the country has been governed by alternating Christian and Muslim presidents.  Sixty-one members of Uamsho, an Islamist group advocating for Zanzibar’s full autonomy, remained in custody without a trial since their arrest in 2013 under terrorism charges.  In May the Office of the Registrar of Societies, an entity within the Ministry of Home Affairs charged with overseeing religious organizations, released a letter ordering the leadership of the Catholic and Lutheran Churches to retract statements that condemned the government for increasing restrictions on freedoms of speech and assembly, and alleged human rights abuses.  After a public outcry, the minister of home affairs denounced the letter and suspended the registrar.  The Zanzibar Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources destroyed a church being built on property owned by the Pentecostal Assemblies of God after the High Court of Zanzibar ruled the church was built on government property.  This followed a protracted court battle in which Zanzibar courts ruled the church was allowed on the property.

Vigilante killings of persons accused of practicing witchcraft continued to occur.  As of July, the government reported 117 witchcraft-related incidents.  There were some attacks on churches and mosques throughout the country, especially in rural regions.  Civil society groups continued to promote peaceful interactions and religious tolerance.

The embassy launched a three-month public diplomacy campaign in support of interfaith dialogue and sponsored the visit of an imam from the United States to discuss interfaith and religious freedom topics with government officials and civil society.  Embassy officers continued to advocate for religious tolerance in meetings with religious leaders in the country.  The Charge d’Affaires hosted iftars and interfaith roundtables with religious leaders to promote and highlight the country’s religious diversity.

Thailand

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious belief and protects religious liberty.  The law officially recognizes five religious groups:  Buddhists, Muslims, Brahmin-Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians.  The Ministry of Justice allows the practice of sharia as a special legal process, outside the national civil code, for Muslim residents of the “Deep South” for family law, including inheritance.  In September the Bangkok Criminal Court found nine Muslims from the Deep South guilty after they confessed in connection with what authorities said was a plan for bombings in Bangkok in 2016.  Defendants reportedly said they were tortured in prison before confessing, but the court found the accusations baseless.  As part of what the government said were broader immigration raids, authorities arrested and detained hundreds of suspected illegal immigrants, including persons from a number of vulnerable religious minority groups, some of whom had or were applying for asylum or refugee status from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  The government stated these arrests were not motivated by religious affiliation and that members of a multitude of different religious groups were detained.  A nongovernmental organization (NGO) said the detainees included Christians and Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan, who fled for religious reasons, and 181 Christian Montegnards from Vietnam, whom the NGO said had asylum or refugee status.  The NGO said the Montegnards were detained on August 28 and the adults were sent to an immigration detention facility, while approximately 50 children were sent to children’s shelters.  The Ministry of Education amended a 2008 regulation to stipulate that when attending schools located on Buddhist temple property, students must wear the uniform agreed to by the school and temple.  The Sangha Supreme Council issued an order prohibiting the use of temple land for political activities, rallies, meetings, or seminars for purposes that violate the law or impact national security, social order, or public morals.  Following the marriage of a 41-year-old Malaysian man to an 11-year-old Thai girl in the Deep South, the Central Islamic Council issued a regulation setting 17 years old as the minimum age for marriage.

Insurgency-related violence continued in the Malay Muslim-majority Deep South, where religious and ethnic identity are closely linked in a longstanding separatist conflict.  On August 1, a gunman reportedly shot and killed a Muslim teacher, Adul Sima, as he left prayers in a mosque in Pattani’s Mai Kaen District.  The Election Commission and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand signed a cooperation agreement to educate, train, empower, and develop the capacity of Catholic communities, networks, schools, and students on democracy-related issues.

Embassy and consulate general officials met with government ministries, religious leaders, academics, and elected officials to promote religious pluralism and reconciliation and discuss complex religious issues in society, including ethnic identity and politics.  The embassy and consulate general organized workshops on peace and facilitated the presentation of speakers from the United States on interfaith dialogue and conflict resolution.

The Bahamas

Executive Summary

The constitution states freedom of religion is a fundamental right; individuals have the right to practice freely the religion of their choice or to practice no religion at all.  The law prohibits discrimination based on religion.  Practice of Obeah, an Afro-Caribbean belief system with some similarities to Voodoo, is illegal.  Violators may face a sentence of three months in prison; however, according to Royal Bahamas Police Force officials, this law is inconsistently enforced.  The government continued to include Christian prayer in all significant official events.  Rastafarians said the government discriminated against them because of their use of marijuana and dreadlocks.  The government met regularly with the Bahamas Christian Council (BCC), comprising religious leaders from a wide spectrum of Christian denominations – including Baptist, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Pentecostal, Church of God, and Brethren – to discuss societal, political, and economic issues.

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

U.S. embassy representatives met regularly with government officials, the president of the BCC, and representatives of the Muslim, Rastafarian, and Jewish communities to discuss issues of religious freedom.  Embassy representatives discussed with Jewish and Muslim groups these groups’ concerns regarding participation of their children in Christian activities offered in public schools.

The Gambia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the freedom of religious choice, as long as doing so does not impinge on the rights of others or the national interest.  It prohibits religious discrimination, establishment of a state religion, and formation of political parties based on religious affiliation.  President Adama Barrow’s announcement in July of the nonprofit Barrow Youth Movement for Development’s plan to build 60 mosques was criticized by many observers for blurring the lines of separation between state and religion and showing preference of one religion over the others.  On December 6, the Office of the President announced the transfer of the religious affairs portfolio to the Ministry of Lands and Regional Affairs from the Office of the President.  On several occasions, President Barrow stressed the need for continued religious freedom and tolerance.  In a meeting with the Roman Catholic Bishop of Banjul, President Barrow called on religious leaders to continue to “preach peace, good citizenship, and unity.”

Interfaith marriage remained common and accepted, according to religious leaders.  There continued to be tensions between the majority Sunni Muslim community and the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim community.  The Supreme Islamic Council (SIC), a religious council tasked with providing Islamic religious guidance, continued to state the Ahmadiyya community did not belong to Islam, and it did not include members of the community in its events and activities.  The government largely did not become involved in the disagreement between the two communities.  The Ahmadiyya International Association of Architects and Engineers met with President Barrow in August to discuss the group’s plans to expand its humanitarian work in the country.

The embassy expanded outreach and decentralized its annual iftar dinner, holding iftars throughout the country in an effort to meet directly with religious leaders from around the country and highlight the message of continued peace and religious harmony.

The Netherlands

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the freedom of individuals to profess their religion or belief.  It is a crime to engage in public speech inciting religious hatred.  In June the government enacted a ban of face coverings in schools and some public spaces and expected to implement the ban in 2019.  The Jewish community asked the government to focus more attention on combating anti-Semitism and to appoint an anti-Semitism coordinator.  Politicians from several parties made anti-Islamic or anti-Semitic statements.  There were several proposals in parliament to reduce benefits for religious groups and eliminate religion from public spaces, but no such legislation was passed.

The government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported hundreds of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, involving violence, threats, harassment, discrimination, hate speech, and vandalism.  According to police, incidents targeting Muslims decreased by 45 percent compared with 2016 while anti-Semitic incidents declined by 15 percent over the same period.  In August an Afghan man stabbed two persons, stating he had done so in response to Dutch insults to Islam.  A study by two historians found most instances of anti-Semitism in recent years involved verbal or written speech, and that Dutch Moroccans and Dutch Turks, but not recent immigrants, were overrepresented among those committing anti-Semitic acts.  A study by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) found significant numbers of Muslims held a negative opinion of Dutch society.

The U.S. embassy and consulate general in Amsterdam emphasized the importance of support for refugees of all faiths, integration for newcomers, and interfaith dialogue in formal meetings and informal conversations with government officials, including at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, Social Affairs, and Education and with parliamentarians and police.  Embassy and consulate general representatives discussed religious freedom issues with leaders of several different faith communities and a broad range of civil society activists, and they pursued public outreach to youth to increase interfaith understanding and tolerance.  The embassy also discussed religious tolerance with refugees.

