The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia to be a principal source for legislation. It provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and freedom to perform religious rites. The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions, provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine.” The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics and community members. Authorities detained a number of clerics over the content of their sermons during the commemoration of Ashura in September; all were subsequently released without charge. In January authorities released Majeed al-Meshaal, the head of the Shia Scholar’s Council, who was sentenced in 2016 to two and a half years in prison. On June 9, the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) banned al-Meshaal from delivering Friday sermons on the grounds that he was inciting hatred. In March the criminal court sentenced 167 individuals to prison terms ranging from six months to 10 years for their participation in the 2016 Diraz sit-in held by supporters of Isa Qassim, identified by media as the country’s leading Shia cleric. On July 30, authorities placed Shia cleric Sheikh Isaal al-Qaffas in solitary confinement in Jaw Prison for protesting the execution of two Shia. On August 30, Jaw Prison authorities banned inmates from gathering in large groups to commemorate Ashura in the corridors. The prison permitted inmates to conduct observances in small groups in their cells from 8:00 to 9:00 each night. In general, non-Muslim religious minorities reported they could practice their religion openly without fear of interference from the government. In August the government authorized work to begin on the renovation and expansion of the Shri Krishna Hindu Temple during a visit by the Prime Minister of India. In December the King Hamad Centre for Global Peaceful Coexistence cohosted two roundtables on religious freedom, bringing together Shia and Sunni Muslims, Coptic and evangelical Christians, Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jews. The King Hamad Centre cited the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the United States in July for providing the impetus to hold these events.
Some representatives of the Shia community continued to state that the higher unemployment rate and lower socioeconomic status of Shia were a result of discriminatory hiring practices. Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared on social media, including statements that some prominent former and current Shia political leaders were “traitors” and “Iranian servants.” According to non-Muslim religious groups, including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, Buddhist, and Jews, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs, traditions, and houses of worship. Although no law prevented individuals from converting from one religion to another, societal attitudes and behavior discouraged conversion from Islam.
Senior U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State and Ambassador, and other embassy representatives met with government officials to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression and to ensure full inclusion of all citizens in political, social, and economic opportunities. U.S. officials also continued to advocate that the government pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to meet regularly with religious leaders of a broad spectrum of religious groups, representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it relates to religious practices.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 1.5 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the government, there are approximately 689,000 citizens, constituting less than half of the total population. According to 2018 U.S. estimates, Muslims make up 73.7 percent of the total population, Christians 9.3 percent, Jews 0.1 percent, and others 16.9 percent (Hindus, Baha’is, Sikhs, and Buddhists).
The government does not publish statistics regarding the sectarian breakdown between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Most estimates from NGOs state Shia Muslims represent a majority (55 to 60 percent) of the citizen population. Local sources estimate 99 percent of citizens are Muslim, while Christians, Hindus, Baha’is, and Jews together constitute the remaining 1 percent. According to Jewish community members, there are approximately 36 Jewish citizens, from six families, in the country.
Most of the foreign residents are migrant workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Arab countries. Local government estimates report approximately 51 percent of foreign residents are Muslim, 31 percent Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is, and Sikhs, 17 percent Christians (primarily Roman Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Orthodox, and Mar Thoma from South India), and less than 1 percent Jewish.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, Islam is the official religion, and the state safeguards the country’s Islamic heritage. The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, freedom to perform religious rites, and freedom to hold religious parades and religious gatherings, “in accordance with the customs observed in the country.” The constitution provides for the freedom to form associations as long as these do not infringe on the official religion or public order, and it prohibits discrimination based on religion or creed. All citizens have equal rights by law. According to the constitution, all persons are equal without discrimination on the basis of gender, origin, language, or faith. The labor law prohibits discrimination in the public and private public sectors on grounds of religion or faith. The law also stipulates recourse through a complaint process to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD) to legal bodies in the event of discrimination or dismissal in the work place on the basis of religion.
The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine,” and do not prejudice the unity of the people, or arouse discord or sectarianism.
The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and broadcast media programs and mandates imprisonment of no less than six months for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.”
Muslim religious groups must register with the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs and Endowments (MOJIA) to operate. Sunni religious groups register with the ministry through the Sunni Waqf, while Shia religious groups register through the Jaafari (Shia) Waqf. The MOJIA waqfs are endowment boards, which supervise, fund the work of, and perform a variety of activities related to mosques and prayer halls. Non-Muslim groups must register with the MOLSD to operate. In order to register, a group must submit an official letter requesting registration; copies of minutes from the founders’ committee meeting; a detailed list of founders, including names, ages, nationalities, occupations, and addresses; and other information such as the group’s bylaws and bank account information. Religious groups also may need approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE), the Ministry of Information Affairs, or the MOI, depending on the nature of the group’s intended activities. If any religious group organizes functions outside of its designated physical space without approval, it may be subject to government prosecution and a fine. The law prohibits activities falling outside of an organization’s charter. The penal code does not specifically address the activities of unregistered religious groups, but provides for the closing of any unlicensed branch of an international organization plus imprisonment of up to six months and fines of up to 50 Bahraini dinars ($130) for the individuals responsible for setting up the branch.
The penal code calls for punishment of up to one year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to 100 dinars ($270) for offending one of the recognized religious groups or their practices, or for openly defaming a religious figure considered sacred to members of a particular group.
The law stipulates fines or imprisonment for insulting an institution, announcing false or malicious news, spreading rumors, encouraging others to show contempt for a different religious denomination or sect, illegally gathering, and advocating for a change of government, among other offenses. The Office of the Ombudsman, as part of the MOI, addresses the rights of prisoners, including the right to practice their religion.
The MOJIA oversees the activities of both the Sunni Waqf and the Jaafari Waqf, which are appointed by the king with recommendations from the president of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. The respective endowment boards supervise the activities of mosques and prayer halls, review and approve clerical appointments for religious sites under their purview, and fund expenses for the building and maintenance of religious sites. According to the government, since August, MOJIA no longer funds endowment board members’ salaries. Endowment boards, like the remainder of MOJIA employees, now fall under the Civil Service Bureau, which is overseen by the crown prince-led Civil Service Council. Annually, the government allocates 2.7 million dinars ($7.16 million) to each endowment board. Tithes, income from property rentals, and other private sources largely fund the remainder of the endowment boards’ operations. The endowment boards may pay flat commissions and bonuses to preachers and other religious figures.
The government-run and -funded Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA) oversees general religious activities taking place within the country as well as the publication of Islamic studies school curricula and official religious texts. The council is comprised of a chairman, a deputy chairman, and 16 religious scholars, eight Sunni and eight Shia, most of them prominent preachers or sharia judges. The king appoints all council members to a four-year term. Independent from other government scholarship programs, the council offers university scholarships for advanced Islamic studies for low-income students. The SCIA reviews all legislation proposed by the parliament to ensure the draft law’s compliance with sharia. The council also consults with other government entities before issuing permits to new Islamic societies or centers. The council is responsible for reviewing the content of Islamic programs broadcast on official government media, such as the official television station and official radio programs. The council also organizes interfaith conferences and workshops.
The king has sole legal authority to allocate public land, including for religious purposes, although he may delegate this authority to government officials, including the prime minister. By law, construction of places of worship requires approvals from appropriate national and municipal authorities. The law permits non-Muslim houses of worship to display crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises. Government entities involved in allocating building permits include the MOJIA for non-Islamic religious sites, either the Sunni Waqf or the Shia Waqf under the MOJIA for Islamic sites and the Survey and Land Registration Bureau, a stand-alone government entity. The construction of a new mosque, whether Shia or Sunni, is based on a government determination of the need for a new mosque in the area. The government also determines the need for non-Islamic houses of worship.
