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Afghanistan

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.9 million (July 2018 estimate).  There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not track disaggregated population data.  According to the Pew Forum, Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent of the population.

According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis.  Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population.  Sikh and Hindu leaders estimate there are 245 Sikh and Hindu families totaling 700 individuals, down from 1,300 individuals estimated in 2017, mostly in Kabul, with a few communities in Nangarhar, Ghazni, Paktiya, Kunduz, Kandahar, and Helmand Provinces.

The Ahmadi Muslim community estimates it has 450 adherents nationwide, down from 600 in 2017.  Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available.  There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including one Jewish person.

Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces.  Followers of the Baha’i Faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar.  Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam the official state religion and says no law may contravene the beliefs and provisions of the “sacred religion of Islam.”  It further states there shall be no amendment to the constitution’s provisions with respect to adherence to the fundamentals of Islam.  According to the constitution, followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”  The penal code, enacted in February, outlines provisions that criminalize verbal and physical assaults on religion and protects individuals’ right to exercise their beliefs for any religion.  An article in the new penal code specifies what constitutes an insult to religion, stating, “A person who intentionally insults a religion or disrupts its rites or destroys its permitted places of worship shall be deemed as a perpetrator of the crime of insulting religions and shall be punished according to provisions of this chapter.”

Another article of the penal code states persons who forcibly stop the conduct of rituals of any religion, destroy or damage “permitted places of worship” (a term not defined by the code) where religious rituals are conducted, or destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion are subject to imprisonment of three months to one year or a fine ranging from 30,000 afghanis to 60,000 afghanis ($400 to $800).  In cases where murder or physical injury result from the disturbance of religious rites or ceremonies, the perpetrator will be tried according to crimes of murder and physical injury as defined by law.

The new penal code also specifies that deliberate insults or distortions directed towards Islamic beliefs or laws carry a prison sentence of one to five years.

While the crime of blasphemy of Islam, also known as apostasy, is not specifically provided for under the penal code, it falls under the seven offenses making up the hudood as defined by sharia law.  According to the penal code, perpetrators of hudood will be punished according to Hanafi jurisprudence.  According to Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case,” beheading is appropriate for male apostates, while life imprisonment is appropriate for female apostates, unless the individual repents.  A judge may also impose a lesser penalty, such as short-term imprisonment or lashes, if doubt about the apostasy exists.  Under Hanafi jurisprudence, the government may also confiscate the property of apostates or prevent apostates from inheriting property.  This guidance applies to individuals who are of sound mind and have reached the age of maturity.  Civil law states the age of majority for citizens is 18, although it is 16 for females with regard to marriage.  Islamic law defines it as the point at which one shows signs of puberty.

Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts.  If someone converts to another religion from Islam, he or she shall have three days to recant the conversion.  If the person does not recant, then he or she shall be subject to the punishment for apostasy.  Proselytizing to try to convert individuals from Islam to another religion is also illegal according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which is applied in the courts and subject to the same punishment.

Blasphemy, which may include anti-Islamic writings or speech, is a capital crime according to the Hanafi school.  Accused blasphemers, like apostates, have three days to recant or face death, although there is no clear process for recanting under sharia.  Some hadiths (sayings or traditions that serve as a source of Islamic law or guidance) suggest discussion and negotiation with an apostate to encourage the apostate to recant.

According to a 2007 ruling from the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court, the Baha’i Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy.  All Muslims who convert to it are considered apostates; Baha’is are labeled infidels.

Licensing and registration of religious groups are not required.  Registration as a group (which gives the group the status of a council, known as a shura) or an association conveys official recognition and the benefit of government provision of facilities for seminars and conferences.  By law, anyone who is 18 years of age or older may establish a social or political organization.  Such an entity must have a charter consistent with domestic laws as well as a central office.  Both groups and associations may register with the Ministry of Justice.  The ministry may dissolve such organizations through a judicial order.  Groups recognized as shuras (councils) may cooperate with one another on religious issues.  Associations may conduct business with the government or the society as a whole. 

A mass media law prohibits the production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and denominations.  It also prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam and bans articles on any topic the government deems might harm the physical, spiritual, and moral wellbeing of persons, especially children and adolescents.  The law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan, a government agency, to provide broadcasting content reflecting the religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country.  The law also obligates the agency to adjust its programs in light of Islamic principles as well as national and spiritual values.

According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, national culture as well as academic principles” and develop courses on religion based on the “Islamic sects” in the country.  The national curriculum includes materials designed separately for Sunni-majority schools and Shia-majority schools, as well as textbooks that emphasize nonviolent Islamic terms and principles.  The curriculum includes courses on Islam, but not on other religions.  Non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools.

According to the law, all funds contributed to madrassahs by private or international sources must be channeled through the Ministry of Education (MOE).

The civil and penal codes derive their authority from the constitution.  The constitution stipulates the courts shall apply constitutional provisions as well as the law in ruling on cases.  For instances in which neither the constitution nor the penal or civil code address a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi Sunni jurisprudence within the limits set by the constitution to attain justice.  The constitution also allows courts to apply Shia law in cases involving Shia followers.  Non-Muslims may not provide testimony in matters requiring sharia jurisprudence.  The constitution makes no mention of separate laws applying to non-Muslims.

A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she is not an adherent of one of the other two Abrahamic faiths – Christianity or Judaism.  It is illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man.

The government’s national identity cards indicate an individual’s religion, as well as nationality, tribe, and ethnicity.  Individuals are not required to declare belief in Islam to receive citizenship.

The constitution requires the president and two vice presidents to be Muslim.  Other senior officials (ministers, members of parliament, judges) must swear allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam as part of their oath of office.

The constitution allows the formation of political parties, provided the program and charter of a party are “not contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.”  The constitution states political parties may not be based on sectarianism.

The law, pursuant to a 2016 presidential decree, mandates an additional seat in parliament’s lower house be reserved for a member of the Hindu and Sikh community.  Four seats in the parliament are also reserved for Ismaili Muslims.

The Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA) remained responsible for managing Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, revenue collection for religious activities, acquisition of property for religious purposes, issuance of fatwas, educational testing of imams, sermon preparation and distribution for government-supported mosques, and raising public awareness of religious issues.  During the year, MOHRA restructured its bureaucracy to establish an office dedicated to assisting the faith practices of religious minorities, specifically Sikhs and Hindus.

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

Government Practices

Media reported members of the Shia community continued to state the government did not provide them with adequate protection from attacks by nonstate actors.  In response to these attacks, in September President Ashraf Ghani announced a plan to divide Kabul into four security zones, creating a security zone in the Dasht-e Barchi area similar to the one that protects embassies and international organizations in central Kabul and increasing the ANDSF presence there.  President Ghani also announced plans for the Kabul Municipality and Capital Zone Development Authority to implement development projects in the area, including road construction.  Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community, however, said these were insufficient, symbolic measures from the government.  The Ministry of Interior again increased security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians, under police authority, to provide extra security for Ashura.  There were no reports of violence during Ashura processions – a sharp contrast from recent years.  On September 18, media reported the government had prevented attacks by arresting 26 ISKP militants in Kabul suspected of planning attacks on Ashura.

As in the previous four years, there were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy during the year; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty.  Baha’is continued to be labeled as “infidels,” although they were not considered converts; as such, they were not charged with either crime.

The government again allowed both Sunnis and Shia to go on pilgrimages, with no quota on either group.  It charged fees for Hajj participants to cover transportation, food, accommodation, and other expenses.  MOHRA also continued to facilitate pilgrimages for Hindus and Sikhs to India, but it did not collect any revenue for or from non-Muslims.  Ahmadi Muslims reported they chose not to interact with MOHRA because they feared MOHRA would deem them non-Muslims and forbid them from participating in the Hajj.

MOHRA reported that of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 6,000 registered mullahs were working directly for MOHRA at year’s end, an increase from 4,589 in 2017.  Government officials said the ministry was able to hire additional clerics under the year’s budget due to the implementation of new procedures and a new payroll system.  These mullahs continued to receive an average monthly salary of 12,000 afghanis ($160) from the government.  For highly educated mullahs of central mosques delivering special Friday sermons or khatibs, MOHRA provided a salary of 14,000 afghanis ($190).  Mullahs applying to be prayer leaders in MOHRA-registered mosques continued to have to hold at least a high school diploma, although a bachelor’s degree or equivalent verified by the Ministry of Higher Education was preferred.  MOHRA reported approximately 66,000 of the estimated 160,000 mosques in the country were registered.  According to MOHRA, the ministry lacked the financial resources to create a comprehensive registry of mullahs and mosques in the country.

MOHRA reported it continued to allocate a portion of its budget for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques.  Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about the new construction.

Hindu and Sikh groups again reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy, but per the law against conversion of Muslims, the government continued not to allow them to proselytize.  Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing land disputes through the courts due to fear of retaliation, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property.

Although the government provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security in the region continued to make the land unusable.  Hindus and Sikhs reported continued interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead from individuals who lived near the cremation sites.  In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals.  The government promised to construct modern crematories for the Sikh and Hindu populations.  Sikh and Hindu community leaders said President Ghani reaffirmed this promise in an August 2017 meeting, but as of the end of the year, the government had not taken action.  Despite these challenges, community leaders acknowledged new efforts by MOHRA to provide free water, electricity, and repair services for a few Sikh and Hindu temples, as well as facilitate visas for religious trips to India.

MOHRA reported there were 4,500 registered madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country, up from 4,093 in 2017.  The government reported that approximately 50,000 mosques were registered with the ministry.  The government registered some additional madrassahs during the year but did not report how many.  More than 300,000 students were enrolled in madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to the latest available estimate.

The registration process for madrassahs continued to require a school to demonstrate it had suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students lived on campus.  MOHRA continued to register madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the MOE continued to register madrassahs not associated with mosques.  In MOHRA-run madrassahs, students received individual instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels.  Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allowed students to pursue higher education at government universities.

MOHRA could not estimate the number of unregistered madrassahs but stated it was likely unregistered madrassahs “far outnumbered” registered madrassahs.  The MOE was authorized to close unregistered madrassahs, but ministry officials again said it remained nearly impossible to close any due to local sensitivities.  According to ministry officials, some madrassahs were closed in conflict areas during the year, but not out of concern for potential negative societal repercussions.  Ministry officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery.  Government officials said they were concerned about their inability to supervise unregistered madrassas that could institute violent extremist curriculum intolerant of religious minorities and become recruitment centers for antigovernment groups.

Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies.  Eighty MOE-registered madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level.  An estimated 1,200 public madrassahs were registered with the MOE.

Ulema Council members continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government.  The council also provided advice to some provincial governments; however, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition.  President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah included messages in support of religious tolerance in speeches invoking national unity and in meetings with minority religious groups.  For example, on September 19, media reported that President Ghani had stated the ongoing war was against the “national unity and religious freedom” of the country.  President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah also held meetings with Ulema Council members on promoting intrafaith tolerance and “moderate practices” of Islam.

Minority religious groups reported the courts continued not to apply the protections provided to those groups by law, and the courts denied non-Muslims the access to the courts or other legal redress as Muslims, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights.

According to media reports and representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, some members of these communities, such as Sikhs and Hindus, were told they did not have equal rights because they were “Indians,” not Afghans, even when they were citizens of the country.  Members of minority religious communities reported the state, including the courts, treated all citizens as if they were Muslims, and some basic citizenship rights of non-Muslims remained uncodified.  They said the result was non-Muslims continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence.

Sikhs and Hindus continued to report their community members avoided taking civil cases to court because they believed they were unprotected by dispute resolution mechanisms such as the Special Land and Property Court.  Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.

Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to state they faced discrimination in the judicial system, including long delays in resolving cases, particularly regarding the continued appropriation of Sikh properties.  Hindu and Sikh community leaders said they had pending court cases of land seized by municipal authorities and warlords from four years ago.  Whenever community advocates reproached the court, government officials said their cases remained under review.

Although some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government such as Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh, High Peace Council Chairman Karim Khalili, and then Second Chief Executive Deputy Mohammad Mohaqeq, Shia leaders continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics.  Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia remained overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population.  Observers said these debates were often about the predominantly Hazara ethnicity of the majority of the country’s Shia rather than about religion.

A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions, including one at the municipal level, one at the Chamber of Commerce and Industries, one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, and one as an elected member in the lower house.  After the only Sikh candidate, Awtar Singh Khalsa, for lower house parliament elections was killed in a July 1 suicide attack in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province, the IEC granted an extension on July 5 for the registration for a Sikh candidate to run in parliamentary elections in October.

Although four Ismaili Muslims remained members of parliament, Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.

The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation.  The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques.  The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council, and MOHRA also continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation.  Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.

On June 4, the Ulema Council convened approximately 3,000 religious scholars at the Loya Jirga tent in Kabul to issue a propeace fatwa.  Although the religious scholars said the effort was more of a symbolic attempt to challenge the religious legitimacy of “holy war” invoked by violent extremist groups, including the Taliban and ISKP, they said the fatwa included principles of religious tolerance.  The scholars stated, “Divisions among Muslims based on language, tribe, or sect are against Islam” and that “those who cause such division should be punished.”  This included all forms of intra-Muslim violence, including through suicide attacks.

The ONSC continued its work on addressing religiously motivated violent extremism, which included policies to foster religious tolerance.  The ONSC continued to sponsor provincial-level conferences on religiously motivated violent extremism to collect data for use in its effort to develop a strategy to counter violent extremism.  The ONSC also continued to coordinate the efforts of relevant government institutions and NGOs to formulate the strategy through an interministerial working group.  Government officials said the strategy had reached the final stages of review during the year.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

According to journalists, local observers, and UNAMA, attacks by the ISKP and other insurgent groups continued to target specific religious and ethnoreligious groups, including the Hazara Shia.  UNAMA’s 2018 report on civilian deaths documented attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, recording 22 attacks causing 453 civilian casualties (156 deaths and 297 injured).  UNAMA attributed all attacks to antigovernment elements; the ISKP committed the vast majority of attacks.  Suicide attacks were the main cause of casualties, killing 136 civilians and injuring 266, representing a 118 per cent increase in casualties compared with 2017.  In addition to suicide attacks, UNAMA documented 35 civilian casualties (15 deaths and 20 injured) from targeted killings of religious leaders and worshippers.

UNAMA continued to report high levels of ISKP-directed, sectarian-motivated violence targeting the Shia Muslim, mostly ethnic Hazara, population.  During the year, it documented 19 incidents of sectarian-motivated violence against Shia Muslims resulting in 747 civilian casualties (223 deaths and 524 injured), a 34 percent increase in civilian casualties from such attacks compared with 2017.

The ISKP claimed responsibility for the September 6 twin-suicide attack on a sports club in Western Kabul that killed close to 150 individuals, the vast majority of them members of the Shia Hazara community.

Attacks on Shia mosques for which the ISKP claimed responsibility included a March 21 suicide attack on a Shia shrine in Kabul during a Nowruz celebration, killing 31 and wounding 65, and an August 3 suicide bomb attack on a Shia mosque in Gardez, Paktiya Province, killing 33 persons and injuring 94 during Friday prayers.

According to media reports, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques.  On May 6, an IED exploded in the Sunni Yaqubi Mosque in the Khost provincial center used as a voter registration center for the October parliamentary elections, killing at least 19 civilians, and injuring 32 others.  No group claimed responsibility for the attack; religious scholars noted the Taliban appeared to avoid attacks against Sunni mosques or refrain from claiming responsibility for them.

ISKP attacks targeting Shia continued to extend outside of mosques.  On April 22, a suicide attacker self-detonated outside of a national identity card (tazkira) distribution center in Kabul, killing 60 civilians and injuring 138 others, mostly women and children.  The predominantly Shia Hazara area in Kabul, Dasht-e Barchi, witnessed several suicide attacks targeting mosques, schools, and government offices, killing and injuring a large number of civilians.  The ISKP claimed responsibility for the majority of these attacks, which deliberately targeted the Shia community.  For example, on August 15, a suicide attack targeted students at an educational center in the Dasht-e Barchi area, killing more than 50 and injuring an estimated 70 individuals, mostly students.  An attack on a gym in the same area on September 5 killed more than 25 civilians and injured approximately 100.

The ISKP also claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing outside the tent of a June 4 Ulema Council conference, where close to 3,000 religious scholars gathered to issue a fatwa condemning intra-Muslim violence, killing 14 and injuring at least 20.

On November 20, a suicide bombing at a wedding hall in Kabul killed at least 50 individuals and injured dozens more.  According to a government official, the attack was one of more deadly attacks in Kabul during the year, targeting a gathering of religious scholars.  No group claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Taliban continued to kill and threaten religious leaders with death for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam or its political agenda.  On May 26, the Taliban killed a prominent religious scholar in Bati Kot District, Nangarhar Province, whom it accused of spying for the government.  On June 5, local authorities said the Taliban killed a prominent religious scholar in Kandahar City.

In several cases, the responsibility for attacks on religious officials was unclear.  In these cases, although no individual or group claimed responsibility for the attacks, local authorities suspected the ISKP and less frequently, the Taliban were responsible.  On April 29, an IED explosion near a Sunni mosque killed five civilians in Jalalabad City, Nangarhar Province.  On June 6, armed men opened fire in a Sunni mosque during prayers, killing four civilians and injuring five others in Mandozai District, Khost Province.  No group claimed responsibility for the attack.  On November 24 in Kabul, two unidentified gunmen on a motorcycle killed Mawlawi Abdul Basir Haqqani, the head of Kabul’s Ulema Council.  Authorities detained two individuals.

On June 8, an IED killed religious scholars supportive of the government in Mehtarlam City, Laghman Province, killing three civilians and injuring 12 others.  On June 23, unidentified gunmen killed a Shia religious scholar in Herat.  On July 14, unidentified gunmen killed a progovernment imam in Farah City, Farah Province.

There continued to be reports of the Taliban and ISKP monitoring the social habits of local populations in areas under their control and imposing punishments on residents according to their respective interpretations of Islamic law.  On February 12, the Taliban stoned a man to death on charges of engaging in extramarital sex (zina) in the province of Sar-e Pul.  On March 18, the Taliban punished an 18-year-old male by cutting off his right hand and left leg on charges of robbery in Obe District, Herat Province.

On February 27, in Tangi Wazir, Nangarhar Province, the ISKP stoned to death a man accused of engaging in extramarital sexual relations.  The ISKP released a press statement stating the married man was stoned to death because he had illegal extramarital sexual relations.  In April the ISKP stoned to death a 60-year-old man accused of raping a woman in Darzab District, Jawzjan Province.   

There were reports of continued Taliban warnings to mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials.  As a result, according to MOHRA officials, imams continued to state they feared performing funeral rites for ANDSF and other government employees.  In July government officials confirmed media reports that officially registered imams in Samkani District, Paktiya Province, refused to perform funeral rites for ANDSF members to avoid being targeted by antigovernment elements in the area.  Local communities pointed out that inaction by Islamic clerics affected security force morale.  MOHRA also reported difficulty in staffing registered mosques in insecure areas because of Taliban threats.

According to some religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISKP in their sermons.

There were continued reports of the Taliban and ISKP taking over schools in areas under their control and imposing their own curricula.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.  Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions.  Members of the Hindu community continued to report they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress.  Both groups attributed fewer cases of harassment of members of their communities to the decline in the Sikh and Hindu populations in the country.

Although in past years media reported cases of local religious leaders forcing young men to fast during Ramadan, there were no cases reported during the year.

Women of several different faiths, including Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire.  As a result, the women said they continued to wear burqas in public in rural areas and in some districts of urban areas, including in Kabul, in contrast to other more secure, government-controlled areas where women said they felt comfortable without burqas.  Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering.  Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and increase their security in public.  MOHRA and the National Ulema Council both continued to state there was no official pressure on women regarding their attire.

Ahmadi Muslims continued to report verbal abuse on the street and harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith.  They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad.  They said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution.  Ahmadis maintained a place of worship but kept it unmarked, without minarets or other adornments identifying it as an Ahmadi Muslim community mosque.  Overall, Ahmadis reported the need to increasingly conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public, or to depart the country permanently.

Christian representatives reported public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization.  They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution.  There continued to be no public Christian churches.

According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few places of worship.  According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were 12 gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and four mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, compared with a combined total of 64 in the past.  Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples.  Following past seizures of their places of worship by residents of Kandahar, Ghazni, Paktiya, and other provinces, the Hindu community had presented a list of its places of worship to MOHRA in 2016 in an effort to stop further seizures and to reclaim the land and buildings previously lost.  Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said these problems were still unresolved at year’s end.

Community leaders said they perceived the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul as a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons.  Sikh and Hindu leaders also reported neighboring residents tended to place household trash in their temples of worship.  Although they filed official complaints to police, neither local authorities nor local imams took action to remedy the situation.

The government attempted to honor the Sikh and Hindu community following the July 1 suicide attack that killed several members of their community in Jalalabad by renaming the location of the attack as Daramsal, after the Sikh parliamentary candidate who died in the bombing.  Community leaders, however, said the government’s decision brought more unwanted attention and harassment to Hindus and Sikhs in the area.

According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances.  The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and one school in Kabul remained operational.  Sikh and Hindu representatives, however, said these schools were still underequipped to teach students.

Sikh leaders continued to state the main cause of Hindu and Sikh emigration was a lack of employment opportunities; they said one factor impeding their access to employment was illiteracy.  Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples (gurdwaras and mandirs) because they could not afford permanent housing.  Both communities stated emigration would continue to increase as economic conditions worsened and security concerns increased.  Community leaders estimated between 500 to 600 Sikhs and Hindus had fled the country during the year to either India or Western countries.

Observers reported societal discrimination against the Shia minority by the Sunni majority continued to decline, although there were reports of discrimination in some localities, especially involving employment opportunities.  There were also instances, however, where Sunnis and Shia joined in prayer or to donate blood in the aftermath of terrorist attacks.  Shia clerics and NGOs reported instances of Sunni religious leaders openly condemning attacks against the Shia community and attending the funeral processions of Shia victims.

Media published reports of both Shia and Sunni leaders condemning particular secular events as contrary to Islam; however, there were no prominent reports of joint condemnations.

Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump.  The lone Jew said he was able to perform all his religious rituals.  He said in the past Jews from international military forces and foreign embassies attended the synagogue but could no longer do so due to security concerns and threats.

Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul.

Media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports.

According to media reports, the Ulema Council sought an expanded role in public life; on August 4, it announced plans to establish a special committee to oversee social reform to address government corruption and “moral corruption” deemed incompatible with the teachings of Islam.  Media reported that President Ghani and the public welcomed the council’s initiative to cooperate with the government in tackling government corruption.  Media outlets however, conveyed public concerns that the council’s social reform plans infringed on freedoms and rights provided under the country’s constitution, referring to the country’s past history of religious social repression under the Taliban regime.  According to religious community representatives, however, the council did not implement these plans during the year.  Early in the year, a video clip went viral on social media of a prominent mullah of a registered madrassah in Kabul, praising the Taliban and strongly criticizing the government for permitting the continued presence of international forces in the country.

NGOs reported Muslim residents remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with members of the president’s staff, ONSC, MOHRA, and the Ulema Council, U.S. embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism.  Senior embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to protect religious minorities.  The Ambassador met with leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities to understand their relationship with the government and ability to practice their faith.  In October the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities visited the country and promoted religious tolerance in discussions with senior government officials, civil society, and members of the international community.

Embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to discuss the issue of ensuring madrassahs did not offer a curriculum encouraging religiously motivated violent extremism, which could encourage intolerance towards the country’s religious minorities.  The embassy continued to coordinate with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to assist the ONSC in creating a national strategy to combat violent extremism and enhancing its relevance to promoting respect for religious diversity.

Embassy officials held regular meetings with leaders of major religious groups, imams, scholars, and NGOs to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue.  Embassy officials hosted iftars with government, civil society, and religious leaders during Ramadan to promote religious dialogue and tolerance.  During the month of Ramadan, embassy social media platforms shared information on Islam in America based on Department of State-created materials that profiled prominent Muslim-Americans and organizations.

The embassy hosted roundtables with researchers and religious scholars, including MOHRA representatives, to discuss the sources and means to counter violent religious extremism.  The embassy also facilitated and funded the coordination of research efforts on violent religious extremism, which included policies to foster intrafaith tolerance.

The embassy highlighted National Religious Freedom Day on July 16 and International Religious Freedom Day on October 27 through Twitter and Facebook posts, which featured a video on the lives of American Muslims exemplifying exemplified religious tolerance in the United States.

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 41.7 million (July 2018 estimate), more than 99 percent of whom are Muslims following the Maliki school of Sunni Islam.  Religious groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, and a community of Ibadi Muslims residing principally in the province of Ghardaia.  Some religious leaders estimate there are fewer than 200 Jews.

The Christian community includes Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, members of the EPA, Lutherans, the Reformed Church, Anglicans, and an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Egyptian Coptic Christians.  Religious leaders’ unofficial estimates of the number of Christians range from 20,000 to 200,000.  According to government officials, foreign residents make up the majority of the Christian population.  The proportion of students and immigrants without legal status from sub-Saharan Africa among the Christian population has also increased in recent years.  Christian leaders say citizens who are Christians predominantly belong to Protestant groups.

Christians reside mostly in the cities of Algiers, Bejaia, Tizi Ouzou, Annaba, and Oran, and the Kabylie region east of the capital.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from engaging in behavior incompatible with Islamic values.  The constitution provides for freedom of worship in accordance with the law and states freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion are inviolable.

The law does not prohibit conversion from Islam, but proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a criminal offense.  The law prescribes a maximum punishment of one million dinars ($8,500) and five years’ imprisonment for anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction intending to convert a Muslim to another religion; or by using to this end establishments of teaching, education, health, social, culture, training … or any financial means.”  Making, storing, or distributing printed documents or audiovisual materials with the intent of “shaking the faith” of a Muslim is also illegal and subject to the same penalties.

The law criminalizes “offending the Prophet Muhammad” or any other prophets.  The penal code provides a punishment of three to five years in prison and/or a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 dinars ($420 to $850) for denigrating the creed or prophets of Islam through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means.  The law also criminalizes insults directed at any other religion, with the same penalties.

The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion as long as they respect public order and regulations.

The constitution establishes a High Islamic Council and states the council shall encourage and promote ijtihad (the use of independent reasoning as a source of Islamic law for issues not precisely addressed in the Quran) and express opinions on religious questions presented for its review.  The president appoints the members of the council and oversees its work.  The constitution requires the council to submit regular reports to the president on its activities.  A presidential decree further defines the council’s mission as taking responsibility for all questions related to Islam, for correcting mistaken perceptions, and for promoting the true fundamentals of the religion and a correct understanding of it.  The council may issue fatwas at the request of the president.

The law requires any group, religious or otherwise, to register with the government as an association prior to conducting any activities.  The Ministry of Interior (MOI) grants association status to religious groups; only registered associations are officially recognized.  The MOI’s registration requirements for national-level associations stipulate the founding members must furnish documents proving their identities, addresses, and other biographic details; furnish police and judicial records to prove their good standing in society; show they have founding members residing in at least one quarter of the country’s provinces to prove the association merits national standing; submit the association’s constitution signed by its president; and submit documents indicating the location of its headquarters. The law requires the ministry to provide a receipt for the application once it has received all the required documentation and to give a response within 60 days of submission of the completed application.  The law states applicants are de facto approved if the ministry fails to make a decision within the 60-day limit.  The law grants the government full discretion in making registration decisions, but provides applicants an opportunity to appeal a denial to an administrative tribunal.  For associations seeking to register at the local or provincial level, application requirements are similar, but the association’s membership and sphere of activity is strictly limited to the area in which it registers.  An association registered at the wilaya (provincial) level is confined to that specific wilaya.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) must approve registration applications of religious associations.  The law, however, does not specify additional requirements for religious associations or further specify the MRA’s role in the process.  Religious groups may appeal an MRA denial to an administrative tribunal.

The National Commission for Non-Muslim Religious Groups, a government entity, is responsible by law for facilitating the registration process for all non-Muslim groups.  The MRA presides over the commission, composed of senior representatives of the Ministries of National Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs, the presidency, national police, national gendarmerie, and the governmental National Human Rights Committee (CNDH).  Representatives from Catholic and Protestant churches have not met or communicated with this Commission and believe it rarely meets.

The CNDH monitors and evaluates human rights issues, including matters related to religious freedom.  The law authorizes the agency to conduct investigations of alleged abuses, issue opinions and recommendations, conduct awareness campaigns, and work with other government authorities to address human rights issues.  The agency may address concerns of individuals and groups that believe they are not being treated fairly by the MRA.  The CNDH does not have the authority to enforce its decisions but may refer matters to the relevant administrative or criminal court.  It submits an annual report to the president, who appoints the agency’s members.

The law specifies the manner and conditions under which religious services, Muslim or otherwise, may take place.  The law states religious demonstrations are subject to regulation and the government may shut down any religious service, taking place in private homes or in outdoor settings without official approval.  With the exception of daily prayers, which are permissible anywhere, Islamic services may take place only in state-sanctioned mosques.  Friday prayers are further limited to certain specified mosques.  Non-Islamic religious services must take place only in buildings registered with the state for the exclusive purpose of religious practice, run by a registered religious association, open to the public, and marked as such on the exterior.  A request for permission to observe special non-Muslim religious events must be submitted to the relevant wali (governor) at least five days before the event, and the event must occur in buildings accessible to the public.  Requests must include information on three principal organizers of the event, its purpose, the number of attendees anticipated, a schedule of events, and its planned location.  The organizers also must obtain a permit from the wali.  The wali may request the organizers to move the location of an event or deny permission for it to take place if he deems it would be a danger to public order or harm “national constants,” “good mores,” or symbols of the revolution.  If unauthorized meetings go forward without approval, participants are subject to dispersal by the police.  Failure to disperse at the behest of the police may result in arrest and a prison term of two to 12 months under the penal code.

The penal code states only government-authorized imams, whom the state hires and trains, may lead prayers in mosques and penalizes anyone else who preaches in a mosque with a fine of up to 100,000 dinars ($850) and a prison sentence of one to three years.  Fines as high as 200,000 dinars ($1,700) and prison sentences of three to five years are stipulated for any person, including government-authorized imams, who acts “against the noble nature of the mosque” or in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion.”  The law states such acts include exploiting the mosque to achieve purely material or personal objectives or with a view to harming persons or groups.

By law, the MRA provides financial support to mosques and pays the salaries of imams and other religious personnel, as well as for health care and retirement benefits.  The law also provides for the payment of salaries and benefits to non-Muslim religious leaders who are citizens.  The Ministry of Labor regulates the amount of an individual imam’s or mosque employee’s pay, and likewise sets the salaries of citizen non-Muslim religious leaders based on their position within their individual churches.

The Ministries of Religious Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Commerce must approve the importation of all religious texts, except those intended for personal use.

A 2017 decree established a commission within the MRA to review importation of the Quran.  Authorities generally consider “importation” to be approximately 20 or more religious texts or items.  This decree requires all applications to include a full copy of the text and other detailed information.  The ministry is given three to six months to review the text, with the absence of a response after that time constituting a rejection of the importation application.  A separate 2017 decree covering religious texts other than the Quran states, “The content of religious books for import, regardless of format, must not undermine the religious unity of society, the national religious reference, public order, good morals, fundamental rights and liberties, or the law.”  The importer must submit the text and other information, and the ministry must respond within 30 days.  A nonresponse after this period is considered a rejection.  Religious texts distributed without authorization may be seized and destroyed.

The law states the government must approve any modification of structures intended for non-Islamic collective worship.

Under the law, children born to a Muslim father are considered Muslim regardless of the mother’s religion.

The Ministries of National Education and Religious Affairs require, regulate, and fund the study of Islam in public schools.  Religious education focuses on Islamic studies but includes information on Christianity and Judaism and is mandatory at the primary and secondary school levels.  The Ministry of National Education requires private schools to adhere to curricula in line with national standards, particularly regarding the teaching of Islam, or risk being closed.

The law states discrimination based on religion is prohibited and guarantees state protection for non-Muslims and for the “toleration and respect of different religions.”  It does not prescribe penalties for religious discrimination.