Tibet

Executive Summary

IN THIS SECTIONCHINA | TIBET (BELOW) | XINJIANG | HONG KONG | MACAU


The United States recognizes the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan autonomous prefectures and counties in other provinces to be part of the People’s Republic of China.  The constitution of the People’s Republic of China states citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.”  Central government regulations implemented February 1 stipulate religious activity “must not harm national security” and place new restrictions on religious schools, donations, and travel.  In the TAR and other Tibetan areas, authorities continued to engage in widespread interference in religious practices, especially in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries.  There were reports of forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, prolonged detention without trial, and arrests of individuals due to their religious practices.  Travel restrictions hindered traditional religious practices and pilgrimages.  Repression increased around politically sensitive events, religious anniversaries, and the Dalai Lama’s birthday, according to numerous sources.  Self-immolations leading to death in protest of government policies continued, and four individuals reportedly set themselves on fire and died during the year.  The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), reported in May torture, including sexual abuse of Tibetan Buddhist nuns, took place in a re-education camp in the TAR.  According to TCHRD, authorities also subjected inmates to collective punishment, food and sleep deprivation, prolonged wall standing and beatings.  According to local sources, during the year authorities continued an ongoing multi-year project to evict approximately 3,000 monks and nuns from Buddhist institutes at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, destroying as many as 1,500 of their residences and subjecting many of them to “patriotic and legal re-education.”  Authorities often justified their interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by saying the religious institutions engaged in separatist or pro-independence activities, and undermined the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  The government routinely denigrated the Dalai Lama, whom most Tibetan Buddhists revered as their most important spiritual leader, and forbade Tibetans from venerating him and other religious leaders associated with him.

Some Tibetans continued to encounter societal discrimination when seeking employment, engaging in business, and traveling for pilgrimage, according to multiple sources.  Because expressions of Tibetan identity and religion were closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religion.

The U.S. government repeatedly pressed Chinese authorities to respect religious freedom for all people and to allow Tibetans to preserve, practice, teach, and develop their religious traditions and language without interference from the government.  In July during the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, the Vice President and Secretary of State met with Kusho Golog Jigme, a former Tibetan political prisoner, to highlight continued U.S. government support for religious freedom in Tibet.  U.S. government officials expressed concerns to the Chinese government at senior levels about the severe restrictions imposed on Tibetans’ ability to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom and cultural rights.  Embassy and other U.S. officials urged the Chinese government to re-examine the policies that threaten Tibet’s distinct religious, cultural, and linguistic identity, including the continuing demolition campaign at the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute.  U.S. officials underscored that decisions on the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should be made solely by faith leaders and also raised concerns about the continued disappearance of the Panchen Lama.  While diplomatic access to the TAR remained tightly controlled, four U.S. visits occurred.

Timor-Leste

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship, and of religious instruction.  Religious organizations may register with the government under the regulations provided for nonprofit corporate bodies.  Muslim leadership reported discrimination against Muslims joining civil service positions.  Despite 2017 legislation approving recognition of religious minority documents, religious minority groups continued to report incidents in which civil servants rejected marriage or birth certificates issued by religious organizations other than the Catholic Church.  Non-Catholic groups reported tensions regarding unequal allocation of government funds.

One Protestant group filed a complaint with local courts after a local community denied land use to build a church.

The U.S. embassy engaged regularly with government officials, including the Office of the Prime Minister, on religious freedom issues including discrimination in public service, recognition of religious minority documentation, and budget allocation to different minority groups.

Togo

Executive Summary

The constitution specifies the state is secular and protects the rights of all citizens to exercise their religious beliefs, consistent with the nation’s laws.  Religious groups other than Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims must register with the government.  After unknown assailants vandalized four mosques in July and August in Lome, the government denounced the attacks and called for solidarity with the Muslim community.  The government subsequently posted security forces to guard mosques throughout the country and promised to conduct investigations to find the perpetrators and prosecute them.  The government again did not approve any pending registration applications from religious groups, nor did it accept new applications; approximately 900 remained pending at year’s end.  The Ministry of Territorial Affairs (MTA) continued to organize meetings with religious leaders and communities to discuss pending draft legislation regarding religious freedom that would delineate procedures on registering religious associations and federations.

Leaders of different religious groups and civil society organizations condemned the July and August mosque attacks.  Noise caused by religious celebrations or competition for parishioners among churches caused occasional disputes among religious groups.  The Directorate of Religious Affairs in the MTA reported approximately 50 complaints, almost all regarding noise in Lome, received during the year.  Members of different religious groups frequently attended each other’s ceremonies, and interfaith marriage remained common.

U.S. embassy officials met with the government officials and discussed the importance of finding the perpetrators of the mosque attacks.  Embassy officers also met with religious leaders throughout the year and discussed the latters’ efforts to reduce tensions in communities related to the political crisis during the year.  The embassy launched a program during the year to enhance social cohesion among youth of different religious backgrounds and to promote the use of peaceful methods to resolve disputes.

Tonga

Executive Summary

The constitution grants freedom to practice, worship, and assemble for religious services.  The law does not require registration of religious groups.  A religious group, however, must register to be eligible for specific benefits such as recognition of clergy as marriage officers and tax exemptions.  The constitution requires the Sabbath, which the government defines as Sunday, be “kept holy” and prohibits commercial transactions on Sunday, except as permitted by law.

The Tokaikolo Church won an appeal against former members over land lease and property ownership.

During periodic visits, officials from the U.S. Embassy in Fiji discussed the need to protect religious freedom and tolerance with representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Ministry of Commerce, Trade, Innovation, and Labor; and the Tonga National Council of Churches, as well as with other institutions.

Trinidad and Tobago

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religious belief and practice, including worship.  It prohibits discrimination based on religion.  Laws prohibit actions that incite religious hatred and violence.  In September the High Court repealed the law that had criminalized same-sex sexual conduct between consenting adults.  Some religious organizations said they supported the change in law on human rights grounds; others stated it infringed on their religious freedom.  The government’s national security policy continued to limit the number of long-term foreign missionaries to 35 per registered religious group at any given time.

The government-funded Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), representing diverse denominations within Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and the Baha’i Faith, again advocated for the importance of religious tolerance.  The IRO focused its efforts on marches, press conferences, and statements regarding tolerance for religious diversity and related issues.

U.S. embassy representatives met with senior government officials from the Ministry of Foreign and CARICOM (the Caribbean Community) Affairs (MFCA) to discuss the importance of the government’s equal protection of religion under the law.  In July embassy representatives met with the new IRO leadership to discuss interfaith cooperation and the value of religious tolerance.  Embassy representatives conducted outreach to religious group leaders, including Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Orisha, and Spiritual/Shouter Baptists, as part of its efforts to promote interfaith tolerance.  Embassy representatives delivered remarks underlining the value of religious plurality at a number of events.  In June the embassy hosted an iftar during which the Charge d’Affaires and the president of the largest Muslim association in the country delivered remarks highlighting the value of religious freedom and tolerance.