The law regulates Islamic religious instruction at all levels of the education system. The government funds public schools for grades 1-12; Islamic studies are mandatory for all Muslim students and are optional for non-Muslims. Private schools must register with the government and, with a few exceptions (for example, a foreign funded and foreign operated school), are also required to provide Islamic religious education for Muslim students. Private schools wishing to provide non-Islamic religious education to non-Muslims must receive permission from the MOE. Outside of school hours, both Muslim and non-Muslim students may engage in religious studies that the MOJ sponsors, as their parents deem fit.
According to the MOE, no particular school of jurisprudence forms the basis of the Islamic studies portion of the public school curriculum. In coordination with the SCIA, a team of MOE-appointed experts routinely reviews and develops the Islamic studies of the public school curriculum to emphasize shared Islamic values between different Sunni and Shia schools of thought, reject extremism, and promote tolerance and coexistence. According to the government, the SCIA provides financial assistance to the six registered hawzas (Shia seminaries); other hawzas choose to be privately funded. The government does not permit foreign donors to contribute to privately funded hawzas. There are no restrictions on religious studies abroad. The government also permits non-Muslim groups to offer religious instruction to their adherents in private schools.
According to the constitution, sharia forms a principal basis for legislation, although civil and criminal matters are governed by a civil code. With regard to family and personal status matters, the constitution states inheritance is a guaranteed right governed by sharia. The constitution also guarantees the duties and status of women and their equality with men, “without breaching the provisions” of sharia. The personal status law states either the Sunni or Shia interpretation of sharia with regard to family matters, including inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce, shall govern depending on the religious affiliation of the party. Mixed Sunni-Shia families may choose which court system will hear their case. The provisions of the law on personal status apply to both Shia and Sunni women, requiring a woman’s consent for marriage and permitting women to include conditions in the marriage contract. Non-Muslims may marry in civil or religious ceremonies; however, all marriages must be registered with a civil court. Civil courts also adjudicate matters such as divorce and child custody.
The government does not designate religious affiliation on national identity documents, including birth certificates. Applications for birth certificates and national identity documents, however, record a child’s religion (either Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or other), but not denomination. Hospital admission forms and school registration forms may also request information on an individual’s religion.
The constitution says the state shall strive to strengthen ties with Islamic countries. It specifies the succession to the position of king is hereditary, passing from eldest son to eldest son. The royal family is Sunni.
The law prohibits individuals from being members of political societies or becoming involved in political activities while serving in a clerical role at a religious institution, including on a voluntary basis.
By law, the government regulates and monitors the collection of money by religious and other organizations. Organizations wishing to collect money must first obtain authorization from the MOJIA.
The law guarantees inmates of correctional facilities the right to attend burials and receive condolences outside prison.
The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with reservations stating it interprets the covenant’s provisions relating to freedom of religion, family rights, and equality between men and women before the law as “not affecting in any way” the prescriptions of sharia.
Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
The press reported on July 27 that the government executed two men, Ahmad al-Mullali and Ali Hakim al-Arab, both Shia citizens, for crimes related to the 2017 shooting of a police officer. Following the executions, Reuters reported that protests broke out in the country, including “several Shia villages and neighborhoods on the outskirts of the capital.”
The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics and community members. The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance for the content of sermons and to bring charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics.
On January 29, authorities rearrested the chairman of the dissolved Ulama Council, Sheikh Majeed al-Meshaal, several hours after he was released from prison where he spent two-and-a-half years for holding an illegal gathering during the 2017 Diraz sit-in by supporters of senior Shia leader Isa Qassim. Al-Meshaal appeared before the Public Prosecutor on February 2 on charges of “inciting hatred against the regime.” On February 17, the Public Prosecutor extended his detention for an additional 15 days pending investigation. Authorities released him from detention on February 27. Al-Meshaal condemned the revocation of Qassim’s citizenship and called for witnesses in Qassim’s hometown of Diraz to speak out. On June 9, authorities banned al-Meshaal for an indeterminate period from delivering Friday sermons in the Diraz mosque for inciting hatred. According to an Iranian media source, in September the government barred al-Meshaal from overseas travel.
On June 11, authorities summoned Shia cleric Mulla Abbas al-Jaziri for inciting sectarian sedition but released him on the same day. Activists said al-Jaziri “was investigated over a religious event held in the holy month of Ramadan, on the martyrdom of Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb.”
On July 30, authorities placed Shia cleric Isaal al-Qaffas in solitary confinement in Jaw Prison for protesting the execution of Shia prisoners Ahmad al-Mullali and Ali Hakim al-Arab. In 2016 authorities arrested, convicted, and sentenced al-Qaffas to 10 years imprisonment for involvement with what the government referred to as the “Bahrain Hizballah terrorist organization.” In December the public prosecutor charged al-Qaffas with insulting the king and inciting hatred against the government.
Authorities summoned Shia cleric Mohammed Saleh al-Qashmaei for questioning on May 29 and released him the same day. Al-Qashmaei previously spent one year in prison before being released in 2018. The government also arrested his son and daughter “for harboring prisoners.” His son, Abul Fadhl, was serving 15 years in prison. His daughter was sentenced to five years in January 2018; her sentence was subsequently reduced to three years, and she was released on August 8.
According to press and NGOs, in March the criminal court sentenced 167 individuals out of 171 originially charged to prison terms ranging from six months to 10 years for their participation in the 2016 Diraz sit-in. In May the Supreme Court of Appeals reduced the longer, 10-year sentences, to seven years and six months in prison.
International and local NGOs reported police summoned approximately 25 individuals, including clerics, in the days leading up to and following the September 1-10 Ashura commemoration, the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar. Authorities reportedly summoned and interrogated these individuals “for the content of their sermons” and for “inciting sectarian hatred.” Police held some of them overnight; others were detained and released the same day; while others remained in custody for several days or weeks.
According to human rights NGOs, on July 28, authorities summoned Shia cleric Abdul Nabi al-Nashaba to the Qudaibiya police station in Manama. They arrested him upon arrival and brought him before the Public Prosecution on July 29, where he was ordered detained for 15 days pending an investigation of charges of “contempt of a sect.” Authorities remanded him to jail, releasing him in September with four other clerics: Isa al-Moaemen, Mulla Qassim Zain al-Dine, Mahmood al-Ajaimi, and Muneer Maatooq.
On June 1, the Court of Casssation, the country’s highest court of appeal, upheld life sentences for 55 detainees charged with belonging to the Dhul-Faqar Brigades terror cell.
On April 16, the High Criminal Court ruled on a case involving 169 Shia defendants whom the government accused of being members of the “Bahraini Hezbollah.” Of the 169 total defendants, 69 were sentenced to life in prison, 70 received sentences between five to 10 years in prison, and 30 were acquitted; 96 of the defendants were ordered to pay a 100,000 dinar ($265,000) fine. The court revoked the citizenship of 138 of the 169 defendants. On June 30, the Court of Appeals, at the direction of the king, overturned the revocation of citizenship of 92 of these individuals. Reuters reported the government denied deliberately targeting the Shia opposition, saying it was acting only to preserve national security.
On July 9, the High Criminal Court sentenced Shia cleric Mulla Mohammed al-Madhi to one year in prison for “insulting the companions of prophet Muhammed” in a sermon he delivered during Ramadan.