The constitution prohibits non-Muslims from running for the presidency.  Non-Muslims may hold other public offices and work within the government.

The government does not register religious affiliations of the citizenry and does not print religious affiliations on documents such as national identification cards.

The family code prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men unless the man converts to Islam.  The code does not prohibit Muslim men from marrying non-Muslim women.

By law, individuals who have converted from Islam to another religion are ineligible to receive an inheritance via succession.

The law prohibits religious associations from receiving funding from political parties or foreign entities.  The constitution prohibits the establishment of political parties based on religion.

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

Government Practices

In May authorities prosecuted 26 Ahmadi Muslims in Bejaia for insulting the precepts of Islam, operating an association without approval, and collecting money without authorization.  Their case went to trial in June.  The court acquitted three persons, sentenced a married couple in absentia to six months in prison, and sentenced the remaining individuals to three months in prison.

The government continued to enforce the ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups.  According to media reports, authorities arrested, jailed, and fined several Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities not related to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding of events in the local community Muslims might attend.  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 two Christian brothers on proselytism charges for carrying more than 50 Bibles in their car.  Prosecutors said the accused planned to use the Bibles for proselytism, while the brothers said they were for church use only.  The court upheld the proselytism charges and fined each man 100,000 dinars ($850).

In May a court convicted a church leader and another Christian of proselytizing for transporting Bibles.  The court fined each individual 100,000 dinars ($850) and sentenced each to three months in prison.

In July a court in Dar El-Beyda dropped all charges against Idir Hamdad, a man arrested in April 2016 at the Algiers airport for carrying a Bible and several religious artifacts including crucifixes, scarves, and keyrings.  The court originally sentenced Hamdad in absentia in September 2017 to six months in prison and fined him 20,000 dinars ($170) on charges of importing unlicensed goods.  On May 3, following his lawyer’s appeal, the court overturned the prison sentence but upheld the fine.  On July 9, the prosecutor appealed, asking for a harsher sentence, but the court dropped all charges against Hamdad.  In its verdict, the court found that Hamdad was prosecuted “simply because he converted to Christianity, and what he was carrying was only gifts.”

Throughout the year, the government conducted investigations of at least 85 Ahmadi Muslims, according to leaders of the Ahmadi community.  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 the Ahmadis, and pressuring employers to put Ahmadi workers on administrative leave.  Some of those investigated during the year were placed in pretrial detention, put on trial, and given prison sentences of up to six months.  Others appealed charges and court decisions, were placed under house arrest, or were freed after pretrial detention or serving a prison sentence.  As of December no Ahmadi Muslims were in prison.

Between November 2017 and December 2018, according to the president of the EPA, the government closed eight churches and a nursery associated with the EPA for operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failing to meet building safety codes.  In June authorities reopened three churches in Oran, Ain Turk, and El Ayaida they had closed between November 2017 and February 2018.  As of the end of the year, three churches affiliated with the EPA in Bejaia and one non-EPA church in Tizi Ouzo remain closed.  Media reported that on December 4, in Oran, the provincial government cancelled the closure of a Christian bookshop associated with the nursery.  The bookshop owner, Pastor Rachid Seighir, was not compensated for the losses incurred since authorities ordered the shop’s closure in November 2017.

The UN Human Rights Committee in July adopted a report including the following language:  “the Committee remains concerned by reports of closures of churches and evangelical institutions and various restrictions on worship by Ahmadi persons.  It also expresses concern regarding allegations of attacks, acts of intimidation and arrests targeting persons who do not fast during Ramadan…”

A lawyer for the Ahmadi community said judges and prosecutors on several occasions questioned Ahmadi defendants in court about their religious beliefs and theological differences with Sunni Islam.  Members of the Ahmadi community said government officials tried to persuade them to recant their beliefs while they were in custody.

In April Slimane Bouhafs, a Christian convert, was released after spending 18 months in prison for posting statements in 2016 on his Facebook page deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.  In July 2017, authorities commuted his sentence as part of a presidential amnesty.  A court originally sentenced Bouhafs to five years in prison plus a 100,000 dinar ($850) fine; authorities later reduced that sentence to three years.

In May a court in Tiaret upheld a verdict against Noureddine Belabbes and another Christian, who previously had been found guilty of proselytizing and fined 100,000 dinars ($850) and legal expenses after their arrest in 2015 for transporting Bibles.  Authorities originally sentenced Belabbes and his colleague in 2017 to two years in prison and a 50,000 dinar ($420) fine, but after a March appeal, the judge overturned the prison sentences and instead gave them suspended prison sentences of three months each and doubled the fines.  Belabbes stated that he would not appeal the judgment.

MRA officials said the government did not regularly prescreen and approve sermons before imams delivered them during Friday prayers.  They also stated the government sometimes provided preapproved sermon topics for Friday prayers to address the public’s concerns following major events, such as a cholera outbreak in August and a June corruption scandal, or to encourage civic participation through activities such as voting in elections.  The MRA said it did not punish imams who failed to discuss the suggested sermon topics.

The government monitored the sermons delivered in mosques.  According to MRA officials, if a ministry inspector suspected an imam’s sermon was inappropriate, particularly if it supported violent extremism, the inspector had the authority to summon the imam to a “scientific council” composed of Islamic law scholars and other imams who assessed the sermon’s correctness.  The government could decide to relieve an imam of duty if he was summoned multiple times.  The government also monitored activities in mosques for possible security-related offenses, such as recruitment by extremist groups, and prohibited the use of mosques as public meeting places outside of regular prayer hours.

According to the MOI, although religious associations were de facto registered if the ministry did not reject their applications within 60 days of submission, the 60-day clock did not begin until the ministry considered the application complete and had issued a receipt to that effect.  Nongovernmental organizations and religious leaders said the MOI routinely failed to provide them with a receipt proving they had submitted a completed registration application.  Ahmadis reported their request to meet with Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Aissa or another senior ministry official to discuss their registration concerns had not received a government response.

The Ahmadi community reported administrative difficulties and harassment since they are not a registered association and are unable to meet and collect donations.  Members of the Ahmadi community said they tried to register with the MRA and Ministry of Interior (MOI) as a Muslim group but the government rejected their applications because it regards Ahmadis as non-Muslims.  The government said it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis refused to file as anything but Muslims.

In accordance with the 2012 Associations Law that all organizations needed to reregister with the government, several religious groups registered under the previous law continued to try to reregister with the government.  The EPA and the Seventh-day Adventist Church submitted paperwork to renew their registrations in 2014 but as of year’s end had still not received a response from the MOI.

Some religious groups stated they functioned as registered 60 days after having submitted their application, even though they had not received an MOI confirmation.  Such groups stated, however, that service providers, such as utilities and banks, refused to provide services without proof of registration.  As a result, these groups faced the same administrative obstacles as unregistered associations and also had limited standing to pursue legal complaints and could not engage in charitable activities, which required bank accounts.

Most Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Commission for Non-Muslim Religious Groups, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration, since its establishment in 2006.  Other MRA officials, however, met regularly with Christian leaders to hear their views, including complaints about the registration process.  Christian leaders stated some Protestant groups continued to avoid applying for recognition and instead operated discreetly because they lacked confidence in the registration process.

Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations.  Other Christian groups, particularly in the Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services more discreetly.  There were no reports of the government shutting down house churches during the year.

According to the MRA, the government continued to allow government employees to wear religious clothing including the hijab, crosses, and the niqab.  Authorities continued to instruct some female government employees, such as security force members, not to wear head and face coverings they said could complicate the performance of their official duties.

The government did not grant any permits for the importation of Christian religious texts during the year, and at least one request remained pending from 2017.  Representatives of the EPA stated they had been waiting more than a year for a new import authorization; the last such authorization was in October 2016.  Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight.  The government enforced its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.

Christian leaders said courts were sometimes biased against non-Muslims in family law cases, such as divorce or custody proceedings.

According to religious community leaders, the government did not always enforce the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.

In August a local Muslim man applied to a court in Tebessa to marry a Belgian Christian woman.  The court rejected his request because the woman “is Christian and does not embrace Islam.”

Sources stated that Christian leaders were able to visit Christians in prison, regardless of the nature of their imprisonment.

Church groups reported the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in an increase in de facto visa refusals.  One Christian leader said the government did not grant or refused 50 percent of visas requested for Catholic Church workers.  As of the end of the year, three members of the Catholic Church had been waiting a year for visas.  Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as a significant hindrance to religious practice.  One religious leader identified lack of visa issuances as a major impediment to maintaining contact with the church’s international organization.  Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups.

The government, along with local private contributors, continued to fund mosque construction.  The government and public and private companies also funded the preservation of some churches, particularly those of historical importance.  The province of Oran, for example, continued to work in partnership with local donors on an extensive renovation of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz as part of its cultural patrimony.

Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French, although many Christians said they would prefer services be broadcast in Arabic or Tamazight.  The country’s efforts to stem religious extremism include dedicated state-run religious TV and radio channels and messages of moderation integrated into mainstream media.

Both private and state-run media produced reports throughout the year examining what they said were foreign ties and dangers of religious groups such as Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Salafists.

Government officials continued to invite leading Christian and Jewish citizens to events celebrating national occasions.  President Abdelaziz Bouteflika invited Christian and Jewish community representatives to the November 1 parade to commemorate the beginning of the revolution, according them the same status as Muslim, cultural, and national figures.

Senior government officials continued to publicly condemn acts of violence committed in the name of Islam by nonstate actors and urged all members of society to reject extremist behavior.

Government officials regularly made statements about the need for tolerance of non-Islamic religious groups.  In May imams, representatives from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and municipal officials participated in an interfaith event at a Catholic church in Algiers on the significance of the Virgin Mary in Islam and Christianity.  The same group attended an exhibition on the 99 names of Allah at a Catholic church during Ramadan.

In December a cardinal of the Catholic Church beatified 19 Catholics killed during Algeria’s civil war at a ceremony in Oran.  Algerian authorities facilitated the beatification process by providing transportation, security, and visas to members of the Catholic Church who attended the ceremony.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In January unknown individuals hoping to regain control of mosques they reportedly considered too liberal physically killed two imams in the cities of Skikda and Tadjena, respectively.  The attacks took place during weekly committee meetings to manage the mosques’ space and affairs.  After the attacks, Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Aissa filed a complaint and started an investigation of those who attacked the imams.  As of the end of the year, the government had not released updates or results of the investigation to the public.

In June Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Aissa said, “It is no secret that radicals are constantly trying to seize the mosques of the republic and influence the mosques’ messages.  These individuals managed to infiltrate groups that seemed pacifist.  They are the cause of the death of two imams; they hurt and insulted dozens of others who did not share their ideologies.”  In July Aissa froze the weekly mosque management committee meetings because he reportedly felt extremist individuals would try to direct the mosques via these committee meetings.  He said these events were reminiscent of the 1990s when the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front forcibly seized control of mosques to spread its extremist ideology.

In October unknown individuals stabbed an imam in a mosque before dawn prayer near the city of Laghouat.  Mosque attendees found the imam and called emergency services, which declared the imam dead.  At year’s end, the government was conducting an investigation to find the individuals responsible.

Media reported a group of young people desecrated more than 31 Christian graves in the British Military La Reunion War Cemetery in Oued Ghir, Bejaia in September, smashing tombstones and ransacking the graves.  A few weeks earlier, unknown individuals vandalized another Christian cemetery in Ain M’lila.  Authorities stated they believed Islamic extremists were responsible for the vandalism but no news of those responsible had been released by year’s end.

Christian leaders said when Christian converts died family members sometimes buried them according to Islamic rites, and their churches had no standing to intervene on their behalf.  Christian groups reported some villages continued not to permit Christians to be buried alongside Muslims.

Several Christian leaders reported instances in which citizens who converted, or who expressed interest in learning more about Christianity, were assaulted by family members, or otherwise pressured to recant their conversions.

Some Christian converts reported they and others in their communities continued to keep a low profile due to concern for their personal safety and the potential for legal, familial, career, and social problems.  Other converts practiced their new religion openly, according to members of the Christian community.

Media outlets reported in August hundreds of imams had lodged complaints in recent years after suffering violent attacks.  MRA officials said extremists who opposed the imams’ moderate teachings carried out the attacks, while others were related to interpersonal disputes.  The government said it would take additional steps to protect imams such as stationing security forces near mosques to deter future attacks and providing more support for local authorities to investigate and prosecute such cases.

The media criticized religious communities it portrayed as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign,” such as Ahmadi Muslims and Shia Muslims.  Some who openly engaged in any religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported that family, neighbors, or others criticized their religious practice, harassed them to convert, and occasionally insinuated they could be in danger because of their choice.

Christian leaders continued to state they had good relations with Muslims in their communities, with only isolated incidents of vandalism or harassment.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, and Religious Affairs to discuss the difficulties Ahmadi and Shia Muslims, Christian, and other minority religious groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met throughout the year with government-affiliated and independent religious leaders and with representatives of Muslim and Christian communities to discuss interreligious dialogue and tolerance, and in the case of religious minorities, their rights, and status.

The embassy discussed the practice of religion, its intersection with politics, religious tolerance, and the religious and political roles of women with religious and political leaders, as well as with the Muslim Scholars Association and High Islamic Council.  Visiting officials from the U.S. Department of State regularly raised religious freedom issues in meetings with civil society and government officials.

The Ambassador and other embassy staff hosted several dinners and receptions featuring discussions emphasizing the theme of religious tolerance.  The embassy regularly posted social media content promoting religious freedom, including examples of religious pluralism in the United States.  Embassy staff and embassy-sponsored U.S. speakers addressed the themes of pluralism and religious tolerance in discussions with civil society, youth, and organizations representing a cross-section of citizens.

In April the embassy facilitated the first part of a bilateral exchange program focusing on religion.  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.  The second portion of the exchange program is scheduled to take place in 2019 and involve imams visiting the United States to learn about religion and share their experiences.

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 99.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  Most experts and media sources state that approximately 90 percent of the population is officially designated as Sunni Muslims and approximately 10 percent is recognized as Christian (estimates range from 5 to 15 percent).  Approximately 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, according to Christian leaders.

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

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

According to a local Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO), there are seven Jews.  There are no reliable estimates of the number of atheists or religious converts.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The constitution states that Al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs” and is responsible for spreading Islam, Islamic doctrine, and the Arabic language in the country and throughout the world.  The grand imam is elected by Al Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and is officially appointed by the president for a life term.  The president does not have the authority to dismiss him.  While the constitution declares Al-Azhar an independent institution, its 2018 budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 13 billion Egyptian pounds ($726.66 million).

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

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

Neither the constitution nor the civil or penal codes prohibit apostasy from Islam, nor efforts to proselytize.  The law states individuals may change their religion.  However, the government recognizes conversion to Islam, but not from Islam to any other religion.  In a 2008 ruling on a lawsuit against the government for not recognizing a Muslim’s conversion to Christianity, the Administrative Court ruled in favor of the government asserting its duty to “protect public order from the crime of apostasy from Islam.”  The government recognizes conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to an MOI decree pursuant to a court order.  Reverting to Christianity requires presentation of a document from the receiving church, an identity card, and fingerprints.  After a determination is made that the intent of the change – which often also entails a name change – is not to evade prosecution for a crime committed under the Muslim name, a new identity document should be issued with the Christian name and religious designation.  In those cases in which Muslims not born Muslim convert from Islam, their minor children, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, remain classified as Muslims.  When these children reach the age of 18, they have the option of converting to Christianity, and having that reflected on their identity cards.

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

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

The law generally follows sharia in matters of inheritance.  In 2017, however, an appellate court ruled that applying sharia to non-Muslims violated the section of the constitution stating that the rules of the Christians and Jewish communities govern in personal status matters.

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

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

The law does not recognize the Baha’i Faith or its religious laws and bans Baha’i institutions and community activities.  Although the government lists “Christian” on the identity cards of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a presidential decree bans all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities.  The law does not stipulate any penalties for banned religious groups or their members who engage in religious practices, but these groups are barred from rights granted to recognized groups, such as having their own houses of worship or other property, holding bank accounts, or importing religious literature.

The government appoints and monitors imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries.  According to the law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf or Al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year and/or a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($2,800).  The penalty doubles for repeat offenders.  Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law.  A ministry decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons consistent with Ministry of Awqaf guidelines.  Any imam who fails to follow the guidelines loses the bonus and may be subject to disciplinary measures, including potentially losing his preaching license.  The ministry also issues prewritten sermons, and ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques.  Imams are subject to disciplinary action including dismissal for ignoring the ministry’s guidelines.

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

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

Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf approves permits to build mosques.  A 2001 cabinet decree includes a provision requiring that new mosques built after that date must be a minimum distance of 500 meters (1600 feet) from the nearest other mosque, and be built only in areas where “the existing mosques do not accommodate the number of residents in the area.”  The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.

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

The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to…religion or belief.”  The law stipulates imprisonment and/or a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,700) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($2,800) as penalties for discrimination.  If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months, and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($2,800) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($5,600).

The government recognizes only the marriages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims with documentation from a cleric.  Since the state does not recognize Baha’i marriage, married Baha’is are denied the legal rights of married couples of other religious beliefs, including those pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse’s permanent residence.  Baha’is, in practice, file individual demands for recognition of marriages in civil court.

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

Sharia provisions forbidding adoption apply to all citizens.  The Ministry of Social Solidarity, however, manages a program entitled “Alternative Family” which recognizes permanent legal guardianship if certain requirements are met.

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

According to the constitution, “no political activity may be exercised or political parties formed on the basis of religion, or discrimination based on sex, origin, sect, or geographic location, nor may any activity be practiced that is hostile to democracy, secretive, or which possesses a military or quasi-military nature.”

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

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

Government Practices

In February security forces launched a military campaign, “Sinai 2018,” in the Sinai Peninsula against ISIS, in part to respond to a November 2017 attack on a mosque in Al-Rawda village in North Sinai that killed over 300 individuals at worship; the mosque was reportedly attacked because it was frequented by Sufis.  Although the government reported significant successes in the campaign, ISIS attacks continued in North Sinai.

In November a court sentenced an alleged ISIS supporter to death for the fatal stabbing of an 82-year-old Christian doctor in September 2017.  Authorities did not identify the defendant.

On July 12, police thwarted an attempted suicide bombing at the Church of the Holy Virgin in Qalioubiya, near Cairo.  After encountering security forces, the attacker detonated an explosive vest in the vicinity of the church, killing a police officer and civilian.  On August 11, security forces foiled a suicide bombing at the Coptic Virgin Mary Church in the Cairo suburb of Mostorod.  After being denied entry to the church, the bomber died when he exploded his suicide belt; no one else was injured.

During the year, courts imposed death sentences on several people convicted of killing Christians.  On February 12, a court confirmed a death sentence against the killer of Semaan Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox priest from Beni Suef.  The killer stabbed Shehata to death in the Cairo suburb of El-Salaam City in 2017 and carved a cross on his forehead.  On April 1, the Cassation Court upheld the death sentence of the killer of liquor storeowner Youssef Lamei, who had confessed to slitting Lamei’s throat outside his store for selling alcohol in January 2017.  In April a military court sentenced 36 people to death for Coptic church bombings between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta, resulting in the deaths of more than 80 people.  ISIS claimed responsibility.  International human rights organizations expressed concern about these mass convictions and asserted the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards.

In March media reported that Matthew Habib, a Christian military conscript who had complained to his family of persecution from superiors due to his religion, committed suicide while on duty.  Although the official cause of death was determined to be multiple self-inflicted gunshot wounds, the family alleged that Habib had been killed by a more senior officer.

On January 31, the Giza misdemeanor court sentenced 20 individuals to one-year suspended jail sentences for an attack on an unlicensed Coptic church in Kafr al-Waslin village south of Cairo, carried out on December 22, 2017.  Each was fined 500 pounds ($28) on charges of inciting sectarian strife, harming national unity, and vandalizing private property.  The court also fined the owner of the unlicensed church 360,000 pounds ($20,100) for building without a permit.  The Archdiocese of Atfih has reportedly applied for the Kafr al-Waslin Church to be legalized.

On January 2, press reported that the public prosecutor filed murder charges against an individual accused of killing 11 people on December 29, 2017, in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in Helwan, a suburb south of Cairo.  On December 1, the prosecutor general referred 11 additional suspects to trial for forming a terrorist group, murder, attempted murder, and other charges related to the attack.

The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, citing its 2016 report, reported in October that 41 percent of all blasphemy charges had been brought by authorities against the country’s Christian population

March 14, police in Beni Suef Governorate arrested social studies teacher Magdy Farag Samir on charges of denigrating Islam after he included wordplays in a set of questions for students about the Prophet Muhammad.  Samir was detained for 15 days while police investigated the charges.  A court acquitted him on April 19.

In December a court in Upper Egypt upheld a three-year prison sentence for blasphemy against Christian Abd Adel Bebawy for a Facebook post that allegedly insulted Islam.  Authorities arrested Bebawy in his home village of Minbal on July 6 and the original court passed the prison sentence in November.  Bebawy’s lawyers stated that he reported the hacking of his Facebook account in July and that the post was immediately deleted.  On July 9, reportedly in response to Bebawy’s social media posts, a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian-owned homes in Minbal.  Police arrested over 90 Muslim attackers, charging 39 with a variety of crimes related to the attack.

On May 3, police arrested atheist blogger Sherif Gaber and detained him for four days.  Authorities accused Gaber of insulting Islam and sharia, disrupting communal peace, and other charges stemming from a series of videos he posted on YouTube.  Police had earlier arrested Gaber on similar charges in 2015 and 2013.  In October Gaber tweeted that he had been prevented from leaving the country and that authorities had charged him with three additional felonies and that the charges now included blasphemy, contempt of religion, supporting homosexuality, and religious extremism.

According to the NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), during several incidents of interreligious violence between Muslims and Christians in Upper Egypt from August 22 to 25, security forces delayed providing protection to Christians.  On August 22, in the village of Esna in Luxor Governorate, a crowd of Muslims gathered to protest Christian worship in a church that was seeking legalization.  Following Friday prayers on August 24, the crowd gathered a second time.  While the police prevented this second gathering from escalating, local sources report that authorities arrested five Christians, who were charged with conducting religious rituals in an unlicensed church and incitement, and 15 Muslims.  All those arrested were released in September.  Also on August 24, a crowd gathered in the village of Sultan in Minya Governorate to protest efforts by a local church to seek official legalization.

Security forces arrested members of what they described as a terrorist cell in Nag’ Hammadi in Qena Governorate during Coptic celebrations for Easter in April.  Security forces increased their presence in Coptic institutions and communities around Christmas, Easter, and other Christian holidays.

Religious freedom and human rights activists said government officials sometimes did not extend procedural safeguards or rights of due process to members of minority faiths, including by closing churches in violation of the 2016 church construction law.  On April 14, a group of Muslim villagers hurled stones and bricks, breaking the windows of a building used as a church in Beni Meinin in Beni Suef Governorate.  The attack followed a government inspection of the building, a step toward legalizing the church.  Authorities arrested 45 Muslim and Christian residents of the village, and, following an agreement according to customary reconciliation procedures (a binding arbitration process, often criticized by Christians as discriminatory), all arrestees were released and the church remained unlicensed and closed.

The government prosecuted some perpetrators of sectarian violence committed in previous years.  Authorities transferred to a court in Beni Suef for prosecution the 2016 case against the attackers of Souad Thabet, a Christian who was paraded naked through her village of Karm in Minya in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner.  Authorities charged four people with attacking Thabet, and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six others owned by Christians.

There were multiple reports of the government closing unlicensed churches following protests, particularly in Upper Egypt.  In November the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) reported that from September 28, 2016, when the church construction law was issued, to October, authorities shuttered nine churches that hosted religious services prior to the closure orders.  Four of these churches were closed during the year, with Copts denied access and religious services in them prohibited.  In July media reported that police closed a church in Ezbet Sultan after a series of protests and the destruction of Christian-owned property.  During one protest, Muslims reportedly chanted, “We don’t want a church.”

In a November report, EIPR documented 15 instances of sectarian violence related to the legalization of 15 previously unlicensed churches from September 2017 to October 2018.  The churches had been functioning for several years and were well known to both state institutions and local residents.  EIPR’s report also documented 35 cases of violence since the church construction law was issued, not including incidents associated with the construction of new churches.

On August 22, in Zeneiqa village in Upper Egypt, police closed a church following protests by local Muslims against legalization of the church.  They arrested five Copts and five Muslims, plus an additional 10 Muslim residents during protests held a week later.  In March local mosque personnel in Al-Tod village near Luxor encouraged Muslims to protest the licensing of a church that had been in use for a decade.  Protestors built a wall to block access to the church.  Christians and Muslims took part in a customary reconciliation session led by Muslim elders and, reportedly under pressure, the Christians agreed to abandon their application for a church license.

According to official statistics, from September 2017 the government approved 783 of the 5,415 applications for licensure of churches.  According to a local human rights organization, the increased pace of legalization and construction of churches was causing sectarian tensions in some communities where Muslim citizens did not want a legal church in their village.

As it did in recent years, the government in October closed the room containing the tomb of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Al-Hussein, located inside Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, during the three-day commemoration of Ashura.  The government explained the closure was due to construction, but multiple news reports described it as an attempt to discourage the celebration of Shia religious rituals.  The main area of the mosque remained open; only the room containing the shrine was closed.

In September the Ministry of Awqaf cancelled the preaching permit of prominent Salafi cleric Mohamed Raslan and banned him from delivering sermons for refusing to recite the official sermon written by the ministry.  The ministry reinstated his license after he apologized publicly and committed to follow the government’s weekly sermon.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government had designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group.

In May the government announced a policy to ban imams from preaching on Fridays at 20,000 small prayer rooms (zawiyas) used as mosques and restricted their use to daily prayers.  In a statement, the Ministry of Awqaf said the measure would prevent “fundamentalist” preaching during Ramadan.  The May announcement repeated a policy first announced in 2015 that resulted in the closure of 27,000 zawiyas and forbade preaching in them.  Authorities also increased the penalties for mosques using their loudspeakers for anything other than the traditional call to prayer.

In October the Ministry of Awqaf announced that the government had successfully “regained” control over 95 percent of public Islamic discourse in the country and cited the ministry’s “complete” control of Islam as expressed through “the media, lessons, seminars and [public] forums.”  Public issuances of fatwas were, according to a senior advisor at the Dar al-Iftaa, the country’s fatwa issuing authority, restricted to Muslim clerics from Al-Azhar University, 40 clerics from Dar al-Iftaa, and a small number of clerics affiliated with the Ministry of Awqaf.  The ministry announced that any unauthorized cleric offering religious sermons or issuing fatwas would be subject to criminal investigation and prosecution for “carrying out a job without a license.”

In September the Court of Urgent Matters suspended a July ruling by an administrative court that had allowed policemen with long beards to return to work.  The court upheld MOI regulations on facial hair and stated the government had an obligation to keep the police force a “secular organizational entity.”

During Ramadan in May the government put in place regulations governing the practice of reclusion (itikaaf), a Sunni Muslim religious ritual requiring adherents spend 10 days of prayer in mosques during Ramadan.  Authorization required an application to the Ministry of Awqaf, registration of national identification cards, a residence in the same neighborhood of the requested mosque, and personal knowledge of the applicant by the mosque administrator.

On June 22, a video showing adherents performing Sufi religious rituals in a mosque sparked demands on social media to ban Sufi rituals inside mosques.  In response, the Ministry of Awqaf suspended the mosque attendant for participating in the incident, and announced a public campaign to raise awareness of “correct Islam.”

The government did not prevent Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Jehovah’s Witnesses from worshiping privately in small numbers.  However, Baha’i sources said the government refused requests for public religious gatherings.  According to members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, security officials engaged in surveillance and frequent home visits during which adherents were interrogated and sometimes threatened.  The National Security Services (NSS) also summoned members to their offices for interrogations.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on April 3, a security officer who has interrogated and threatened its members in the past questioned a male Witness at length, asking numerous probing questions about the operations and activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials.  In July NSS officers stopped two Jehovah’s Witnesses members in Beni Suef and confiscated their religious materials.  NSS officers did the same with two other Jehovah’s Witnesses who arrived later.

Twelve Baha’i couples filed lawsuits requesting recognition of their civil marriages, four of which were approved by October.  While Baha’i sources hailed the first issuance of a civil marriage license that took place in 2017, they reported that courts remained inconsistent in their rulings on the matter.  By year’s end, standardized procedures for issuing civil marriage licenses to couples with no religious affiliation designated had not been developed.

In May the country’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled that regulators must block the YouTube service for one month because of the availability of a video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad.  A lower court had ordered in 2013 the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to block YouTube because of the video, but the decision had been appealed and the court’s ruling has not been implemented.

The minister of immigration and expatriate affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet.  On August 30, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed Christian governors to the Damietta and Dakahliya governorates, the first such appointments since April 2011 when the government suspended the appointment of a Copt to Qena in Upper Egypt following protests.  The new Governor of Damietta was the country’s first-ever female Christian governor.

Christians remained underrepresented in the military and security services.  Christians admitted at the entry-level of government institutions were rarely promoted to the upper ranks of government entities, according to sources.  According to a press report, a senior Christian judge in line for promotion to the leadership of the Administrative Prosecution was reportedly denied the position in May due to her religion.  When a Muslim judge challenged the failure to promote her, he was dismissed.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 25 public universities.  In January for the first time, a Christian was appointed as dean of the dental school of Cairo University.  The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

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

The Ministry of Education (MOE) stated that it continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance.  In the fall, kindergarten and first grade students began instruction under the new curriculum.  According to the MOE, the new curriculum for subsequent grade levels would be introduced yearly.  Local English-language press reported in May that curriculum reform plans, aimed at encouraging tolerance, included a textbook for use in religious studies classes to be attended jointly by Muslim and Coptic Christian students.  Muslim and Christian students previously attended separate religion classes.  Minister of Awqaf Gomaa, whose ministry oversees Islamic studies courses in the country’s schools, announced the plan.  The press reported that the planned textbook drew criticism from conservative Muslims.

In January the grand mufti issued a fatwa that defined greeting Christians on Coptic Christmas as an act of righteousness.  During the same month, Minister of Awqaf Gomaa affirmed the protection of churches “as legitimate as defending mosques,” and said that those who died in the defense of a church were “martyrs.”

In August Al-Azhar issued a statement criticizing ISIS for issuing fatwas justifying the killing of non-Muslims and stressed its prohibition.

In June the Ministry of Awqaf completed training in Quranic interpretation and other Islamic texts for 300 female preachers (wa’ezaat).  In July the government published an action plan for “renewing religious discourse” that included hiring and training imams and expanding the role of women in religious preaching.  The ministry opened a new training academy for preachers in October and announced that women could begin to serve as preachers in mosques and schools, serve on governing boards of mosques, and sing in choirs dedicated to liturgical music.

In December President al-Sisi decreed that the government create an agency tasked with countering sectarian strife.  The new Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents would be headed by the president’s advisor for security and counter terrorism affairs and composed of members from the Military Operations Authority, the Military and General Intelligence Services, the NSS, and the Administrative Oversight Agency.  The new committee was charged with devising a strategy to prevent sectarian incidents, address them as they occur, and apply all antidiscrimination and antihate laws in carrying out these responsibilities.  The committee had the authority to invite ministers, their representatives, or representatives of concerned bodies to meetings.  The government stated that the strategy would include awareness-raising campaigns, promotion of religious tolerance, and possible mechanisms for dealing with individual incidents.

Al-Azhar continued to host events to promote religious tolerance.  In February the grand imam received a delegation from the Anglican Communion and stressed the importance of dialogue between religions.  In July the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Archbishop of Canterbury organized an interfaith conference in London for young Muslims and Christians.  In October Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb visited Pope Francis in the Vatican, where they stressed their commitment to religious dialogue.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On November 2, armed assailants attacked three buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a monastery in Minya in Upper Egypt, killing seven and wounding 19.  Media reported the attackers used automatic weapons to spray the buses indiscriminately, targeting men, women, and children.  The local ISIS affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement.  Media reported that ISIS repeatedly vowed to attack the country’s Christians as punishment for their support of the government.  Following the attack, authorities stated they killed 19 individuals suspected of involvement in the assault in a shootout west of Minya.  The government did not present evidence to link these individuals to the attack, and a local human rights activist argued these shootings might have constituted extrajudicial killings.