Tunisia

Executive Summary

The constitution declares the country’s religion to be Islam.  The constitution also declares the country to be a “civil state.”  The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and obligates the state to disseminate the values of “moderation and tolerance.”  It prohibits the use of mosques and other houses of worship to advance political agendas or objectives and guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practice.  Laws require that associations and political parties respect the rule of law and basic democratic principles and prohibit them from encouraging violence, hatred, intolerance, or discrimination on the basis of religion.  Local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that police used arrests, house searches, and travel restrictions to target Salafists and others, some of whom, according to the NGOs, were profiled as terrorists based on their appearance or religious beliefs.  According to an October report by Amnesty International (AI), the government imposed restrictions on both travel within the country and abroad “on the basis of perceived religious beliefs or practices …”  One Christian citizen said he was detained and later released by police after displaying books pertaining to Christian theology at a book fair.  The newly-elected mayor of Tunis suburb El Kram, citing constitutional provisions identifying Islam as the state religion, told media his municipality would not validate marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man, as required following the 2017 repeal of the 1973 ban on such marriages.  Then Minister of Local Affairs Riadh Mouakher said he would sanction the mayor if he failed to uphold the law.  Civil society groups reported anecdotal evidence this was not the only mayor to refuse to sign marriage contracts between Muslim women and non-Muslim men or between two Christian citizens.  In spite of continued appeals from the Baha’i community, the government did not recognize the Baha’i Faith or grant its association legal status.  In August the Baha’i community received information that a court had denied the community’s court case pertaining to its petition to be a registered association; the Baha’is planned to appeal the court’s decision.  Christian citizens stated the government did not fully recognize their rights, particularly as they pertain to the establishment of a legal entity or association that would grant them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery.  Unlike the Baha’is, however, the country’s local Christian community did not submit a formal request for an association or legal status.  On June 12, the presidentially-appointed Committee on Individual Freedoms and Equality recommended changes to the law that included inheritance equality between genders with the option to follow Islamic principles favoring male heirs; equality among men and women in marriage and parenting; cancellation of government circulars that continued to be used to justify closing cafes during Ramadan; and a prohibition on the degradation of another’s religion, including criminalization of “all contempt of others’ religions with the aim to incite violence and hatred.”  On November 28, President Beji Caid Essebsi submitted a draft law to parliament revising the 1956 Personal Status Code to allow inheritance equality, but leaving the option for families to follow Islamic principles favoring male heirs if they choose

The Association of Free Thinkers, which was established in 2017 to promote secularism in the country, organized a demonstration in late May in downtown Tunis demanding the right to drink and eat in public spaces during Ramadan periods of fasting.  The demonstration took place without incident.  Two men, however, had earlier attacked the president of the association, Hatem Limam, outside a Tunis bar in late February, and three individuals attacked Limam in his Tunis office on June 2.  On January 10, during country-wide protests of social conditions, attackers threw Molotov cocktails at two synagogues in Djerba in an apparent attempt to set fire to the buildings.  Police and the fire department responded to put out the fires before significant damage was done.  Christian converts from Islam said threats from members of their families and other persons reflected societal pressure against Muslims leaving the faith.  Some atheists reported facing societal pressure to conceal their atheism, including by participating in Islamic religious traditions.

The Ambassador and embassy officers met with government officials at the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA), the Presidency, and the Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society, and Human Rights (MRCB) and encouraged continued tolerance of religious minorities.  Embassy officials also discussed the government’s efforts to control activities in mosques, threats to converts from Islam to other faiths, and the status of the Baha’i Faith in the country.  Embassy officers discussed religious diversity and dialogue with leaders of the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Baha’i communities.  In May the Ambassador and other embassy officers participated in the Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba, where they discussed religious pluralism and the safety of the Jewish community with Jewish leaders and civil society.  Embassy officials attended a January seminar organized by the MRA in conjunction with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders to discuss the importance of religious tolerance and coexistence to the country’s democracy and efforts to counter religiously-motivated violent extremism.

Turkey

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as a secular state.  It provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship and prohibits discrimination based on religious grounds.  The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a state institution, governs and coordinates religious matters related to Islam; its mandate is to promote and enable the practice of Sunni Islam.  The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians.  The government continued to treat Alevi Islam as a heterodox Muslim “sect” and not to recognize Alevi houses of worship (cemevis), despite a Supreme Court of Appeals ruling in November that cemevis are places of worship.  The government did not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service.  Religious minorities reported bureaucratic and administrative impediments to religious freedom remained, including the prevention of governing board elections for religious foundations, which manage many activities of religious communities.  The government continued to restrict efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy, the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed, and the Diyanet announced plans to construct an Islamic educational center on the same island as the shuttered seminary.  Religious minorities reported experiencing difficulties resolving land and property disputes, operating or opening houses of worship, and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools.  The legal challenges of churches whose lands the government previously expropriated continued; some members of the churches said they still did not have access to many of their properties.  The government provided security support for religious minority communities, returned some previously expropriated properties, including 56 to the Syriac community, and paid for the renovation and restoration of some registered religious properties.  Following the July 2016 coup attempt, the government arrested more than 80,000 individuals with alleged ties to Muslim cleric and political figure Fethullah Gulen – whom the government blamed for the attempted putsch – including U.S. citizen and Pastor Andrew Brunson.  In October a court in Izmir convicted Brunson of supporting a terrorist group but suspended his sentence, allowing him to depart the country.

Alevis expressed concern about continued anonymous threats of violence and the arrest of members of an Alevi association on charges of supporting a terrorist organization.  ISIS and other actors continued to threaten Jews, Protestants, and Muslim groups in the country.  Anti-Semitic discourse continued, as some progovernment news commentators published stories and political cartoons seeking to associate the 2016 attempted coup plotters and the economic difficulties of the country with the Jewish community.  Anti-Semitic rhetoric, especially on social media, peaked during periods of heightened tension in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, according to social media analysis.

The Charge d’Affaires, visiting senior U.S. officials, and other embassy and consulate officials continued to engage with government officials and emphasize the importance of respect for religious diversity and equal treatment under the law.  Embassy and consulate representatives and visiting U.S. government officials urged the government to lift restrictions on religious groups, make progress on property restitution, and address specific cases of religious discrimination.  Embassy and consulate officials also met with a wide range of religious community leaders, including those of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christian, Protestant, Alevi, and Syriac Orthodox communities, to underscore the importance of religious freedom and interfaith tolerance and to condemn discrimination against members of any religious group.

Turkmenistan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the freedom of religion and for the right of individuals to choose their religion, express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and participate in religious observances and ceremonies.  The constitution maintains the separation of government and religion, stipulating religious organizations are prohibited from “interference” in state affairs.  The religion law requires all religious organizations, including those previously registered under an earlier version of the law, to register with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to operate legally, a process also involving the concurrence of numerous government agencies.  The law states the MOJ will not register a religious organization if its goals or activities contradict the country’s constitution or if it is not recognized as a religion by the relevant state body under the grand mufti’s leadership.  The law also states that the government may dissolve a religious organization for activities violating the lawful interests of the country’s citizens or for harming their “health and morale.”  It prohibits all activity by unregistered religious groups.  According to the international religious freedom advocacy nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18, 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors were imprisoned for refusing military service.  Authorities arrested and detained individuals, including members of religious communities, in harsh conditions.  Forum 18 said there were more than 100 Muslim prisoners of conscience, most being held in the high-security Ovadan Depe Prison.  According to Forum 18, in July the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of five Muslim men who were sentenced in 2017 to 12 years’ prison labor for meeting to pray and study the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi.  The government did not register any new religious groups during the year.  The government does not offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors, and in September rejected the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendation that it do so.  Local human rights activists stated Ministry of National Security (MNB) and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) officers responsible for fighting organized crime and terrorism continued to monitor members of religious minorities, including Christian groups, through telephonic and undercover surveillance.  According to local religious communities and international advocacy groups, members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups continued to face harassment, raids, fines, seizure of literature, and house searches.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that authorities detained and questioned both adults and children regarding possessing religious material and participating in religious activities.  The government continued to appoint all senior Muslim clerics, to prevent the importation of religious literature, and to create difficulties for religious groups attempting to purchase or lease buildings or land for religious purposes.  Ethnic Turkmen who converted from Islam continued to say the government scrutinized them more closely than ethnic non-Turkmen converts.

Individuals deviating from so-called “traditional” religious beliefs and practices continued to report societal criticism, harassment, and occasional physical violence, including denunciation by family members, friends, and neighbors for converting to a different religion.  Members of registered Christian religious organizations continued to report ongoing hostility from acquaintances due to their religious affiliation.  Ethnic Turkmen who had converted from Islam received more societal scrutiny than ethnic non-Turkmen converts and continued to be ostracized at community events, especially in rural areas, according to representatives of religious minorities.