On August 4, the Public Prosecutor filed an urgent motion against Ali Mohammed Saeed Ali Jassim, a Sunni activist and member of the Unitary National Democratic Assemblage, for insulting Islam and blasphemy on social media. His case was referred to the criminal court for an urgent trial. On September 18, he was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison.
Media reported in January the Court of Cassation upheld life sentences against Ali Salman, former leader of Wifaq, and former Wifaq members of parliament (MPs) Hasan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali al-Aswad, for conspiring with Qatar to undermine the government. Wifaq is a banned political movement with strong links to the country’s Shia community. In 2018 an appeals court reversed a lower court’s acquittal and sentenced Salman, as well as Sultan al-Aswad, who were both tried in absentia, to life in prison for conspiring with Qatar. The UN Human Rights Office and international NGOs, including Amnesty International, said there were serious doubts whether the court proceedings respected the right to a fair trial. In a separate case, authorities previously sentenced Salman to four years imprisonment for “inciting hatred.”
According to the press, on August 21, a criminal court sentenced four individuals to seven years each in prison for belonging to the Al-Mukhtar Brigade, a Shia group that the government and the United Kingdom and some other countries have designated as a terrorist organization.
On August 30, a criminal court sentenced nine individuals (including two brothers) to five years in prison for belonging to an Iraqi Hizballah group.
The press reported in February that Isa Qassim, identified by media as the leading Shia cleric in the country whom the government allowed to travel to London in mid-2018 for medical treatment, announced his relocation to Iran. The government stripped Qassim of his citizenship in 2016 and held him under house arrest before permitting him to travel for required medical care overseas.
Several Shia clerics arrested in 2011 remained in prison at year’s end. They had been associated with the political opposition and were given sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment on charges related to terrorist activity or inciting hatred. Some human rights NGOs considered them to be political prisoners.
On April 21, the king issued a decree reinstating the citizenship of 551 individuals previously convicted and stripped of their nationality in a series of mass trials. According to NGOs, there were 990 citizenship revocations in the country since 2012, including 180 during the year. The BBC reported that many of the individuals who lost their citizenship were human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, and religious scholars. According to Reuters, activists said most of those covered by the decree were from Shia families. On September 18, Zainab Makki, originally arrested in 2017 for alleged membership in an Iranian-sponsored Shia terrorist group, reported that she has not been able to get her passport back following the king’s decree. Makki spent one year in jail on charges of harboring terrorists and hiding explosives in her house; she completed her sentence on March 29 and was released from prison.
According to the government, it generally permitted prisoners to practice their religion, but there were reports from Shia activists that restrictions imposed by prison authorities effectively denied prisoners access to religious services and prayer time. Bahrain Interfaith, an NGO focusing on religious rights and interfaith dialogue, reported Shia prisoners were “subjected to humiliation, persecution, ill treatment, and denial of [medical] treatment.” In August a large number of prisoners began a hunger strike in Jaw Prison to protest prison conditions, including the lack of health care. According to the state news agency, the Office of the Ombudsman conducted an investigation into the hunger strike following reports about the prisoners’ action in social media. Regarding prisoners’ requests to hold collective worship, the Ombudsman stated prison authorities had cited a requirement to “maintain order and to respect the religious beliefs of others.” The Office of the Ombudsman concluded that its investigation did not justify the filing of an official complaint with the government. The National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR), a quasi-governmental organization established by royal decree in 2016, visited Jaw Prison on August 18 and met with some of the individuals on hunger strike. NIHR released a statement saying that it was carefully following the issue to ensure “the health and safety of the inmates and their enjoyment of all their rights and freedoms” and said it would submit its observations and recommendations to the appropriate authorities.
On August 30, Jaw Prison authorities banned inmates from gathering in large groups to commemorate Ashura in the corridors, according to NGOs. The prison, however, allowed inmates to conduct observances in small groups in their cells from 8:00 to 9:00 each night.
The government continued not to provide regular statistics on detainees. The government reported that special rooms were available to prisoners for worship and prayer regardless of religious affiliation. NIHR continued to state it had not received any cases of prisoners being subject to harassment or ill-treatment by prison guards due to their religious affiliation.
In February the head of the Jaafari Waqf sent a letter to King Hamad complaining about the interference of the MOJ in the work of the Jaafari Waqf. In May the MOJ referred to the National Audit Bureau a corruption case against the Jaafari Waqf. In June the king issued a decree appointing a new chairman and new members to the Jaafari Waqf.
The government did not maintain official statistics on the religious affiliation of public employees, members of parliament, or ministers. However, according to informal estimates, the 40-member Shura Council included 18 Shia Muslim members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while the remaining 20 members were Sunni Muslims. Following parliamentary elections in 2018, sources suggested that of 40 seats on the Council of Representatives, 25 were won by members identified as Sunnis and 15 identified as Shia. None of the current members of parliament ran on an explicitly sectarian platform. Five of the 24 cabinet members, including one of the five deputy prime ministers, were Shia.
The government reported 596 licensed Sunni mosques and 91 Sunni community centers; authorities increased the number of licensed Shia places of worship to 754 mosques, while the number of ma’atams (Shia prayer houses, sometimes called husseiniyas in other countries) remained the same at 618. The government reported it granted 30 permits during the year to build Sunni mosques and an additional 30 permits to build Shia mosques and ma’atams. The government stated that determining whether a mosque would be Sunni or Shia in new housing developments depended on the needs and demographics of the new residents.
The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance on the content of sermons and to bring charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics. The MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it created for individuals engaged in religious discourse. According to the MOJIA, preachers who diverged from the pledge were subject to censure or removal by authorities on the grounds their actions jeopardized national security. The MOJIA reported reviewing sermons submitted to the government on a weekly basis by preachers. The MOJIA reported regularly visiting mosques to ensure preacher’s sermons were “moderate,” avoided discussing controversial topics, did not incite violence, and did not use religious discourse to serve political purposes. According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police again summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and required them to sign pledges that they would avoid discussing politics in their sermons.
The government continued to permit Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen (the fortieth day after Ashura, commemorating the death of Hussein) throughout the country, with the largest procession organized by a Shia community-led organization, the Manama Public Processions Commission. During the annual two-day public holiday for Ashura, most public schools and government offices were closed. The government permitted public reenactments of the death of Hussein and public marches in commemoration of Ashura. As in previous years, the MOI provided security for the processions, but again removed some Ashura flags, banners, and decorations from streets and private property in Shia villages but not at the large procession in Manama, according to Shia leaders. The NGO Bahrain Center for Human Rights reported “at least 17” instances involving police removal of Shia banners and signs. The government stated MOI personnel had removed the banners because they violated zoning restrictions or because they contained political messages.
According to press reporting, Minister of Interior Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa met with the head of the Jaafari Waqf and other Shia leaders prior to Ashura and told them, “the organizers of the religious rituals should control situations by not allowing the exploitation of … processions for goals far from the main reason for the occasion, such as holding slogans or images of religious or political personalities or foreign groups.” He reportedly said violation of MOI guidance was prohibited and would not be allowed. According to press reports, the minister stated that the role of authorities and Shia leaders was the protection of the privacy of the places of worship and to perform violation-free rituals.
On September 18, in an oral intervention at the UN Human Rights Council, an NGO representative stated, “MOI officials also play an important role in ongoing religious discrimination, arresting and detaining religious leaders and clerics during Ashura, interrupting religious processions, and harassing members of Bahrain’s Shia community during prayer times.”