On January 14, armed assailants killed a man in North Sinai upon discovering he was Christian, according to press.  Following a series of attacks against Christians in North Sinai that began in January 2017, more than 250 Christian families left the region, according to EIPR.  Displaced families reported they remained unable to return to their homes.

On May 26, seven Christians were injured in the village of Shoqaf in Beheira while attempting to defend a church from an attack by Muslim villagers.  The church had been used for religious services for three years, and had applied for a license in January 2017.  According to the press, calls to attack the church had come from a nearby mosque.  Police arrested 11 Muslims and nine Christians.  All of those arrested were released following a customary reconciliation session, and the church remained open.

There were reported incidents of mob action against, and collective punishment of, Christians.

On January 17, Muslim villagers attacked the houses of three Christian families in the village of Al-Dawar in Beheira after a Christian man was accused of attempting to sexually assault a Muslim woman, according to press.  Muslim villagers used stones and Molotov cocktails to attack local Christian property.  Police arrested the Christian accused of sexual assault and two of his relatives, but none of the Muslim attackers.  Following a customary reconciliation session attended by a number of parliamentarians, the village mayor and elders, it was agreed that the accused Christian would pay a fine and be expelled from the village.

In late August and early September local press reported Muslim residents of the village of Dimshaw Hashem in Minya Governorate in Upper Egypt protested Christian religious services held in an unlicensed church, and looted four Christian-owned houses before setting them on fire.  The attack injured two Coptic villagers and a firefighter.  Coptic Orthodox Bishop Macarius told the press numerous Christian villagers had informed local police about an imminent attack and that the police failed to take action.  After the attack, police arrested and criminally charged multiple protesters, releasing them on September 27.  EIPR subsequently criticized authorities for pressuring Copts to accept customary reconciliation in addressing the attacks.  Referring to this case, Human Rights Watch stated that customary reconciliation “allows perpetrators to evade prosecution, while authorities offered no concrete future protections to the worshippers and their families.”

Similar to the previous year, the Coptic Orthodox Church refused to participate in government-sponsored customary reconciliation as a substitute to criminal proceedings to address attacks on Christians and their churches.  However, customary reconciliation continued to take place without its participation.  Human rights groups and Christian community representatives said that the practice constituted an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship, and effectively precluded recourse to the judicial system.  Human rights activists said that, as part of the process, Christians were regularly pressured to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of charges.

Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports, according to human rights groups and religious communities.  According to the press, the country’s participation in the World Cup highlighted the absence of Christian players from the national team and major club teams.  The Christian community told the press clubs excluded Christian players from tryouts.  Press reported there were no Christian players on the national soccer team for more than 15 years.  A single Christian player played for one of the 18 top clubs the previous season.  Coptic Pope Tawadros II told the press that the lack of Christians in Egyptian soccer was “extraordinary.”

Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians.  In March exiled Salafi cleric Wagdi Ghoneim told the press senior officials who maintained good relations with Christians were kafirs (infidels).  Dar Al-Iftaa condemned the statement, and said Ghoneim wrongly interpreted Islamic texts.  Television preacher Abdullah Roshdi said that “It is prohibited for Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious occasions because it expresses support for practices that Islam considers to be acts of unbelief.”  Dar al Iftaa and Al Azhar issued several fatwas permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays.

Reports of societal anti-Semitism continued.  Journalists and academics made statements on state-owned TV endorsing conspiracy theories about Jewish domination of world media and the economy, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).  In a June interview on a state-owned channel, law professor Nabil Hilmi said, “Jews control the money and the media,” adding that they have a 50-year plan to reach Mecca and Medina.

In May Chair of the Hebrew Language Department at Menoufia University, Professor Amr Allam, said on a weekly show on a state-owned channel that “Israeli violence…is embedded in the Jewish genes.”

Anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements continued in the wake of the December 2017 U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the subsequent move of the embassy to Jerusalem.  According to a MEMRI report, Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayyeb blamed Israel for terrorism in the Middle East in a January interview on a state-owned channel.  He described Israel as a “dagger plunged into the body of the Arab world,” and said that were it not for “Zionist entity abuse…the Middle East would have progressed.”  He said Arab infighting worked to the advantage of Israel, which he claimed would “march on the Kaaba and on the Prophet’s Mosque [in Medina].”

In January Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church co-sponsored a conference addressing terrorism.  Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, secretary general of the Egyptian Family House, an Al-Azhar and Coptic Orthodox Church initiative created to send religious leaders to defuse community tensions following sectarian violence, called for religious scholars to challenge terrorism and include education to protect future generations from what he termed the mistaken ideas of extremism.  He stated that all Muslims suffered from the consequences of terrorism.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The President discussed religious freedom and the treatment of Egypt’s Coptic community during his meeting with President al-Sisi during the UN General Assembly session in September.  The Vice President discussed religious freedom issues during his visit to Cairo in January.  Other U.S. government officials at multiple levels, including the Charge d’Affaires, and other Department of State, embassy, and consulate general officials, raised religious freedom concerns with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Awqaf, as well as with members of parliament, governors, and representatives of Islamic institutions, church communities, religious minority groups, and civil society groups.  In their meetings with government officials, the Charge and other embassy and consulate general officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, 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.

Throughout the year, embassy officers and visiting U.S. officials met with senior officials in the offices of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, and bishops and senior pastors of Protestant churches.  Issues raised included cases in which the government failed to hold the perpetrators of sectarian violence accountable and failed to protect victims of sectarian attacks; prosecuted individuals for religious defamation; and enabled religious discrimination by means of official religious designations including on national identity cards.

U.S. officials met with human rights activists, and religious and community leaders to discuss contemporary incidents of sectarian conflict and gather information to raise in government engagements.  Embassy representatives also met with leading religious figures, including the Grand Mufti of Dar Al-Iftaa, the chairman of the Sufi Council, leading Christian clergy, and representatives of the Jewish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baha’i communities.  The embassy also promoted religious freedom on social media throughout the year, including three posts on the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report that reached 30,000 people and four on the 2018 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom that reached 20,000 people.

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 83 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims constitute 99.4 percent of the population; 90-95 percent are Shia and 5-10 percent Sunni (mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest, respectively).  Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable.  There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.

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

According to HRW data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.

According to World Christian Database statistics, there are approximately 547,000 Christians, although some estimates suggest there may be many more Christians than actually reported.  While the government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians, Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates that there could be between 300,000 and one million Christians.  The majority of Christians are ethnic Armenians concentrated in Tehran and Isfahan.  Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000.  There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers.  Christian groups outside the country estimate the size of the Protestant community to be less than 10,000, although many Protestants and other converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but the Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA) estimates there are up to two million.  Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.

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

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while a British media report estimated their number at 18,000-20,000.

The population, according to one international NGO, includes 5,000-10,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

The penal code specifies the death sentence for moharebeh (enmity against God), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the prophets” or “insulting the sanctities”).  According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.

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

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

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

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

The supreme leader oversees extrajudicial Special Clerical Courts, not provided for by the constitution.  The courts, headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, operate outside the judiciary’s purview and investigate offenses committed by clerics, including political statements inconsistent with government policy and nonreligious activities.  The courts also issue rulings based on independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources.

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

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

The Ministry of Education (MOE) determines the religious curriculum of public schools.  All school curricula, public and private, must include a course on Shia Islamic teachings, and all pupils must pass this course in order to advance to the next educational level through university.  Sunni students and students from recognized minority religious groups must take and pass the courses on Shia Islam, although they may also take separate courses on their own religious beliefs.

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

The law bars Baha’is from founding their own educational institutions.  A Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology order requires universities to exclude Baha’is from access to higher education or expel them if their religious affiliation becomes known.  Government regulation states Baha’is are only permitted to enroll in universities if they do not identify themselves as Baha’is.  To register for the university entrance examination, Baha’i students must answer a basic multiple-choice question and identify themselves as followers of a religion other than Baha’i (e.g., Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian).  To pass the entrance examination, university applicants must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology based on their official religious affiliation.

According to the constitution, Islamic scholars in the Assembly of Experts, an assembly of 86 popularly elected and supreme leader-approved clerics whose qualifications include piety and religious scholarship, elect the supreme leader, the country’s head of state.  To “safeguard” Islamic ordinances and to ensure legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (i.e., the parliament or “Majles”) is compatible with Islam, a Guardian Council composed of six Shia clerics appointed by the supreme leader, and six Shia legal scholars nominated by the judiciary, must review and approve all legislation.  The Guardian Council also vets all candidates for the Assembly of Experts, president, and parliament and supervises elections for those bodies.

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

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

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

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

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

The law authorizes collection of “blood money” or diyeh as restitution to families for the death of Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities.  Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive diyeh.  This law also reduces the diyeh for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man.

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

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

The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage to serve as a marriage certificate, which allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.  Baha’i activists report this often leaves women without the legal protections of government-recognized marriage contracts.

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

According to Amnesty International (AI) and other international human rights NGOs, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of moharebeh and anti-Islamic propaganda.  According to AI and CHRI, authorities executed Zaniar Moradi and Loghman Moradi, two Kurdish minority prisoners, at Rajai Shahr Prison on September 8 after they were convicted on charges of moharebeh and murder, despite concerns of AI, CHRI, and other human rights NGOs regarding the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel.  Prior to the executions, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran and the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions released a joint statement writing, “We urge the Government of Iran to immediately halt their executions and to annul the death sentences against them.  We are alarmed by information received that Zanyar and Loghman Moradi suffered human rights violations before and during their trial, including torture and other ill-treatment and denial of access to a lawyer.”

Media outlets reported that on September 3, authorities hanged three Baluchi prisoners whom the Zahedan Revolutionary Court had sentenced to death in November 2017 on charges of moharebeh for allegedly participating in a firefight with police forces that led to the death of a police officer.  According to HRANA, “the three wrote an open letter detailing mistreatment and torture at the hands of their interrogators.”

International media and human rights organizations reported that the government executed Mohammad Salas, a member of the Gonabadi Sufi Dervish Order, on June 18 for allegedly killing three police officers during clashes between Gonabadi Sufis and security forces in February.  Human rights organizations, including AI, CHRI, and HRANA, 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.  According to AI, “Mohammad Salas’ trial was grossly unfair.  He said he was forced under torture to make a ‘confession’ against himself.  This ‘confession,’ taken from his hospital bed, was…used as the only piece of evidence to convict him.  He was not allowed access to his chosen lawyer.”

Human rights organizations widely reported the detention of Zeinab Taheri, a human rights lawyer, who was defending Salas.  Authorities arrested Taheri one day after Salas was executed.  On June 19, the Prosecutor’s Office for Culture and Media summoned Taheri and detained her on charges of “disturbing the public opinion,” “spreading propaganda against the system,” and “publishing lies.”  Tehran prosecutor Jafari Dolatabadi subsequently said during a press conference that Taheri had “incited the public opinion and mobilized the counterrevolution against the judiciary,” and that “the hostile media used her remarks to published reports against the judiciary.”

Residents of provinces with large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported continued repression by judicial authorities and members of the security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention, as well as discrimination, including suppression of religious rights, lack of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects.  The March report by UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran Asma Jahangir highlighted the disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni Kurdish prisoners.  The report stated authorities often detained Sunni Kurds “on charges related to various activities such as environmental activism, eating in public during the month of Ramadan, working as border couriers engaged in smuggling illicit goods, or for celebrating the results of the referendum held in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan,” among other political or security-related charges.

Human rights NGOs, including HRANA, reported throughout the year on the extremely poor conditions inside Ardabil Prison, including reports of Shia guards routinely torturing Sunni prisoners.  In March CHRI reported that Mohammad Saber Malek-Raeisi, a Baluchi Sunni Muslim, who had been imprisoned since 2009, was suffering from serious injuries as a result of repeated beatings by guards during the four years he has been held in Ardabil Prison.  According to CHRI, prison authorities severely beat and tortured Malek-Raeisi in December 2017 after he went on a hunger strike to protest conditions.  Since then, his mother reported him ill and unable to see in one of his eyes.

HRANA also reported increased pressure on Sunni inmates at Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj and Dizal Abad Prison in Kermanshah.  According to HRANA, on August 7, approximately 30 MOIS agents and 50 Special Forces raided a ward at Rajai Shahr housing minority Sunni inmates, beating the prisoners and taking their belongings.  The security forces reportedly insulted the Sunni prisoners’ religious beliefs during the raid.  Authorities reportedly denied medical treatment to those injured from the beatings.  The Rajai Shahr incident was reportedly retribution for the inmates’ religious and political activities.

In February HRANA reported seven Sunni prisoners in Rajai Shahr Prison detained since 2009 continued to await a new trial after the Supreme Court rejected the death sentences handed down to them in 2015.  The prisoners denied engaging in violence and said the authorities arrested them because of their religious beliefs and activities, including attending religious meetings and disseminating religious material.

According to Baluchi rights activists, Baluchis faced government discrimination as both Sunni religious practitioners and an ethnic minority group.  Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists.  Baluchi rights activists reported that authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent.  HRANA reported that on June 17, authorities arrested Sunni Baluchi civil rights activist Abdollah Bozorgzadeh for joining a gathering in support of the 41 “Iranshahr Girls,” whom a group of well-connected men reportedly raped in the southeastern city of Iranshahr, located in the predominately-Sunni province of Sistan and Baluchistan.  Upon his arrest, authorities transferred Bozorgzadeh to an IRGC-run Zahedan detention center, where Bozorgzadah said he was tortured.  In July CHRI reported that authorities arrested at least 10 Baluchi activists for protesting the alleged rapes.  At his sermon on June 15, Iranshahr’s Sunni Friday Prayer Leader Mohammad Tayyeb Mollazehi reportedly stated that a suspect in custody had confessed he and several other men had raped 41 women.  However, according to CHRI, officials denied either that the rapes happened or claimed elements of the case had been falsified.  According to Iran Wire, the country’s prosecutor general threatened legal action against the Sunni prayer leader because the alleged perpetrators belonged to some of the city’s most influential families, including connections to or membership in the IRGC, Basij, military, and police.

The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion.  According to the Iran Prison Atlas, a database of political prisoners compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, at least 272 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners.  Of the total number of prisoners in the database, at least 165 were imprisoned on charges of moharebeh, 34 for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” 21 for “insulting Islam,” and 20 for “corruption on earth,” a term according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam meaning in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions, caused by unbelievers or unjust people, that threaten social and political wellbeing.”  Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies reportedly continued to face intimidation and arrest.

Various media outlets and human rights organizations reported incidents of severe physical mistreatment of the Gonabadi Sufi minority.  According to CHRI, guards at the Great Tehran Penitentiary attacked and beat Gonabadi detainees on August 29.  Several of the inmates reportedly were badly injured, suffered broken bones, and were moved to solitary confinement.  HRANA specified that the guards attacked at least 18 dervishes with batons and electroshock weapons in response to the prisoners’ protests of the beating of female Sufis in Gharchak Prison.

International media and NGOs widely reported more than 300 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes were detained after police open fired on them during February 19-20 demonstrations in Tehran to protest the house arrest of their spiritual leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh.  Authorities held Tabandeh, aged 91, under house arrest in Tehran since at least February and denied him access to urgently needed medical care.  According to HRW, Mohammed Raji, one of those arrested in February, died in police custody.  Authorities told Raji’s family on March 4 that he died from repeated blows to the head.  The family said that Raji was injured, but alive at the time of his arrest.  HRW stated that authorities refused to clarify the sequence and timing of events that led to Raji’s death.

According to CHRI and other human rights organizations, 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.”  Mostafa Abdi received the most severe sentence with 26 years in prison, 148 lashes, two years of internal exile in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, a two-year ban on social activities, and a two-year prohibition on traveling abroad.  In August HRW reported that authorities had sentenced at least 208 dervishes since May “to prison terms and other punishments that violate their basic rights.”  The courts delivered sentences that included prison terms ranging from four months to 26 years, flogging, internal exile, travel bans, and a ban on membership in social and political groups.  CHRI reported that on February 19 Iranian security forces arrested Reza Entessari and Kasra Nouri, reporters with the Sufi news website Majzooban-e-Noor, while they were covering the violent dispersal of protests of treatment of the Gonabadi dervishes in Tehran.

On March 3, according to CHRI, the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Mohammad Ali Taheri, founder of the spiritual doctrine Interuniversalism and the Erfan-e Halgheh group, to five years in prison for a second time, on charges of “spreading corruption on earth.”  This sentence followed the Supreme Court’s rejection of Taheri’s prior death sentence in December 2017.  According to press, the Supreme Court ordered Taheri retried, citing a faulty investigation.  The case of Taheri, imprisoned since 2011, drew widespread international condemnation, including from human rights organizations, NGOs, and the UN special rapporteur.

On August 19, according to CHRI, a court sentenced journalist and satirist Amir Mohammad Hossein Miresmaili to 10 years in prison for “insulting sacred tenets and the imams,” “insulting government and judicial officials,” “spreading falsehoods to disturb public opinion,” and “publishing immoral and indecent matters.”  Authorities had arrested him in April after he posted a tweet criticizing the Friday prayer leader of Mashhad and referencing a Shia imam.

On October 25, according to CHRI, the government arrested journalist Pouyan Khoshhal and charged him with “insulting the divinity of Imam Hossein and other members of the prophet’s blessed household” after he used the word “demise” instead of “martyrdom” in referring to Imam Hossein in an article.

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants.  In February CHRI reported government officials banned Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi , the country’s leading Sunni cleric and Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, from traveling outside of Zahedan.  According to a July Radio Farda report, Member of Parliament (MP) Mahmoud Sadeghi, along with 20 other legislators, called upon the intelligence minister to lift the travel ban imposed on “Iran’s most prominent Sunni clergyman.”  The MPs questioned the government’s reason for the travel restrictions and reiterated the right to freedom of movement.

On September 22, HRANA reported the Special Clerical Court of Hamedan arraigned Sunni preacher and activist Hashem Hossein Panahi, “presumably for participating in the funeral of executed political prisoner Ramin Hussein Panahi.”  After he delivered a sermon at the funeral, MOIS filed charges against Hashem Hossein Panahi with the Special Clerical Court, which is under the direct control of the supreme leader.  The charges included “propaganda against the regime” and “disturbing public opinion.”

In response to the September 22 terrorist attack on a military parade in Ahvaz, Khuzestan, a region with a sizeable Sunni Arab population and where international media report longstanding economic and social grievances have led to sporadic protests, international press and human rights organizations reported domestic backlash against Arab Sunnis.  AI and the Ahvaz Human Rights Organization reported the authorities arrested hundreds of Ahvazi political and minority activists in the aftermath of the September 22 attack.

CHRI reported that authorities detained Sunni rap artist Shah Baloch, whose real name is Emad Bijarzehi, on June 20 in the southeastern port city of Chabahar for singing about state oppression against ethnic and religious minorities in Sistan and Baluchistan Province.  According to CHRI, authorities did not permit Baloch access to legal counsel.

Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians for their religious affiliation or activities, including members of unrecognized churches for operating illegally in private homes or on charges of supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries.  Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscations of religious property.  News reports stated that authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement.

CHRI reported that on January 6 the Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced Shamiram Isavi, the wife of Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church, to five years in prison.  The judge convicted her on charges of “acting against national security by organizing home churches, attending Christian seminars abroad, and training Christian leaders in Iran for the purpose of espionage.”  Authorities arrested Isavi and her husband in their home in Tehran on December 26, 2014, along with their son, Ramin Bet Tamraz, and 12 Christian converts.  In June 2016, the revolutionary court judge sentenced Victor Bet Tamraz and Christian converts Hadi Asgari and Kavian Fallah Mohammadi to 10 years in prison each, while convert Amin Afshar Naderi received a 15-year prison sentence.  In February 2018, the UN special rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief, on the situation of human rights in Iran, on minority issues, and on the right to health issued a joint public statement expressing concern at the lengthy sentences for Bet Tamraz, Asgari, Naderi, as well as reports of their mistreatment in prison, and, broadly, the targeting of religious minorities, particularly Christian converts.  Authorities released Bet Tamraz, Asgari, Mohammadi, and Naderi on bail while they appealed their sentences.

According to international media and various NGOs, including the Christian World Watch Monitor (CWWM) and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), on May 2, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, Yasser Mossayebzadeh, Saheb Fadaie, and Mohammad Reza Omidi received notification that the appeals court upheld their 10-year prison sentences for “acting against national security” by “promoting Zionist Christianity” and running house churches.  Instead of utilizing the customary summons procedure, CWWM and CSW reported that authorities took Nadarkhani and the three other sentenced Christians to Evin Prison following a series of violent raids on their homes in late July, which included beatings and electroshock weapons.  According to NGOs, the authorities also sentenced Nadarkhani and Omidi to two years internal exile in the southern region of the country, far from their homes in the country’s north near the Caspian Sea.  As of May Omidi, Mossayebzadeh, and Fadaie still awaited the outcome of the appeal of their September 2016 sentence of 80 lashes for consumption of communion wine.  According to CSW, the government sentenced Fadaie to an additional 18 months and another Christian, Fatemaeh Bakhteri, to 12 months in prison for “spreading propaganda against the regime.”  Fadaie also received two years in internal exile in a remote area near the Afghanistan border after his prison sentence.

On November 16, according to NGOs and media reports, security forces arrested Christian converts Behnam Ersali and Davood Rasooli in separate raids and took them to unknown locations.  Six security agents arrested Ersali at his friend’s home in Masshad and two security agents arrested Rasooli at his home in Karaj.

Mohabat News reported the detention and abuse of Karen Vartanian, an Armenian Christian whom authorities initially arrested in December 2017 after participating in student protests at Arak University.  Vartanian faced a number of political charges, including “promoting Christianity and anti-Islamic activities.”  According to Mohabat News and local media, Vartanian reportedly experienced physical and psychological abuse, lost at least 15 kilograms (33 pounds) and suffered a heart attack as a result of beatings.

According to a December 5 article in World Watch Monitor, citing information from the NGO rights group Article 18, the government arrested 142 Christians across multiple cities in one month.  The authorities asked them to write down the details of their Christian activities and told them not to have any more contact with Christians or Christian groups.  The authorities released most of them after a few hours or days, but kept the suspected leaders in detention.

Activists and NGOs reported Yarsani activists and community leaders continued to be subject to detention or disappearance for engaging in awareness raising regarding government practices or discrimination.  In March the Kurdistan Human Rights Network (KHRN) reported authorities arrested Yarsani activist Seyyed Peyman Pedrood.  According to KHRN, Pedrood disappeared in late December 2017 after leaving home, and his family later received unofficial information that security forces had arrested and transferred him to an unknown location.

According to the BIC, approximately 90 Baha’is were in prison as of November.  The BIC stated that all arrests and detentions were directly linked to the individual’s professed faith and religious identity.  Charges brought against Baha’is included “insulting religious sanctities,” “corruption on earth,” “propaganda against the system,” espionage and collaboration with foreign entities, and actions against national security.  Charges also included involvement with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a university-level educational institution the government considered illegal.  According to the BIC, in many cases, the authorities made arrests in conjunction with raids on Baha’i homes, during which they confiscated personal belongings, particularly religious books and writings.

HRW reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in Shiraz, Karaj, and Isfahan on unknown charges in August and September.  According to Iran Press Watch (IPC), MOIS officials on September 15 and 16 detained six Baha’i environmental activists, Sudabeh Haghighat, Noora Pourmoradian, Elaheh Samizadeh, Ehsan Mahboub Rahvafa, Navid Bazmandegan and his wife Bahareh Ghaderi, on unknown charges in Shiraz.  Human rights organizations and media reported agents searched the home of Basmandegan and Ghaderi and took the couple to an unknown location away from their five-year-old daughter Darya, who suffered from cancer and required care post-treatment.

On November 23, 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.  The government also sentenced up to a dozen Baha’is, including nine Baha’is in Isfahan, who received a combined sentence of more than 40 years in prison on charges of “membership in the unlawful administration of the perverse Baha’i sect for the purpose of action against internal security” and “engaging in propaganda against the regime of the Islamic Republic.”

CHRI reported the government detained Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati for 10 days in September 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 CHRI, on April 23 authorities returned to Rajai Shahr Prison Afif Naeimi, one of the seven leaders of the Yaran, a former group that tended to the social and spiritual needs of the Baha’i community and that was formed with the knowledge and approval of the government.  He had been on medical furlough due to life-threatening ailments.  CHRI reported, however, that upon return to prison, his condition was still poor and the judiciary’s own medical experts had ruled him too ill to be incarcerated.  In 2008, authorities arrested the seven individuals and sentenced them to 20 years in prison for “disturbing national security,” “spreading propaganda against the regime,” and “engaging in espionage” before the sentences were reduced to 10 years each on appeal.  Since September 2017, authorities released the other six leaders – Mahvash Sabet, Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm – upon completion of their sentences.  According to BIC, authorities targeted these individuals because of their religious affiliation.

In May BIC reported a series of arrests of Baha’is.  On May 1, authorities detained Baha’i Kaviz Nouzdahi at his home in Mashhad and took him to the city’s Vakilabad Prison.  BIC also reported that the next day MOIS agents arrested a man identified only as “Motahhari” at his home in Isfahan.  According to Iran Wire, on May 6, Ministry of Information agents conducted an orchestrated raid of the residences of four Baha’is, during which they arrested three Baha’is, Nooshin Afshar, Neda Sabeti, and Forough Farzaneh, and took them to an unknown location.  Authorities reportedly searched their homes and confiscated their mobile phones, computers, and religious books.  BIC reported that the May arrestees faced charges because of their religious beliefs.  In a May 25 statement, BIC said the “systematic nature” of the arrests in a number of provinces suggested “a coordinated strategy on the part of government authorities.”

According to CHRI, on July 22 an appeals court in Kurdistan upheld a one-year sentence for Zabihollah Raoufi, whom authorities accused of proselytizing his Baha’i Faith.  The court upheld Raoufi’s conviction on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security by promoting Baha’ism.”  According to Iran Wire, on October 31 the 70-year-old Raoufi reported to prison to start serving his sentence.

According to Iran Wire, on January 28 a court sentenced Fataneh Nabilzadeh, a Baha’i resident of Mashhad, to one year in prison on the charge of “propaganda against the regime.”  MOIS officials had arrested Nabilzadeh in 2013 for administering tests to her son and another Baha’i student on behalf of the BIHE.

According to January reports by CWWM and CSW, authorities sentenced two Christians, Eskander Rezaie and Soroush Saraei, in Shiraz to eight years in prison for “action against national security,” proselytizing, and holding house church meetings.  Authorities also charged Saraei, the pastor of the Church of Shiraz, with “forgery” for providing letters for students who did not want to attend Islamic studies classes.  The advocacy group Middle East Concern reported both men appealed their sentences.  During the same court hearing, a Christian woman, Zahrar Nourouzi Kashkouli, received a one year prison sentence, for “being a member of a group working against the system.”

According to the World Watch Monitor website, Article 18 reported Christian convert Ali Amini remained in Tabriz Prison following his arrest by authorities in December 2017 and had his laptop and cell phone confiscated.  He remained in a Tabriz Prison as of February.

Many Baha’is reportedly continued to turn to online education at BIHE despite government censorship through use of internet filters, blocking of websites, and the arrests of teachers associated with the program.  Since the BIHE’s online and offline operations remained illegal, students and teachers continued to face the risk of arrest for participation.  BIHE instructor Azita Rafizadeh remained in prison serving a four-year sentence for teaching at the institution.  Rafizadeh’s husband, Peyman Koushk-Baghi, continued serving a five-year sentence.  According to Payam News, officials initially arrested Koushk-Baghi in March 2016 while visiting his wife at Evin Prison.  Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced them on charges of “membership in the illegal and misguided Baha’i group with the aim of acting against national security through illegal activities at the BIHE educational institute.”  CHRI reported that on January 3 Evin Prison authorities told Rafizadeh she would only be considered for furlough if she apologized for teaching online classes to members of her faith.  Authorities reportedly said she must sign a statement to repenting for her work and promising she would not work there again.

Christians, particularly evangelicals and converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detention, and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGO reports.  Numerous Christians remained imprisoned at year’s end on charges related to their religious beliefs.  Prison authorities reportedly continued to withhold medical care from prisoners, including some Christians, according to human rights groups.  According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition on proselytizing.

According to Mohabat News, the Revolutionary Court of Bushehr on June 20 sentenced Christian convert Payam Kharaman and 11 other Christians to one year in prison on the charge of “propaganda” activities against the government and promotion of “Zionist Christianity” through house meetings, evangelism, and proselytizing.  Authorities initially arrested the 12 Christians in Bushehr in April 2016.  CWWM reported that on March 2 authorities arrested 20 Christians in a workshop near the city of Karaj when security forces raided the premises.  Among those detained, authorities reportedly permitted Christian convert Aziz Majidzadeh to contact his family in April; he informed them that he and the others were being held at Evin Prison awaiting formal charges.  He reportedly said his interrogators focused on activities related to his Christian faith.  Article 18 reported on May 20 that authorities had released Majidzadeh pending a full investigation and trial.

Various media outlets and NGOs reported that on June 25, authorities released Mohammadali Yassaghi, a Christian also known as Estifan, from prison following a hearing at the Revolutionary Court in Babolsar, in which the presiding judge dismissed the charges against him.  The authorities arrested Yassaghi on April 10 on accusations of “spreading propaganda against the establishment” and later transported him to Babol Prison in Mazandaran Province.  According to CSW, Yassaghi was a member of the Church of Iran and converted to Christianity more than 20 years ago.

International media reported that on March 6 government officials detained Shia cleric Hossein Shirazi, the son of Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi.  Both Hossein Shirazi and his father, a senior cleric in the Qom Seminary, were reportedly critical of the government.  Authorities detained Hossein Shirazi in Qom after he attended an Islamic theology class.  During a lecture in February, Hossein Shirazi reportedly likened the country’s principle of Velayat Faghih – or the rule of a single jurist – to the “regimes of pharaohs in Egypt.”  He also reportedly accused the country’s leaders of tyranny.  Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi’s opponents have accused him of promoting “British Shiism” and receiving funds from Britain and Saudi Arabia.

In January HRANA reported that security forces arrested Shia cleric Mohammad Mehdi Nekounam, son of Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Nekounam, a senior cleric detained in October 2017.  According to HRANA, authorities also raided Mohammad Mehdi Nekounam’s home and seized all communication devices, including cell phones and laptops, without providing an arrest warrant.  Authorities arrested his father, Ayatollah Nekounam, in 2015 and sentenced him to five years in prison and an undisclosed number of lashes.  The court also stripped Ayatollah Nekounam of his right to clerical office.  The court reportedly said it would not disclose any details about either case to “protect” the status of the clergy.  Sources stated the arrests were related to Nekounam’s indirect criticism of other clerics.  Reportedly he indirectly criticized Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi’s opposition to fast internet services and also criticized an incident in Isfahan in which individuals threw acid on women to punish them for improper hijabs.  In an interview, Nekounam stated, “The one who throws acid [at others] is the most violent person.”  HRANA reported in January of Ayatollah Nekounam’s ailing health following a stroke in the Qom Prison, but said authorities denied him access to his medications.

There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they had temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though businesses could legally close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year.  In November BIC reported that authorities shut down more than a dozen Baha’i businesses in Khuzestan Province after the owners closed their businesses temporarily in observance of two Baha’i holidays.  According to IPC, on July 28 authorities shut down a Baha’i-owned business in the city of Kashan.  HRANA reported that the “Kashan Office of Properties refused to issue a business permit for optician shop of Javad Zabihian, due to his Baha’i Faith.  The Office of Properties then shut down and sealed Mr. Zabihian’s business.”  According to HRANA, the Superior Administrative Court on August 16 denied a petition to open 24 shuttered Baha’i-owned businesses in Urmia.  From July 9 through mid-August 2017, authorities reportedly sealed the businesses for closing in observance of a Baha’i holy day.  In August HRANA reported three Baha’is, Sahba Haghbeen, Samira Behinayeen, and Payam Goshtasbi, were fired from their jobs in Shiraz in a “continued effort to put economic constraints on Iranian Baha’is.”  HRANA also reported that on May 10, the MOIS office in Maku summoned Shahin Dehghan, a Baha’i citizen, and informed him that he had 10 days to sell his business or it would be confiscated and he would be sent to prison.  According to BIC, the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials.