In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the U.S. Ambassador, embassy representatives, and visiting U.S. government officials continued to express concern about arrests and detention of members of religious communities, and harsh prison conditions.  U.S. officials, including the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, met with government officials and urged the government to improve its treatment of religious minorities, create civilian service alternatives to military service for conscientious objectors, clarify registration and reregistration procedures for religious organizations, and lift restrictions on the importation and distribution of religious literature.  In October the embassy held a roundtable with various religious organizations to discuss the status of their reregistration, limitations to the importation of religious literature, and restrictions to their religious rights.

Since 2014, Turkmenistan 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 November 28, 2018 the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”

Tuvalu

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the freedom to change religion or belief and the freedom to show and spread religious belief through worship, teaching, observance, or practice.  The law designates the Ekalesia A Kelisiano Tuvalu (the Congregational Christian Church of Tuvalu or EKT) as the state church and allows it to conduct “special services on major events.”  Since 2017 the powers of the ombudsman include a national human rights institution to promote and protect human rights, including religious freedom, and labor law prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.  Traditional island councils reportedly continued to discourage public meetings of several minority religious groups, and religious bans by traditional leaders remained in place.

On some outer islands, traditional leaders reportedly worked actively against nontraditional religious groups.

The U.S. Ambassador to Fiji is accredited to the government in Tuvalu, and the U.S. Embassy in Suva, Fiji, promoted religious tolerance in meetings with the government and local religious leaders when visiting the country.

Uganda

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and stipulates there shall be no state religion.  It provides for freedom of belief, the right to practice and promote any religion, and to belong to and participate in the practices of any religious organization in a manner consistent with the constitution.  The government requires religious groups to register.  The government restricted activities of religious groups it defined as “illegal” and arrested some individuals it accused of running “illegal churches.”  Local nongovernmental organizations, the media, a politician, and the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council (UMSC) all stated the government disproportionately and unfairly arrested and imprisoned Muslims and continued to discriminate against Muslims when hiring senior and lower-level officials.  Former Minister of Security Henry Tumukunde accused the Uganda Police Force (UPF) of victimizing Muslims arrested in its quest to solve a spate of unresolved killings.

On October 4, media reported that Umar Mulinde, a pastor and Christian convert from Islam, complained that Muslims had broken into his house and stolen property worth 30 million shillings ($8,100).  The UPF was investigating the incident at year’s end.

The embassy brought together religious leaders to promote religious tolerance and diversity.  The embassy hosted an interfaith dialogue at which a U.S. Muslim cleric urged local leaders to build interfaith collaboration to prevent violent extremism.

Ukraine

Executive Summary

In February 2014, Russian military forces invaded and occupied Crimea.  United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262 adopted on March 27, 2014, and entitled Territorial Integrity of Ukraine, states the Autonomous Republic of Crimea remains internationally recognized as within Ukraine’s international borders.  The U.S. government does not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and considers that Crimea remains a part of Ukraine.

IN THIS SECTION: UKRAINE (BELOW) | CRIMEA


The constitution protects freedom of religion and provides for the separation of church and state.  By law, the objective of domestic religious policy is to foster the creation of a tolerant society and provide for freedom of conscience and worship.  In October the Ecumenical Patriarchate announced its intention to grant autocephaly (independence) to a new Ukrainian church after receiving a joint appeal from the government and bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), as well as several bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC-MP), affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate.  In November Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew initiated steps to implement that decision.  In December the UOC-KP, UAOC, and several UOC-MP representatives formed the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and elected its leader at their Establishment Council in Kyiv.  Government leadership called on all parties to refrain from violence and respect the choice of those who decided to remain within the Moscow Patriarchate.  According to human rights groups, documented acts of anti-Semitism declined from previous years.  Some Jewish leaders continued to state their concerns about what they considered impunity for and long delays in completing investigations of acts of anti-Semitism.  Religious leaders also continued to urge the government to establish a transparent legal process to address property restitution claims.  In various regions of the country, minority religious groups continued to report discriminatory treatment by local authorities in land allocation for religious buildings.  According to the UOC-MP, law enforcement gave far-right groups a “free hand” to pressure UOC-MP parishioners into leaving the Church, although some media reports stated the Russian government sought to spread trumped up charges of pressure on the UOC-MP.

According to media sources, religious freedom activists, the UOC-KP, Muslims, Protestant churches, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian proxy authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (regions) intensified pressure on minority religious groups.  In Luhansk, proxy authorities banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization and the “Supreme Court” in Donetsk upheld a similar ban.  In June proxy authorities raided and later closed the one remaining independent mosque in Donetsk.  Proxy authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk adopted laws requiring all religious organizations except the UOC-MP to undergo “state religious expert evaluations” and reregister with them.  According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), more than 1,000 religious groups recognized under Ukrainian law had not reregistered because of stringent legal requirements under Russian legislation preventing or discouraging reregistration of many religious communities.  Many religious groups refused to reregister because they did not recognize the self-proclaimed proxy authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk.  Russia-led forces also continued to occupy religious buildings of minority religious groups and use them as military facilities.  Crimea is reported in an appendix following the report on the rest of Ukraine.

There were continued reports of what some media and political observers characterized as far-right nationalist political groups physically assaulting and pressuring UOC-MP supporters and vandalizing UOC-MP property.  In July supporters of the Svoboda Party physically assaulted the chief editor of a newspaper in Chernihiv Oblast for reportedly publishing a report about a UOC-MP-organized summer camp.  In January representatives of C14, which observers describe as a far-right group, and others tore down an information board near UOC-MP churches in Kyiv.  Two individuals doused the same UOC-MP church with flammable liquid, stating the act was in retaliation for the Moscow Patriarchate’s endorsement of Russian aggression against Ukraine.  UOC-MP leaders stated the UOC-KP continued to seize churches belonging to the UOC-MP.  The UOC-KP again stated parishioners and not the UOC-KP had initiated the transfers of affiliation.  A group of local residents tried to prevent the construction of a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) facility in Bila Tserkva, Kyiv Oblast.  Members of the Jewish community stated their continued concern about new construction on a site at Lviv’s Krakivskiy Market located on the grounds of an ancient Jewish cemetery.  There were again reports of vandalism of Christian monuments; Holocaust memorials, synagogues, and Jewish cemeteries; and Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Halls.  The All-Ukraine Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO) and the All-Ukrainian Council of Religious Associations (AUCRA) continued to promote interfaith dialogue and religious diversity.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials met with the Administration of the President, ministry officials, and members of parliament to discuss the protection of religious heritage sites, manifestations of anti-Semitism, and issues within the Orthodox Churches.  In connection with the move towards autocephaly for the OCU, the Ambassador urged government and religious leaders to practice tolerance, restraint, and mutual understanding to ensure respect for all individuals’ religious freedom and preferences.  The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to urge religious groups to resolve property disputes peacefully and through dialogue with government officials, in particular the dispute regarding the location of parts of the Krakivskiy Market on the site of Lviv Old Jewish Cemetery.  Embassy officials continued to meet with internally displaced Muslims from Crimea to discuss their continuing inability to practice their religion freely in Crimea.  In September the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Kyiv.  He met with government, religious, and community leaders to promote religious freedom, encourage interfaith dialogue, and assure leaders of U.S. support for all people to practice freely their faiths.