The government continued to permit both registered and unregistered non-Muslim religious communities to maintain identifiable places of worship, hold religious gatherings, and display religious symbols. The MOI continued to provide security for large events held by religious communities, including non-Muslim ones. Security forces stated they continued to monitor religious gatherings and funerals to maintain peace and security.
According to the MOLSD’s official website, 19 non-Muslim religious groups were registered with the MOLSD: the National Evangelical Church, Bahrain Malaylee Church of South India Parish, Word of Life International Church, St. Christopher’s Cathedral and Awali Anglican Church, Full Gospel Church of Philadelphia, St. Mary and Anba Rewis Church (St. Mary’s Indian Orthodox Cathedral), Jacobite Syrian Christian Association and St. Peter’s Prayer Group (St. Peter’s Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church), St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church of Christ, Greek Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Bahrain (Hindu Temple), Indian Religious and Social Group (Hindu Temple), Spiritual Sikh Cultural and Social Group, St. Thomas Church Evangelical Church of Bahrain, Marthoma Parish, and the Anglican and Episcopal Church in Bahrain. Additionally, non-Muslim, nonregistered groups include the Baha’i, Buddhist, and Jewish communities.
Adherents of minority religious groups reported they were able to produce religious media and publications and distribute them in bookstores and churches, although the government did not permit publications that were perceived to criticize Islam. According to non-Muslim religious groups, the government did not interfere with religious observances and encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions. In August the government announced that it would allow a large-scale renovation and extension of the Shri Krishna Hindu Temple in the Manama souq.
Authorities permitted some churches to build larger premises on a different location, but at year’s end, these churches had not received MOLSD’s final approval for the location of the new facilities. Government contacts reported that land scarcity was the reason for this delay.
There was no progress reported on the construction of a Coptic Orthodox church in Manama following the announcement in 2016 by the king that he would permit the construction of the church. Construction continued on a Catholic cathedral, intended to serve as headquarters for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which was scheduled for completion by mid-2021.
In April the Al-Wifaq opposition society reported 11 Shia mosques out of 30 mosques destroyed or damaged in 2011 had not been repaired or reconstructed. Others were transformed into public parks or completely removed. The MOJIA, however, reported in 2018 it had concluded reconstruction to the extent feasible of 27 of the 30 mosques destroyed or damaged in 2011, in compliance with the recommendations of an independent fact-finding commission. NGOs stated authorities did not allow the construction of new mosques in Rifaa and ma’atams in Hamad Town despite numerous requests from community members.
The government-run television station continued to air Friday sermons from the country’s largest Sunni mosque, Al Fateh Mosque, but not any sermons from Shia mosques.
According to the MOJ, officially registered organizers of Haj and Umrah pilgrimages needed to abide by strict rules to maintain their licenses. There were no reports by NGOs or in media of favoritism or discrimination regarding the allocation of Hajj visas to Sunni and Shia Muslims.
According to the law, Arab applicants with 15 years’ residence and non-Arab applicants with 25 years’ residence are eligible to apply for citizenship. The government stated that foreign residents applying for citizenship were not required to report their religious affiliation. Shia politicians and community activists, however, continued to say the government’s naturalization and citizenship process favored Sunni over Shia applicants. They said the government continued to recruit Sunnis from other countries to join the security forces, granted them expedited naturalization, and provided them with public housing while excluding Shia citizens from those forces. According to Shia community activists, this continued recruitment and expedited naturalization of Sunnis represented an ongoing attempt to alter the demographic balance among the country’s citizens.
According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to provide Sunni citizens preference for government positions, including as teachers, and especially in the managerial ranks of the civil service and military. They also said Sunnis received preference for other government-related employment, especially in the managerial ranks of state-owned businesses. They continued to report few Shia citizens served in significant posts in the defense and internal security forces. According to Shia community members, senior civil service recruitment and promotion processes continued to favor Sunni candidates. Other community members said educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods remained inferior to those in Sunni communities. The government stated it made efforts to support public schools in Shia and Sunni neighborhoods equally. The government repeated public assurances affirming a policy of nondiscrimination in employment, promotions, and the provision of social and educational services. The MOLSD reported it organized expositions, job fairs, professional guidance, and assistance to needy families in predominately Shia neighborhoods. The MOLSD, which has a supervisory role in implementing labor law in the civil sector, again said there were no reported cases of religious or sectarian discrimination during the year. Shia community activists again responded that they lacked confidence in the effectiveness of government institutions to address discrimination, so they did not utilize them.
Two public schools provided more thorough religious instruction for students from elementary school through high school; the remainder of their curricula was consistent with the nonreligious curriculum in other public schools. The Jaafari Institute provided religious instruction in Shia Islam. The Religious Institute provided education in Sunni Islam.
The University of Bahrain continued to offer degree programs in religious studies and Islamic jurisprudence for Shia and Sunni students. There were five registered institutes, publicly funded and overseen by the Sunni Waqf, offering religious education for Sunnis. There were several dozen hawzas, six of them registered and authorized by the SCIA.
Human rights activists reported continued discrimination against Shia in education. Activists said interview panels for university scholarships continued to ask about students’ political views and family background with an intent to determine a history of opposition activity. The government said its scholarships remained competitive. Rights activists said many top scoring Shia applicants continued to receive scholarship offers in less lucrative or less prestigious fields. The government reported students were offered funding in particular fields based on the student’s grade point average. The government reported the flagship Crown Prince International Scholarship Program (CPISP) continued to have both Shia and Sunni representation, but it again did not provide a statistical breakdown. A list of scholarship recipients’ names, fields of study, and schools was published on the CPISP website. Some Shia business leaders reported that government officials had overturned decisions to deny scholarships to Shia students over concerns the decisions had been biased and did not reflect student merit. There were continued reports of the MOE’s refusal to recognize the foreign degrees of some students, primarily those who studied in China. Some activists said these refusals disproportionately affected Shia students.
The government continued to impose fines ranging from 50 to 400 dinars ($130-$1,100) for defacing the country’s passports. When announcing the fines in 2018, it stated that writing, tearing, or stamping a passport was illegal unless done by authorized immigration officials in the country or overseas. The NIHR stated the ban included any alterations by ministries, embassies, hotels, banks, or tourism agencies. Often tourism agencies, hotels, and other individuals at overseas religious sites placed stickers or wrote on the passports. Former Shia MP Ali al-Ateesh said the law targeted citizens for visiting [Shia] religious sites in Iran and Iraq, while those with unofficial markings from other destinations were not held accountable. Other MPs said the rule did not target sects, religious tours, individuals, or countries.
NGOs reported the government continued to closely monitor the collection of funds, including charity donations, by religious organizations. The NGOs said religious leaders and organizations not authorized to collect money, or whom the government believed handled the money in improper ways, were potentially subject to legal action.
In 2018 the foreign minister announced the government planned to create a position of ambassador at large for peaceful coexistence and religious freedom; the position remained vacant at year’s end.
Press editorials and statements from government and religious leaders emphasized the importance of religious tolerance. Representatives of the King Hamad Centre for Peaceful Coexistence, led by a Board of Trustees comprised of representatives of the country’s Sunni, Shia, Christian, Catholic, Baha’i, Hindu, and Buddhist communities, met with governmental and religious groups in several countries, including the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, where they also met with government and civil society leaders. The center cohosted two roundtables on religious freedom in Manama on December 8 and 9. The December 8 roundtable was a partnership between the center and the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation. The event held the following day, entitled “The Launch of Middle East and North Africa International Religious Freedom Roundtable,” was cohosted by the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, a U.S. NGO. Both events brought together representatives from a wide variety of religions, including Shia and Sunni Muslims, Coptic and evangelical Christians, Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jews. At the December 9 roundtable, King Hamad Centre Chairman Dr. Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa al-Khalifa sat next to the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar. NGOs later said they were concerned that Manama was the venue for the conference, given “the government’s longstanding refusal to respect religious freedom” and that the conference needed to be accompanied by “practical measures that prevent … sectarian-based discrimination … including policies that deprive the country’s Shiite[s] of their natural right to fully enjoy full Equal Citizenry.”