The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers.  The government also continued to prevent Baha’is from burying their dead in accordance with their religious tradition.  According to HRANA, security forces in Kerman prevented the burial of a Baha’i from Kerman, Hussein Shodjai, who died on August 26, and forced his family to bury the deceased in the city of Rafsanjan.  The authorities’ demand contravened Baha’i burial laws, under which the distance from the place of death to the burial place should not exceed one hour, according to the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the central holy book of the Baha’i Faith.  IPC also reported that on March 16 authorities sealed the Baha’i cemetery of Kerman (known as the Eternal Garden) without specific justification.

In August BIC reported continued instances of the desecration and destruction of Baha’i property and holy sites.  Many government offices, including the City Council, the governor’s office, and the deputy governor’s office refused to take any action.  In November CHRI reported local authorities relocated the buried body of a Baha’i woman without the permission of the family.

According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices.  Official reports and the media continued to characterize Christian house churches as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.”  Christian community leaders stated that if the authorities learned Armenian or Assyrian churches were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches.  Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed them to enter.

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

The government continued to curb Christian practices at cemeteries, and authorities confiscated properties owned by Christian religious organizations.  CHRI reported that on March 7 a group controlled by the supreme leader issued an eviction order for Sharon Gardens, a Christian retreat center occupying 2.5 acres of land in in the Valadabad District of Karaj, 32 miles west of the capital.  The center was owned by the country’s largest Christian Protestant organization, the Jama’at-e Rabbani Church Council, also known as the Iran Assemblies of God, since the early 1970s; the eviction reflected a 2015 revolutionary court order for its confiscation.

The government continued to monitor the statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders.  Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views reportedly continued to face intimidation, arrest, and imprisonment on charges related to religious offenses.

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

The government continued to require women of all religious groups to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – a manteau (overcoat) and a hijab (headscarf) or, alternatively, a chador (full body length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes).  Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment.  The government continued to crack down on other public displays it deemed counter to its interpretation of Shia Islam laws, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public.  In June security agents arrested a female teenager, Maedeh Hojabri, for posting videos of herself dancing without a hijab on Instagram.  Authorities then aired on state television a video of Hojabri, who acknowledged breaking moral norms while insisting that she was not encouraging others to follow her example, according to a report by Radio Farda.  International media widely reported her arrest, as well as an outpouring of social media support for Hojabri from fellow citizens.  According to a February report by HRW, authorities arrested at least three women protesting the country’s dress code/hijab laws in January and February.  Officials arrested Nargess Hosseini on January 29 when she took off her headscarf in a public protest against the hijab laws.  They arrested Azam Jangravi on February 14 and Shaparak Shajarizadeh on February 21 in similar circumstances.  On June 13, authorities arrested Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights attorney who had represented the women, telling her husband that authorities were taking her to prison for a sentence she had received in absentia.  Authorities sentenced Hosseini in March to 24 months in prison, suspending 21 months of her sentence.  On social media, Shajarizadeh stated on July 9 that a court had sentenced her to 20 years in prison, suspending 18 years of the sentence.

HRW also reported that on July 27, state TV’s “20:30” program featured an interview with the sister of anti-hijab activist Masih Alinejad, denouncing Alinejad’s advocacy against compulsory hijab laws.  In a post on social media and in a New York Times op-ed piece, Alinejad stated that, despite her sister’s statements that she had appeared on the program of her own free will, authorities pressured her family to denounce her on state television.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities access to higher education and government employment unless they declared themselves as Christian or Muslim, respectively, on their application forms.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known.  In September BIC and IPC reported that at least 60 Baha’is were banned from universities during the year due to their religious beliefs and despite passing the entrance exam “under the false pretenses that they had ‘incomplete files’ or that their names were not in the registration list.”  The report also stated that officials told many Baha’i students who passed the grueling National University Entrance Exam, known as “Konkur,” that they might be able to study, but that they would need to write a letter and disavow their faith in order to do so.

CHRI reported that from March to September authorities expelled at least 50 Baha’i students from universities because of their religious beliefs.  In July CHRI reported a Baha’i woman, Sarir Movaghan, was expelled from the Islamic Azad University in Isfahan.  Movaghan declared she was Baha’i on the university enrollment form and was accepted, but four years later and just before her final exams, she was expelled.  According to CHRI, the university contacted Movaghan in May and told her that, as a Baha’i, she should have known that she could not be at the university.  Many Baha’is reportedly did not try to enroll in state-run universities because of the Baha’i Faith’s tenet not to deny one’s faith.

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

According to Mazjooban Noor, the official website of the Gonabadi dervishes, authorities continued to dismiss Gonabadi dervishes from employment and bar them from university studies for affiliation with the Sufi order.  CHRI reported that authorities expelled Sepideh Moradi Sarvestani, a member of the Gonabadi dervishes, from Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University on February 3 “for refusing to formally pledge not to engage in activities deemed unacceptable by officials.”

Members of the Sunni community continued to dispute statistics published in 2015 on the website of the Mosques Affairs Regulating Authority stating there were nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran and 15,000 across the country.  Community members said the vast majority of these were simply prayer rooms or rented prayer spaces.  International media and the Sunni community continued to report authorities prevented any new Sunni mosques from being built in Tehran.  Sunnis reported the number of mosques in the country did not meet the demands of the population.

Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, to practice their faith.  Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.  In August international media reported police dispersed Sunni worshipers who had gathered outside a prayer hall in Tehran’s eastern Resalat neighborhood.  Authorities barred the worshipers from entering the venue to hold communal prayers on Eid al-Adha.  The Sunni congregation had reportedly obtained an official permit from the Ministry of Interior and the Tehran governorate’s political deputy.

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

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

According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship.

Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and school systems.  They also continued to report that the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names.  A March report by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran stated Yarsanis continued to face a range of human rights violations, including attacks on their places of worship, the destruction of community cemeteries, and arrests and torture of community leaders.  The report provided “accounts of individuals being fired after it is discovered that they are Yarsan, and of individuals being forcibly shaved (the moustache is a holy symbol for the Yarsan community) when they refused to pray, for example when undertaking military service.”

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two kindergartens continued to operate in Tehran, but authorities required their principals be Muslim.  The government reportedly continued to allow Hebrew language instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language, according to the Jewish community.  The government reportedly required Jewish schools to remain open on Saturdays, in violation of Jewish religious law, to conform to the schedule of other schools.

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

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

In July Sepanta Niknam, a Zoroastrian, was restored to his position on the Yazd City Council following a ruling that constitutionally recognized religious minorities could run in local elections.  According to CHRI, on July 21, by a two-thirds majority, the Expediency Council, the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between state branches, voted to amend the Law on the Formation, Duties, and Election of National Islamic Councils, thereby affirming the right of constitutionally recognized religious minorities to run in local elections.  In September 2017, local and international media reported that the Yazd Court of Administrative Justice called for the suspension of Niknam.  After being re-elected to the council in May 2017, the court forced him to step down after issuing a ruling that as a member of a religious minority, Niknam could not be elected to a council in a Muslim-majority constituency.  The ruling was in response to a complaint lodged by his unsuccessful Muslim opponent.

Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in the provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions.  In January CHRI observed that while there were 21 Sunni representatives in the 290-member parliament, no Sunni had served in a ministerial position since the founding of the Islamic Republic despite comprising a significant percent of the population.

Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Moharam, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

International media quoted Jewish community representatives such as Siamak Morsadegh, the sole Jewish member of parliament, as stating that there continued to be government restrictions and discrimination against Jews as a religious minority, but that there was little interference with Jewish religious practices.  According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, there were 31 synagogues in Tehran, more than 20 of them active, and 100 synagogues throughout the country.  Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens.

Government officials continued to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric in official statements and sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books.  During remarks on June 15, Supreme Leader Khamenei said, “the Zionist regime, which has a legitimacy problem, will not last… and through Muslim nations’ vigilance, be certainly destroyed.”  Government-sponsored rallies continued to include chants of “death to Israel” and participants accused other religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Christians, of collusion with Israel.  Local newspapers carried editorial cartoons that were anti-Semitic in nature, often focusing on developments in Israel or elsewhere in the region, including the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  The May 15 edition of the newspaper Tasnim carried a cartoon that portrayed Israel as a snake intent on devouring Jerusalem.  On February 13, the website Javan published an article, entitled “The Use of Corrupt Jewish Women by Secret Spy Services to Trap Important World Figures,” that claimed that Jewish religious law allowed Jewish women to use their gender and femininity to gather intelligence for Mossad.

According to human rights activists, the government maintained a legal interpretation of Islam that required citizens of all faiths to follow strict rules based on the government’s interpretation of Shia jurisprudence, creating differentiation under the law between the rights granted to men and women.  The government continued to enforce gender segregation and discrimination throughout the country without regard to religious affiliation.

The government continued to maintain separate election processes for the five seats reserved for representatives of the recognized religious minority communities in parliament.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights reported that Baha’is continued to be major targets of social stigma and violence, and that perpetrators continued to act with impunity or, even when arrested, faced diminished punishment following admissions that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.

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

In October IPC reported “tens of thousands more [Baha’is] experience educational, economic and cultural persecution on a daily basis for merely practicing their faith.”  According to BIC, anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years.  In August a BIC report noted the continued harassment, vilification, and psychological pressure children and adolescents known to be Baha’is experience in primary, middle, and high schools throughout the country.

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country, and therefore, did not have opportunities to raise concerns directly with the government over its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.

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

In July the Secretary of State called attention to the situation of religious freedom in the country in a town hall speech on “Supporting Iranian Voices” and an opinion editorial appearing in USA Today.  In his op-ed, the Secretary of State 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, “Many members of Iranian religious minorities – including Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims – face discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment because of their beliefs….The Iranian regime continues its crackdown on Gonabadi Sufis.…Baha’is also face particularly severe ill-treatment.  As with many other minority communities, Iranian authorities reportedly harass, arrest, and mistreat Baha’is on account of their faith, and in May the Baha’i International Community reported an uptick in arbitrary arrests and raids across the country.…The Government of Iran continues to execute dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges brought because of their peaceful religious beliefs or activities.  Blasphemy, apostasy from Islam, and efforts to proselytize Muslims are punishable by death, contrary to Iran’s international human rights obligations….We strongly urge the Government of Iran to cease its violations of religious freedom and ensure that all individuals – regardless of their beliefs – are treated equally and can live out their lives and exercise their faith in peace and security.”

During a September press briefing, the Special Representative for Iran called for an end to religious persecution in Iran, 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 Iranian government’s execution of Mohammad Salas, a member of the long-persecuted Iranian Gonabadi Sufi Dervish community.”

The United States again supported an extension of the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran in a vote at the UN Human Rights Council.  The United States also voted in December in the General Assembly in favor of a resolution expressing concern over Iran’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State announced the redesignation of Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as 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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 40.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to 2010 government statistics, the most recent available, 97 percent of the population is Muslim.  Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkoman, Faili (Shia) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population, while Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population.  Of Sunnis, Sunni Kurds constitute 15 percent, Sunni Arabs 24 percent, and Sunni Turkomans the remaining 1 percent.  Shia, although predominantly located in the south and east, are the majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country.  Sunnis form the majority in the west, center, and north of the country.

Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country, with the largest population – at least 200,000 – living in the Ninewa Plain and the IKR.  The Christian population has declined over the past 16 years from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons.  Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an Eastern Rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East.  The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican and other Protestants.  There are approximately 2,000 registered members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice the religion secretly.

Yezidi leaders report most of the 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis in the country reside in the north, and approximately 360,000 remain displaced.  Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community vary.  According to Sabean-Mandean leaders, 10,000 remain in the country, mainly in the south with between 750 and 1,000 in the IKR and Baghdad.  Baha’i leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups, including approximately 500 in the IKR.  The Shabak number between 350,000 and 400,000, three-fourths of whom are Shia and the rest Sunni; most are located in Ninewa.  Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 7,000 Armenian Christians.  According to Kaka’i (also known as Yarsani) activists, their community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members, traditionally located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk, as well as in Diyala and Erbil.  The Jewish representative in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA) reports 70 to 80 Jewish families reside in the IKR, though he noted that some Jewish families do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution.  According to a Baghdad Jewish community leader, there are fewer than six adult members of the local Jewish community.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as of December, nearly 1.8 million persons remained displaced within the country.  Population movements are multi-directional, with some persons fleeing their homes and others returning home.  According to the IOM, as of May, approximately 67 percent of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) population were Arab Sunni, 13 percent Kurdish Sunni, 8 percent Yezidi, 6 percent Turkoman Shia, 2 percent Arab Shia, 1 percent either Syriac, Chaldean, or Assyrian Christian, 2 percent Shabak Shia, and less than 1 percent Turkoman Sunni, Shabak Sunni, or Kurdish Shia.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion of the state, and a “foundational source” of legislation.  It states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam,” but it also states no law may contradict the principles of democracy or the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in the constitution.

The constitution protects the “Islamic identity” of the Iraqi people, although it makes no specific mention of Sunni or Shia Islam.  The constitution also provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but it does not explicitly protect followers of other religions, or atheists.  According to the penal code, Jews may not hold jobs in state enterprises or join the military.  The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.

The constitution states each individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief.  Followers of all religions are free to practice religious rites and manage religious endowment affairs and religious institutions.  The constitution guarantees freedom from religious coercion and states all citizens are equal before the law without regard to religion, sect, or belief.

Personal status laws and regulations prohibit the conversion of Muslims to other religions, and require administrative designation of minor children as Muslims if either parent converts to Islam, or if one parent is considered Muslim, even if the child is a product of rape.  Civil status law allows non-Muslim women to marry Muslim men, but it prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims.

The following religious groups are recognized by the personal status law and thereby registered with the government:  Islam, Chaldean, Assyrian, Assyrian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Roman Catholic, National Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical Protestant Assyrian, Seventh-day Adventist, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, and Jewish.  Recognition allows groups to appoint legal representatives and perform legal transactions such as buying and selling property.  All recognized religious groups have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues.  According to the government, however, there is no personal status court for Yezidis.

There are three diwans (offices) responsible for administering matters for the recognized religious groups within the country:  the Sunni Endowment Diwan, the Shia Endowment Diwan, and the Endowment of the Christian, Yezidi, and Sabean-Mandean Religions Diwan.  The three endowments operate under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister to disburse government funds to maintain and protect religious facilities.

Outside of the IKR, the law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition.  The law prescribes 10 years’ imprisonment for anyone practicing the Baha’i Faith.  For the practice of unrecognized religious groups other than Baha’i – including Wahhabi Muslim, Zoroastrian, Yarsanism, and the Kaka’i faith – the law does not specify penalties; however, contracts signed by institutions of unrecognized religious groups are not legal or permissible as evidence in court.

In the IKR, religious groups obtain recognition by registering with the KRG MERA.  To register, a group must have a minimum of 150 adherents, provide documentation on the sources of its financial support, and demonstrate it is not anti-Islam.  Eight faiths are registered with the KRG MERA:  Islam, Christianity, Yezidism, Judaism, Sabean-Mandaeism, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Baha’i Faith.

In addition to the Christian denominations recognized by the government, the KRG has registered 11 evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches:  Nahda al-Qadassa Church in Erbil and Dohuk, Nasari Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Kurd-Zaman Church in Erbil, Ashti Evangelical Church in Sulaimaniya, Evangelical Free Church in Dohuk, the Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd in Erbil, al-Tasbih International Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Rasolia Church in Erbil, as well as United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Erbil.  The KRG allows new Christian churches to register with a minimum of 50 adherents.

In the IKR, Christian groups may register separately with the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders, an independent group formed by Christian church leaders, which includes six evangelical Protestant churches.  Registration with the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders provides Christian churches and leaders with access to the KRG MERA and to the KRG’s Christian endowment.

The KRG MERA operates endowments that pay salaries of clergy and fund construction and maintenance of religious sites for Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis, but not for the other six registered religions.

The law requires the government to maintain the sanctity of holy shrines and religious sites and guarantee the free practice of rituals for recognized religious groups.  The penal code criminalizes disrupting or impeding religious ceremonies and desecrating religious buildings.  The penal code imposes up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of 300 dinars (26 cents) for such crimes.

By law, the government provides support for Muslims outside the IKR desiring to perform the Hajj and Umrah, organizing travel routes and immunization documents for entry into Saudi Arabia.  The Sunni and Shia endowments accept Hajj applications from the public and submit them to the Supreme Council for the Hajj.  The council, attached to the Prime Minister’s office, organizes a lottery process to select pilgrims for official Hajj visas.  Lottery winners pay differing amounts to the government for their visas prior to Hajj depending on their mode of travel:  3.5 million dinars ($3,100) for Hajj travel by land, and five million dinars ($4,400) for travel by air.  In the IKR, the KRG MERA organizes Hajj and Umrah travel, carrying out a lottery to choose the pilgrims for official Hajj visas allotted to the IKR.

The constitution guarantees minority groups the right to educate children in their own languages.  While it establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official state languages, it makes Syriac, typically spoken by Christians, and Turkoman official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.”  In the IKR, there are 56 Syriac and 21 Turkoman language schools.  The constitution provides for a Federal Supreme Court made up of judges, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and legal scholars.  The constitution leaves the method of regulating the number and selection of judges to legislation that requires a two-thirds majority in the Council of Representatives (COR) for passage.

The constitution provides citizens the right to choose which court (civil or religious) will adjudicate matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and endowments.  Islam takes precedence when one of the parties to the dispute is from an unrecognized faith.  The law states civil courts must consult the religious authority of a non-Muslim party for its opinion under the applicable religious law and apply the religious authority’s opinion in court.  In the IKR, the Personal Status Court adjudicates personal disputes between Muslims, and the Civil Status Court handles all other cases.

New national identity cards do not denote the bearer’s religion, although the online application still requests this information.  The only religions that may be listed on the national identity card application are Christian, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, Jewish, and Muslim.  There is no distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslim, or a designation of Christian denominations.  Individuals practicing other faiths may only receive identity cards if they self-identify as Muslim, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, Jewish, or Christian.  Without an official identity card, one may not register one’s marriage, enroll children in public school, acquire passports, or obtain some government services.  Passports do not specify religion.

The law provides constitutional guarantees for the reinstatement of citizenship to individuals who gave up their citizenship for political or sectarian reasons; however, this law does not apply to Jews who emigrated and gave up their citizenship under a 1950 law.

Civil laws provide a simple process for a non-Muslim to convert to Islam, but the law forbids conversion by a Muslim to another religion.

The law in the IKR formally recognizes the Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and Sabean-Mandean faiths, and promotes equal political, cultural, societal, and economic representation of all minority groups.  It forbids “religious, or political, media speech individually or collectively, directly or indirectly that brings hate and violence, terror, exclusion, and marginalization based on national, ethnic, or religious or linguistic claims.”

The law reserves nine of the COR’s 329 seats for members of minority communities:  five for Christian candidates from Baghdad, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Dohuk; one for a Yezidi; one for a Sabean-Mandean; one for an ethnic Shabak; and one for a Faili Kurd from Wasit.  Usually one of the COR rapporteur positions is designated for a Christian MP and the other a Turkoman.  The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP) reserves 11 of its 111 seats for ethnic minorities:  five for Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Assyrians; five for Turkomans; and one for an Armenian.

Islamic education, including study of the Quran, is mandatory in primary and secondary schools, except in the IKR.  Non-Muslim students are not required to participate in Islamic studies.  The government provides Christian religious education in public schools in some areas where there are concentrations of Christian populations, and there is a Syriac curriculum directorate within the Ministry of Education.

The antiterrorism law of November 2005 defines terrorism as “Every criminal act committed by an individual or an organized group that targeted an individual or a group of individuals or groups or official or unofficial institutions and caused damage to public or private properties, with the aim to disturb the peace, stability, and national unity or to bring about horror and fear among people and to create chaos to achieve terrorist goals.”  Anyone found guilty under this law is sentenced to death.

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

Government Practices

International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process.  Observers reported the current antiterrorism law did not allow for the right to due process and a fair trial.  Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their arbitrary detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of ISIS links but provided no corroborating evidence.

According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some under the PMF umbrella, committed abuses and atrocities and were implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia.  Following the return of central government control in Kirkuk in late 2017, Kurds, Turkomans, Kaka’i, Christians, and other minorities faced discrimination, displacement, and in some cases, violence from PMF and Iraqi security forces.  Media outlets carried numerous reports of Shia PMF groups invading, looting, and burning the houses of Kurds, Sunni Turkomans, Sunni Arabs, and other ethnic minorities in Kirkuk Governorate.  Kurds faced similar violence in Khanaqin, a majority Kurdish city in Diyala Governorate that also passed from KRG to central government control in 2017.  Analysts stated that discrimination continued to stoke ethno-sectarian tensions in the disputed territories throughout the year.  In August four Kurds, including a Peshmerga, were beheaded in Khanaqin by unknown attackers.  The Kaka’i community in Daquq, Kirkuk Governorate, continued to suffer harassment and intimidation, which Kaka’i civil society groups said accelerated under PMF occupation of the area.

The religious status of children resulting from rape became a more prominent issue because of the number of minority children resulting from gender-based violence perpetrated by ISIS.  Yezidi community leaders reported that Yezidi captives of ISIS who were repeatedly raped and bore children were forced to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves to obtain ID cards, passports, and other governmental services.  Yezidi sources reported the number of these children range from several dozen to several hundred.  They said societal stigma made it difficult to obtain accurate numbers.  According to Christian leaders, in some cases Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another faith were forced to choose to register their child as a Muslim or to have the child remain undocumented.  Remaining undocumented would affect the family’s eligibility for government benefits such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which depends on family size.  Larger families with legally registered children received higher allotments than those with undocumented children.

Representatives of minority religious communities said that, while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances and even provided security for places of worship and other religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, minority groups continued to face harassment, including sexual assault, and restrictions from local authorities in some regions.  Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF militia 30th Brigade, controlled by Iraqi parliament member Hunain Qado and his brother Waad, of harassment and sexual assaults on Christian women in Bartalla and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District.  The chair of the municipal council of Bartalla made public court documents from several cases involving militiamen charged with theft, harassment, and sexual harassment.  Shabak Sunni leaders in Hamdaniya made similar allegations.

According to Christian and other minority community leaders, Shabak parliamentarians, including Qado, with the support of some other Shia elements within the central government in Baghdad, had directed the 30th Brigade to harass Christians to drive out the area’s dwindling Christian population and allow Shabak and other Shia Muslims to settle in the area’s traditionally Christian town centers.  Christians in Tal Kayf made similar claims that the nominally Christian but majority Sunni Arab PMF 50th “Babylon” Brigade actively sought to prevent and disrupt the return of the displaced Christian community to facilitate the settlement of Sunni Arab and Shia Shabak populations in that town.

The Ninewa provincial government ordered that all district governments comply with a 2017 federal law granting land to the families of mostly Shia Muslim PMF martyrs of the war against ISIS as compensation for their loss.  The order included those districts with Sunni and non-Muslim majorities.  In September Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam issued an order suspending such grants in the historically Christian majority district, citing the constitution’s prohibition of forced demographic change.  Throughout the year, Behnam successfully resisted political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue such land grants in Hamdaniya.  Iraq’s National Investment Commission, under the presidency of the Council of Ministers, approved the building of large housing development projects on government-owned land in the outskirts of Bartalla.  Pointing to a surplus of houses in Christian town centers, Christian community leaders alleged that virtually all the future occupants of this housing would be Shabak and Arab Muslims not native to Bartalla.

Some Yezidi and Christian leaders continued to report harassment and abuse by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces in the KRG-controlled portion of Ninewa; some leaders said the majority of such cases were motivated by politics rather than religious discrimination.  According to various NGOs, central government, and KRG sources, KRG security forces and ISF blocked major roads between the IKR and central government-controlled Iraq, including roads serving minority communities such as the roads between Dohuk and Sinjar, al Qosh and Tal Kayf, and Sheikhan and Mosul.  The closure of these roads forced minorities to take long, circuitous detours, restricted their access to markets for their goods, and left them vulnerable to harassment and extortion at numerous checkpoints.  After lengthy negotiations, the KRG and GOI opened most of these roads during the year, including the al Qosh-Tal Kayf and Shaykhan-Mosul roads in October and the Dohuk-Sinjar road in December.

In June elements of the PMF Imam Ali Brigade refused to allow the Yezidi Sinjar District Council to return to Sinjar City from its temporary location in Mosul, even with an official letter from the Office of the Prime Minister.  In October a combination of PMF and popular protest again prevented the Yezidi mayor of Sinjar and the district council from returning to Sinjar.  Christians reported continued harassment, abuse, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain, including the Shabak Brigade in Qaraqosh, Bartalla, and Karamles, and the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf.

According to multiple sources, some government forces and militia groups forced alleged ISIS sympathizers or family members of suspected members from their homes in several governorates.  For example, there were reports the PMF militia group Kataib Hizballah kidnapped and intimidated local Arab Sunni residents in Diyala and Babil Governorates and prevented Arab Sunni IDPs from returning to their places of origin.

The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province.  According to the KRG MERA director general for Yezidi affairs, since 2014 3,322 Yezidis kidnapped by ISIS had been rescued or released, but 3,015 Yezidis were still missing as of October.  Rescued captives reported being sold multiple times and subjected to forced conversions to Islam, sexual exploitation, and violence.  The Iraqi Independent Human Rights Commission reported in August that 600 Turkomans kidnapped by ISIS, including more than 120 children, remained missing, none of whom had been reported rescued by the end of the year.  A Turkoman NGO, however, stated in December that more than 1300 Turkomans were still missing and said it had evidence that ISIS had trafficked Turkoman women to Chechnya, Turkey, and Syria.  The KRG MERA also reported that 250 Christians were rescued, leaving an estimated 150 missing.

In October the KRG MERA director general for Yezidi Affairs reported the KRG had paid more than $7 million in ransom and payments to middlemen to secure the release of approximately 2,000 Yezidis from ISIS since 2014.  In July the Ninewa Provincial Council established two offices, one in Mosul and the other in Sinjar, responsible for investigating the fate of Yezidis still missing or held captive by ISIS.  Yezidi groups said the presence of armed affiliates of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and PMF militias in Sinjar continued to hinder the return of IDPs.

According to Yazda, a global Yezidi organization, Yezidis in the IKR were discriminated against when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish; only those Yezidis who considered themselves Kurdish could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership.  In the IKR, those not identifying as Kurdish said actions such as obtaining a residency card or a driver’s license were challenging.  The KRG continued to offer support and funding to some non-Muslim minorities, but other minorities in the IKR, including evangelical Christians, said they continued to face difficulties in changing their registration from Muslim to Christian if they were converts, or engaged in in proselytizing.

In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, continued to face harassment and restrictions from authorities.  In July ISF forces and local police forcibly entered Mar Gorgees Syriac Catholic Church in Bartalla, cut the internet network of the church and adjacent cultural center, and destroyed the church’s internet server equipment.  While authorities accused the church of unauthorized distribution of an IKR-based internet service to the Christian community in Ninewa Province, Syriac Catholic Church leaders said the action represented an attack on the church, and they accused the security forces of acting on behalf of a rival, politically connected internet provider.

The KRG MERA reduced the number of mosques delivering weekly Friday sermons from 3,000 to 2,000 by combining mosques located in the same neighborhoods.  MERA Spokesman and Director of General Relations Mariwan Naqshbandy said MERA was formulating a policy to produce and distribute pre-approved content for Friday sermons in MERA-funded mosques to prevent the spread of extremism.  The KRG MERA banned eight imams from delivering Friday sermons, citing extremist ideology and incitement to violence.  The imams continued to receive MERA salaries and were ordered to undergo a rehabilitation course to regain permission to preach in MERA-approved mosques.  MERA also banned 10 books by well-known Islamic scholars because they encouraged violence and extremism.  MERA also introduced a mandatory training program for new imams that included instruction on religious pluralism and tolerance and against extremist preaching and hate speech.

According to the international human rights NGO Heartland Alliance, KRG law protecting the rights of religious freedom was undermined by vague wording and did not provide implementation mechanisms or penalties for violations.

In September Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharf said the central government had not opened an investigation into the alleged ISF and PMF destruction of the second century tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi, despite a lawsuit filed by the archbishop in 2017.

Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration.  Estimates, including those cited by several Christian parliamentarians (MPs), the daily number of Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, ranged from 10 to 22.  A director of an Assyrian NGO reported that four Syriac language schools closed in Dohuk due to lack of students.  Some Yezidis and Christians maintained their own militias.  Some of these received support from Baghdad through the PMF, while others received assistance from KRG Peshmerga units.  Some representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean MPs, stated they must have a role in their own security and requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities; others asked to join regular law enforcement units.  Other minority leaders in the Ninewa Plain expressed hope that the Ministry of Interior would hire minorities to serve in local police forces to absorb and replace the minority militias in the region.  Some leaders conducted recruitment drives to demonstrate the considerable interest among minority communities in joining police units, including among current members of minority militias; however, no local police positions were available at year’s end.

One of the remaining members of the Jewish community in Baghdad described the prevalence of anti-Semitic rhetoric from both Muslim and Christian leaders.  Although the sermons did not advocate for violence against the Jewish community, the community member expressed concern that more priests were including anti-Semitic rhetoric in their sermons, comparable to the anti-Semitic rhetoric often heard from some Muslims.  He presented pictures of the continued desecration of the Jewish cemetery in the Shia-majority Sadr City section of Baghdad.  The small community did not file any reports on the desecration with local authorities due to reported fear of retribution.  Despite Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to speak out in favor of the return of Jews in a June 2 response to a follower’s question, the member of the Jewish community said Jews continued to avoid publicly self-identifying for fear of violence.

A group of IKR- and Ninewa Plain-based religious leaders from established apostolic Christian churches sent a letter to the IKR MERA director general of Christian affairs stating MERA made it too easy for new Christian groups to become established in the IKR.  The letter accused the newcomers of damaging the churches’ relationship with the Muslim community by proselytizing, and demanded MERA provide the names of adherents submitted by the new churches.  MERA refused to change the requirement for new churches to register but complied with the apostolic churches’ request to compile a list of adherents of evangelical and other Protestant churches.  Apostolic church leaders said the list would allow them to remove from their rolls the names of former members now attending other churches so the apostolic churches would not be blamed for any proselytizing performed by former members now belonging to evangelical or other Protestant churches.

NGOs continued to state constitutional provisions on freedom of religion should override laws banning the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam; however, during the year, there were no court challenges lodged to invalidate them and no legislation proposed to repeal them.  According to a December article on the website Al Monitor, Deputy Justice Minister Hussein al-Zuhairi stated during a dialogue with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that the Baha’i Faith was not a religion, emphasizing the government’s commitment to legislation prohibiting the Baha’i Faith.

The KRG and the central government continued to provide increased protection to Christian churches during the Easter and Christmas holidays.  Followers of the Baha’i and Yezidi faiths reported the KRG allowed them to observe their religious holidays and festivals without interference or intimidation.  Provincial governments also continued to designate these as religious holidays in their localities.

Government policy continued to require Islamic instruction in public schools, but non-Muslim students were not required to participate.  In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula included three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students.  Christian religious education was included in the curricula of at least 150 public schools in Baghdad, Ninewa, and Kirkuk.  Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.

In the IKR, private schools were required to pay a registration fee of 750,000 to 1.5 million dinars ($660 to $1,300) to the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Higher Education, depending on the type of school.  To register with the KRG, private schools needed to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance, and undergo an inspection.  The Catholic University in Erbil continued to operate with full accreditation from the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and remained open to students of all faiths.

The government continued not to require non-Muslim students to participate in religious instruction in public schools, but some non-Muslim students reported pressure to do so from instructors and classmates.  Reports continued that some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they could not leave the classroom during religious instruction.  Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and lack of minority input on school curricula and language of instruction.  By year’s end, schools still had not universally adopted the 2015 Ministry of Education curriculum incorporating lessons of religious tolerance.  Many Christians who spoke the Syriac language said it was their right to use and teach it to their children as a matter of religious freedom.  Seeking to establish private Christian schools, the Chaldean church in Basrah said local authorities mandated the inclusion of Islamic religious instruction in their curricula for Muslim students.