United Arab Emirates

Executive Summary

The constitution designates Islam as the official religion.  It guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals.  It states all persons are equal before the law, and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief.  The law prohibits blasphemy, proselytizing by non-Muslims, and conversion from Islam.  An antidiscrimination law includes prohibitions on religious discrimination, and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religions.  Local press reported in July that an Ajman court convicted “an Arab man” of blasphemy based on an offensive phone message and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment followed by deportation, and a fine of 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).  In January a court sentenced a Dominican woman and her child’s Yemeni biological father to a suspended one-month jail term and deportation for violating the country’s interpretation of sharia by engaging in extramarital sex.  Police and courts also continued to enforce laws against sorcery.  According to media reports, in February the Federal Supreme Court upheld an 18-month jail term against “an Arab man” for charges of witchcraft, fraud, and trying to coerce sex from a woman.  The government prohibited the dissemination of literature it perceived as supporting extremism.  The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) continued to provide strict guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques and instructions on sermons to Shia mosques across all emirates except Dubai, where mosques were overseen by Dubai’s Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD).  In June the cabinet approved the formation of a Fatwa Council to oversee fatwa issuances, license muftis, provide training, and conduct research.  Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths reported they could worship in private without government interference but faced some restrictions on practicing their religion in public.  Government-controlled internet service providers blocked access to websites critical of Islam or supportive of views the government considered extremist.  Christian churches and Hindu and Sikh temples serving the noncitizen population operated on land donated by the ruling families.  During the year, construction was underway on multiple houses of worship.  Regulatory requirements sometimes limited the ability of religious organizations to rent space for worship and limited certain charitable activities.  The minister of tolerance hosted conferences and meetings with religious minority leaders throughout the year to promote interfaith tolerance both domestically and internationally.

According to non-Muslim religious communities, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with officially recognized houses of worship, although conversion from Islam was strongly discouraged.  Conversion to Islam was encouraged, however.  Anti-Semitic materials continued to be available for purchase at book fairs.  There were continued instances of anti-Semitic remarks on social media and news sites.

The Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities spoke at a conference in Abu Dhabi on Muslim minorities at the invitation of the Ministry of Tolerance.  In meetings with senior government counterparts, the Ambassador, embassy and consulate general officers, and visiting U.S. officials reviewed ways to promote respect among faith groups and freedom for minority groups to practice their religions in the country, as well as government initiatives to foster religious tolerance and counter extremist interpretations of Islam.  Embassy and consulate general officials also engaged with a broad range of minority religious groups present in the country.  As concrete demonstrations of the importance of interfaith dialogue, the embassy and consulate general hosted interfaith events to encourage and support religious freedom and tolerance, engaging with various religious communities.

United Kingdom

Executive Summary

In the absence of a written constitution, the law establishes the Church of England as England’s state church and the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church.  The law prohibits “incitement to religious hatred” as well as discrimination on the grounds of religion.  The government updated the 2016 Hate Plan and committed to spending 1.5 million pounds ($1.92 million) on educational programs to challenge discriminatory beliefs.  The Home Office published an independent review of the application of sharia in England and Wales that included recommendations for legislative changes to bring the treatment of Muslim religious marriages into line with those of other faiths, an awareness campaign highlighting the benefits of civil registration for religious marriages, and a proposal for the government to regulate sharia councils.  The main political parties faced numerous accusations of religious bias.  Religious and civil society groups, the media, and others accused Conservative Party politicians, including former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, of anti-Muslim sentiment, and a number of Labour Party politicians, including leader Jeremy Corbyn, faced repeated accusations of anti-Semitism.  The Scottish government launched an “Anti-Hate” campaign in an effort to erase sectarianism.  The government, a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) since 1998, adopted the IHRA’s full working definition of anti-Semitism.  In 2017 the London Assembly, Scottish government, and Welsh government also adopted the IHRA’s definition.  During the year, the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat Parties adopted the IHRA definition, but the Green Party’s ruling body decided against it.  The Scottish National Party (SNP) did not clarify whether it has adopted the definition.

The government reported similarly high numbers as the previous year in religiously motivated hate crimes and incidents in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.  Community Security Trust (CST), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) monitoring anti-Semitism, recorded 1,652 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, the highest it had ever recorded in a single year and an increase of 16 percent, compared with 1,414 incidents in 2017.  There were multiple incidents of violence, arson, threats, and vandalism against religious groups.  There were incidents of religiously motivated hate speech against Muslims, Jews, and Christians.  Such incidents included the assault on and threatening of a man because of his Muslim beliefs, an assault on two female Jewish protesters outside a political event, attacks and vandalism on Sikh temples and mosques, and a postal campaign encouraging members of the public to “Punish a Muslim.”  A number of interfaith initiatives were launched, including the “21 for 21” project, which attempts to identify leaders for the 21st century, seven each from the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities.

U.S. embassy officials engaged with and sponsored speakers to visit religious groups.  The embassy recognized October 27 as International Religious Freedom Day on its social media channels, including tweets from the embassy’s account highlighting the International Religious Freedom Act, the 2018 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, and the statement of the U.S. Secretary of State on the importance of promoting religious freedom and defending vulnerable minorities.  On October 29, the Ambassador joined Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and other religious and political leaders at a memorial at a North West London Jewish center for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.  The Ambassador joined other speakers in calling for unity against religious hatred.

Uruguay

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and affirms the state does not support any particular religion.  Legal statutes prohibit discrimination based on religion.  The government launched an interagency, computer-based system to monitor and report on issues of discrimination, including discrimination based on religion.  A judge sentenced four individuals to probation for aggravated violence and hate crimes after they were convicted of physically and psychologically attacking a colleague on religious and racial grounds.  Two Jewish travelers were denied entry into a hostel.  The government condemned the act, referred the case to the interagency antidiscrimination committee, opened an investigation, and closed the hostel.  Some government officials made public statements and wore clothing disparaging the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.  In November media reported that Minister of Education Maria Julia Munoz called evangelical Protestant churches “the plague that grows” in a WhatsApp group.  The government’s official commitment to secularism at times generated controversy between religious groups and political leaders.  Religious organizations welcomed opportunities for dialogue with the government on religious freedom.  The installation of religious monuments in public places continued to generate tensions.  The government approved two cemetery sites for the Islamic community.  The government supported several events commemorating the Holocaust, including one held in the parliament and through a nationally broadcast message.

On November 22-24, evangelical Protestant leaders attended the Regional South American Congress for Life and Family in Punta del Este.  According to media reports, on November 23, a church in Montevideo supporting the congress was vandalized with what the church said were satanic symbols and pro-LGBTI signs as well as paintings saying “no to the fascist congress.”  Media also reported that on March 8, protesters vandalized a church, stating their disagreement regarding the Catholic Church’s position on abortion and birth control.  Unidentified individuals vandalized a plaza in Cerro Largo Department with painted swastikas.  Civil society and the government responded quickly to condemn the acts.  Jewish leaders reported acts of anti-Semitism, including verbal harassment and aggressive behavior.  Representatives of some minority religious groups stated that society’s lack of knowledge and understanding of their religious beliefs sometimes led to acts of intolerance and discrimination.  Religious representatives reported continued activity in the press and in social media disparaging their religious beliefs and practices.  Such activity included a Catholic leader’s comments in a magazine that Afro-Umbandists characterized as disparaging their religious beliefs.  Religious coalitions continued to promote interfaith dialogue, understanding, and coexistence in the country.

U.S. embassy officials maintained contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Honorary Commission against Racism, Xenophobia, and All Forms of Discrimination (CHRXD), and the National Human Rights Institute (INDDHH) to discuss issues regarding religious freedom and discrimination.  Embassy officials met with religious leaders, including Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim representatives, several other minority religious groups, and members of the Board for Interfaith Dialogue to discuss areas of interfaith collaboration and hear concerns on faith-related issues, including acts of vandalism related to religion, tensions between the government and religious organizations, and challenges to religious freedom and tolerance.  The embassy used social media to highlight the importance of respect for religious diversity and tolerance.