Local press again featured photographs of senior government officials, including the crown prince, visiting the Diwali festivities of several prominent Hindu families throughout the country.
Christian community leaders stated they continued to search for a suitable location for a new non-Islamic cemetery. While the government continued to work with them to identify a location, they did not identify a site during the year.
According to local media and community representatives, there were cremation facilities for the Hindu community. These facilities, however, were located outdoors and in the populated area of Buhair, and were the subject of complaints over health and environmental concerns from area residents for some time. On September 6, the Southern Municipal Council announced that Hindu cremation would be handled by a specialized company in indoor crematories. The cremations would take place in the Salmabad and Awali areas, far from residential areas.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media. Posts stated that former Shia leaders were “traitors” and “Iranian servants,” used the hashtag “Iran Supports Sedition in Bahrain,” and displayed images of prominent Shia figures Ali Salman and Isa Qassim. Anti-Sunni commentary largely focused on characterizing individuals as “apologists” for the government and sometimes went as far as calling individuals “mercenaries.”
Non-Muslim religious community leaders reported there continued to be some Muslims who changed their religious affiliation, despite ongoing societal pressure not to do so, but those who did so remained unwilling to speak publicly or privately to family or associates about their conversions out of fear of harassment or discrimination.
NGOs working on civil discourse and interfaith dialogue reported regional Sunni-Shia tensions and historical political divisions continued to have an economic effect. Shia representatives stated the persistent higher unemployment rate among their community, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and the lower socioeconomic status of Shia exacerbated by ongoing private sector discrimination against them, added to the tensions between the two communities. Because religion and political affiliation were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize these effects as being solely based on religious identity.
Several Hindu and Sikh temples operated throughout the country. The Shri Krishna Hindu Temple was reportedly more than 200 years old and was occasionally visited by high-level government officials. The country was also home to a historic, although seldom used, Jewish synagogue. There were more than one dozen Christian churches, which included a 100-year-old evangelical Christian church and an 80-year-old Catholic church. There was no registered Buddhist temple; however, some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.
Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features in malls, restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. The news media continued to print reports of non-Muslim religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas celebrations and Hindu festivals such as Diwali and Holi.
According to minority religious groups, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, although societal attitudes and behavior discouraged conversion from Islam. Local news reports during the year featured activities of minority religious communities, including announcements of changes in leadership, Muslim bands performing at Christmas festivities, and sports events organized by the Sikh community.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, the Ambassador, and other embassy representatives, met with senior government officials, including the foreign minister and minister of justice and Islamic affairs, to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression, including the right of clerics and other religious leaders to speak and write freely, and to ensure full inclusion of all citizens, including members of the Shia majority, in political, social, and economic opportunities. U.S. officials both publicly and in private meetings continued to advocate for the government to pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. Embassy staff attended the two roundtables focusing on religious freedom in Manama on December 8 and 9 that were hosted by the King Hamad Centre for Peaceful Coexistence, which cited the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington as the impetus behind these events.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to meet regularly with religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it related to religious practices. These exchanges included the Ambassador’s meetings with Shi’a leaders during a visit to a ma’atam during the commemoration of Ashura in September. The Ambassador and embassy staff members visited various houses of worship and attended religious events during the year, including the observation of Ashura, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Christmas, and Diwali. At these events, they discussed issues related to religious tolerance with participants and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.
The embassy continued to encourage the participation of religious leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and a better understanding of the right to practice one’s faith as a fundamental human right and source of stability. The embassy also continued to support religious freedom through its online presence. On International Religious Freedom Day, the embassy tweeted, “In honor of National Religious Freedom Day we recognize the Bahraini government for their continued efforts in supporting an environment which fosters freedom of religion. #sharedvalue.”
The constitution states “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine (i.e. Abrahamic) religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution states citizens “are equal before the Law,” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.” The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.” The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. In December the Prisons Authority carried out the death sentence of Ibrahim Ismail who was convicted in April of killing eight Christians and a policeman in 2017. In May the Supreme Court of Military Appeals upheld 17 of 36 death sentences that an Alexandria military court issued for church bombings between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. In May the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced two defendants to death, two to life imprisonment, and six others to prisons terms ranging from three to six years for killing 11 persons in December 2017, in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in a suburb south of Cairo. On February 9, authorities arrested Muslim students at Al-Azhar for posting video footage mocking Christian religious practices. Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having issued 814 licenses to existing but previously unlicensed churches and related support buildings, bringing the cumulative total to 1412 of 5,415 applications for licensure. In April the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) condemned the involvement of the security services in the closure of the Anba Karas Church and called for the reopening of churches closed since the implementation of the 2016 church construction law. Local authorities continued to periodically rely on customary reconciliation sessions instead of the official judicial system to resolve sectarian disputes. In April security officials closed a church in the Upper Egyptian village of Nagib in response to threats of an attack by Muslim villagers. In November Christians in the Upper Egyptian village of Hgara were directed to rebuild their church three kilometers (1.9 miles) outside the village following a customary reconciliation session related to a dispute with the local Muslim population. According to an international NGO, there were no Shia congregational halls (husseiniyahs) or houses of worship in the country. The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications for Sunni imams and to register and license all mosques. On February 4, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb and Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together during their visit to Abu Dhabi.
On January 3, ISIS released a video statement threatening “bloody attacks during the upcoming (Orthodox) Christmas celebrations,” and to “take revenge on Egypt’s Christians.” The statement included a threat to the life of Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II. According to press reports, unidentified men suspected to be members of ISIS abducted a Christian based on his religious affiliation at a checkpoint near Al-Arish in Northern Sinai on January 17. His fate was unknown at year’s end. In January a religious sheikh at a mosque alerted security at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Nasr City, Cairo, to possible explosives in the vicinity of the church, where police later discovered an improvised explosive device (IED). One police officer died and two others were injured as they attempted to defuse the bomb. Esshad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction in intercommunal violence between 2018 and 2019. According to human rights groups and religious communities, discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports. Of the 540 players in the top-tier professional soccer clubs, only one was Christian. Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians.
U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, Ambassador, and former Charge d’Affaires, as well as visiting senior-level delegations from Washington and embassy representatives and officials of the former consulate general in Alexandria 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 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.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 101.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Most experts and media sources state that approximately 90 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim and approximately 10 percent is Christian (estimates range from 5 to 15 percent). Approximately 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, according to Christian leaders.
Other Christian communities together constitute less than 2 percent of the population 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 persons, 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. 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 six to 10 Jews. There are no reliable estimates of the number of atheists.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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 budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 16 billion Egyptian pounds ($1 billion).
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 the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their respective 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, stating 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 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. A woman in this situation can continue to live with her husband until she has a legal need to prove her marriage, at which time the marriage may be considered void. If a married man is discovered to have left Islam, his marriage to a woman whose official religious designation is Muslim is dissolved. Children from any unrecognized marriage are considered illegitimate.
A divorced mother is entitled to custody of her son until the age of 10 and her daughter until age 12, unless one parent is Muslim and the other is not, in which case the Muslim parent is awarded custody.