The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund religious instruction in schools for Muslim and Christian students.  The ministry also continued to fund Syriac-language public elementary and secondary schools, which was intended to accommodate Christian students.  The curriculum did not contain religious or Quranic studies.  The KRG MERA and Ministry of Education partnered with Harvard University to develop a religious studies curriculum that would present information on all recognized faiths from a nonsectarian, academic perspective to replace the existing religion classes.  The curriculum was still under development at year’s end.

The central government extended by one year the contracts of several hundred Christian employees who faced violence in Baghdad in 2010.  They were allowed to relocate from the south to the IKR and transfer their government jobs from the central government to the KRG, while the central government continued to pay their salaries.

There were reports of KRG authorities discriminating against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in northern Iraq.  For example, courts rarely upheld Christians’ legal complaints against Kurds regarding land and property disputes.  The director general of Christian affairs in the KRG MERA said that of 59 long-pending property dispute cases between Christians and Kurds, the KRG courts had only ruled on five cases, although in four of the five they ruled in favor of Christian plaintiffs.  In one such case in the Nahla Valley area of Dohuk , a court sentenced Kurds convicted of taking Christian-owned land to a three-month suspended sentence, a token fine, and a requirement the Kurds make a written pledge they would not encroach on the land again.  The KRG MERA director general, however, said authorities made no attempt to follow up on the case, and some of the Kurds continued to occupy land the court ruled belonged to the Christian community.  A land dispute dating from 2003 when the KRG seized 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) of farmland near Ankawa owned by 220 Christian farmers for the construction of the Erbil International Airport remained unresolved.

Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for construction of new and renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities, although budget cuts halted some projects.  The KRG spent approximately 2.5 billion dinars ($2.2 million) on the construction of an Armenian Apostolic church in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil, and another 500 million dinars ($439,000) on a community center for the Assyrian Church of the East.  The KRG said in 2017 that it planned to allocate land for a Jewish cultural center in Erbil, a Baha’i religious and cultural center near Erbil, and a Zoroastrian temple in Sulaimaniya.  According to KRG MERA Director of Co-Existence Amir Othman, his ministry passed its recommendation for lands to the Ministry of Municipalities, which reviews such recommendations and allocates appropriate public land parcels, but by year’s end, no land had been allocated for any of the three projects.  The Zoroastrian representative in MERA said Ministry of Municipalities officials had refused to implement the government directives for religious reasons.

While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minorities, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the Council of Ministers (COM) or the KRG COM, a situation unchanged from the previous year.  Members of minority religious communities continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government, although minority leaders said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, particularly at the provincial and local levels.  Minority leaders continued to say this underrepresentation limited minorities’ access to government-provided economic opportunities.  The Federal Supreme Court’s nine members included Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian.  Although there are no reliable statistics, minorities stated they believed they continued to be underrepresented in the ranks of police, senior military, and in intelligence and security services.

Some Sunni Muslims continued to speak about what they perceived as anti-Sunni discrimination by Shia government officials in retribution for the Sunnis’ favored status and abuses against Shia during the Saddam Hussein regime.  Sunnis said they continued to face discrimination in public sector employment as a result of de-Baathification, a process originally intended to target loyalists of the former regime.  Sunnis and local NGOs said the government continued the selective use of the de-Baathification provisions of the law to render many Sunnis ineligible for choice government positions, but it did not do so to render former Shia Baathists ineligible.  Some Sunnis said Sunnis were often passed over for choice government jobs or lucrative contracts from the Shia-dominated government because the Sunnis were allegedly accused of being Baathists who sympathized with ISIS ideology.

Although the IKP has 11 seats reserved for ethnic minority candidates, the law does not restrict who may vote in quota seat races.  Citing reports of Kurds voting for minority parties that align with major Kurdish parties, some members of the IKR’s minority voters said these votes undermined the intended purpose of the nine minority quota seats and diluted the voice of minorities in government.  Minority political party leaders said they were unsuccessful in their campaign to amend the law to restrict voting in quota seat races to voters of the same ethnicity of the candidate.

Human rights NGOs and Yezidi leaders stated KRG authorities discriminated against Yezidis by closing the Dohuk-Sinjar road and continuing to restrict commercial traffic after opening the road to passenger traffic in December.  Yezidi activists reported the deaths of several Yezidi women in Sinjar because of lack of access to medicine and medical care, primarily due to the road closure.  Since the October 2017 withdrawal of Peshmerga from the Sinjar area, it was possible, although not necessarily safe, to access Sinjar from central government-controlled areas.  KRG security forces, ISF, and the PMF had closed the road between the neighboring Christian towns of Telskuf and Batnaya, slowing the return of IDPs.  A local priest in Telskuf said KRG security forces refused requests from humanitarian organizations to pass through their roadblock to conduct relief and reconstruction work in Batnaya.  Authorities reopened the Telskuf-Batnaya road in October and the Dohuk-Sinjar road in December, but both roads remained closed to commercial traffic at year’s end.

Christians said they continued to face discrimination that limited their economic opportunities, such as “taxation” on their goods transported from Mosul into the Ninewa Plain by the PMF Shabak Brigade.  Sabean-Mandeans and Christians continued to report fear of importing and distributing alcohol and spirits despite receiving permits.  The legal ban on alcohol consumption by Muslims, according to local sources, prevented Muslim store owners from applying for permits allowing them to carry and sell alcohol.  Community sources reported Muslim businessmen sometimes used Christians as front men to apply for these permits and operate the stores.

On March 21, the tomb of a Kaka’i religious leader was destroyed by an explosion in Daquq, south of Kirkuk.  A local Kaka’i NGO said members of the PMF were responsible.

Kaka’i leaders said the central government’s Shia Endowment had forcibly taken over several places of Kaka’i worship in Kirkuk and converted them into mosques.

In observance of World Religion Day on January 21, the then speaker of parliament hosted 350 government officials, ethnic and religious leaders, and the international community in a celebration to urge interfaith dialogue and promote religious pluralism.  Although representatives from several religious minorities welcomed the event, they said it was unlikely discrimination against their communities would end anytime soon.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Mass graves containing victims of ISIS continued to be found.  According to KRG MERA’s Office of Yezidi Affairs, a total of 87 mass graves containing the bodies of over 2,500 Yezidis had been found in Sinjar District and other predominantly Yezidi areas of Ninewa Province since 2014.  On November 6, UNAMI and the United Nations Human Rights Office released a report documenting the existence of 202 mass graves in the provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Anbar and cautioned there may be “many more.”  The UN offices stated they believed the graves each held anywhere from eight to as many as “thousands” of bodies.  On November 6, 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.”  Estimates available to the UN ranged from 6,000 to more than 12,000 victims buried in these graves.

According to the KRG MERA director general of Christian affairs, ISIS abducted 150 Christians from the Batnaya, Qaraqosh, and Tal Kayf areas in 2014; their fate remained unclear at year’s end.

In April Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa, Syria rescued a young Christian woman kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 from Qaraqosh.  She said she was sold four times to different ISIS fighters, each of whom raped her and subjected her to torture and other forms of mistreatment.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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 then killed a Christian employee whom authorities believed was targeted because of his religion before police killed the attackers.

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.  In March local media reported the killing of a Christian family in Baghdad.  Some Christian leaders, including Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Sako, said they considered the killing a hate crime.  Others said the killers wanted to force Christian owners of prime real estate to surrender their property.

There were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups, in many parts of the country, but few reports of religious violence in the IKR.  Non-Muslim minorities reported continued threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs.  Kaka’i activists and religious leaders reported harassment and discrimination by the PMF in Kirkuk and Diyala, who identified Kaka’i men by their distinctive mustaches.  Sabean-Mandean leaders continued to report threats, abuses, and robberies.  In regular Friday sermons, Shia religious and government leaders urged PMF volunteers not to commit these abuses.

During May court proceedings, a judge demanded the Zoroastrian representative in the IKR MERA swear on the Quran before testifying.  She refused and asked to swear on a copy of the Gathas, the hymns of Zarathustra, but the judge did not allow it.

In June media continued to report political parties, criminal networks, and some militia groups seized more than 30,000 Christian properties in Baghdad, as well as areas of Anbar, Babil, Basrah, Diyala, and Wasit with impunity, despite pledges by the prime minister’s office to open investigations into the seizures.

In December, in response to the central government’s announcement that Christmas would be an official Iraqi holiday, prominent Sunni cleric and self-proclaimed “Grand Mufti” of Iraq Abdul-Mehdi al-Sumaidaie issued a fatwa that Muslims should not take part in New Year celebrations or congratulate Christians during Christmas.  Both the central government and the KRG Sunni Endowments rejected his fatwa and posted criticisms of it online.

Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Governorates, reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when they coincided with Islamic periods of mourning, such as Ashura.  There were continued reports that non-Muslim minorities felt pressured by the Muslim majority to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan.  Non-Shia Muslims and non-Muslim women continued to feel societal pressure to wear hijabs and all-black clothing during Muharram, particularly during Ashura, to avoid harassment.  According to representatives of Christian NGOs, some Muslims continued to threaten women and girls, regardless of their religious affiliation, for refusing to wear the hijab, for dressing in Western-style clothing, or for not adhering to strict interpretations of Islamic norms governing public behavior.  Outside the IKR, numerous women, including Christians and Sabean-Mandeans, said they opted to wear the hijab after continual harassment.  According to media and other sources, extensive security efforts helped to ensure that there were no violent incidents disrupting the large Shia commemorations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala.

Minority religious leaders continued to report pressure on minority communities to cede land rights to their businesses unless they conformed to a stricter observance of Islamic precepts.

Leaders of non-Muslim communities said corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their decision to emigrate.  Sunni Muslims reported continued discrimination based on a public perception the Sunni population sympathized with terrorist elements, including ISIS.

In November the Catholic Patriarchs of the East held a four-day conference in Baghdad to bring attention to the challenges threatening the survival of Christian communities in the region.  Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Sako, who hosted the meeting, said the patriarchs wanted to encourage “families to stay in our homeland keeping up our faith, identity, ethics, traditions, and language.”  This was the first time the conference was held in the country.  Catholic rites representatives included Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Beshara al-Rahi, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Youssef Absi, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, the representative of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem Monsignor William Hanna Shomali, and Cardinal Sako, who delivered the opening speech.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government continued to address at the highest levels a full range of religious freedom concerns in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, including Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi and his predecessor former Prime Minister Haider Abadi, and through speeches and U.S. embassy coordination groups promoting religious and ethnic minority community stabilization and humanitarian assistance.

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.  Embassy efforts centered on identifying the most pressing concerns of religious minorities – insecurity, lack of jobs, and road closures – and obtaining government and KRG commitments to assist these concerns.  Efforts included agreeing to recruit minorities in two Emergency Response Battalions, one for Sinjar and one for the Ninewa Plain, and reopening roads connecting persecuted religious communities to economic and urban centers.  The embassy’s interagency coordination group on minority stabilization also engaged with Yezidis, the KRG, central government, and other organizations and groups to coordinate efforts to ensure exhumations of Yezidi mass graves were performed to international standards.  U.S. government humanitarian assistance efforts, including in areas with religious minority populations, centered on providing tents, food, medicine, and medical supplies.

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional Ministries of Education, Justice (which includes the functions of the former Ministry of Human Rights), Labor, and Social Affairs, and the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.  They also met with members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and minority group representatives serving in government positions to emphasize the need for full inclusion of religious minorities and protection of their rights.  On January 15, the Ambassador hosted an event to observe Religious Freedom Day that promoted religious pluralism and reconciliation.  A wide range of representatives from the country’s many religious communities attended, including the Chaldean Catholic Church, Syrian Church, Assyrian Catholic Church, Coptic Church, as well as members of the Yezidi, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, and Islamic faiths (both Sunnis and Shia).  On January 16, the embassy convened an interfaith dialogue with a former participant of two U.S.-sponsored exchange programs that focused on the promotion of religious diversity.  On October 16, the embassy hosted the Deputy Secretary of State for a roundtable with representatives of Iraq’s minority religious communities.

The U.S. government continued to develop, finance, and manage projects to support all religious communities, with special emphasis on assistance to IDPs and returnees.  As part of the continued commitment by the Vice President, Secretary of State, and the USAID Administrator to support ethnic and religious minorities, the United States announced over $178 million in U.S. foreign assistance to support these vulnerable communities in Iraq in October.  This brought total U.S. assistance for this population to nearly $300 million since fiscal year 2017, implemented by both the Department of State and USAID.  These efforts, implemented in close partnership with local faith and community leaders, included USAID’s Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response program totaling $133 million, funding of approximately $37 million to clear explosive remnants of war, $8.5 million for social, economic, and political empowerment of minority communities, and $2 million for the preservation of historic and cultural sites.  In July USAID also appointed a Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs, based in Erbil, to oversee U.S. assistance for Iraq’s minority communities.

Senior advisors to the Vice President accompanied the Ambassador to the Ninewa Plain to discuss with community leaders how the United States could improve support to endangered minorities recovering from ISIS’ genocide campaign against them.  In separate visits, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the USAID Administrator visited the Ninewa Plain and met with Christian, Yezidi, and Shabak leaders to assure them of the U.S. government’s commitment to preserve and support religious diversity through increased support to minority communities.  The Ambassador, senior embassy officers, Consuls General in Erbil and Basrah, and the USAID Administrator’s Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs made regular visits to minority areas to meet with minority community leaders, religious leaders, and local and provincial authorities to underscore U.S. support for their communities and assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.

U.S. officials in Baghdad, Basrah, and Erbil also continued to hold regular discussions with government officials, endowment leaders, and UN officials coordinating international assistance to IDPs and recent returnees to address problems identified by religious groups related to the distribution of assistance.

The Ambassador and the Consuls General in Erbil and Basrah met leaders of minority religious groups and civil society groups to address their concerns, particularly regarding security and protection.  Embassy officials met religious leaders on a regular basis to discuss broader religious freedom issues and to demonstrate U.S. interest in and support for resolving issues with the provision of assistance.  In particular, they met with Yezidi, Christian, Shabak, Turkoman, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and other religious and minority leaders to promote reconciliation within their communities and to advocate for religious minority needs with the government.

Lebanon

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 6.1 million (July 2018 estimate).  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations estimate the total population includes approximately 4.5 million citizens and an estimated 1.3 million refugees fleeing the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the vast majority of whom are Syrian, as well as a Palestinian refugee population present in the country for nearly 70 years.

Statistics Lebanon, an independent firm, estimates 61.1 percent of the citizen population is Muslim (30.6 percent Sunni, 30.5 percent Shia, and small percentages of Alawites and Ismailis).  Statistics Lebanon estimates that 33.7 percent of the population is Christian.  Maronite Catholics are the largest Christian group, followed by Greek Orthodox.  Other Christian groups include Greek Catholics (Melkites), Armenian Orthodox (Gregorians), Armenian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox (Jacobites), Syriac Catholics, Assyrians (Nestorians), Chaldeans, Copts, Protestants (including Presbyterians, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists), Latin (Roman) Catholics, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

According to Statistics Lebanon, 5.2 percent of the population is Druze and is concentrated in the rural, mountainous areas east and south of Beirut.  There are also small numbers of Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Hindus.  The Jewish Community Council, which represents the Lebanese Jewish community, estimates that approximately 100 Jews remain in the country.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are approximately 1.3 million refugees from Syria in the country, mainly Sunni Muslims, but also including Shia Muslims, Christians, and Druze.  UNRWA estimates that there are between 250,000 and 280,000 Palestinians still living in the country as UN-registered refugees in 12 camps and surrounding areas.  Comprised of refugees who entered the country in the 1940s and 1950s, including their descendants, they are largely Sunni Muslims but also include Christians.

UNHCR estimates there are just under 30,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon.  Refugees and foreign migrants also include largely Sunni Kurds, Sunni and Shia Muslims and Chaldeans from Iraq, and Coptic Christians from Egypt and Sudan.  According to the secretary-general of the Syriac League, an NGO that advocates for Syriac Christians in the country, approximately 10,000 Iraqi Christians of all denominations and 3,000 to 4,000 Coptic Christians reside in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and declares the state will respect all religious groups and denominations, as well as the personal status and religious interests of persons of every religious group.  The constitution guarantees free exercise of religious rites, provided they do not disturb the public order, and declares the equality of rights and duties for all citizens without discrimination or preference.

By law, an individual is free to convert to a different religion if a local senior official of the religious group the person wishes to join approves the change.  The newly joined religious group issues a document confirming the convert’s new religion, and allowing the convert to register her or his new religion with the Ministry of Interior’s Personal Status Directorate.  The new religion is included thereafter on government-issued civil registration documents.

Citizens have the right to remove the customary notation of their religion from government-issued civil registration documents or change how it is listed.  Changing the documents does not require approval of religious officials.

The penal code stipulates a maximum prison term of one year for anyone convicted of “blaspheming God publicly.”  It does not provide a definition of what this entails.

The penal code also criminalizes defamation and contempt for religion, and stipulates a maximum prison term of three years.

By law, religious groups may apply to the government for official recognition.  To do so, it must submit a statement of its doctrine and moral principles to the cabinet, which evaluates whether the group’s principles are in accord with the government’s perception of popular values and the constitution.  Alternatively, an unrecognized religious group may apply for recognition by applying to a recognized religious group.  In doing so, the unrecognized group does not gain recognition as a separate group, but becomes an affiliate of the group through which it applies.  This process has the same requirements as applying for recognition directly with the government.

There are 18 officially recognized religious groups.  These include four Muslim groups (Shia, Sunni, Alawite, and Ismaili), 12 Christian groups (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean, Copt, Evangelical, and Latin Catholic), Druze, and Jews.  Groups the government does not recognize include Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, and several Protestant groups.

Official recognition of a religious group allows baptisms and marriages performed by the group to receive government sanction.  Official recognition also conveys other benefits, such as tax-exempt status and the right to apply the religious group’s codes to personal status matters.  By law, the government permits recognized religious groups to administer their own rules on family and personal status issues including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance.  Shia, Sunni, recognized Christian, and Druze groups have state-appointed, government-subsidized clerical courts to administer family and personal status law.

Religious groups perform all marriages and divorces; there are no formalized procedures for civil marriage or divorce.  The government recognizes civil marriage ceremonies performed outside the country irrespective of the religious affiliation of each partner in the marriage.  While some Christian and Muslim religious authorities will perform interreligious marriages, clerics, priests, or religious courts will often require the non-belonging partner to pledge to raise their children in the religion of their partner and/or to give up certain rights such as inheritance or custody claims in the case of divorce.

Nonrecognized religious groups may own property and may assemble for worship and perform their religious rites freely.  They may not perform legally recognized marriage or divorce proceedings and they have no standing to determine inheritance issues.  Given agreements in the country’s confessional system that designate percentages of senior government positions, and in some cases specific positions, for the recognized religious confessions, members of unrecognized groups do not have any opportunity to occupy certain government positions, including cabinet, parliamentary, secretary-general, and director general positions.

The government requires Protestant churches to register with the Evangelical Synod, a self-governing advisory group overseeing religious matters for Protestant congregations, and representing those churches to the government.

The law allows censorship of religious publications under a number of conditions, including if the government deems the material incites sectarian discord or threatens national security.

According to the constitution, recognized religious communities may have their own schools, provided they follow the general rules issued for public schools, which stipulate schools must not incite sectarian discord or threaten national security.  Approximately 70 percent of students attend private schools, which despite many having ties to confessional groups, are often open to children of other religious groups as well.  The Ministry of Education does not require or encourage religious education in public schools, but it is permitted, and both Christian and Muslim local religious representatives sometimes host educational sessions in public schools.

The constitution states “sectarian groups” shall be represented in a “just and equitable balance” in the cabinet and high-level civil service positions, which includes the ministry ranks of secretary-general and director general.  It also states these posts shall be distributed proportionately among the recognized religious groups.  This distribution of positions among religious groups is based on the unwritten 1943 National Pact, which used religious affiliation data from the 1932 census (the last conducted in the country), and also applies to the civil service, the judiciary, military and security institutions, and public agencies at both the national and local levels of government.  Parliament is elected on the basis of “equality between Christians and Muslims.”  Druze and Alawites are included in this allocation with the Muslim communities.

The constitution also states there is no legitimacy for any authorities that contradict the “pact of communal existence,” thereby giving force of law to the unwritten 1943 National Pact, although that agreement is neither an official component of the constitution nor a formally binding agreement.  According to the pact, the president shall be a Maronite Christian, the speaker of parliament shall be a Shia Muslim, and the prime minister shall be a Sunni Muslim.

The Taef Agreement, which ended the country’s 15-year civil war in 1989, also mandates equal Muslim and Christian representation in parliament, but makes changes to the powers of the Maronite Christian presidency, including subjecting the designations of the prime minister and other cabinet ministers to consultations with parliament.  In addition, the agreement endorses the constitutional provision of appointing most senior government officials according to religious affiliation, including senior positions within the military and other security forces.  Customarily, a Christian heads the army, while the directors general of the Internal Security Forces and Directorate of General Security are Sunni and Shia, respectively.  Several other top positions in the security services are customarily designated for particular confessions as well.  While specific positions are designated by custom rather than law, deviating from custom is rare and could provoke a political crisis if an acceptable swap or accommodation were not mutually agreed by the confessions concerned.  The Taef Agreement mandates a cabinet with seats allocated equally between Muslims (to include Druze and Alawites) and Christians.  The Taef Agreement’s stipulations on equality of representation between members of different confessions do not apply to citizens who do not list a religious affiliation on their national registration, and thus they cannot hold a seat designated for a specific confession.

In June 2017 parliament approved a new electoral law replacing the country’s winner-take-all system for parliamentary elections with a proportional vote.  The law does not affect the Christian-Muslim proportionality of parliament.

By law, the synod of each Christian group elects its patriarchs; the Sunni and Shia electoral bodies elect their respective senior clerics; and the Druze community elects its sheikh al-aql.  The government council of ministers must endorse the nomination of Sunni and Shia muftis, as well as the Druze sheikh al-aql, and pay their salaries.  The government also appoints and pays the salaries of Muslim and Druze clerical judges.  By law, the government does not endorse Christian patriarchs and does not pay the salaries of Christian clergy and officials of Christian groups.

The government issues foreign religious workers a one-month visa; in order to stay longer a worker must complete a residency application during the month.  Religious workers also must sign a “commitment of responsibility” form before receiving a visa, which subjects the worker to legal prosecution and immediate deportation for any activity involving religious or other criticism directed against the state or any other country, except Israel.  If the government finds an individual engaging in religious activity while on a tourist visa, the government may determine a violation of the visa category has occurred and deport the individual.

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

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, it provided a number of basic services such as health care, education, food aid, infrastructure repair, and internal security.  There continued to be reports of Hizballah controlling access to the neighborhoods and localities under its control, including in Beirut’s southern suburbs and areas of the Bekaa and South Lebanon.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On August 25, a Sunni sheikh and his two brothers allegedly killed another Sunni man in the northern town of Minieh.  Media reported that the dispute began when the sheikh accused the man of making a blasphemous remark in a market, after which the sheikh and his two brothers followed the man outside where they attacked and killed him with knives and cleavers.  Police arrested the men involved and their case was ongoing at year’s end.  Human rights NGOs and activists criticized the lack of an immediate condemnation by the grand mufti or other high-level Sunni or government authorities.

The Jewish Community Council reported acts of vandalism at the Jewish cemetery in Sidon, including the destruction and desecration of gravesites.  Authorities granted the Jewish Community Council a permit to restore the Sidon cemetery following the acts of vandalism.  The council’s 2011 lawsuit against individuals who constructed buildings in the Jewish cemetery in Tripoli continued, pending additional court-ordered analysis of the site, and was unresolved by year’s end.  The council made little progress with the municipality of Beirut regarding construction debris and other garbage dumped in the Beirut Jewish cemetery.

Religious leaders stated that relationships among individual members of different religious groups remained amicable.  On August 28, Christian and Muslim religious leaders met with the Swiss president at the summer residence of Maronite Patriarch Rai and appealed to the international community to work toward protecting peace in the region and the dignity of refugees.  During the meeting, Rai said “this presence of high Muslim and Christian dignitaries clearly reflects the uniqueness of Lebanon as a country of convergence and interfaith dialogue.”

Christian and Muslim religious leaders from the major denominations continued to participate in interfaith dialogues throughout the year and to call for unity against extremism.  At a February 26 conference in Vienna, the highest leaders of some of the country’s major religious communities, including Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, Grand Mufti of the Republic Abdel Latif Deryan, and Armenian Orthodox Catholicos Aram I Keshishian, joined 23 high-ranking Arab Muslim and Christian authorities to commit to work together to rebuild and protect their communities from the effects of religiously motivated violent extremist rhetoric and actions.  The group launched the first interreligious platform to advocate for the rights and inclusion of all communities in the Arab world, combat ideologies instigating hatred and sectarianism, and jointly address the challenges their communities face.

A survey by the Adyan Foundation found that nearly 70 percent of first-time voters among all religious groups between 21 and 28 years old identified “being open to all people of different beliefs and fraternizing with them in order to live their values and promote the common good” as the most important daily embodiment of their faith.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to engage government officials on the need to encourage tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect among religious groups.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with individual politicians representing different religious groups to discuss the views of their constituents and promote religious tolerance.  The Ambassador met with the leadership of the Sunni, Shia, Druze, and Christian communities to promote interfaith dialogue and urge them to take steps to counter violent extremism.  Embassy officers met with civil society representatives to convey similar messages.  On June 2, the Ambassador participated in an iftar with prominent leaders of the Muslim and Christian communities in Tripoli to promote an embassy-supported program to prevent youth religious radicalization.  The Ambassador stressed the importance of interfaith dialogue and the need to provide opportunities to vulnerable youth across confessions.

On May 20, a senior embassy officer delivered remarks at the graduation ceremony for participants of an embassy-supported program bringing together 750 religiously diverse students from 42 high schools across the country to increase their understanding of religious diversity.  Religiously mixed students also collaborated to develop and lead community service projects serving geographically and religiously diverse communities across the country.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with Iraqi Christian refugees, Chaldean Church officials, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in November to assess complaints of religious-based discrimination in the provision of refugee assistance.  While finding no evidence of widespread religious discrimination in the provision of services to refugees, the Ambassador facilitated agreement on a number of steps UNHCR and the Chaldean Church could take to improve communication and cooperation in their provision of assistance.  For the eighth consecutive year, the embassy selected five students between 18 and 25 years old to participate in a five-week visitor exchange program at Temple University where they learned about religious pluralism in the United States, visited places of worship, and participated in cultural activities in order to apply this knowledge to issues in Lebanon.

Libya

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.7 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to reports by the International Organization for Migration, 12 percent of the population (approximately 804,000 persons) are migrants.  Sunni Muslims represent 97 percent of the population, and the remaining 3 percent includes Ibadi Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Baha’is, Ahmadi Muslims, and Buddhists.  Many members of the Amazigh ethnic minority are Ibadi Muslims.  Human Rights Watch reported in 2017 that, according to the Libyan Tamazight Congress, an organization that advocates on behalf of the Amazigh community, Ibadi Muslims account for between 4.5 and 6 percent of the population.  Nearly all non-Muslim residents in the country are foreigners.

Estimates of the number of Christians in the country vary.  According to the Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List Country Profile (which covers 2018), there are 37,900 Christians in the country.  In 2015 Open Doors USA estimated 150 to 180 of these were Libyan nationals who converted from Islam.

Foreign Christian communities consist almost exclusively of sub-Saharan African migrants and Filipino foreign workers, with smaller numbers of Egyptian migrants and a small number of other foreign residents of European nationality.  According to Christian groups in Tripoli, most of the Egyptian Christians are Copts.  Most sub-Saharan African and Filipino migrants are Catholic, and the Catholic diocese of Tripoli estimates its followers include 5,000 sub-Saharan and 3,000 Filipino individuals.  Estimates on the numbers of other Christian groups vary.  According to Open Doors USA, these include Anglicans, Greek and Russian Orthodox, and nondenominational Christians.

According to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem, no Jewish individuals reside permanently in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The 2011 Constitutional Declaration functions as the interim constitution.  It states Islam is the state religion and sharia is the principal source of legislation, but it accords Christians and Jews the freedom to practice their religions and guarantees state respect for their personal status laws.  Christian and Jewish familial religious matters, such as divorce and inheritance, are governed according to the mandates of the religious community to which the individual belongs.  The interim constitution also states “there shall be no discrimination among Libyans on the basis of religion or sect” with regard to legal, political, and civil rights.  Religious minority communities other than Christians and Jews, however, are not accorded equal rights under the law.  The GNA remains bound by the constitutional declaration until a new constitution is passed by the House of Representatives and a public referendum held.  The laws governing religious practice predate the internal conflict and provide a national legal framework for religious freedom.

There is no law providing for individuals’ right to choose or change their religion or to study, discuss, or promulgate their religious beliefs.  There is no civil law explicitly prohibiting conversion from Islam to another religion or prohibiting proselytization; however, the criminal code effectively prohibits missionary activities or conversion.  It includes prohibitions against “instigating division” and insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, charges that carry a maximum sentence of death.  The criminal code prohibits the circulation of publications that aim to “change the fundamental principles of the constitution or the fundamental rules of the social structure,” which are used to criminalize the circulation of non-Islamic religious material.

The GNA and the East each have a Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA).  The MEIAs administer mosques, supervises clerics, and has primary responsibility for ensuring all religious practices conform to state-approved Islamic norms.  Religious instruction in Islam is required in public and private schools.  Attendance at religious instruction is mandatory for all students with no opt-out provisions.

Sharia governs family matters for Muslims, including inheritance, divorce, and the right to own property.  Under sharia, a Christian or Jewish woman who marries a Muslim man is not required to convert to Islam; however, a non-Muslim man must convert to Islam to marry a Muslim woman.  Marriages between Muslim men and women of non-Abrahamic faiths are illegal under sharia, and such marriages are not recognized, even when contracted abroad.  The MEIA administers non-Muslim family law issues, although there is no separate legal framework governing non-Muslim family law.  The ministry draws upon neighboring countries’ family law precedents for non-Muslims.

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

During the year, nonstate actors and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country, including Benghazi and parts of Tripoli.  In Derna, prior to the LNA operations to take the city, 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.

Multiple sources state 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.  Christian groups operating in the country identified the LNA-aligned Madkhali Salafist groups operating in Benghazi as among the Islamic militant groups involved in harassment of Christians.  Academic studies and media describe the Madkhali movement as a form of very strict Salafism.

According to a Christian group operating in the country, Christian residents continued to report abuse at the hands of militant Muslim groups, including members of the former Libya Shield Force affiliated with the Libyan Dawn battalion, whose physical mistreatment of detainees included floggings, exposure to cold weather, and other abuses; they also reportedly threatened Christians with execution by beheading.  Christian residents reported similar abuses by other groups, including the Benghazi Revolutionary Brigades (BRB), a jihadist Salafist militia coalition.  Christian groups pointed to the example of a Coptic Christian man who, in 2017, was repatriated to Egypt after the BRB kidnapped him and held him for 18 days.  He was released after payment of a ransom.

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 other individuals.  According to spokespersons for the two main hospitals for emergency and trauma services in Benghazi, the majority of victims were civilians.

In December 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.  According to Reuters, in April 2015 a video posted on social media appeared to show ISIS members shooting and beheading the Christians, who were migrant workers.

Reuters also reported the government returned to Egypt the bodies of 20 Coptic Christians in May.  Reuters reported that in January 2015 a video released online appeared to show ISIS members beheading the individuals, together with one Ghanaian Christian, on a beach near Sirte and burying them in a mass grave.

The Christian Science Monitor reported in January that the Madkhali movement grew more influential.  The Christian Science Monitor said Madkhali units associated with LNA-affiliated groups functioned as informal police forces.  The newspaper said in January members of the Madkhali movement patrolled the streets of Tripoli to stop crime and what they viewed as “vice” contrary to Islam and to disrupt ISIS cells and attacks.