Uzbekistan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion or belief and separation of government and religion.  In May the parliament approved a religious freedom “roadmap” to implement all twelve of the recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur on Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed.  It simplified rules for registering religious organizations and their reporting requirements.  The government established a consultative body – the Council of Faiths – as a platform for discussing issues with 17 recognized religious groups.  Through presidential pardons, the government released 185 prisoners convicted on religious extremism charges.  In September the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Uzbekistan dismissed Imam Parpiev for diverging from his government-approved sermon.  For the first time in eight years, the government registered a church, Svet Miru, run by a Presbyterian religious community in Chirchick, near Tashkent.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a significant drop in police harassment of their members:  114 cases compared with 240 in 2017.  According to multiple sources, until late in the year, police continued to raid unregistered religious group meetings, detain participating individuals, conduct legal and illegal searches, and seize outlawed religious materials from private residences.  One raid was reported following the government’s announcement in December it would halt raids on religious groups.  Courts continued to sentence detained individuals to fines and prison; however, for the first time, higher courts overturned some of these sentences.  Members of religious groups whose registration applications the government denied remained unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecution.  Authorities fined members of some groups, including unregistered Jehovah’s Witnesses, for engaging in collective worship and other religious activities.  The Ministry of Education issued a new dress code prohibiting the wearing of religious garments and symbols, such as skullcaps, crosses, and hijabs, in schools.  Media reported authorities ordered more than 100 girls at the Tashkent International Islamic Academy to remove their hijabs or face expulsion.  Police detained and fined nine bloggers who called for the government to allow girls to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to attend mosques.  According to press reports, the Tashkent District Department of Public Education instructed educators to schedule school activities on Fridays to prevent the release of pupils for prayers.  Human rights activists said police continued to check the identities of worshippers and blocked entrance to most mosques for anyone under 18 years old.  According to Roman Catholic leaders, the government banned a summer camp for Catholic youth in the Fergana Valley and surveilled Catholic masses.  Media reported the government intentionally blocked access to several websites containing religious content, including Christian and Islamic-related news.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and private persons continued to report social pressure on individuals, particularly among the majority Muslim population, against religious conversion.  Ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity reportedly suffered continued harassment and discrimination, including government pressure to repudiate their new faith and on their family members to convince them to do so.  Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, and Baptists, said they continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.  Some religious minorities said social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials.

Senior officials from the Department of State, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, met with government officials and recommended tangible steps the government could take to improve religious freedom.  Steps raised included releasing individuals detained for engaging in peaceful religious activities; relaxing requirements for registering faith-based organizations so they may all operate legally and not be subject to fines or raids; allowing members of religious groups to practice their faiths freely outside registered houses of worship; removing restrictions on the importation and use of electronic and hardcopy religious literature; and providing protection for public discourse on religion.  Embassy officials urged the government to include religious prisoners of conscience in its annual amnesty and routinely met with religious groups and civil society regarding religious freedom and tolerance.

On November 28, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Uzbekistan on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.  Uzbekistan had been designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 2006-2017 and moved to a Special Watch List after the Secretary determined the government had made substantial progress in improving respect for religious freedom.

Vanuatu

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion or traditional belief.  The preamble to the constitution refers to traditional Christian values, but there is no state religion.  On penalty of a fine, the law requires religious groups to register; however, the government did not enforce this requirement.  In October during a visit to Jerusalem, the prime minister said Vanuatu was a Christian country.  The Vanuatu Christian Council (VCC) received a 10 million vatu ($89,500) annual grant from the government.  The VCC said it would use the funds to strengthen the capacity of the VCC to support member churches and provide training.

The VCC reportedly continued to believe the government should revisit the freedom of religion clause in the constitution to prohibit the establishment of non-Christian faiths in the country, although it did not make any public statements supporting this proposal as in 2016.  In February the VCC chairman spoke out against a decision from the University of the South Pacific’s main campus in Fiji to ban Christian fellowship programs on the university campus, stating he would oppose a similar ban on the Vanuatu campus.  The VCC called on the government to ban the import of goods and materials “detrimental to both spiritual and physical health and life of Christians in Vanuatu.”

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country.  On periodic visits to the country, officials from the U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea discussed religious freedom with representatives of the government.  Embassy representatives discussed religious freedom with the VCC and smaller religious organizations, and posted about religious freedom on social media.

Venezuela

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion on the condition its practice does not violate public morality, decency, or public order.  Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant leaders stated President Nicolas Maduro used a 2017 antihate law to persecute clergy who espoused views challenging his policies or highlighting the country’s humanitarian crisis.  Several religious organizations described continued difficulties with government bureaucracy when seeking to register, requesting approval for new internal statutes, or applying for religious visas for foreign clergy.  Representatives of the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Venezuela (CEV) and the Evangelical Council of Venezuela (ECV) said the government retaliated against their clergy and other members for continuing to call attention to the country’s humanitarian crisis.  Catholic Church leaders reported President Maduro ordered criminal investigations of two bishops for violating the antihate law after they delivered homilies highlighting hunger and government corruption.  CEV representatives reported that a woman, characterized by media as a government sympathizer, attacked Father Miguel Acevedo during Mass in Caracas.  According to a local reporter, the woman interrupted Acevedo’s homily, shouted insults at him, and then rushed toward him in an attempt to hit him.  Representatives of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela (CAIV) said criticism of Israel in government-owned or -affiliated media continued to carry anti-Semitic overtones, sometimes disguised as anti-Zionist messages.  They said government-owned or -associated media and government supporters again denied or trivialized the Holocaust, citing media reports of President Maduro’s comparing migrant Venezuelans to Jews persecuted by Hitler.

CAIV representatives said many citizens and government officials continued to believe members of the Jewish community maintained direct lines of communication with the White House and placed U.S. interests above those of the country, which made them concerned their community could become targets of anti-Semitic acts.  On June 6, after the United States announced it would to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, pro-Palestinian groups accompanied by progovernment representatives protested the decision.  Media interviewed protesters in Caracas who proclaimed they repudiated Zionism and supported the Palestinian cause.  Some members of the Jewish community cited this protest as an example of the use of anti-Zionist rhetoric to avoid overt anti-Semitic messages.

Government officials again did not respond to U.S. embassy requests for meetings on religious freedom and related issues.  The embassy maintained close contact with a wide range of religious groups, including the Jewish, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, and Catholic communities.  Embassy representatives and these groups discussed government registration procedures and delays; harassment by progovernment and armed civilian gangs; the media environment; and anti-Semitism.

Vietnam

Executive Summary

The constitution states that all people have freedom of belief and religion.  The law provides for significant government control over religious practices and includes vague provisions that permit restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity.  The 2016 Law on Belief and Religion, which came into effect in January, maintains a multistage registration and recognition process for religious groups but shortens the time for recognition at the national or provincial level from 23 to five years.  It also specifies the right of recognized religious organizations to have legal personality.  Religious leaders, particularly those representing groups without recognition or certificates of registration, reported various forms of government harassment – including physical assaults, arrests, prosecutions, monitoring, travel restrictions, and property seizure or destruction – and denials or no response to requests for registration and/or other permissions.  For example, six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were imprisoned in February on charges of “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties.”  There continued to be reports of severe harassment of religious adherents by authorities in the Central Highlands, specifically members of the Evangelical Church of Christ, and in the Northwest Highlands for H’mong Christians and Catholics, as well as for Catholic and Protestant groups in Nghe An Province.  Religious group adherents reported local or provincial authorities committed the majority of harassment incidents.  Members of recognized groups or those with certificates of registration were reportedly able to practice their beliefs with less government interference, although some recognized groups reported more difficulty gathering together in certain provinces, including the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) (ECVN) in Quang Binh, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh, Ha Giang, and Hoa Binh Provinces.  Others seeking to officially register their groups, including the United Presbyterian Church and the Vietnam Baptist Convention, also reported increased difficulty gathering in some provinces.  Members of religious groups said some local and provincial authorities used the local and national regulatory systems to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close government management of their leadership, training programs, assemblies, and other activities.  The government registered two religious communities, the Vietnam Full Gospel Denomination and the Vietnam United Gospel Outreach Church, during the year.  Registration is the second step in the three-step process towards recognition and does not convey legal status.  For the first time since 1998, United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) leader Thich Quang Do took up residence in a UBCV-affiliated pagoda.  The government also allowed renowned Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh to return to the country.  Hanh resided at Tu Hieu Pagoda in Hue at year’s end, and adherents reported no difficulties visiting him.  Hanh also received diplomats and senior government leaders.

There were several reports of registered Cao Dai adherents preventing adherents of the unsanctioned Cao Dai from performing certain religious rituals.  There continued to be some incidents of harassment of Catholics by the progovernment Red Flag Association, although the group reportedly dissolved itself in March.