The law generally follows sharia in matters of inheritance. In 2017, however, an appellate court ruled applying sharia to non-Muslims violated the section of the constitution stating 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.
There are four entities currently authorized to issue fatwas (religious rulings binding on Muslims): the Al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the Al-Azhar Islamic Research Center, the Dar Al Iftaa (House of Religious Edicts), and the Ministry of Awqaf’s General Fatwa Directorate. Previously part of the Ministry of Justice, Dar Al Iftaa has been an independent organization since 2007.
Islamic, Christian, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives a denomination the right to be governed by its canonical laws, practice religious rituals, establish houses of worship, and import religious literature. To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to MOI’s Religious Affairs Department. The department then determines whether the group poses a threat to national unity or social peace. As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and Al-Azhar. The president then reviews and decides on the registration application.
The law does not recognize the Baha’i Faith or its religious laws and bans Baha’i institutions and community activities. 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 ($3,100). 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 does not follow the guidelines loses the bonus and may be subject to disciplinary measures, including losing his preaching license. The ministry also issues prewritten sermons as an obligatory guide for imams to draw from, 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 the authority to stop the circulation of books that “denigrate religions.” Ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art. The cabinet may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace. The Islamic Research Center of Al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (hadith), and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.
A 2016 law delegates the power to issue legal permits and to authorize church construction or renovation to governors of the country’s 27 governorates rather than the president. The governor is required to respond within four months of receipt of the application for legalization; any refusal must include a written justification. The law does not provide for review or appeal of a refusal, nor does it specify recourse if a governor does not 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 list of 10 provisions requiring that new mosques built after that date must, among other conditions, be a minimum distance of 500 meters (1600 feet) from the nearest other mosque, have a ground surface of at least 175 square meters (1900 square feet), and be built only in areas where “the existing mosques do not accommodate the number of residents in the area.” The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.
In public schools, Muslim students are required to take courses on “principles of Islam,” and Christian students are required to take courses on “principles of Christianity” in all grades. 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 that serves approximately two million students from elementary through secondary school, using its own curriculum.
The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to…religion or belief.” The law stipulates imprisonment and/or a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,900) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($3,100) as penalties for discrimination. If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months, and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($3,100) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($6,300)
Customary reconciliation is a form of dispute resolution that predates modern judicial and legal systems. Customary reconciliation sessions rely on the accumulation of a set of customary rules to address conflicts between individuals, families, households, or workers and employees of certain professions. Parties to disputes agree upon a resolution that typically contains stipulations to pay an agreed-upon amount of money for breaching the terms of the agreement.
Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church formed the Family House (Beit Al-A’ila) in 2011 to address sectarian disputes through communal reconciliation. With Family House branches throughout the country, Al-Azhar, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and other Christian denominations convene opposing parties to a sectarian dispute with the goal of restoring communal peace through dialogue. The Family House, however, is not uniformly active. Sources say in some areas, such as Assiut, the Family House is quite active, while in others, such as Cairo, it has become inactive.
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 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 the state eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament. However, by year’s end, parliament still had not yet established such a commission.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) but declared in a reservation that it became a party considering that the provisions of the covenant do not conflict with sharia.
In December the Prisons Authority carried out the death sentence of Ibrahim Ismail, who was convicted in April of killing eight Christians and a policeman in December 2017.
In May the Supreme Court of Military Appeals upheld 17 of 36 death sentences that an Alexandria military court issued for the bombings of Coptic churches between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta, resulting in the deaths of more than 80 persons. The court commuted the sentences of 19 other defendants to life imprisonment, eight to 15 years, and another to 10 years. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. International human rights organizations expressed concern about these mass convictions and said the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards.
In May the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced two defendants to death, two to life imprisonment, and six others to prison terms ranging from three to six years for killing 11 persons in December 2017 in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in Helwan, a suburb south of Cairo.
On July 1, the Court of Cassation upheld a death sentence issued against a suspect convicted of killing two Copts, terrorizing the Christian community of Shamiya village in Assiut, and imposing taxes on the village in 2013-14.
On March 30, a Cairo court sentenced 30 men to prison terms of 10 years to life for planning a suicide bombing of a church in Alexandria as well as other charges, including the bombing of a liquor store in Damietta. Eighteen defendants received life terms, eight received 15 years in prison, and four received 10 years. Ten of those convicted remained at large, and the court sentenced them in absentia. Authorities said the defendants had embraced ISIS ideology.
On December 11, a group of UN special rapporteurs publicly called on the government to end the detention and ill treatment of Ramy Kamel Saied Salid, who worked to defend the rights of the country’s Coptic Christian minority. According to a December press release issued by the UN Human Rights Council, as well as NGO and media sources, authorities arrested, questioned, and tortured Kamel on November 4 and November 23. They charged him with joining a banned group and spreading false news. His arrest coincided with his application for a Swiss visa to speak at a Geneva UN forum on November 28 and 29, where, in the past, he discussed issues relating to the Coptic community. According to the statement, police broke into Kamel’s home on November 23 and confiscated personal documents, a laptop, camera, and mobile phone before taking him to an unknown location.
On February 7, Christian activists circulated a video depicting a group of Al-Azhar students mocking Christian religious practices. Al-Azhar University referred the students to a disciplinary board at the university and in a statement said Al-Azhar strongly condemned such actions. On February 9, authorities arrested the students for “inciting sectarian strife” and subsequently released them on bail on February 27. At year’s end the case was still pending.
In January atheist blogger Sherif Gaber launched a crowdfunding page called “Help Me Escape Egypt” to purchase another nationality so he could leave the country. Authorities banned Gaber from travel abroad in 2018 and accused him of insulting Islam and sharia, disrupting communal peace, and other charges stemming from a series of videos he posted on YouTube. On September 16, Gaber posted on his Facebook page that he was sentenced to three years in prison for contempt of religions and disturbing the public peace.
Efforts to combat atheism sometimes received official support, including from multiple members of parliament, although in late 2018 President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi stated individuals have the “right to worship God” as they see fit or “even worship nothing.” On March 22, Al-Azhar announced the formation of a “Bayan” (Declaration) Unit in its Center for Electronic Fatwa that would focus on “counter(ing) atheism” and preventing youth from “falling into disbelief.”
The government prosecuted some perpetrators of crimes targeting Christians and instances of sectarian violence. 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 individuals with attacking Thabet and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six other homes owned by Christians. In June, after the court in Beni Suef referred the case to the Minya Criminal Court, the Minya court postponed hearing the case, which was still pending at year’s end. On February 17, the Ain Shams Misdemeanors Court sentenced a man who had stormed a church and attacked security officers in November 2018 to three years’ imprisonment.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities interrogated several of their members due to their status as a “banned group” during the year. In February security officials twice “violently interrogated” a Jehovah’s Witness in Upper Egypt, threatening, blindfolding, and beating him and confiscating his cell phone and personal identification. In April, October, and November, police officials in Cairo summoned individual Jehovah’s Witnesses to their office for questioning. In April officials summoned a Jehovah’s Witness in Minya for interrogation. In September security officials allowed more than 200 Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold a religious meeting in a private home.
There were multiple reports of the government closing unlicensed churches following protests and sometimes failing to extend procedural safeguards or rights of due process to members of minority faiths, particularly in Upper Egypt. On January 7, following a Mass celebrating Coptic Christmas, a crowd of Muslims protested the presence of the unlicensed Mar Girgis Church in the village of Manshiyet Zaafarana in Minya in Upper Egypt. On January 11, a crowd reportedly gathered again and chanted anti-Christian slogans until police and security forces intervened to disperse the crowd and closed the church. The Coptic Diocese of Minya subsequently released a video and statement that indicated security forces aided Muslim residents seeking to close the church. The Wall Street Journal quoted the Coptic Diocese of Minya, “Every time, the extremists are able to impose their demands.”