The MEIA of the nonrecognized governmental administration in the East exercised its ability to issue fatwas.  According to local human rights activists in Benghazi, followers of the Madkhali movement exercised influence over academic institutions, in addition to overt control of MEIA.

On November 12, Mousa Abdalsalam Taieb, Director of Cultural and Religious Conversion Affairs for MEIA in the East, issued a circular calling for takfir (a pronouncement that someone is an unbeliever [kafir] and no longer a Muslim) as the penalty for individuals who celebrated the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday; cooked a porridge traditionally prepared for this holiday; or engaged in ritual praise of Mohammed.  Sources noted all of these practices were part of traditional Islamic practice in the country.

According to Human Rights Watch, the 2017 MEIA religious edict by the “eastern interim government” based in Tobruk remained in effect against Ibadi Muslims, accusing the group of deviance and following an infidel doctrine.

According to Libyan academic researchers, the General Administration for Criminal Investigation in Benghazi continued to conduct investigations of citizens for denigrating Islam and for converting others to Christianity, and proselytizing on social media.

According to human rights activists and political analysts, the MEIA in the East continued to provide texts for Friday services to imams, often including political and social messages.  According to media reports, the LNA continued to appoint several imams with Salafist beliefs in areas of its control throughout the East.

U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations, including Ansar al-Sharia, AQIM, and ISIS, continued to operate within the country, although there were no reports during the year of explicitly religiously motivated attacks.  Sources indicated Ansar al-Sharia maintained connections with extremists in other parts of the country, including AQIM.  Following expulsion from Sirte in December 2016, ISIS was believed to be largely confined to nonpopulated areas outside of major cities, as well as to ungoverned regions in the South.

On June 28, the LNA took control of the eastern city of Derna from the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna (SCMD), an umbrella organization consisting of Salafist groups opposed to ISIS, including Ansar al-Sharia.  According to human rights activists, when SCMD controlled Derna, it restricted the freedom of Sunni Muslims to worship or engage in what SCMD considered heterodox religious expression.

In October Ali al-Subaiy, a former Libya Islamic Fighting Group member and an unsuccessful candidate for the House of Representatives seat for the Hayy al-Andalus Neighborhood of Tripoli, gave an interview on the Turkey-based Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Channel 9 television station.  Al-Subaiy called Jews “the descendants of apes and pigs” and called for “offensive jihad” against Jews and Christians.  In September al-Subaiy said in an interview on the same channel that “history informs us that [the Jews] are treacherous and deceitful.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Multiple sources, including international media, and the Arab Organization for Human Rights – Libya (AOHRL) continued to report a restrictive social environment for religious freedom throughout the country.  This included intense social and economic pressure on former Muslims to return to Islam.  NGOs and a UN agency stated Salafist interpretations of sharia increasingly contributed to this restrictive environment.  Religious minorities said converts to other religions, as well as atheists, agnostics, and other nonreligious persons, were threatened with violence or dismissal from employment because of their beliefs or lack of belief.  An atheist from Benghazi said he faced discrimination and had to publicly reaffirm faith in Islam (which contradicted his private beliefs) due to threats against his person by coworkers and Salafist militia groups.

Sources said Christians who converted from Islam practiced their faith in semi-secrecy.  Open Doors USA stated Christian citizens who were former Muslims faced violence and intense pressure from their families and communities to renounce their faith.  Christians said they felt pressure to refrain from missionary activities because of security threats and social pressure from the local community.  Catholic authorities also stated Christian migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were more likely to experience discrimination or extortion than Muslims from the same region.

Christian communities continued to exist in Tripoli, where Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches operated for foreigners.  Christian communities were also present in Misrata, al-Baida, Benghazi, Tubruq, Sebha, Ghat, Ubari, and Murzuq, among other cities.  In some cases, such as in Benghazi, Catholic communities continued to worship in places other than church buildings after ISIS destroyed church properties there in 2015.  The Catholic cathedral in Benghazi remained damaged and inaccessible after fighting occurred in 2013-15.

According to Human Rights Watch, in late 2017 unidentified individuals attacked two historic Sufi mosques in Tripoli.  Unidentified individuals set fire to the Sufi mosque, Zawiyat Sheikha Radiya, causing extensive damage, and destroyed the Sidi Abu Gharara Mosque.  There were no reported arrests related to the attacks by year’s end.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Following the U.S. embassy evacuation from Tripoli and suspension of operations in July 2014, U.S. diplomats have operated out of Tunis, Tunisia, making periodic trips into the country when security conditions permitted.  The U.S. government discussed religious freedom on a number of occasions with a variety of local and national leaders, particularly in the context of confronting violent extremist groups such as ISIS.  Embassy officials frequently met with human rights activists, including the National Commission for Human Rights in Libya and the AOHRL, to address religious freedom issues.  The U.S. government also condemned acts of physical mistreatment of religious minorities in detention and destruction of religious property.  The U.S. embassy partnered with the Ministry of Education to disseminate new civil education curricula for grades four to nine that promote inclusivity and tolerance.

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.3 million (July 2018 estimate) and more than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim.  Less than 0.1 percent of the population is Shia Muslim, according to U.S. government estimates.  Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, and Baha’is.

According to Jewish community leaders, there are an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 Jews, approximately 2,500 of whom reside in Casablanca.  Some Christian community leaders estimate there are between 2,000 and 6,000 Christian citizens distributed throughout the country; however, the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report estimates there are 25,000 Christian citizens.  Moroccan Shia Muslim leaders estimate there are several thousand Shia citizens, with the largest proportion in the north.  In addition, there are an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 foreign-resident Shia from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.  Leaders of the Ahmadi Muslim community estimate their numbers at 600.  Leaders of the Baha’i community estimate there are 350-400 members throughout the country.

Foreign-resident Christian leaders estimate the foreign-resident Christian population numbers at least 30,000 Roman Catholics and several thousand Protestants, many of whom are recent migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or lifelong residents of the country whose families have resided and worked there for generations but do not hold Moroccan citizenship.  There are small foreign-resident Anglican communities in Casablanca and Tangier.  There are an estimated 3000 foreign-residents who identify as Russian and Greek Orthodox, including a small foreign-resident Russian Orthodox community in Rabat and a small foreign-resident Greek Orthodox community in Casablanca.  Most foreign-resident Christians live in the Casablanca, Tangier, and Rabat urban areas, but small numbers of foreign Christians are present throughout the country, including many who are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, the country is a Muslim state, with full sovereignty, and Islam is the religion of the state.  The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says the state guarantees every individual 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.  The constitution prohibits the enactment of laws or constitutional amendments infringing upon its provisions relating to Islam, and also recognizes the Jewish community as an integral component of society.  According to the constitution, political parties may not be founded on religion and may not denigrate or infringe on Islam.

The constitution and the law governing media prohibit any individual, including members of parliament normally immune from arrest, from criticizing Islam on public platforms, such as print or online media, or in public speeches.  Such expressions are punishable by imprisonment for two years and a fine of 200,000 dirhams ($21,000).

The law penalizes anyone who “employs enticements to undermine the faith” or convert a Muslim to another faith, and provides punishments of six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52).  It also provides the right to a court trial for anyone accused of such an offense.  Voluntary conversion is not a crime under the law.  The law permits the government to expel summarily any noncitizen resident it determines to be “a threat to public order,” and the government has used this clause on occasion to expel foreigners suspected of proselytizing.

By law, impeding or preventing one or more persons from worshipping or from attending worship services of any religion is punishable by six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52).  The penal code states any person known to be Muslim who breaks the fast in public during the month of Ramadan without an exception granted by religious authorities is liable to punishment of six months in prison and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52).  Owners have discretion to keep their restaurants open during Ramadan.

The High Authority for Audiovisual Communications established by the constitution requires all eight public television stations to dedicate five percent of their airtime to Islamic religious content and to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer five times daily.

Sunni Muslims and Jews are the only religious groups recognized in the constitution as native to the country.  A separate set of laws and special courts govern personal status matters for Jews, including functions such as marriage, inheritance, and other personal status matters.  Rabbinical authorities, who are also court officials, administer Jewish family courts.  Muslim judges trained in the country’s Maliki-Ashari Sunni interpretation of the relevant aspects of sharia administer the courts for personal status matters for all other religious groups.  According to the law, a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman; a Muslim woman may not marry a man of another religion unless he converts to Islam.  Non-Muslims must formally convert to Islam and be permanent residents before they can become guardians of abandoned or orphaned children.  Guardianship entails the caretaking of a child, which may last until the child reaches 18, but it does not allow changing the child’s name or inheritance rights, and requires maintaining the child’s birth religion, according to orphanage directors.

Legal provisions outlined in the general tax code provide tax benefits, land and building grants, subsidies, and customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities of recognized religious groups (Sunni Muslims and Jews) and religious groups registered as associations (some foreign Christian churches).  The law does not require religious groups to register to worship privately, but a nonrecognized religious group must register as an association to conduct business on behalf of the group or to hold public gatherings.  Associations must register with local Ministry of Interior (MOI) officials in the jurisdiction of the association’s headquarters in order to conduct financial transactions, hold bank accounts, rent property, and address the government in the name of the group.  An individual representative of a religious group neither recognized nor registered as an association may be held liable for any of the group’s public gatherings, transactions, bank accounts, property rentals, and/or petitions to the government.  The registration application must contain the name and purpose of the association; the name, nationality, age, profession, and residential address of each founder; and the address of the association’s headquarters.  The constitution guarantees civil society associations and nongovernmental organizations the right to organize themselves and exercise their activities freely within the scope of the constitution.  The law on associations prohibits organizations that pursue activities the government regards as “illegal, contrary to good morals, or aimed at undermining the Islamic religion, the integrity of the national territory, or the monarchical regime, or which call for discrimination.”

Many foreign-resident Christian churches are registered as associations.  The Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican Churches maintain different forms of official status.  The Russian Orthodox and Anglican Churches are registered as branches of international associations through the embassies of Russia and the United Kingdom, respectively.  The Protestant and Catholic Churches, whose existence as foreign-resident churches predates the country’s independence in 1956, as well as the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, maintain a special status recognized by the government.

By law, all publicly funded educational institutions must teach Sunni Islam in accordance with the teachings and traditions of the Maliki-Ashari school of Islamic jurisprudence.  Foreign-run and privately funded schools have the choice of teaching Sunni Islam or of not including religious instruction within the school’s curriculum.  Private Jewish schools may teach Judaism.

According to the constitution, only the High Council of Ulema, a group headed and appointed by the king with representatives from all regions of the country, is authorized to issue fatwas, which become legally binding only through the king’s endorsement in a royal decree and subsequent confirmation by parliamentary legislation.  If the king or parliament decline to ratify a decision of the Ulema, the decision remains nonbinding and unenforced.

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

Government Practices

The government at times reportedly detained and questioned Moroccan Christian and Shia citizens about their beliefs.  According to press reports, in April police in Rabat detained a Christian citizen for 24 hours after finding Christian literature in his backpack.  In May and June human rights organizations and media reported local authorities denied two Christian converts the necessary documentation to register to marry because of their religious beliefs.  The couple hosted a small symbolic wedding ceremony in a human rights organization’s headquarters in Rabat in June, but the couple stated they feared being accused of fornication, which is punishable under the penal code, because they did not have a government-issued marriage certificate.  According to activists and members of the religious minority community, authorities also detained and questioned several Shia Muslims for hours about their religious beliefs and about members of their religious community.  According to activists, during these instances, police did not document the detention and, according to media reports, denied such events transpired.

According to press reports, a group called the Moroccan Christian Coordinating Group met with the CNDH on April 3 to submit a petition calling for the government to recognize a series of rights for Christian citizens including freedom of worship, celebration of civil marriages, establishment and operation of cemeteries, being able to use biblical names for children, and the right of children to decline Islamic classes at school, as well as the legal normalization of Christian churches.  CNDH informed the group that CNDH welcomed official complaints where violations of human rights occurred.  CNDH was not aware of a government response to the petition.

Press also reported that on November 22, the Court of Appeals in Taza upheld a Court of First Instance ruling in favor of a defendant who was acquitted of “shaking the faith of a Muslim,” a crime under the penal code, after he reportedly handed a book explaining the Bible to another individual.  The appeals court ruling mentioned the ICCPR, which guarantees “the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs.”

Nonregistered religious groups reported receiving varying treatment by authorities; however, during the year, there were no reports of authorities prohibiting these groups from practicing their religion in private.  A number of religious groups reported they cooperated with authorities and occasionally informed them of planned large gatherings, for which authorities sometimes provided security.

According to religious leaders and legal scholars, the government’s refusal in past years to allow Shia Muslim groups to register as associations continued to prevent these groups from gathering legally for public religious ceremonies.  There were no known Shia mosques.  Shia representatives reported they had not attempted to register during the year.

According to representatives of the Moroccan Association for Religious Rights and Freedoms, on May 3 government authorities refused to accept the application for registration of their association under the determination the association aimed to undermine Islam.

A Christian group applied to register as an association in December 2018; it was awaiting a response from MOI at year’s end.

The government allowed the operation of registered foreign-resident Christian churches.  Church officials reported Christian citizens rarely attended their churches, and they did not encourage them to do so to avoid official accusations of proselytizing.  According to some reports from activists, authorities at times pressured Christian converts to renounce their faith by informing the converts’ friends, relatives, and employers of the individuals’ conversion.  According to community leaders, Christian citizens said authorities made phone or house calls to demonstrate they monitored Christian activities.  Foreigners attended religious services without restriction at places of worship belonging to officially recognized churches.

According to media reports, on June 20, the Collective for Democracy and Liberties cancelled a long-planned seminar on individual rights, including “sexual rights” and religious freedom, immediately before it was scheduled to begin.  A statement from the Ministry of Justice explained the Ministry of Interior had informed the seminar organizers they lacked the appropriate registration to hold the event.  Assabah reported the Head of Government Saadeddin El Othmani, Minister of State for Human Rights Ramid, Minister of Justice Mohamed Aujjar, and Secretary-General of the Party of Progress and Socialism Mohamed Nabil Benabdallah withdrew from participating in the seminar after cabinet and party members were reportedly ordered not to participate in any meetings encouraging sectarianism.  According to a Telquel article, Minister Aujjar said that after reviewing the agenda for the seminar, he cancelled his participation because “speaking about individual liberties does not bother [him], but it is a difficult question to assume politically.”

In an interview on June 14, Minister Ramid stated “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 Aujjar denied the existence of Christian, Baha’i, and Ahmadi citizens, but said throughout history Morocco had allowed Jewish citizens and visiting Christians from Europe and Africa to practice their religions freely.  The Moroccan Christians Coordinating Group issued statements rejecting Minister Aujjar’s denial that they, whose numbers they maintained exceed those of Morocco’s recognized Jewish population, exist.

According to a human rights association, on November 26, it hosted a conference in Rabat on the situation of the country’s religious minorities.  During the event, leaders of human rights organizations said they were beginning to follow the issue more closely; however, limited information was available and official data on Moroccan religious minorities was not available.

The ban on the import, production, and sale of the burqa imposed in 2017 remained in effect.  The MOI cited security concerns as justification for the ban.  The ban did not prevent individuals from wearing burqas or making them at home for individual use.  Authorities, however, continued not to allow police and army personnel in uniform to wear a hijab.

The MEIA remained the principal government institution responsible for shaping the country’s religious sphere and promoting its interpretation of Sunni Islam.  It employed 1852 morchidines and 804 morchidates in mosques or religious institutions throughout the country.  The morchidates taught religious subjects and provided counsel on a variety of matters, including women’s legal rights and family planning.  It continued to provide government-required, one-year training to imams, training an average of 150 morchidines and 100 morchidates a year.  It also continued to train foreign imams, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa.  The training sessions fulfilled the requirement for religious leaders to acquire a certificate issued by the High Council of Ulema to operate in the country.  The High Council of Ulema also continued to host continuing training sessions and capacity-building exercises for the religious leaders.

According to the government, the MEIA did not interfere with the topics the religious leaders chose to address during sermons; however, religious leaders were required to abide by the guidelines outlined in the MEIA-issued Guide of the Imam, Khatib, and the Preacher when they operated in the country.

The MEIA monitored Quranic schools to prevent what the ministry considered inflammatory or extremist rhetoric and ensure teaching followed approved doctrine.  The government required mosques to close to the public shortly after daily prayer times to prevent use of the premises for what it termed “unauthorized activity,” including gatherings intended to promote extremism.  Construction of new mosques, including those constructed using private funds, required authorization from the MEIA.

The 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.

The government continued to restrict the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as some Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.  Its policy remained to control the sale of all books, videotapes, and DVDs it considered extremist.  According to media reports, in September the government requested regional MEIA representatives identify morchidines and morchidates with accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google Plus social media to monitor and ensure only official religious positions were conveyed through these personal accounts.

MOI and MEIA authorization continued to be a requirement for the renovation or construction of churches.  In October the St. John’s Anglican Church in Casablanca began the construction of a community center with approval from government authorities.  The government also gave the Anglican Church approval to renovate and expand the church upon completion of its community center.

The government permitted the display and sale of bibles in French, English, and Spanish.  A limited number of Arabic translations of the Bible were available for sale in a few bookshops for use in university religion courses.  Authorities confiscated bibles they believed were intended for use in proselytizing.

During the year, the government organized four national and regional training sessions on instruction based on “values” and “respect for religious principles.”  The government also introduced 13 new textbooks on the subjects of religion and legal sciences at the primary, junior and high school levels following a review by the MEIA and the Ministry of Education to remove extremist or intolerant references and promote moderation and tolerance.  As of year’s end, the government was also drafting an educational charter mandating traditional education be based on “values” and the “respect for religious and legal studies.”  Modifications to textbooks continued through the end of the year.

Jewish and Christian citizens stated elementary and high school curricula did not include mention of the historical legacy and current presence of their groups in the country.  The government continued to fund the study of Jewish culture and heritage at state-run universities.

The government continued to disseminate information about Islam over dedicated state-funded television and radio channels.  Television channel Assadissa (Sixth) programming was strictly religious, consisting primarily of Quran and hadith (authoritative sayings and deeds ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad) readings and exegesis, highlighting the government’s interpretation of Islam.

According to observers, the government tolerated social and charitable activities consistent with Sunni Islam.  For example, the Unity and Reform Movement, the country’s largest registered Islamic social organization, continued its close relationship with the Party of Justice and Development, the largest party in the governing coalition, and continued to operate without restriction, according to media reports.  The Justice and Charity Organization (JCO), a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority, remained banned but largely tolerated.  It remained the largest social movement in the country despite being unregistered.  The JCO continued to release press statements, hold conferences, manage internet sites, and participate in political demonstrations.  The government occasionally prevented the organization from meeting and restricted public distribution of JCO’s published materials.

The monarchy continued to support the restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout the country, efforts it stated were necessary to preserve the country’s religious and cultural heritage and to serve as a symbol of tolerance.  Since 2012, an estimated 170 Jewish cemeteries across 40 provinces have been restored.  According to the government, the MEIA did not interfere in the operations or the practices in synagogues.

The Prison Administration (DGAPR) said it authorized religious observances and services provided by religious leaders for all prisoners, including religious minorities.

Two adoul (notaries), typically religious men, are needed to perform marriages.  In January the School of Islamic Thought and Testimonies convinced the Supreme Scientific Council to amend the law so the king could permit women to become adoul.

During the annual commemoration of the anniversary of the king’s reign, the king bestowed honors on the heads of the Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and other Christian churches in recognition of their contributions to religious tolerance in Moroccan society.

In May the Archives of Morocco signed a cooperation agreement with the USHMM, to facilitate the sharing of documentation on Jewish history in Morocco.  The delegation met with country’s leaders to discuss continuing collaboration between the museum and the country’s National Archives to promote religious tolerance and awareness.

On September 10-12, the government hosted the second International Conference on Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue in Fez in collaboration with the International Organization of La Francophonie.  According to media reports, at the conference King Mohammed VI delivered remarks describing the tradition of coexistence in the country between Muslims and Jews and openness to other religions.

On September 26, Head of Government El Othmani delivered a message from the king at a UN roundtable table on “The Power of Education in Preventing Racism and Discrimination:  The Case of Anti-Semitism” in New York on the margins of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly.  The message highlighted the country’s preservation of its synagogues and noted the importance of “shedding light not only on humanity’s glorious moments, but also its darkest hours.”  It stated, “Anti-Semitism is the antithesis of freedom of expression.  It implies a denial of the other and is an admission of failure, inadequacy and an inability to coexist.”

In November the Ministry of Culture, in partnership with the Essaouira-Mogador Association, opened the Bayt Al Dakyra (House of Memory), a research center built from the remains of an old synagogue in Essaouira.  On December 11-12, UNESCO and the Aladdin Project in partnership with Mohammed V University, a public university in Rabat, hosted an international conference in Marrakech titled, “The Importance of History Teaching in Education: The Case of the Holocaust and Great Tragedies of History and 75 Years after the Holocaust, Honoring the Righteous in the Muslim World.”  The organizers paid tribute to the “Muslim Righteous” from Morocco and other countries that helped Jews during the Second World War and discussed the importance of education for highlighting the different phases and experiences of coexistence in the region.  Public officials from Mohammed V University, the Ministry of Education, the Archives of Morocco, and other public institutions participated in the conference.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some activists in minority religious communities reported the government did not respond to complaints about societal harassment.  According to a report in Assabah, in July Christian citizens in the city of Nador reported facing intimidation, including one death threat.  The MOI investigated the claims and reported they were unfounded.

Representatives of minority religious groups, especially Christian, Shia Muslim, and Baha’i citizens, said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly.  According to the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report, the only non-Muslim citizens who could freely practice their religious rituals were Jews.

There were reports from the media, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts that Christian citizens faced social pressure to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith from non-Christian family and friends.  Young Christians who still lived with their Muslim families did not reveal their faith because they believed they might be expelled from their homes unless they renounced Christianity.

Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors, but they feared extremist elements in society would try to do them harm.  According to an interview with TelQuel, however, some Baha’i citizens 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 that many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.

Jewish citizens said they lived and attended services at synagogues in safety.  They said they were able to visit religious sites regularly and to hold annual commemorations.  On November 13-18, the Moroccan Community Abroad Council and the Israelite Community of Morocco Council cohosted a conference on Moroccan Judaism.  The public conference convened primarily Moroccan-born Jews residing in Canada, France, and Israel, with the leadership of the local Jewish community and Moroccan civil society groups.

Media continued to report women had difficulty finding employment in some private businesses, as well as with the army and police, if they wore a hijab or other head covering.  When women who wore a hijab did obtain employment with the police, army, and in some private businesses, they reported employers either encouraged or required them to remove their headscarves during working hours.

In December interfaith academics and an unregistered religious freedom organization coordinated a seminar on religious minorities and interfaith dialogue between Islamic schools of thought in Marrakech.

Muslim citizens continued to study at private Christian and Jewish schools, reportedly because these schools maintained a reputation for offering superior education.  According to school administrators, Muslim students continued to constitute a significant portion of the students at Jewish schools in Casablanca.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officials, and visiting U.S. government officials met with government officials, including from MOI and MEIA, to promote religious freedom and tolerance, including the rights of minority communities.  Embassy and consulate general officials met members of religious minority and majority communities throughout the country.  The embassy also fostered and supported programs designed to highlight religious tolerance.

In October embassy officials attended one of a series of public seminars on the Holocaust and of the historical legacy of Moroccan Jews, hosted at a university in Rabat.  The USHMM and Mimouna, its local Islamic NGO partner, developed the curriculum they presented at the seminar.  In November embassy officials also attended the conference on Moroccan Judaism cohosted by the Council of the Moroccan Community Abroad and the Council of the Israelite Communities of Morocco.  On November 26, an embassy official attended a conference in Rabat on the situation of the country’s religious minorities.  On December 14, the Charge d’Affaires hosted a lunch for representatives of the Jewish community to discuss recent developments related to religious freedom and the preservation of the country’s Jewish history.

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 33 million (July 2018 estimate), including more than 12 million foreign residents.  Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 20 million citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population.  Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (Shiites who recognize 12 imams) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province.  Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region.  Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000.  Twelver Shia adhere to the Ja’afari School of jurisprudence.  Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Ja’afar as the Seventh Imam).  Seveners number approximately 500,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they constitute the majority of the province’s inhabitants.  Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, number approximately 2,000, most of whom are of Yemeni or South Asian origin.  Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering a total of approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.

Foreign embassies indicate the foreign population in the country, including many undocumented migrants, is mostly Muslim.  According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, of the country’s total population (including foreigners), there were approximately 25.5 million Muslims, 1.2 million Christians (including Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics); 310,000 Hindus; 180,000 religiously unaffiliated (including atheists, agnostics, and individuals who did not identify with any particular religion); 90,000 Buddhists; 70,000 followers of folk religions; and 70,000 adherents of other religions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state in which Islam is the official religion.  The Basic Law says sharia is the “foundation of the Kingdom” and states the country’s constitution is the Quran and the Sunna.  The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion.  Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

Blasphemy against Islam may also be legally punishable by death, but courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy in recent years.  Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences and lashings.  Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

The 2017 counterterrorism law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”  By year’s end, authorities had not yet issued new implementation regulations, and the implementation regulations of the 2014 counterterrorism law remained in effect.  Those regulations criminalize “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.”  The right to access legal representation for those accused of violating the counterterrorism law is limited; according to the law, “the Public Prosecutor may, at the investigative stage, restrict this right whenever the interests of the investigation so require.”  There is no right to access government-held evidence.

The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland.  Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize.  The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority.  Children born to Muslim fathers are deemed Muslim by law.

The country is the home of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites.  The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering central Mecca or religious sites in Medina.  Muslims visit the cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and on the Umrah pilgrimage.  The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims.  The country’s sovereign employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities.  The government also establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.

Clerics are vetted and employed by the MOIA.  Only government-employed clerics are permitted to deliver sermons, which must be vetted by MOIA in advance.

Since 2016 Saudi-based clerics traveling abroad for proselytization activities must first obtain the permission of MOIA.  The stated purpose of the regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel, particularly those the government regards as having questionable credentials, and to prevent the appearance of interference, or actual interference, by Saudi-based clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.

Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali School of jurisprudence.  Private schools are not permitted to deviate from the official, government-approved religious curriculum.  Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students sometimes receive a course on Islamic civilization, or else “free time” in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; both courses amount to one hour of instruction per week.  Private international schools may also teach courses on other religions or civilizations.

The CPVPV is a semiautonomous government agency with authority to monitor social behavior and report violations of moral standards consistent with the government’s policy and in coordination with law enforcement authorities.  A 2016 decree limited the CPVPV’s activities to only providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to the police.  CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but are required to wear identification badges and legally may only act in their official capacity when accompanied by regular police.  The CPVPV’s purview includes discouraging and reporting public and private contact between unrelated men and women (gender mixing); practicing or displaying emblems of non-Islamic faiths or failing to respect Islam; “immodest” dress, especially for women; displaying or selling media contrary to Islam, including pornography; producing, distributing, or consuming alcohol; venerating places or celebrating events inconsistent with approved Islamic practices; practicing “sorcery” or “black magic”; and committing, facilitating, or promoting acts, publications, or thoughts considered lewd or morally degenerate, including adultery, homosexuality, and gambling.  The CPVPV reports to the king through the Council of Ministers, and the Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees its operations on the king’s behalf.

The judicial system is based on laws largely derived from the Quran and the Sunna, developed by fatwas issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) that reports to the king, and other royal laws and ordinances.  The Basic Law states governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality according to sharia and further identifies the Quran and the Sunna as the sources for fatwas.  The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings (ifta), and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions.  The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters.  The CSS is headed by the grand mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i).  There are no Shia members.  Scholars are chosen at the king’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

The country’s legal architecture does not derive from a common law system, and judges are not bound by legal precedent.  In the absence of a comprehensive criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely.  Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and Supreme courts, although appellate decisions sometimes result in a harsher sentence than the original court decision.  Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, but with a focus on the Hanbali school.

In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff.  In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation a Muslim male would receive; other non-Muslims may only receive one-sixteenth the amount a male Muslim would receive.

Judges have been observed to discount the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam, and to favor the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims.  Under the government’s interpretation of the Quran, judges may place the value of a woman’s testimony at half that of a man’s in certain cases.

The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia.  The Human Rights Commission (HRC), a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints.  There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC; during the year, the commission had approximately 28 members from various parts of the country, including two Shia members.

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

Government Practices

There were reports of prison authorities abusing Shia prisoners, including one incident leading to death.  Online media and NGOs reported in March that Ahmed Attia, a Shia activist deported to the country from Bahrain in January, reportedly suffered memory loss as a result of physical abuse while in detention in Dammam prison.  Shia Rights Watch (SRW) also reported the March 13 death of 61-year-old Haj Ali Jassim Nazia as a result of physical abuse in prison.

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.  On March 15, UN experts said 15 individuals convicted of spying for Iran and financing terrorism were facing imminent execution after their sentences were referred to the Royal Court for ratification by the king.  The Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced the 15 individuals, all of whom were Shia, to death in December 2016 and further court rulings in July and December 2017 upheld the sentences.  Human rights organizations widely decried the legal process as not heeding international standards for fair trial guarantees and transparency.  At the end of the year, the government had not carried out the sentences.

International NGOs stated they were unable to obtain any information on the status of Ahmad al-Shammari, who had reportedly been sentenced to death for charges related to apostasy in April 2017, and was believed still to be incarcerated.  It was unknown whether any appeals in his case remained pending.

On January 4, the SCC sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib to seven years in prison after the Public Prosecution’s objection to his 2017 acquittal.  The ruling overturned a previous verdict issued by the SCC in July 2017, acquitting al-Habib of the charges of inciting sedition and sectarianism, incitement against the rulers, and defaming religious scholars.  According to human rights groups, authorities detained al-Habib in response to his public statements urging the government to address anti-Shia sectarianism, including in the educational curriculum, and criticizing government clerics who had espoused anti-Shia views.

In August the public prosecutor announced charges against six Shia activists, including female activist Israa al-Ghomgham, from the Eastern Province arrested between September 2015 and April 2016 based on the Islamic law principle of ta’zir, in which the judge has discretion over the definition of what constitutes a crime and over the sentence.  The charges include “instigating riotous gatherings” in Qatif, “joining a terrorist organization linked to an enemy state,” “chanting anti-government slogans,” and “providing moral support for those rioting and instigating sectarian strife.”  According to HRW, the SCC in the Qatif region was the venue for the defendants’ trial.  There were no updates on the case at year’s end.

Up to 34 individuals, all believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution as they awaited implementation orders for death sentences already confirmed by the Supreme Court for their roles in protests in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province in 2011 and 2012, according to human rights organizations.  Up to nine of these persons – including Ali al-Nimr (the nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, Abdullah al-Zaher, Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, and Mujtaba al-Sweikat – may have been minors at the time they committed the acts for which they were convicted; however, the government disputed these claims, noting the courts and sharia system use the hijri (lunar/Islamic) calendar for age computations.  Human rights organizations said many of the convictions were based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture.  Many of these individuals alleged authorities tortured them during pretrial detention and interrogation.  Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

The government continued to imprison individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery.

On June 7, police arrested Vishnu Dev Radhakrishnan, an Indian national and employee of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (also known as Saudi Aramco) for “cybercrime pertaining to blasphemy and spreading messages against the Kingdom through social media.”  Radhakrishnan allegedly sent messages on Twitter criticizing the Prophet Mohammed.  On September 13, a court sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment and a 150,000 riyal ($40,000) fine.

Raif Badawi remained in prison at the end of the year based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the internet.  Originally sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, a court increased Badawi’s sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes.  By year’s end, the government had not carried out the remaining 950 lashes.

At year’s end, the status of Ahmad al-Shammari’s appeal of his death sentence following his 2017 conviction on charges related to apostasy was unknown.  According to media reports, Shammari allegedly posted videos to social media accounts in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

In September the SCC opened trials against some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the MB.  The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari.  The three were arrested in September 2017.  The public prosecutor reportedly sought the death penalty against them.  The public prosecutor leveled 37 charges against al-Odah, the vast majority of which were connected to his alleged ties with the MB and Qatari government, and his public support for imprisoned dissidents.  In reviewing some of the specific charges, HRW noted, “The initial charges are mostly related to his alleged ties to the MB and other organizations supposedly connected to it.”  None referred to specific acts of violence or incitement to acts of violence, according to a HRW statement on September 12.  The 30 charges against al-Omari included “forming a youth organization to carry out the objectives of a terrorist group inside the Kingdom.”  The government continued to regard the MB as a terrorist organization.