The Ambassador and senior embassy and consulate general officials urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the independent UBCV, Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent and “pure” Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups.  They sought greater freedom for recognized religious groups and urged an end to restrictions on and harassment of groups without recognition or registration.  The Ambassador, Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, and senior embassy officers advocated for religious freedom in visits across the country, including to the Central Highlands.  The Ambassador and officials met regularly and maintained recurring contact with religious leaders across the country.  The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with the chairman of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs in Washington, D.C. in July and raised concerns about implementation of the new law, the status of religious believers detained or imprisoned, and the situation of ethnic religious minority groups.  The Ambassador at Large and a senior official from the Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor raised issues of religious freedom during the annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in Washington in May.

West Bank and Gaza

Executive Summary

IN THIS SECTION: ISRAEL | WEST BANK AND GAZA (BELOW)


This section includes the West Bank and Gaza.  In December 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) exercised varying degrees of authority in the West Bank and no authority over Jerusalem.  Although PA laws apply in the Gaza Strip, the PA did not have authority there, and Hamas continued to exercise de facto control over security and other matters.  The PA Basic Law, which serves as an interim constitution, establishes Islam as the official religion and states the principles of sharia shall be the main source of legislation, but provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality.  It also proscribes discrimination based on religion, calls for respect of “all other divine religions,” and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law.  Violence between Palestinians and Israelis continued, primarily in the West Bank and the periphery of Gaza.  Continued travel restrictions impeded the movements of Muslims and Christians between the West Bank and Jerusalem.  Some official PA media channels, as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling Fatah political movement, featured content praising or condoning acts of violence, at times referring to assailants as “martyrs.”  Several local Fatah chapters on social media referred to individuals who had engaged in terrorist attacks as martyrs and posted memorials, including photographs of suicide bombers.  The Fatah branch in the city of Tubas and the Fatah youth organization posted a photograph in March celebrating a suicide bomber from the second Intifada who killed one Israeli and injured 90 others.  Anti-Semitic content also appeared in Fatah and PA-controlled media.  In October Palestinian authorities detained a Palestinian-U.S. citizen Jerusalem identification card holder, prosecuted him for possible involvement in sale of Palestinian-owned property to a Jewish Israeli group, and found him guilty of “seizing/tearing away part of the Palestinian Territories to a foreign state,” sentencing him to life in prison with hard labor.  In April the Palestinian Supreme Fatwa Council reiterated an Islamic legal ruling (fatwa) reemphasizing previous rulings that sale of Palestinian-owned lands, including in Jerusalem, to “enemies such as the state of Israel,” is forbidden to Muslims according to sharia.  According to media sources, the ruling considered the land to be Islamic public property and not personal private property, based on previous rulings by Palestinian and other Muslim religious legal scholars.  Palestinian officials also condemned the sale of Palestinian land to Jewish Israelis in nationalistic terms.  Palestinian leaders did not always publicly condemn individual terrorist attacks or speak out publicly against members of their institutions who advocated for violence.  PA President Mahmoud Abbas maintained a public commitment to nonviolence.  The PA and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinian individuals killed during the commission of a terrorist act.  The PA and PLO also continued to provide payments to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism against Israelis.  President Abbas said he would use his last penny “on the families of the prisoners and martyrs.”  Following the September fatal stabbing of a Jewish settler in the West Bank by a Palestinian, President Abbas told Israeli government leaders that “everybody loses from violence.”  On April 30, however, President Abbas delivered a speech at a meeting of the Palestinian National Council, in which he said massacres of Jews, including the Holocaust, were related to their conduct in “social behavior, [charging] interest, and financial matters,” and not their religion.  He issued a statement on May 4 apologizing to those offended by the remarks, condemning anti-Semitism in all its forms, and called the Holocaust the most heinous crime in history.  Senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders condemned violent acts by Jewish individuals and groups against Palestinians, including property crimes.  The Israeli government arrested or detained alleged suspects in such attacks.  Local human rights groups and media stated that authorities rarely convicted alleged Israeli offenders.

Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization with de facto control of Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other extremist groups disseminated anti-Semitic materials and incited violence through traditional and social media channels, as well as during rallies and other events.  Hamas also continued to enforce restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia.

In some cases, perpetrators justified incidents of violence on religious grounds.  On January 9, a Palestinian shot and killed an Israeli rabbi at a traffic junction near the Israeli settlement outpost (a term used to describe a settlement that, under Israeli law, is illegal and unauthorized) of Havat Gilad, west of Nablus in the West Bank.  Israeli police opened an investigation into the death of Aysha al-Rabi, a Palestinian resident of the West Bank, killed October 12 when a thrown stone broke through her car windshield.  At year’s end, an Israeli police investigation continued into the possible involvement of yeshiva students from a nearby settlement.  On multiple occasions, Palestinians threw rocks at Jewish visitors to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus.  Various Israeli and Palestinian groups opposed to interacting with members of other religions continued to protest against interfaith social and romantic relationships and other forms of cooperation.  Some Israeli settlers in the West Bank continued to justify their attacks on Palestinian property, or “price tag” attacks (violence by Jewish individuals and groups against non-Jewish individuals and property with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government against the attackers’ interests), such as the uprooting Palestinian olive trees, as necessary for the defense of Judaism.

U.S. government representatives met with Palestinian religious leaders to discuss religious tolerance and a broad range of issues affecting Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities.  U.S. officials met with political, religious, and civil society leaders to promote interreligious tolerance and cooperation.  U.S. representatives met with representatives of religious groups to monitor their concerns about access to religious sites, respect for clergy, and attacks on religious sites and houses of worship, and also met with local Christian leaders to discuss their concerns about ongoing Christian emigration from Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Western Sahara

Executive Summary

The Kingdom of Morocco claims the territory of Western Sahara and administers the area it controls by the same constitution, laws, and structures as in internationally recognized Morocco, including laws that deal with religious freedom.  The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), an organization seeking the territory’s independence, disputes Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory.  According to the Moroccan constitution, Islam is the religion of the state, and the state guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly.  The constitution also says the state guarantees to everyone the freedom to “practice his religious affairs.”  The constitution states the king holds the Islamic title “Commander of the Faithful,” and he is the protector of Islam and guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country.  It also prohibits political parties from being founded on religion and forbids political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments from denigrating or infringing on Islam.  Moroccan law penalizes the use of enticements to convert a Muslim to another religion and prohibits criticism of Islam.  There were no reports of significant government actions affecting religious freedom in the portion of the territory administered by Morocco.

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

U.S. officials discussed religious freedom and tolerance with Moroccan officials and also met members of religious minority communities during their visits to the territory.

Xinjiang

Executive Summary

IN THIS SECTIONCHINA | TIBET | XINJIANG (BELOW) | HONG KONG | MACAU


This separate section on Xinjiang is included given the scope and severity of reported religious freedom violations specific to the region this year.

Multiple media and NGOs estimated the government detained at least 800,000 and up to possibly more than 2 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other Muslim groups, mostly Chinese citizens, in specially built or converted detention facilities in Xinjiang and subjected them to forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity since April 2017.  There were reports of deaths among detainees.  Authorities maintained extensive and invasive security and surveillance, in part to gain information regarding individuals’ religious adherence and practices.  The government continued to cite concerns over the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as grounds to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Muslims in Xinjiang.  The reported intensification of detentions accompanied authorities’ implementation of a Xinjiang counterextremism regulation, enacted in March 2017, which identified many of the behaviors deemed “extremist,” as well as continued implementation of the National Counterterrorism Law, revised during 2018, which addressed “religious extremism.”  In October the Standing Committee of the 12th People’s Congress in Xinjiang revised its regulation to insert guidance on “vocational skill education training centers.”  Authorities in Xinjiang punished schoolchildren, university students, and their family members for praying and barred youths from participating in religious activities, including fasting, during Ramadan.  The government sought the forcible repatriation of Uighur Muslims from foreign countries and detained some of those who returned.