In February press reported local Christians had conducted three funerals of church congregants in the streets of Kom el-Raheb due to their continued denial of access to the church, which authorities closed in 2018. In July press reported Copts from Kom el-Raheb stormed into the closed church and staged a sit-in protesting the church’s continued closure. According to press reports, unknown persons burned down three Christian-owned properties following the sit-in. According to press reports, the church and individual church members blamed local government authorities and security forces for siding with anti-Christian “hard-liners.”
On April 12, a mob protesting the unlicensed expansion of the Anba Karas Church in the village of Nagaa el-Ghafir in Sohag Governorate attacked the church with rocks and wounded two Christians. Security forces intervened to stop the attack and ordered the church closed. In April EIPR condemned the involvement of the security services in the closure of the church and called for the reopening of churches closed since the implementation of the 2016 church construction law. EIPR reported there had been 32 sectarian incidents between 2016 and April 2019 and stated security forces were responsible for the closure of 22 unlicensed churches, with up to four closed during the year.
According to official statistics, the government approved 814 applications to license churches and related buildings during the year, and, since September 2017, approved 1,412 of the 5,415 pending applications to license of churches and related buildings. The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) quoted Coptic Orthodox Bishop Makarios of Minya as saying his diocese had approximately 150 villages and neighborhoods in need of a church or other religious buildings.
As it did in previous years, the government in September 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 Shia commemoration of Ashura. Although in previous years the government explained the closure was due to construction, reports in media stated the Ministry of Al-Awqaf circulated internal correspondence affirming the ministry would not allow any “sectarian practices,” and any attempts of sectarian “parades,” especially around the mosques of the Prophet’s family, would be confronted.
According to Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), an international NGO, there continued to be no husseiniyahs in the country and Shia Muslims remained unable to establish public places of worship. MRGI reported in January, “The state has failed to respect the right of the Shia to practice their religious rituals” and that security services often subjected Shia citizens traveling on religious pilgrimages to interrogations, sometimes including torture. According to MRGI, Shia risked accusations of blasphemy for publicly voicing their religious opinions, praying in public, or owning books promoting Shia thought. Shia Muslims said they were excluded from service in the armed services and security and intelligence services.
In July the Ministry of Awqaf announced a 12-day closure of the Imam Al-Hussein Mosque in Cairo for maintenance. Community members said the actual reason for the closure was a call from Sufi groups to gather in the mosque square in response to an Al-Dostour newspaper article critical of Imam Hussein, entitled “Hussein Unjust,” that Sufi adherents deemed insulting to religion.
There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. The government in 2013 banned the Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. In an October 7 press conference, Minister of Education Tarek Shawki announced the government was dismissing 1,070 public school teachers because of “extremist ideas.” A former senior official in the Ministry of Education (MOE) told the press the Muslim Brotherhood was targeting primary school students to continue to propagate its ideology.
According to June press reports, a mob attacked the homes of a Christian and his two relatives in the village of Ashnin in Upper Egypt. The mob forced its way into the homes and destroyed furniture and appliances before being dispersed by local police. Following an investigation, police arrested three Christians but none of the attackers. After a customary reconciliation session, the Christians were released and charges were dropped. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, on April 30, a customary reconciliation meeting was held in the Upper Egypt village of Nagib after threats of a potential mob attack by Muslim villagers led security officials to close the village’s church. The NGO also stated that a November customary reconciliation session in Hgara village, located in Upper Egypt, resulted in local Christians being told that they must rebuild their church three kilometers (1.9 miles) outside the village.
While the Coptic Orthodox Church does not bar participation in government-sponsored customary reconciliation sessions, according to its spokesman, reconciliation sessions should not be used in lieu of application of the law and should be restricted to “clearing the air and making amends” following sectarian disputes or violence. While at least one Coptic Orthodox diocese in Upper Egypt refused to participate in reconciliation sessions due to criticism that they frequently were substitutes for criminal proceedings to address attacks on Christians and their churches, Orthodox Church leaders took part in two customary reconciliation sessions in other dioceses, according to EIPR. Although other Christian denominations continued to participate in customary reconciliation sessions, human rights groups and many Christian community representatives said the practice constituted an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship and pressured Christians to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of formal criminal charges.
On January 25, MRGI released a report, Justice Denied, Promises Broken: The Situation of Egypt’s Minorities Since 2014, which stated, “A key factor in the prevalence of sectarian attacks against Christian communities is the continued practice of ‘reconciliation sessions’ between communities, often with the active encouragement of police and officials. This reliance on informal justice approaches that are usually weighted heavily in favor of the Muslim majority is further entrenched by the failure of security forces and the formal judiciary to discharge their responsibilities to prevent and punish targeted attacks on Christians…The dominance of this partial system of informal justice is accompanied by the failure of the formal justice system to protect Christian and other minority victims.”
As it has in previous years prior to Ramadan, the Ministry of Awqaf in April announced restrictions on the practice of reclusion (itikaaf), a Sunni Muslim religious ritual requiring adherents to spend 10 days of prayer in mosques during Ramadan. As in previous years, 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.
In May the Ministry of Awqaf ordered imams limit the length of Ramadan night prayers (tarawih) to 10 minutes, and banned mention of political topics, the government, or political figures in prayers. At the start of Ramadan in May, Minister of Awqaf Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa announced the ministry had decided to close zawiyas (small prayer rooms used as mosques) during Ramadan and to restrict the use of loudspeakers.
In April the Ministry of Awqaf announced its intention to permanently close unauthorized mosques. There was no coordinated implementation of a policy of closures during the year.
The government did not prevent Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Shia Muslims from worshiping privately in small numbers, according to community representatives. The government, however, continued to refuse their requests for public religious gatherings.
The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 23, the High Administrative Court rejected an appeal by the Witnesses to overturn a 1985 law that prevents their members from registering property ownership and marriages. The court ruled the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses contradict the public order and morals in the country.
In August the Ministry of Awqaf gave Yasser Borhami, the deputy head of the Salafist Call, the umbrella organization of the country’s Salafi movements, approval to deliver sermons during Friday prayers at an Alexandria mosque. Borhami had previously stated Muslims should not send holiday greetings to Christians or watch soccer games and had described Christianity as polytheism, said churches should not be allowed in the country, and Muslim taxi and bus drivers should not transport Christian clergy. Critics said Borhami’s past comments reflected hostility towards Christians and non-Salafi Muslims; they condemned the ministry’s decision allowing him to return to preaching.
On August 29, the Anti-Defamation League published a report, Anti-Semitic Show Does Not Belong on Egyptian State Television, detailing how a program, Blue Line, which aired on the government-run Channel Two, propagated a broad range of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The claims included Holocaust denial, Jewish control of U.S. banking, media, and government, and blood libel.
The UN Human Rights Council began its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the country’s commitments under the ICCPR in November. Previous UPRs took place in 2010 and 2014. In submissions for the UPR, NGOs stated discrimination and sectarian violence against Copts persisted at the local level, often with inadequate intervention from security services to prevent it; many religious minorities lived in fear of societal persecution; Christians still faced discrimination in education and workplaces, and the law on the Construction and Reparation of Churches placed many restrictions on Christians attempting to restore or build new churches, while defining them as a “sect,” contrary to their right to equal citizenship. In its submission, the government stated, “certain practical steps have been taken to combat intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination, and incitement to violence on the basis of religion or belief.” The government cited several initiatives that it had undertaken in this regard, including the circulation of pamphlets and brochures, changes to the educational system, new classes, and employing the authority and expertise of Al-Azhar and other Islamic institutions to promote tolerance, moderation, and a culture of dialogue.