Authorities are reported to have arrested cleric Abdelaziz al-Fawzan in July after he spoke out against the arrests of other religious leaders in the country, according to the website Middle Eastern Eye.  The Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account reported that Fawzan, a professor of comparative religious law at the Saudi Higher Institute of Justice, had been arrested over a tweet in which he had “expressed his opinion against the suppression of sheikhs and preachers.”

According to Reuters, the government detained influential religious scholar Safar al-Hawali and three of his sons in July, widening an apparent crackdown against clerics, intellectuals, and rights campaigners.  Al-Hawali, often linked to the MB, rose to prominence 25 years ago as a leader of the Sahwa [Awakening] movement, which agitated to bring democracy to the country and criticized the ruling family for corruption, social liberalization, and working with the West.  Authorities reportedly transferred al-Hawali to a hospital in September after his health deteriorated.

In August multiple media outlets reported that the government detained Saleh al-Talib, an imam and preacher at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, after he reportedly delivered a sermon on the duty in Islam to speak out against the spread of vice.

In September social media and activist websites reported on the suspension or detention of Mecca Grand Mosque imams.  Khalid bin Ali al-Ghamdi was reportedly suspended and ordered to refrain from preaching or engaging in Islamic da’wa (religious outreach).  No reason was announced for the suspension.  Sheikh Faisal bin Jameel al-Ghazawi was reportedly suspended from his position at the Mecca Grand Mosque.  Al-Ghazawi was reportedly also barred from all preaching and da’wa activities.  A third Mecca Grand Mosque imam, Sheikh Bandar Abdulaziz Balila, was reportedly detained by security forces for four days for unknown reasons.

In October the Public Prosecutor’s Office charged cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki with calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammad), propagating deviant beliefs, holding an impure (takfiri) ideology, insulting the rulers and CSS and labelling them as extremists, glorifying the Khomeini-led revolution in Iran, and supporting Hizballah and ISIS, among other charges.  He remained in detention waiting a second trial at year’s end.

On July 2, authorities detained Zuhair Hussein Bu Saleh to implement a prior sentence of two months imprisonment and 60 lashes for practicing congregational prayers at his house due to the lack of Shia mosques in the Eastern Province, according to the international NGO European Saudi Organization for Human Rights.  Bu Saleh was previously arrested in 2015 for “calling for unauthorized gatherings,” and the government closed the prayer hall he supervised.

In August authorities referred cleric Ali Al-Rabieei for prosecution for allegedly tweeting sectarian and anti-Shia content, according to media reports.  Al-Rabieei subsequently apologized for this tweet and reportedly fled abroad.

In August the public prosecutor ordered the arrest of a man who appeared in a video carrying machine guns and threatening to kill Shia citizens in Najran, in the southern part of the country.

According to Shia groups that track arrests and convictions of Shia, more than 300 persons remained in detention in prisons throughout the Eastern Province and additional individuals remained subject to travel bans.  Authorities had arrested more than 1,000 Eastern Province Shia since 2011 in connection with public protests demanding greater rights for Shia, including acts of violence, according to NGO reports.  Most were held on charges involving nonviolent offenses, including participating in or publicizing protests on social media, inciting unrest in the country, and insulting the king.

SRW reported in April government forces raided a Shia prayer hall in Qatif, arresting three men.  According to SRW, the forces also surrounded multiple neighborhoods in Qatif, setting up checkpoints and restricting entry to and departure from the areas.  SRW also reported that authorities arrested a teenage female Shia activist, Nour Said Al-Musallam, for tweets critical of the government.

The UK newspaper The Independent reported that social media users who posted or shared satire attacking religion faced imprisonment for up to five years under strict new laws introduced in the country.  Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order or disturb religious values would also be subject to a fine of three million riyals ($800,000), the country’s public prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Twitter:  “Producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes and disturbs public order, religious values and public morals through social media will be considered a cybercrime.”

A December report by the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, issued after a visit to the country in April and May, stated “The special rapporteur is further concerned at the pattern of systematic repression in the country’s Eastern Province, where the majority Shi’a population resides.  The Special Rapporteur has received credible allegations that many individuals protesting against repression of the Shia have been detained.  Their cases are currently making their way through the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC).  Many of these individuals were reportedly peaceful protesters, simply asking for increased religious freedoms, equal rights for the Shi’a community and political reform.  Some have been convicted for the expression of their political views; some for coordinating protests through social media; and some even for providing first aid to protesters.  In this process, a number of individuals who were under the age of criminal responsibility at the time they committed the alleged offences have now been sentenced to death.  Others have already been executed.”

Human rights organizations and legal experts continued to criticize antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.

The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religions.  According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, detention, and, for noncitizens, deportation.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance on the substance of Friday sermons and restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons it considered sectarian or political, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy.  Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship.  The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence abroad, including in Syria and Iraq.  The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques.  MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as it was in urban areas.  In July the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to call in and report on statements by imams that observers considered objectionable.  In August Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdul Latif Al-Sheikh announced the ministry was developing a mobile phone app which would monitor sermons and allow mosque-goers to rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work content and length.  According to a BBC report in August, the government was engaged in deliberations on the reform of religious teachings and in a debate on unifying the content of sermons to steer people away from “foreign, partisan, or Muslim Brotherhood” thought.

Practices diverging from the government’s official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, remained forbidden.

While authorities indicated they considered members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to be Muslims, the group’s legal status remained unclear, and the mainly foreign resident Ahmadi Muslims reportedly hid their faith to avoid scrutiny, arrest, or deportation.

In March MOIA official Hashem bin Mohammed al-Barzanji referred to Shia as “rejectionists” in a tweet.

Since 2016, authorities permitted large-scale public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, Eastern Province, home to the largest Shia population in the country.  As a result of several 2015 ISIS-inspired or directed attacks on Shia gathering places in the Eastern Province, there was again a significant deployment of government security personnel in the Qatif area during the Ashura commemoration in September.  According to community members, processions and gatherings appeared to increase over previous years due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities.

According to members of the expatriate community, some Christian congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.

The government stated that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasi-governmental organization), and, when appropriate, the MFA.  Religious groups reported, however, that officials typically charged those arrested during private worship services with gender-mixing, playing music, or other infractions not explicitly related to religious observance.  There were again no known reports of individuals contacting these or other governmental agencies for redress when their ability to worship privately was infringed.

According to government policy, non-Muslims were prohibited from being buried in the country.  There was, however, at least one public, non-Islamic cemetery in Jeddah, although the government did not support it financially.  The only other known non-Muslim cemetery was private and only available to Saudi Aramco employees.  Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.

Authorities generally required Shia mosques to use the Sunni call to prayer, including in mixed neighborhoods of both Sunni and Shia residents.  In some predominantly Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Shia call to prayer.  In smaller Shia villages where there was virtually no CPVPV presence, reports indicated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times per Sunnis practice), or not at all.

The government continued to set policy aimed at enforcing Islamic norms; for example, the government threatened to expel foreigners who did not refrain from eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan.  According to media reports, it prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The CPVPV continued to monitor social behavior and promote official standards of morality, although instances of CPVPV interactions with individuals reportedly decreased significantly in most urban areas, such as Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam.

The government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious centers of instruction or provide them employment benefits, which the government provided to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions.

The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam.  The project continued as part of the government’s Vision 2030 development and reform plan announced in April 2016.  The government continued to distribute revised textbooks, although intolerant material remained in circulation, including older versions of textbooks, particularly at the high school level, that contained language disparaging Christians and Jews.  Content included statements justifying the execution of “sorcerers” and social exclusion of non-Muslims, as well as statements that Jews, Christians, Shia Muslims, and Sufi Muslims did not properly adhere to monotheism.  In September Human Rights Watch reported some school textbooks continued to employ biased, anti-Semitic, and anti-Shia language.  Some teachers reportedly continued to express intolerance of other faiths and of alternative viewpoints regarding Islam.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a report on textbooks in November, entitled “Teaching Hate and Violence:  Problematic Passages from Saudi State Textbooks for the 2018-19 School Year.”  The report found that school textbooks for the 2018-19 academic year contained “dozens of troubling passages that clearly propagate incitement to hatred or violence against Jews, Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, women, homosexual men, and anybody who mocks or converts away from Islam.”  In its press release announcing the report, the ADL stated “The Saudi curriculum is replete with intolerant passages about Jews and Judaism; some passages even urge violence against Jews.  Others retread classic anti-Semitic stereotypes and assert conspiracy theories about alleged Jewish and Israeli plots to attack the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.”

Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import a Bible for personal use, but the government regularly exercised its ability to inspect and confiscate personal non-Islamic religious materials.

Some academic experts reported the government continued to exclude perspectives at variance with the Salafi tradition within Sunni Islam from its extensive government-owned religious media and broadcast programming.

The CPVPV, in coordination with the Information and Communication Technologies Authority, continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring online content that reportedly contained “objectionable” content and “ill-informed” views of religion.  The CPVPV shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for users “committing religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users in accordance with the anticybercrimes law.  The government also reportedly located and shut down websites used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence.  In 2017 authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain private messenger apps, including Viber, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger.  Some users reported that the calling features of WhatsApp and Skype still remained blocked, however.

The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, while the remaining 30 percent were at private residences or were built and endowed by private persons.  The construction of any new mosque required the permission of the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits.  The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerical workers.

Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars.  Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to extend its explicit endorsement of these mosques, according to some NGO reports.  The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques.  Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques.  Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques.  Two Shia mosques in Dammam remained licensed by the government and served approximately 750,000 worshippers.  According to NGO reports, construction of Shia mosques was not approved outside Shia enclave areas.  There continued to be no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers such as Jeddah, Riyadh, or al-Khobar.  Shia in those areas were therefore forced to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment.  Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship and were detected by authorities.

Following ISIS attacks against Shia mosques and gathering places in 2015, security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province.  Additionally, media and other sources reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.

Multiple reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations.  The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari School of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management.  There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in the Eastern Province cities of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where the majority of Twelver Shia live.  According to a Human Rights Watch report issued in September “the Saudi judicial system…often subjects Saudi Shia to discriminatory treatment or arbitrary criminalization of Shia religious practices.”

Reported instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur with respect to educational and public sector employment opportunities.  Shia stated they experienced systemic government discrimination in hiring.  There was no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shia in the private sector, but some Shia stated that public universities and employers discriminated against them, occasionally by identifying an applicant for education or employment as Shia simply by inquiring about the applicant’s hometown.  Many Shia reportedly stated that openly identifying as Shia would negatively affect career advancement.

Although Shia constituted approximately 10 to 12 percent of the total citizen population and at least one-quarter of the Eastern Province’s population, representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population, including in national security-related positions in the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the MOI.  In contrast with previous years, the 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister.  There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, or ministry branch directors in the Eastern Province.  There were five Shia members of the 150-member Shura Council.  A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.

Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia were concentrated, had large proportions of Shia as members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils.  Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts.  Shia were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard.  According to an article published in September by both Foreign Policy magazine and HRW, “Shiite students are generally kept out of military and security academies, and they rarely find jobs within the security force.”  In predominantly Shia areas, there was some Shia representation in the ranks of the traffic police, municipal government, and public schools.  Shiites are regularly denied access to justice, are arbitrarily arrested, and face discriminatory verdicts.  Scores of them have described the … religiously motivated charges they face in court, including the standard charges of “cursing God, the Prophet, or his companions.”

Shia were reportedly not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals remained Sunni, while some teachers were Shia.  Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.

There were continued media reports however, that some Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, used anti-Semitic, religiously intolerant language in their sermons.  Cases of government-employed clerics using anti-Semitic language in their sermons, including some instances at Friday prayers in Mecca, were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities.  During the year, the ministry issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons.  According to the ministry, during the year, similar to the previous year, no clerics publicly espoused intolerant views warranting dismissal.  Unlicensed imams, however, continued to employ intolerant views in internet postings or unsanctioned sermons in areas without government monitoring.

The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials.  The government also provided the names of offices where grievances could be filed.

The government required noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.”  Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicated other religious designations such as “Christian.”

The government did not formally permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services.  Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with resident clergy, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries.  This was reportedly particularly problematic for Catholic and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis.  Multiple press outlets reported that visiting Bishop Anba Morkos of Shoubra el-Kheima held the first Coptic Orthodox Mass in the country in December, in a private residence.

The country’s crown prince told The Atlantic in an April interview that he recognized the right of the Jewish people to have a nation-state of their own next to a Palestinian state.  According to the magazine, no Arab leader has ever acknowledged such a right.  In the interview, he also said that the Shia “are living normally” in the country.

According to NGO reports, Umm al-Qura University’s Department of Islamic Studies continued to teach a course on Judaism saying that Jews rely on three texts:  “The Torah, The Talmud, The Protocols of Zion.” (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an anti-Semitic tract originally disseminated by the Czarist secret police alleging a Jewish plot aimed at world domination.)  In addition, the reports characterized the university’s course curriculum as heavily anti-Semitic, speaking of the “evil traits” of the Jewish people.

According to the ADL, state television hosted several   hour-long programs   during Ramadan featuring Saad al-Ateeq, a preacher who called   for God to “destroy  ” the Christians, Shia, Alawites, and Jews.  State television also featured Saleh al-Fawzan, who remained   a member of the CSS and was visited   in April by the crown prince, according to al-Arabiya.  The Economist previously reported that Fawzan claimed   ISIS was actually a creation of Jews, Christians, and Shia.  According to Human Rights Watch, he characterized Shia Muslims as “the brothers of Satan.”  According to the ADL, the government gave the honor   of delivering the Eid al-Fitr sermon in June at the Grand Mosque in Mecca to Saleh bin Humaid, who holds a seat   on the CSS.  Bin Humaid previously claimed   it was in Jews’ “nature” to “plot against the peoples of the world.”

According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, anti-Semitic books including Mein Kampf were offered for sale at the Riyadh Book Fair.

During the year, some Qatari nationals reported being unable to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage due to logistical obstacles stemming from the border closures and restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt on Qatar in 2017.  The government offered Qatari pilgrims internet registration and visa issuance on arrival in Jeddah.  Qatari nationals were purportedly also able to register for Hajj through third country governments.

Al-Monitor, a website covering news from the Middle East, reported in November that the government halted visa issuances to people who held temporary passports and no national identification.  This prevented Palestinians living in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere from traveling to perform religious rites, particularly the Hajj and Umrah.

In April, in the first visit to the country by a senior Catholic official, Chairman of the Pontifical Council for Interfaith Dialogue Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh to discuss the role of followers of religions and cultures in renouncing violence, extremism, and terrorism and achieving worldwide security and stability.  On March 4, the crown prince 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.  Following the meeting, the group met with the government-sponsored Muslim World League’s (MWL) Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa to discuss ways both parties could counter extremism and exchanged ideas on possible initiatives and programs to increase mutual respect at the grass roots level.  Al-Issa stated the meeting was an exchange to advance understanding and the message of a “moderate and tolerant Islam.”  On January 28, al-Issa wrote a public letter to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, calling the Holocaust “an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”  In October MWL representatives discussed religious cooperation with several non-Muslim religious community leaders including a prominent U.S. Jewish leader at the MWL-sponsored Cultural Rapprochement Between the US and the Muslim World conference in New York.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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 like “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in public discourse.

Open Doors, an international NGO, reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution.  Women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.

While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, according to Freedom House, “self-censorship [on social media] remained prevalent when discussing topics such as politics, religion, or the royal family.”

Anti-Semitic comments continued to appear in the media.  For example, in May the newspaper Al-Iqtisadiyya printed an editorial cartoon showing a grinding machine in the shape of the Star of David, grinding Gazans into skulls.

According to MEMRI.org, Abdulwahab al-Omari, a government-licensed imam in Bisha, preached in January that Jews would be turned into apes and pigs, and that on Judgment Day, they would be the soldiers of the Antichrist.  According to MEMRI.org’s translation, al-Omari said Jesus would descend before the Judgment Day, accept sharia, and pursue and kill the Antichrist.  The Muslims would then “pounce on the Jews and kill them.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Senior embassy and consulate general 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 religious practices and beliefs.  In discussions with the Human Rights Commission, members of the Shura Council, the MFA, MOIA, the government-funded Muslim World League, and other relevant ministries and agencies during the year, senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and violations of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.  They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices.

Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia and citizens who no longer consider themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  Most recently, on 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.

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 19.5 million (July 2018 estimate).  At year’s end there were more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees, primarily Sunni, registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in neighboring countries and 6.2 million IDPs.  Continued population displacement adds a degree of uncertainty to demographic analyses, but the U.S. government estimates approximately 74 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, which includes ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, and some Turkomans.  According to U.S. government estimates, other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis, and Shia, together constitute 13 percent of the population, while Druze constitute 3 percent.

U.S. government estimates put the Christian population at 10 percent of the overall population, although media and other reports of Christians fleeing the country as a result of the civil war suggest the Christian population is now considerably lower.  Before the civil war, there were small Jewish populations in Aleppo and Damascus, and NGOs estimate fewer than 20 Jews remained in the country in 2012.  It is unclear how many, if any, Jews currently reside in Syria.  There was also a Yezidi population of approximately 80,000 before the civil war.

Sunni Muslims are present throughout the country.  Shia Muslims live mostly in rural areas, particularly in several majority-Shia towns in Idlib and Aleppo Provinces.  Twelver Shia generally live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs.  The majority of Alawites live in the mountainous areas of the coastal Latakia Governorate, but they also have a presence in the cities of Latakia, Tartous, Homs, and Damascus.  The highest concentration of Ismailis is in the city of Salamiyeh, Hama Governorate.

Most Christians belong to autonomous Orthodox churches, the Eastern Catholic (or Uniate) churches (in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church), or the Assyrian Church of the East and other affiliated independent Nestorian churches.  Most Christians continue to live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Latakia, or in the Hasakah Governorate in the northeast section of the country.  While there were hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees before the conflict, the majority of the Iraqi Christian population has since moved to neighboring countries or returned to Iraq.  Many Druze live in the Jabal al-Arab (Jabal al-Druze) region in the southern Governorate of Sweida, where they constitute the majority of the local population.  Yezidis, found primarily in the northeast, also previously lived in Aleppo.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The legal framework described in this section remains in force only in those areas controlled by the government, and even in these areas there is often a breakdown in law and order, leaving militias, often sectarian in nature, in a dominant position.  In areas of the country controlled by opposition or terrorist groups, irregular courts and local “authorities” apply a variety of unofficial legal codes with diverse provisions relating to religious freedom.

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, although the constitution states the religion of the president of the republic is Islam.  The constitution states Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.

The constitution states “[issues] of personal status of the religious communities shall be protected and respected,” and “the citizens are equal in rights and duties, without discrimination among them on grounds of gender, origin, language, religion, or creed.”  Citizens have the right to sue the government if they believe it has violated their rights.

According to law, membership in certain types of religiously oriented organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees.  This includes membership in an organization considered by the government to be “Salafist,” a designation the government associates with Sunni fundamentalism.  Neither the government nor the state security court have defined the parameters of what constitutes “Salafist” activity.  Affiliation with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death or imprisonment.

The government bans Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “politically-motivated Zionist organization.”

The law restricts proselytizing and conversion.  It prohibits the conversion of Muslims to other religions as contrary to Islamic law.  The law recognizes conversion to Islam.  The penal code prohibits “causing tension between religious communities.”

By law all religious groups must register with the government.  Registered religious groups and clergy – including all government-recognized Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups – receive free utilities and are exempt from real estate taxes on religious buildings and personal property taxes on their official vehicles.

According to a Washington think tank, in October the government issued a law regulating the structure and functions of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf).  The new law grants the Awqaf additional powers, including the establishment of a Jurisprudential and Scholarly Council with the power to define what religious discourse is appropriate and the authority to fine or penalize individuals who propagate extremist or deviant thought.  The law also charges the council with monitoring all fatwas (religious decrees) issued in the country and with preventing the spread of views associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or “Wahhabism.”  The law concentrates a range of offices and institutions within the ministry, centralizing the government’s role in and oversight over the country’s religious affairs.

All meetings of religious groups, except for regularly scheduled worship, require permits from the government.

Public schools are officially government-run and nonsectarian, although the government authorizes the Christian and Druze communities to operate some public schools.  There is mandatory religious instruction in public schools for all students, with government-approved teachers and curricula.  Religious instruction covers Islam and Christianity only, and courses are divided into separate classes for Muslim and Christian students.  Members of religious groups may choose to attend public schools with Muslim or Christian instruction, or attend private schools that follow either secular or religious curricula.

For the resolution of issues of personal status, the government requires citizens to list their religious affiliation.  Individuals are subject to their respective religious groups’ laws concerning marriage and divorce.  A Muslim woman may not legally marry a Christian man, but a Christian woman may legally marry a Muslim man.  If a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she is not allowed to be buried in an Islamic cemetery unless she converts to Islam.  If a Christian wishes to convert to Islam, the law states the presiding Muslim cleric must inform the prospective convert’s diocese.

The personal status law on divorce for Muslims is based on an interpretation of sharia implemented by government-appointed religious judges.  In interreligious personal status cases, sharia takes precedence.  A divorced woman is not entitled to alimony in some cases; a woman may also forego her right to alimony to persuade her husband to agree to the divorce.  Additionally, under the law, a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach the age of 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family.

The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance laws for all citizens except Christians.  According to the law, courts may grant Muslim women up to half of the inheritance share of male heirs.  In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less.  When a Christian woman marries a Muslim, she is not entitled to an inheritance from her husband unless she converts to Islam.

An individual’s birth certificate records his or her religious affiliation.  Documents presented when marrying or traveling for a religious pilgrimage also list the religious affiliation of the applicant.  There is no designation of religion on passports or national identity cards, except for Jews, who are the only religious group whose passports and identity cards note their religion.

Law No. 10, passed on April 2, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction.  Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state.  If an individual does not claim ownership successfully during the one-year period, as amended by Law No. 42, the property reverts to the local government.  An individual can prove ownership in person or through designated proxies.

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

Government Practices

There were continued reports that the war waged by the Alawi dominated government against opposition forces and terrorist groups resulted in significant casualties among the majority Sunni population.  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.

According to some analysts, religious and sectarian factors were present on all sides of the civil war, but there were also other factors underlying the violent competition for political power and control of the central government in Damascus, and violence committed by the government against opposition groups and civilians inherently had sectarian and nonsectarian elements.  According to many observers, including academic experts, the government’s policy, aimed at eliminating opposition forces threatening its power, was sectarian in its effects, although it was not motivated primarily by sectarian ideology.

According to the COI, multiple human rights organizations, and media reports, the government and progovernment forces used weaponry incapable of adequately discriminating between civilian and military targets in densely populated areas, used chemical weapons, and deliberately denied humanitarian aid.  In April the government and progovernment forces launched a massive assault on the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, culminating in the government’s recapture of an area it had besieged since 2013.  SNHR compiled a list of 1,473 civilians killed in the offensive, most of whom were Sunni Muslims.  During the battle for East Ghouta, according to UN and press reports, the government resumed chemical weapons attacks on civilians, with bombing in the predominantly Sunni Damascus suburb of Douma involving the possible use of sarin that killed at least 70 civilians.  The government and progovernment forces subsequently launched an assault on opposition-controlled areas of Daraa Province and reasserted government control in July.  The government’s military victories in the Damascus suburbs of East Ghouta and Daraa resulted in the forced displacement of mostly Sunni residents.  The government forced them to relocate primarily to opposition-held Idlib Province due to its suspicion that they were supportive of the opposition.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Commission of Inquiry, SNHR, and Syrian human rights activists reported government-affiliated forces and militias continued to seize the homes of Sunnis with the explicit intention of permanently displacing these individuals and thus altering the demographics of areas held by the regime.  Analysts said this was evidenced by population shifts in Homs.  Groups such as SNHR said the government’s displacement operations were sectarian in nature.

According to numerous reports, government and partner forces, including Iranian-backed Shia militias composed mostly of foreigners, killed, arrested, and physically abused individuals in attacks on opposition-held territory as part of their effort to defeat the armed insurrection mounted by opposition groups, as well as terrorist groups, and to intimidate Sunni communities that might support opposition groups.  According to SNHR, the civilian death toll for 2018 was 6,964, including 4,162 killed by government forces and Iranian militias.  The COI stated Sunnis accounted for the majority of civilian casualties and detainees.

Human rights organizations and civil society groups reported the government continued to arbitrarily detain tens of thousands of citizens without due process.

The SNHR report noted that arbitrary arrests of individuals have been made in the country on a daily basis since the start of the conflict for “exercising one of their basic rights such as the freedom of opinion and expression, or because they were denied a fair trial, or because they were detained after their punishment had ended.”

Human rights groups and opposition activists stated the majority of detainees the government took into custody were Sunni Arabs.  The UN and human rights organizations reported the continued detention and disappearance of individuals who appeared to be predominantly Sunni Muslims.  According to an SNHR report, the government used “enforced disappearance” and secretly arrested more than 95,000 Syrians since 2011.  The report stated that detainees were subject to torture intended to “inflict serious physical damage or cause severe pain for numerous purposes, whether to extract information, for retaliation, or to cause panic among detainees.”  According to the report, 13,608 individuals died from torture between March 2011 and August 2018.  The vast majority of tortured and executed prisoners were Sunni Muslims, whom analysts stated the government targeted believing they were members of the opposition, or likely to support the opposition.  The SNHR report stated that at least 7,706 arbitrary arrests were made in 2018.

The SNHR report stated that the government was responsible for at least 87 percent of all arbitrary arrests; nonstate actors also engaged in this practice.  In most cases, victims’ families could not accurately identify the entity that made the arrest, since Iranian militias, the predominantly Shia Lebanese Hezbollah, and all other progovernment forces were able to engage in arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances.

Over the course of the summer, government officials released death notices of prisoners held in government detention facilities.  SNHR stated that the number of detainees certified as dead was unknown, but it was estimated to be in the thousands.  The SNHR noted the government delayed announcing those detainees certified dead until years later as a way to punish the victims’ families.  In its review of the notifications, the Washington Post wrote that the notices were of detainees who died between 2013 and 2015, with the overwhelming majority of them Sunni Muslim.

Some opposition groups and terrorist groups identified themselves explicitly as Sunni Arab or Sunni Islamist groups in statements and publications and drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis, giving government targeting of the opposition a sectarian element.  NGO sources also stated the government tried to mobilize sectarian support by branding itself as a protector of religious minorities from Sunni extremist groups, while simultaneously bolstering radical Sunni groups and controlling the activities of religious groups.  As a result, a number of minority religious groups viewed the government as protecting them from violent Sunni extremists, according to international media reports.

In May Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the government’s adoption of Law No. 10 would lead to confiscation of property without due process or compensation and would create a major obstacle for refugees and IDPs to return home.  HRW said it would be nearly impossible for thousands of refugees and IDPs to claim their property and that the procedural requirements of the law, coupled with the political context, created significant potential for abuse and discrimination, particularly toward the Sunni population.  Subsequent to the law’s passage in April, an October report by HRW detailed how the government began preventing mostly Sunni displaced residents from former antigovernment-held areas in Darayya and Qaboun from returning to their properties, including by demolishing their properties without warning and without providing alternative housing or compensation.

According to multiple press reports and human rights organizations, the vast majority of refugees and displaced were Sunni and viewed with suspicion by the government.  Other human rights organizations joined with HRW in observing that the government could potentially use Law No. 10 to engage in abuse and discriminatory treatment of mostly Sunni displaced residents and residents from areas previously held by opposition forces.  They stated they feared Law No. 10 would be used to reconstruct religious demographics.  According to the Carnegie Endowment of Peace, significant numbers of the Syrian refugee population indicated that they were unlikely to return if they were unsure of being able to repossess their house or property.  According to refugee and human rights organizations, 70 percent of refugees lacked the basic identity documents needed to claim property.  The organizations stated that mostly Sunni displaced individuals without the proper documents required to claim property ownership feared persecution, arbitrary arrest, or mistreatment by the security services.

According to HRW, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continued to recruit Shia Afghan refugees and migrants residing in Iran to assist the government in its conflict against armed opposition groups.  HRW reported Iran had supported and trained thousands of Afghans to fight in the country as part of the Fatemiyoun Division since 2013.  HRW and other sources estimated the size of the division to be up to 14,000 fighters.  The Washington Post reported most Afghan fighters of the Fatemiyoun Division were refugees or migrants living in Iran, and hundreds came from poor, ethnic Hazara communities near the Iranian border, as well as other regions of Afghanistan.  According to analysts, the use of Shia fighters from as far as Afghanistan as soldiers in an armed conflict against a mostly Sunni opposition further exacerbated sectarian divisions.

According to human rights groups and religious communities, the government continued to monitor and control sermons and to close mosques between prayers.  It also continued to monitor and limit the activities of all religious groups, including scrutinizing their fundraising and discouraging proselytizing.

Despite the relatively small indigenous Shia community in the country, Shia religious slogans and banners remained prominent in Damascus, according to observers and media reports.  In addition, Hezbollah and other pro-Iran signs and banners remained prevalent in some government-held areas.

The government continued its support for radio and television programming related to the practice and study of a form of Islam it deemed appropriate.  State media allowed only those clerics it approved to preach on the air, and booksellers were prohibited from selling literature that the government deemed was against the government’s interpretation of Islam.

According to academic experts, religion remained a factor in determining career advancement in the government.  The Alawite minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military and security services, according to media and academic reports; however, the senior officer corps of the military reportedly continued to include individuals from other religious minorities.  The government continued to exempt Christian and Muslim religious leaders from military service based on conscientious objection, although it continued to require Muslim religious leaders to pay a levy for exemption.

Media and academic experts said the government continued to portray the armed resistance in sectarian terms, saying opposition protesters and fighters were associated with “extreme Islamist factions” and terrorists seeking to eliminate the country’s religious minority groups and its secular approach to governance.  The official state news agency Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported on the government’s fight against “takfiri terrorist organizations” throughout the year (a group is defined as takfiri if it declares another Muslim or a Muslim group as apostate).  An August 14 SANA article, referring to a Roman-era historic site destroyed in the civil war, was titled “Zein El-Abidine Palace in Daraa stands witness to Takfiri terrorist crimes.”

According to international media reports, leaders from a number of minority religious groups, such as representatives of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities as well as prominent Druze activists, continued to state the government had their support because it protected them from violent Sunni extremists.

The government continued to warn the Sunni population against communications with foreign coreligionists that it described as communication for the purpose of political opposition or military activity.  For most other religious groups, the government did not prohibit links between citizens and coreligionists in other countries or between citizens and the international religious hierarchies governing some religious groups.  It continued to prohibit, however, contact between the Jewish community and Jews in Israel.

Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons.  SANA frequently reported on the “Zionist enemy” and accused the opposition of serving “the Zionist project.”  The government repeated its claim a “Zionist conspiracy” was responsible for the country’s conflict.  In response to an alleged Israeli airstrike in July, the government stated “the Zionist enemy returned in its desperate attempts to support defeated terror organizations in Daraa and in Quneitra.”

The government continued to allow foreign Christian faith-based NGOs to operate under the auspices of one of the historically established churches without officially registering.  It continued to require foreign Islamic NGOs to register and receive approval from the Awqaf to operate.  Security forces continued to question these organizations on their sources of income and to monitor their expenditures.  The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor continued to prohibit religious leaders from serving as directors on the boards of Islamic charities.

SNHR reported the government continued to conduct indiscriminate aerial and artillery attacks, which at times resulted in damage or destruction of places of worship and religious cultural property, including numerous churches and mosques.  Additionally, the government conducted targeted attacks against places of worship the regime claimed were occupied by armed actors.  SNHR documented 67 attacks by government forces against places of worship during the year.  On January 31, for example, government helicopters dropped barrel bombs near al Omrai al Kabir Mosque in Kafr Amim village, causing moderate damage to the mosque and its furnishings.  On February 27, government forces shelled Um Habiba Mosque in Douma city, partially destroying the mosque and putting it out of operation.  The government continued to state the mosques it targeted were being utilized by opposition forces for military purposes.