Uighur Muslims reported severe societal discrimination in employment and business opportunities.  In Xinjiang, tension between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese continued.

Embassy officials met with government officials regarding the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.  According to a statement issued at the July 24-26 U.S. government-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, “We are particularly troubled by reports of the Chinese government’s deepening crackdown on Uighurs and members of other Muslim minority groups… [including] the detention of hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, in facilities ranging from makeshift holding centers to prisons, ostensibly for political re-education,” in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.  There are reports of deaths in these facilities.  We call on the Chinese government to release immediately all those arbitrarily detained.”  On September 21, the Secretary of State said, “Uighurs are held against their will in so-called reeducation camps where they’re forced to endure severe political indoctrination and other awful abuses.  Their religious beliefs are decimated.”  On December 21, in discussing why China remained a Country of Particular Concern, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom said what is happening to Muslim Uighurs is one of the “worst human rights situations in the world.”  In October the then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations said, “In China, the government is engaged in the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities that is straight out of George Orwell.”  She added, “It is the largest internment of civilians in the world today” and “It may be the largest since World War II.”

Yemen

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam the state religion and sharia the source of all legislation.  It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion.  The law prohibits denunciation of Islam, conversion from Islam to another religion, and proselytizing directed at Muslims.  The conflict that broke out in 2014 between the government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Houthi-led Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement, continued through year’s end.  While the president, vice president, and foreign minister remained in exile in Saudi Arabia, the remainder of the cabinet moved to Aden in October.  The government did not exercise effective control over much of the country’s territory.  Although causes for the war were complex, sectarian violence accompanied the civil conflict, which observers described as “part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.”

In January the Houthi-controlled National Security Bureau (NSB) sentenced to death Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, a Baha’i, on charges of espionage.  He had been imprisoned since 2013, accused of apostasy, proselytizing, and spying for Israel.  He remained in prison awaiting execution at year’s end.  According to the Baha’i International Community (BIC), in October armed soldiers in Sana’a arrested Baha’i spokesperson Abdullah Al-Olofi and detained him at an undisclosed location for three days.  According to the BIC, in September a Houthi-controlled court in Sana’a charged more than 20 Baha’is with apostasy and espionage.  A group of UN independent experts reported that authorities arrested 24 individuals in the incident, at least 22 of whom are Baha’is.  Amnesty International reported the charges could possibly result in death sentences.  The five UN experts said charges “must be dropped and discriminatory practices based on religion outlawed” and added, “We reiterate our call to the de facto authorities in Sanaa to put an immediate stop on the persecution of Baha’is.”  According to the BIC, as of October there were six Baha’is in prison in the country for practicing their faith.  During a speech in March, Houthi leader Abd al-Malik al-Houthi called on his followers to defend their country from the Baha’is, who he described as infidels.  According to media reports, Houthi authorities modified the University of Sana’a student and faculty identification cards to include the Houthi flag and slogan “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam.”  Houthi Cultural Supervisor Yahya Abu Awadah introduced a mandatory course into the university curriculum called “The Arab-Israeli Conflict.”  Course material included the glorification of Hezbollah and condemnation of Zionism.  Sectarian polarization stimulated by the war with the Zaydi Houthis attracted recruits to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  United Arab Emirates (UAE) government forces aligned with local tribal fighters forced AQAP out of Mukalla during the year.  While in control of the city, AQAP institutionalized and enforced its interpretation of sharia.  It continued to have an operational presence in Wadi Belharith and Azzan in Shabwah, Wadi Obaidah in Ma’rib, Radda’a city in Bayda’, and Lawdar, Wadi and Mudiyah in Abyan.  The estimated number of AQAP operatives inside the country was between 6,000 and 7,000.  On January 23, Khaled Batarfi, a senior AQAP leader, recorded a video calling for knife and vehicle attacks against Jews in response to the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

According to media reports, as of August, unknown gunmen killed 27 Muslim clerics in Aden during the last two years.  Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in print.  Jewish community members reported their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices.

On May 14, the Department of State spokesperson issued a statement expressing U.S. government concern about the treatment of the Baha’i population in the country and called on the Houthis to end their unacceptable treatment of the Baha’is.  On November 8, the Yemen Affairs Unit, based in Saudi Arabia, posted a statement cosigned by the governments of Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom expressing deep concern about the worsening treatment of Baha’is in Yemen.  On November 28, the Secretary of State designated the Houthis as an “Entity of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

Zambia

Executive Summary

The constitution declares the country a Christian nation; the constitution also prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of conscience, belief, and religion.  Prominent religious groups continued to state the government should not be involved in religious affairs, such as organizing national prayer days.  On October 18, the Ministry of National Guidance and Religious Affairs (MNGRA) coordinated the fourth National Day of Prayer and Fasting.  Various religious groups raised concerns over the government-managed event, stating it blurred the line between church and state.  The government continued to introduce administrative measures to regulate religious affairs that religious groups said were excessively bureaucratic.  New procedures included a requirement that clergy practicing in the country must have attended a “recognized and reputable” theology school, but the government provided no specific definition or list of acceptable schools.  Religious groups must also belong to a larger religious grouping, locally known as a “mother body.”  To accommodate this requirement, the MNGRA sought to recognize additional church mother bodies to encompass the variety of Christian and other religious groups. Some religious groups remained opposed to the process, as they felt that government was forcing them to align their faith to a particular mother body.  Religious leaders stated the clearance procedures for foreign visitors coming to conduct religious activities remained arduous.  They also criticized public statements by government officials that they said were detrimental to promoting religious tolerance.  For example, in September Minister of National Guidance and Religious Affairs Godfridah Sumaili told the media that inviting Hindus and Muslims to join in the MNGRA-hosted National Day of Prayer event would cause “confusion.”

Incidents of mob attacks and killings of individuals suspected of practicing witchcraft continued throughout the country.  Victims were often elderly persons reportedly associated with witchcraft.  For example, in August a 59-year-old man from Copperbelt Province’s Masaiti District was killed by a mob on suspicion of practicing witchcraft.  Leaders of religious organizations continued to hold regular meetings to promote mutual understanding of and joint advocacy on religious issues.  Among these were joint approaches in favor of restricting government involvement in oversight of worship and religious practice.

U.S. embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, met with government officials to discuss topics related to religious freedom such as enforcement of registration laws and the regulation of new and existing religious groups.  Embassy representatives also met with religious leaders to discuss issues of religious freedom, interfaith relations, and the role of religious groups in the national dialogue process designed to reduce tensions following the disputed results of the 2016 general election.

Zimbabwe

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom to practice, propagate, and give expression to one’s religion, in public or in private and alone or with others.  Religious and civil society groups reported the government occasionally monitored public events, prayer rallies, church congregations, and religiously affiliated nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) perceived to be critical of the government.  Christian aid organizations and local NGOs focused on memorializing victims of the 1980s Gukurahundi mass killings said security officials monitored their activities with increased frequency in the lead-up to the July general elections.  In June Pastor Evan Mawarire of His Generation Church filed a $65,000 lawsuit against the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) for unlawful arrest and detention at the height of his 2017 antigovernment protests.  In May a magistrate acquitted Pastor Patrick Mugadza of insulting persons of a certain race or religion after an October 2017 Constitutional Court ruling stated Mugadza “insulted the Christian religion.”  In April the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe banned all radio and state-run television stations from programs advertising prophets and traditional healing.  Multiple church organizations released letters appealing for tolerance, national unity, peace, reconciliation, healing, and stability while calling on the government to uphold the constitution and protect citizens’ political rights prior to and following the July elections.

As in previous years, some groups criticized Christian groups with indigenous beliefs, particularly the apostolic community, for encouraging child marriage and prohibiting immunizations.

The embassy raised freedom of speech and human rights with government officials.  Embassy representatives met with religious leaders and faith-based organizations to discuss the role of faith communities in mitigating violence in advance of and promoting peace and unity following the July election.