Jews generally were barred from government employment and did not have military service obligations.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

The COI and numerous independent sources reported nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the UN, the U.S., and other governments, such as ISIS and 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.

As of the end of the year, forces comprised of a coalition of 79 partners and the SDF liberated the vast majority of Syrian territory that ISIS once controlled and governed.  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 was reduced to a small area in the eastern part of the country by the end of the year; it no longer governed large populations, and was limited in its ability to subjugate religious groups and subject them to harsh treatment.  It continued, however, to operate and target individuals on the basis of religion on a smaller scale.  ISIS and HTS targeted religious minorities, including Shia and Ismaili Muslims, Christians, Alawites, and Yezidis, and members of the majority Sunni community who violated their strict interpretations of Islamic law.  In late July, for example, ISIS claimed credit for a wave of suicide attacks against the majority Druze population in the city of Sweida.  The attacks left more than 250 people dead and resulted in the capture of more than 30 Druze hostages by ISIS fighters, one of whom was later executed.  Al-Qaeda affiliated groups also lost significant territory, and at year’s end were mostly limited to the Idlib Governorate and had limited ability to target religious groups outside of their areas of control.  On September 7, al-Qaeda-linked rebels fired several missiles at the predominately Christian town of Mhardeh, according to multiple press reports.  The missiles killed at least 10 civilians and seriously wounded 20 others.  The charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reported that on January 22 rebels bombed Bab Touma, the Christian district in Damascus, leaving 12 dead and 35 injured.  ACN also reported that in early January shelling by rebels caused damage to the Syriac Orthodox patriarchate office in Bab Touma.

Many rebel groups self-identified as Sunni Arab or Sunni Islamist and drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis.  Armed groups continued to convene ad hoc sharia courts in areas under their control, where each group reportedly implemented its own interpretation of Islamic law.  Religious offenses ISIS deemed punishable by death included blasphemy, apostasy, and cursing God.  ISIS punished individuals with floggings or imprisonment for other religious offenses, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammad or failing to comply with standards of grooming and dress.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), as of June, Hezbollah had between 7,000 and 10,000 fighters in Syria, its largest deployment outside of Lebanon.  CSIS reports stated the bulk of Hezbollah’s forces and proxy militias were deployed along the Lebanese-Syrian border, where there were large numbers of Shia communities and shrines – and near Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon.  Hezbollah also deployed fighters around Damascus and Homs, and as far east as the Deir al-Zour Governorate in the Middle Euphrates River valley.

Hezbollah participated in the military campaigns against the mostly Sunni Damascus suburbs of East Ghouta and Daraa, which resulted in thousands of casualties.  Sources reported that Syrian soldiers and government-affiliated militias seized homes in these areas after “reconciliation” agreements forcefully displaced previous inhabitants, who were mostly Sunni Muslims.  The May COI report detailed a practice in which, after hostilities ceased and local truces were implemented, government and progovernment forces required individuals from the previously besieged areas to undergo a “reconciliation process” as a condition for remaining in their homes.  The option to reconcile reportedly often was not offered to healthcare personnel, local council members, relief workers, activists, dissidents, and family members of fighters.  In effect, the COI assessed that the “reconciliation process” induced displacement in the form of organized evacuations of those deemed insufficiently loyal to the government and served as a government strategy for punishing those individuals.

ISIS regularly targeted and massacred Shia Muslims, and used its media arms to target, demonize, and incite violence against Shia.

Numerous sources stated ISIS also targeted Christians throughout the country.  Activists, media, and ISIS sources reported ISIS continued to force Christians and other minorities in areas under its control to pay a protection tax – 164,000 Syrian pounds ($320) per person, according to a Christian organization – convert to Islam, flee, or be killed.

Starting in 2014, ISIS abducted thousands of Yezidi women from Iraq, as well as numerous Christian and Turkmen women, and brought them to the country to be sold as sex slaves in markets or given as rewards to ISIS fighters as “spoils of war” because of the captives’ religious beliefs.  According to numerous sources, ISIS fighters held the women as slaves and subjected them and other captured women and girls to repeated sexual violence, systematic rape, forced marriages, and coerced abortions.  While many Yezidi women were liberated when coalition forces and the Kurdish-dominated SDF liberated ISIS-held territory, thousands remained missing.

According to ISIS statements and other sources, in areas once under its control, ISIS police forces continued to administer summary punishments for violations of the ISIS morality code.  Men and women continued to face public beatings and whippings for smoking, possessing alcohol, listening to music, having tattoos, conducting business during prayer times, not attending Friday prayers, fighting, and not fasting during Ramadan.

HTS continued to characterize its fight against the government in derogatory terms aimed at delegitimizing and dehumanizing government supporters on the basis of their Alawite religious identity.  HTS and other rebel groups also used sectarian language to describe the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and SDF.  HTS replaced government courts with sharia councils in areas it controlled, authorizing discrimination against religious minorities.

In January the Turkish army, along with Turkish-opposition groups, including elements of the FSA, launched an air and ground campaign against the YPG-held enclave of Afrin.  The attack allegedly was designed to clear out Kurdish YPG fighters from the border region.  According to the United Nations, the press, and human rights organizations, approximately 167,000 people, mostly Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians, were displaced.  According to media reports, displaced Yezidis said FSA forces in Afrin rounded up Yezidis and forced them to convert to Islam and destroyed Yezidi places of worship.  In the aftermath of the conflict, Turkish forces implemented a resettlement policy by moving displaced Sunni opposition forces and their families into the empty homes that belonged to displaced people, comprised mostly of religious minorities.

ISIS, HTS, and some Islamist opposition groups continued to call for establishing a Sunni theocracy in press statements and media interviews.

HTS and affiliated groups continued to use schools, youth training camps, and other means to teach children their Salafi-jihadi philosophy in areas under their control.  In “proselytization sessions,” a term used by HTS, the group invited children to participate in games whose content was based on al-Qaida’s religious beliefs.

In September multiple news outlets reported that the SDF shut down 14 Syriac Christian schools in the cities of Qamishli, Hasakeh, and Al-Malikiyeh for their refusal to implement a new school curriculum that required courses to be taught in the Kurdish language.  The schools were administered by the Syriac Orthodox Church diocese and had been in operation since 1935, serving Assyrian, Armenian, Arab, and Kurdish communities in the area.  School officials accused the SDF of attempting to “erase” Syriac history and culture and imposing a Kurdish nationalist curriculum.  In September journalist Soulman Yousph was arrested and detained for five days following an article he wrote criticizing the SDF for closing down Chaldean Catholic Church and Syriac Orthodox Church private schools.  The Kurdish authority and the local Syriac Orthodox archbishopric eventually reached a deal that allowed the schools to reopen.  Samira Haj Ali, head of the Kurdish authority’s education authority, said the agreement ensured students in the first two grades followed a Syriac version of the Kurdish region’s curriculum.  In exchange, the agreement allowed students in classes three to six to follow the Damascus education curriculum with extra Syriac language classes available.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There continued to be reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, exacerbated by government actions, cultural rivalries, and sectarian rhetoric.

Christians reported they continued to feel threatened by religious intolerance among the opposition as the influence of violent extremist groups increased.  According to observers, the Sunni Islamist character of the opposition continued to drive members of the Christian community to support the government.  Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, and Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Joseph Absi cosigned an April 14 statement strongly condemning Western air strikes against Syrian government positions while reasserting their support for the Syrian government.  The statement saluted, “the courage, heroism and sacrifices of the Syrian Arab Army, which courageously protects Syria and provides security for its people.”

Advocacy groups reported social conventions and religious proscriptions continued to make conversion relatively rare, especially Muslim-to-Christian conversions, which were banned by law.  They also reported societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or leave the country to practice their new religion openly.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition, the opposition’s primary political umbrella organization, and the Syrian Negotiations Committee, an opposition umbrella organization responsible for negotiating on behalf of the opposition with the regime, continued to condemn attacks and discrimination against religious groups, both by the government and by extremist and terrorist groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The President and the Secretary of State continued to condemn the government’s failure to respect the human rights of its citizens, including the right to religious freedom.  The President repeatedly stressed the need for a political solution to the conflict that would be inclusive of all religious groups in the country.

The Secretary of State continued to work with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, the moderate opposition, and the international community to support the UN-facilitated, Syrian-led efforts in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict that would safeguard the religious freedom of all citizens.  In July the Secretary hosted the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom where he discussed the future of the country and supported the UN-led intra-Syria negotiations with foreign counterparts.  The Secretary highlighted the ISIS genocide against minority religious groups during his remarks.  The Secretary attended the Syria Small Group meeting with ministers from like-minded states during the UN General Assembly session in September, where he and the Small Group Ministers expressed their support for the UN’s role in negotiating a political solution to the conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for free, fair, and inclusive elections in Syria.  In addition, the Secretary affirmed the U.S. commitment to Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and nonsectarian character; to ensuring state institutions remain intact; and to protecting the rights of all individuals, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation.

The U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012.  U.S. government representatives met with Syrian religious groups and leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere in the region and the world, such as John X, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, leaders from the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, and Moaz al-Khatib, the former imam of the Umayyad Mosque, as part of its effort to promote an inclusive political settlement for the conflict.  The U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Levant, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, and other high ranking U.S. officials met with members of the Orthodox Christian, Sunni, Druze, and Alawite communities to discuss assistance to vulnerable populations, countering sectarian violence, and encouraging positive dialogue between members of the opposition and minority communities who felt threatened.  The Deputy Assistant Secretary and other officials participated in dialogues, roundtables, and working groups focused on increasing religious tolerance and countering extremist violence, including meetings with Yezidi-rights groups, Greek Orthodox leaders, and an August meeting with Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

The U.S. continued to support the documentation of abuses committed by all sides in the conflict through the COI and through direct support to Syrian-led documentation efforts.

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.5 million (July 2018 estimate), of which approximately 99 percent is Sunni Muslim.  Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, Baha’is, and nonbelievers constitute less than 1 percent of the population.  There are approximately 7,000 Christians who are citizens, according to the Christian community, most of whom are Anglicans or other Protestants.  The MRA estimates there are approximately 30,000 Christians residing in the country, most of whom are foreigners, and of whom 80 percent are Roman Catholic.  Catholic officials estimate their church membership at fewer than 5,000, widely dispersed throughout the country.  The remaining Christian population is composed of Protestants, Russian Orthodox, French Reformists, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Greek Orthodox, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The Jewish community numbers approximately 1,400, according to the MRA.  One-third of the Jewish population lives in and around the capital and the remainder lives on the island of Djerba and in the neighboring town of Zarzis.  There is a small Baha’i community, but no reliable information on its numbers is available.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam is the country’s religion but the constitution also declares the country to be a “civil state.”  The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and requires the president to be Muslim.  The constitution guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practices.  The constitution also states that mosques and houses of worship should be free from “partisan instrumentalization.”  It obligates the state to disseminate the values of moderation and tolerance, protect holy sites, and prevent takfir (Muslim accusations of apostasy against other Muslims).  The law requires that all religious services be celebrated within houses of worship or other nonpublic settings.  These restrictions extend to public advertisement of religious services.  The constitution lists reasons for potential restrictions on the rights and freedoms it guarantees, including protecting the rights of others, requirements of national defense, and public order, morality, or health.

The penal code criminalizes speech likely “to cause harm to the public order or morality,” as well as acts undermining public morals in a way that “intentionally violates modesty.”

There is no legal prohibition of proselytism, but the law criminalizes forced conversions.

Religious groups may form and register associations under the law to establish a bank account and conduct financial activities such as charity work and receive favorable tax treatment, including tax-free donations from government-approved associations, provided the association does not purport to represent all believers of a religious group or use the name of a religious group.  To establish an association, a religious group must submit a registered letter to the Prime Minister’s Office stating the purposes of the association; copies of the national identity cards of its founders, who must be citizens; and two copies of the articles of association signed by the association’s founders or their representatives.  The articles of association must contain the official name of the association in Arabic and any foreign language, if appropriate; its address; a statement of its objectives; membership criteria; membership fees; and a statement of organizational structure, including identification of the decision-making body for the association.  The law requires that associations and political parties respect the rule of law and basic democratic principles.  The law prohibits associations from engaging in for-profit activities, providing material support to individual political candidates, or adopting bylaws or taking actions to incite violence or promote hatred, fanaticism, or discrimination on the basis of religion.  Once established, such an association may receive tax-exempt income from organizations, including foreign organizations that have a prior agreement with the government.

Once the association receives the return receipt from the Prime Minister’s Office, it has seven days to submit an announcement of the name, purpose, and objectives of the association to the government press.  The government press has 15 days to publish the announcement in the government gazette, which marks the association’s official registration.  In the event the government does not return a registered receipt within 30 days, an association may proceed to submit its documents for publication and obtain registration.  A foreign association may establish a branch in the country, but the government may also reject its registration request if the government finds the principles or objectives of the foreign association contravene the law.

Violations of the provisions of the law related to associations are punishable first by a warning of up to 30 days from the secretary general of the government, then by a court order suspending the association’s activities for up to 30 days if the violations persist.  If the association is still in violation of the law, the secretary general may then appeal to the court for dissolution of the association.  Under the law, associations have the right to appeal court decisions.

Registered associations have the right to organize meetings and demonstrations, to publish reports and leaflets, to own real estate, and to engage in “all types of civil activities.”

A 1964 modus vivendi with the Holy See grants official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church.  The concordat allows the Church to function in the country and provides state recognition of the Catholic Church, although it restricts religious activities and services to the physical confines of authorized churches and prohibits construction of new churches and the ringing of church bells.  A limited number of Catholic schools and charities may operate under the concordat, but their financial activities are conducted through registration as an association, and their affiliation with the Church is not publicized.

The law states the government oversees Islamic prayer services by subsidizing mosques, appointing imams, and paying their salaries.  The grand mufti, appointed by the president, is charged with declaring religious holidays, issuing certificates of conversion to Islam, attending to citizens’ inquiries, representing the country at international religious conferences, providing opinions on school curricula, and studying and writing about Islam.  The MRA suggests themes for Friday sermons but does not regulate their content.  The government may initiate administrative and legal procedures to remove imams whom authorities determine to be preaching “divisive” theology.

By law, new mosques may be constructed provided they are built in accordance with national urban planning regulations.  The MRA pays for construction of mosques, although private, and foreign donors also are able to contribute to construction costs.  Mosques become government property upon completion, after which the government must maintain them.

It is mandatory for students in public schools to attend courses on the principles of Islam approximately one hour per week.  Non-Muslim students generally attended these courses but could seek an exemption.  The curriculum for secondary school students also includes references to the history of Judaism and Christianity, according to the Ministry of Education.  Religious groups may operate private schools.

Provisions of law addressing marriage, divorce, and other personal status issues are largely based on principles of civil law, combined with elements of sharia.  Laws of inheritance are principally based on requirements in sharia, but there are some provisions that allow for exceptions as outlined in the Code of Personal Status.

The law does not list religion as a prohibited basis for political parties, but prohibits political parties from using religion to call for violence or discrimination.

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

Government Practices

According to an October report by Amnesty International (AI), “They Never Tell Me Why,” the government imposed restrictions on domestic travel or bans on travelling abroad for some of its citizens, due to security concerns.  According to the AI report, in some cases, “authorities appear to have targeted individuals … on the basis of their perceived religious beliefs or practices, physical appearance, such as having a beard and wearing religious clothing….”  The media also reported police and security forces harassed some women who wore the niqab.

The 1964 modus vivendi with the Holy See effectively limits the Catholic Church’s interactions with citizens, and Christian citizens said there was strong governmental and societal pressure not to advertise publicly about the Church’s activities or theology.  One Christian citizen reported police detained him for displaying books pertaining to Christian theology at a book fair.  He was released without charge, but authorities cited Article 1 of the constitution, which states that the country’s religion is Islam, as the justification for shutting down his book stall.

Fathi Laayouni, the mayor of Tunis suburb El Kram, sparked a debate when he told media on August 16 that his municipality would not validate marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man, as required following the September 2017 repeal of the 1973 ban on such marriages.  In justifying his position, Laayouni cited Articles 1 and 6 of the constitution stipulating that the state religion is Islam and that the government is the guardian of religion.  His statement received a strong rebuke from then Minister of Local Affairs Riadh Mouakher, who promised “sanctions” against Laayouni, adding the mayor had an obligation to uphold the law.  Civil society groups reported anecdotal evidence that Laayouni was not the only mayor to refuse performing marriage services between Muslims and non-Muslims.  Anecdotal evidence provided by members of the Christian community suggested that some mayors’ offices refused to marry two Christian citizens.

In August the Baha’i community received information through its lawyer that the First Instance Court of Tunis had denied the community’s court case pertaining to its petition to be a registered association.  As of December the court had not provided a written judgement outlining the legal grounds for its refusal; the Baha’is stated they planned to appeal the court’s decision.  Baha’is also stated it was not possible to establish houses of worship or conduct some religious activities while they lacked official recognition.  In early 2017, the Baha’i community submitted a formal request to the Ministry of Interior for permission for a dedicated cemetery.  Without a dedicated cemetery, Baha’is have had to hide their religious affiliation to use cemeteries reserved for adherents of other recognized faiths.  As of the end of the year, the ministry had not responded to the Baha’i community’s request.

Members of the Baha’i community said there was increased government interest in learning about the Baha’i Faith.  They expressed concern, however, about discrimination by individual security force personnel.  During the year they said that police officers in different cities interrogated members of the community about their religious practices and beliefs in the course of routine security checks.  Although the individuals were all released from police custody without charge, community members said they believed the individuals faced increased and undue scrutiny due to their faith.

The government publicly urged imams to disseminate messages of moderation and tolerance to counter what it said were threats of violent extremism.  Since 2015, the MRA has conducted regular training sessions for imams on how to disseminate these messages.  According to several local mosque committees in charge of mosque operations and chosen by congregation members, the government generally allowed the committees to manage the daily affairs of their mosques and choose their own imams, with the exception of imams for Friday prayers, who were selected exclusively by the MRA.  Regional MRA representatives within each governorate had to vet, approve, and appoint both the committees and the imams.  According to an official from the MRA, the government standardized and enforced mosque opening and closing times, except for certain mosques with cultural or historical significance and very small community mosques.  In the run-up to May 6 municipal council elections, in keeping with national law, the Ministry of Local Affairs issued a public statement stating it had reminded imams and other religious leaders not to make political statements inside of mosques prior to the elections.

Members of the Christian community reported the government allowed churches to operate freely and provided security for their services.  The government, however, restricted public religious services or processions outside the churches.  Christian citizens reported the government did not fully recognize their rights, particularly regarding the establishment of a legal entity or association that would grant them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery for Christian citizens.  The local Christian community did not submit a formal request for an association or legal status during the year.  There are existing Christian cemeteries for foreign members of the Christian community; Christian citizens, however, need permission from the government to be buried in a Christian cemetery.  Citizens reported they generally did not request this permission due what they said was a pattern of governmental nonresponse.  Church leaders stated that while there did not appear to be organized discrimination against Christians, there were also few protections.  If an individual police officer or administrative official treated a member of the Christian community poorly, church leaders said authorities were slow to investigate these abuses or to provide redress in cases of wrongdoing.

Jewish groups said they continued to worship freely, and the government continued to provide security for synagogues and partially subsidized restoration and maintenance costs.  Government employees maintained the Jewish cemetery in Tunis, but did not maintain those located in other cities, including Sousse and El Kef.

The Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities issued a statement on August 18, condemning the refusal by the management of El Mornaguia prison in Mornaguia, southwest of Tunis, to apply an authorization granted by an investigating judge for a Jewish prisoner to receive kosher meals.  According to members of the Jewish community, however, once the prison was made aware of the prisoner’s family’s request to bring kosher meals more frequently than the three days normally allowed by the prison to accept meals from family members, the prison accommodated this request.

Minister of Religious Affairs Ahmed Adhoum hosted two conferences on religious tolerance and coexistence, the first in Tabarka on January 30-February 1 and the second held in connection with the Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage in Djerba May 3-4.  During the conferences, Adhoum, the minister of tourism, and the minister of cultural affairs emphasized that peace and religious tolerance were essential to countering terrorism.  On May 31, then Minister for Human Rights, Constitutional Bodies, and Civil Society Mehdi Ben Gharbia hosted an interfaith iftar with the grand mufti, grand rabbi, and archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church.

On June 12, the presidentially-appointed Committee on Individual Freedoms and Equality published a report that presented a series of recommended changes to the country’s laws that would align them with the 2014 constitution and international human rights laws and treaties to which the country is a signatory.  The committee’s recommendations included decriminalization of homosexuality; allowing inheritance equality between genders; equality between men and women in marriage and parenting; cancellation of government circulars that continue to be used to justify closing cafes during Ramadan; and a prohibition on the degradation of another’s religion, including a criminalization of “all contempt of others’ religions with the aim to incite violence and hatred.”  In addition, the report stated that discrimination in all of its forms violated existing provisions of the constitution and international laws.  The report recommended changes to legislation to prohibit discrimination based on religion and belief.  Legislation based on the report’s recommendations was introduced in parliament in October and remained pending at the end of the year.

On August 13, in his annual Tunisian Women’s Day address, President Caid Essebsi announced plans to present 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 chose.  During his speech, he said there was a moral and legal imperative to work for this change using an approach that is based on the country’s constitution, not religious texts.

During an April 9-19 visit, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed examined the extent to which the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and belief was being respected, protected, and promoted.  In his preliminary findings, he concluded the government had a strong commitment to equality and freedom of religion or belief but identified several legal provisions, legislative gaps, and deficits in the rule of law that could undermine the protection of religion or belief, such as the use of public morality laws to enforce religious tenets.

Authorities again provided a heightened level of security for the annual Lag B’Omer festival held at the El-Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba in May, including security cameras and personnel around the synagogue.

In accordance with government permits, the Jewish community operated private religious schools, and Jewish children were allowed to split their academic day between public schools and private religious schools or attend either type of school full-time.  The government-run Essouani School and the Houmt Souk Secondary School in Djerba remained the only public schools where Jewish and Muslim students studied together, primarily because of the small size and geographic concentration of the Jewish community.  At these schools, Muslim students attended Islamic education lessons on Saturdays while their Jewish classmates could choose to attend classes on religion at a Jewish school in Djerba.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On May 23, the Association of Free Thinkers, which was established in 2017 to promote secularism in the country, organized a demonstration in downtown Tunis demanding the right to drink and eat in public spaces during Ramadan periods of fasting.  The demonstration took place without incident.  In late February a member of the Free Thinkers reported on Facebook that two men stabbed and assaulted association president Hatem Limam in Tunis.  Limam reported to media a second attack on June 2 in which three individuals physically assaulted him after forcing their way into his office in.  Limam filed a complaint at the local police station following the second attack, and police arrested three men and charged one.  According to a March press report, the Free Thinker who reported the February attack stated members of the association had been previously attacked and that he had received death threats.  The Italian wire service ANSA reported on October 30 that some members of the Free Thinkers were threatened and attacked by Islamic extremists.   

On January 10, unknown individuals threw Molotov cocktails at two synagogues in Djerba in an apparent attempt to set fire to the buildings.  Police and the fire department responded before significant damage was done.  Members of the Jewish community said the perpetrators were known to them and the individuals were subsequently arrested.  They were released from prison after having served a sentence of several months.  Some Jewish community leaders in Djerba said they considered the attack to be the work of opportunists taking advantage of violent riots, including other arson attacks around the country, over economic conditions.  According to a report by the German network Deutsche Welle, others in the Jewish community attributed the attack to criminals acting on the orders of a radical extremist movement.  Some media reported that leading up to the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage, calls for inciting violence against Jews in Tunisia were published on social media networks.  One post reportedly included: “We must drive the Jews out of Tunisia and set fire to the synagogue in Djerba.”

Simon Slama, the only Jewish candidate for office in the May municipal elections, was on the electoral list for the Nahda Party in the Monastir Governorate, although he ultimately was not elected to the municipal council.  On September 7, the municipality of Sousse named three of its streets after Jewish citizens in order to honor their work within the city.  Social media commentators praised the city’s recognition of the contributions made by the country’s Jewish community.  On November 5, Prime Minister Yousef Chahed appointed Rene Trebelsi as Minister of Tourism during a partial government reshuffle, making him the third Jewish minister in the country’s history (after two others in 1955 and 1957).  Parliament confirmed the appointment on November 12.

According to media reports, some atheists reported receiving family and societal pressure to return to Islam or conceal their atheism, including, for instance, by fasting during Ramadan and abstaining from criticizing Islam.  Some converts to Christianity reported strong family and societal rejection, and some of them were reportedly beaten and forced to leave their homes on account of their beliefs.  Some members of the Christian community said that citizens who attended church services faced pressure from family members and others in their neighborhood not to attend.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with government officials, including in the MRA, the Presidency, and the MRCB to discuss issues concerning religious freedom.  Conversations also focused on government efforts to control activities in mosques, the difficulties facing citizens of the Baha’i Faith and Christian citizens, reports of anti-Semitic acts, legislative reform, and threats to converts from Islam to other faiths.  Embassy officials attended and spoke at the January conference hosted by the MRA on the subject of interfaith coexistence.  On May 1-4, a delegation from the embassy, including the Ambassador, participated in the Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba.  During the visit, the delegation met with Jewish leaders and members of civil society and reaffirmed support for religious diversity and tolerance.

The embassy maintained frequent contact with leaders of religious groups throughout the country to discuss the impact of the security situation on religious groups and the freedom of religious minorities to worship without restrictions from the government or threats from the community.  Through a microscholarship program, the embassy engaged with youth in discussions on religious diversity and tolerance.  The embassy hosted a former participant of a U.S. exchange program to engage youth, women’s groups, and civil society representatives in discussions about her experience researching televangelism in the United States.  The embassy supported programs designed to highlight religious tolerance and to counter violent extremism, including informal youth-led conversation groups to discuss issues of religious tolerance and alternatives to violence; a program working with scout troops to learn how to recognize and combat signs of religious radicalization; and several research programs aimed at identifying and countering religious radicalization and violent extremism, especially in youth.

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 28.6 million (July 2018 estimate).  More than 99 percent of the population is Muslim (2010 estimate), belonging either to the Shafi’i order of Sunni Islam or the Zaydi order of Shia Islam.  While there are no official statistics, the U.S. government estimates 65 percent of the population to be Sunni and 35 percent Shia.  There is an indeterminate number of Twelver Shia (residing mainly in the north), Ismailis, and Sufis.  Jews, Baha’is, Hindus, and Christians, many of whom are refugees or temporary foreign residents, comprise less than 1 percent of the population.  Christian groups include Roman Catholics and Anglicans.

Ismailis include both the al-Makarem and Bohra communities.  Following the outbreak of the conflict, many Bohras fled the country for India.

Due to the continuing political instability and violence in the country, the once sizable population of Indian nationals continued to decrease.  There is no firm estimate of persons of Indian origin or of those who practice Hinduism residing in the country; according to one source, the population of Indian nationals numbers fewer than 3000.

The Jewish community is the only indigenous non-Muslim minority religious group.  Reports estimate approximately 50 Jews remain, concentrated in Sana’a and Raydah.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion.  It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience.  The constitution states sharia is the source of all legislation, although it coexists with secular common law and civil code models of law in a hybrid legal system.

Sharia serves as the basis of the legal system.  The courts of the first instance address civil, criminal, commercial, and personal status cases.  Informal tribunals, operating mostly in rural areas, administer customary law in addition to sharia to resolve disputes.

The constitution states the president must be Muslim (“practices his Islamic duties”); however, it allows non-Muslims to run for parliament, as long as they “fulfill their religious duties.”  The law does not prohibit political parties based on religion, but it states parties may not claim to be the sole representative of any religion, oppose Islam, or restrict membership to a particular religious group.

The criminal code states “deliberate” and “insistent” denunciation of Islam or conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy, a capital offense.  The law allows those charged with apostasy three opportunities to repent; upon repentance, they are absolved from the death penalty.

Family law prohibits marriage between a Muslim and an individual whom the law defines as an apostate.  Muslim women may not marry non-Muslims, and Muslim men may not marry women who do not practice one of the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, or Judaism).  By law, a woman seeking custody of a child “ought not” to be an apostate; a man “ought” to be of the same faith as the child.

The law prohibits proselytizing directed at Muslims.  The law prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for public “ridicule” of any religion, and prescribes up to five years if the ridiculed religion is Islam.

There is no provision for the registration of religious groups.

By law, the government must authorize construction of new buildings.  The law, however, does not mention places of worship specifically.

Public schools must provide instruction in Islam but not in other religions.  The law states primary school classes must include knowledge of Islamic rituals and the country’s history and culture within the context of Islamic civilization.  The law also specifies knowledge of Islamic beliefs as an objective of secondary education.  Public schools are required to teach Sunni and Shia students the same curriculum; however, instructional materials indicate that schools in Houthi controlled areas are teaching Zaydi principles.

The Houthis and officials residing in Houthi-controlled areas representing the largest secular political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), jointly established the Supreme Political Council (SPC) in July 2016.  The SPC is a 10-member entity organized to establish and determine a governing structure for Yemen under the Houthi-led regime in Sana’a.  The government and the international community have deemed the SPC unconstitutional and illegitimate.

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

Government Practices

The cabinet, with the exception of President Hadi, Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani, who remained in Saudi Arabia, returned to Aden under the leadership of the new Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed in late October.  The government, however, did not exercise effective legal or administrative control over much of the country.

Although causes for the war are complex, sectarian violence has accompanied the civil conflict.  Since March 2015, the government has engaged in a military conflict with Ansar Allah (Houthis).  After the Houthis established control over Sana’a in September 2014, and expanded their control over significant portions of the country, senior government officials fled to Saudi Arabia, where they requested assistance from Saudi Arabia and other regional states.  As noted by the BBC, “Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia power Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states began an air campaign aimed at restoring [President] Hadi’s government.”  The BBC report later described the conflict as “part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi-led coalition airstrikes damaged places of worship and religious institutions and caused casualties at religious gatherings, according to the UN, nongovernmental organizations, and media.

Prior to the outbreak of the current military conflict, the government permitted the use of Hindu temples in Aden and Sana’a as well as existing church buildings for religious services of other denominations.  Due to the conflict, information on the use of these religious sites was not available during the year.

The government was unable to verify the content of the religious curriculum taught in some private schools, although the government said it was aware of the forced introduction of Zaydi Shia teaching into the curriculum of schools within Houthi-controlled areas.  Some Muslim citizens attended private schools that did not teach Islam.  Most non-Muslim students were foreigners and attended private schools.  According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, schools were open for only a few hours a day in many areas and over 2,000 were closed because of damage or because displaced persons or armed groups had occupied them.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Media reports indicated that 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.

Ismaili Muslims continued to complain about discrimination.  The outbreak of the conflict hindered the ability of Indian Ismailis to perform pilgrimages to sites of religious significance within the country.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Because of the deteriorating security situation in Sana’a, the Department of State suspended embassy operations at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a on February 11, 2015, and resumed operations as the Yemen Affairs Unit, initially from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia until it moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in September 2018.  In meetings with officials from the government, U.S. officials continued to stress the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue.  Yemeni government officials routinely stressed they upheld these principles, and criticized the Houthis for persecuting religious minorities.

On May 14, the Department of State spokesperson issued a statement expressing the U.S. government’s concern about the Baha’i population of Yemen and called on the Houthis to end their unacceptable treatment of the Baha’is, stating, “The Houthis have targeted the Baha’i community in inflammatory speech along with a wave of detentions, ‘court summons,’ and punishment without a fair or transparent legal process.  These actions over the past year indicate a persistent pattern of mistreatment of Baha’is in Yemen.  These actions appear to be an effort to pressure Yemeni Baha’is to recant their faith.”

On November 8, the Yemen Affairs Unit posted a statement that it signed on behalf of the United States and that was cosigned by the governments of Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom expressing deep concern about the worsening treatment of Baha’is in Yemen, stating, “We join others in calling on the Houthis to immediately release all Baha’is in their custody.  Respect for religious freedom is an essential building block for peace and prosperity 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.