The minister of immigration and expatriate affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet. In 2018, 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, according to sources.
No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 25 public universities. The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.
The government generally permitted foreign religious workers to enter the country. Sources continued to report, however, that some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.
The MOE continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance. In the fall, second grade students began instruction using revised textbooks under the new curriculum after it was introduced in first grade and kindergarten in 2018.
The president established a Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents in 2018, tasked with devising a strategy to prevent such incidents, addressing them as they occur, and applying the rule of law. The committee, headed by the president’s advisor for security and counter terrorism affairs, is composed of members from the Military Operations Authority, the Military and General Intelligence Services, the National Security Sector (NSS), and the Administrative Oversight Agency. TIMEP said the committee did not include representatives of the judiciary, legislature, human rights groups, or of any minority communities. According to press, however, the committee is entitled to invite ministers, officials, and religious leaders to its meetings when considering topics relevant to them. The committee held its inaugural meeting on January 16 to look into a January 11 attack by a crowd of approximately 1,000 Muslim villagers on Coptic villagers of Manshiyet Zaafarana in Minya. Coptic parliamentarian Emad Gad observed the committee did not issue any statement on the incident, even though it was formed to combat sectarian violence. Since the inaugural meeting, EIPR reported the committee had not announced any subsequent meetings.
Al-Azhar continued to host events to promote religious tolerance. On March 10, the Al-Azhar Center for Interfaith Dialogue and the Episcopal Church co-organized a conference on equal citizenship to promote interreligious tolerance and a shared sense of belonging, according to media reports. In May the Center for Interfaith Dialogue launched a new campaign entitled “God Hears Your Dialogue” to increase awareness among youth of the importance and necessity of dialogue to promote peaceful coexistence. In September Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Awqaf participated in the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.
In a January 7 statement, the Al-Azhar Curricula Development Committee announced its introduction of new primary, secondary, and university textbooks that promote religious tolerance in the 11,000 schools under its purview. The statement read that the new texts would focus on unity between Muslims and Christians and would stress the concept of citizenship without distinction on the basis of religious belief.
Al-Azhar continued tracking and countering online statements by ISIS and other extremist groups through the Al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism. The observatory’s staff grew to approximately 100 employees, who monitored and offered counterarguments to religious statements on jihadi websites. The center’s website and social media employed several languages to reach foreign audiences, including English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, Chinese, and Farsi. Al-Azhar, through the Al-Azhar International Academy, also began offering courses on a wide range of subjects related to Islam to imams and preachers in 20 countries. Prominent members of parliament strongly criticized Al-Azhar for failing to rapidly institute the president’s directive to launch a renewal of religious discourse as a means to combat extremism, and for exercising excessive independence from the government. An EIPR analyst reported that President al-Sisi insisted Al-Azhar exert greater efforts to combat extremist ideas. Another EIPR analyst said Al-Azhar’s overseas programs were part of “Al-Azhar’s vision of itself as the guardian of Islam around the world and as a partner – rather than an affiliated institution – to the Egyptian state.”
On February 4, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb and Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together during their visit to Abu Dhabi. The document condemned practices “detrimental to human life and freedom,” and pledged cooperation to combat extremism and promote peace.
In June President al-Sisi delivered a speech during a ceremony in Cairo for Laylat al-Qadr (the 27th day of Ramadan that commemorates the first revelation of the Quran) in which he said, “When we wish our Christian brothers a happy feast and (congratulate them) on building new churches, we represent our religion.” President al-Sisi added that the country’s main goal was to preserve the essence of religion, to raise religious awareness, and combat extremist threats among youth.
Dar al-Iftaa and Al-Azhar issued several fatwas permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays. At the January 7 inauguration of the Cathedral of the Nativity, the largest church in the region, and the Al-Fattah Al-Aleem Mosque in the New Administrative Capital, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar said Islam obliged Muslims to safeguard houses of worship for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. President al-Sisi also attended the opening of the newly built mosque and the cathedral, where for the fifth consecutive year he celebrated Christmas services with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros.
In February the Jerusalem Post reported President al-Sisi met with a visiting delegation of private U.S. citizens and told them the government would welcome a resurgence of the Jewish community in the country and that it would support such a resurgence with the construction of synagogues and help with related services. According to the report, the president also promised to address concerns about the ancient Jewish Bassatine Cemetery, which had fallen into disrepair. Following the meeting, the government facilitated a brief trash cleanup effort of the cemetery involving work crews from multiple municipalities; however, NGO representatives said the government did not contribute to the rehabilitation of the cemetery.
The Ministry of Antiquities (MOA) engaged in a multimillion dollar effort to restore the Eliyahu HaNevi synagogue, one of two remaining in the greater Alexandria area. Authorities stated progress at the synagogue underscored the government’s commitment to preserve the country’s Jewish heritage and very small remaining community, and that this was a reflection of a broader policy of stressing the government’s commitment to safeguarding religious diversity and freedom.
On February 7, the Ministry of Awqaf announced it would prepare a “unique and distinctive architectural style” for all new mosques in the country. The ministry said it would conduct a design competition to decide on details and that only mosques designed in accordance with the new guidance would be granted construction permits in the future.
In July the state-run University of Alexandria and state-run University of Damanhour announced the establishment of centers of Coptic studies, in collaboration with the Coptic Orthodox Church. The institutes will include courses in the study of Coptic language, literature, history, and art.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On January 3, ISIS released a video statement threatening “bloody attacks during the upcoming (Orthodox) Christmas celebrations,” and to “take revenge on Egypt’s Christians.” The statement included a threat on the life of Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II. According to press reports, unidentified men suspected to be members of ISIS abducted a Christian at a checkpoint near Al-Arish in northern Sinai on January 17 based on his religious affiliation. The men had been checking the identification of motorists and abducted the man after learning he was Christian. On January 25, ISIS released a statement that read, “the soldiers of the Islamic State in Sinai set up an ambush to target the apostates.” According to media reports, the man had still not been located at the end of the year and his fate was unknown.
On January 5, a sheikh at a neighboring mosque alerted security at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Nasr City to possible explosives in the vicinity of the church, where police discovered an IED. One police officer died and two others were injured when the IED exploded while it was being defused. While there were no immediate claims of responsibility, in December the NSS arrested three students of Al Azhar University and accused them of planting the explosives. The investigation continued through year’s end.
Esshad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction in intercommunal violence between 2018 and 2019.
Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports, according to human rights groups and religious communities. According to a Coptic Christian advocacy group, of the 540 players in the top-tier professional soccer clubs, only one was Christian.
In May EIPR called on authorities to provide followers of unrecognized religions the right to obtain identity cards, marriage certificates, and private burials and to sue in accordance with their own personal status laws.
Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians. In January Salafi cleric Wagdi Ghoneim posted a video in which he criticized Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb for participating in the opening ceremony of the cathedral in the New Administrative Capital. Ghoneim said Islam considers Copts infidels, and that those who accept the Christian religion or assist them in practicing it are nonbelievers.
Reports of societal anti-Semitism continued. Journalists and academics made statements on state-owned television endorsing conspiracy theories about Jewish domination of world media and the economy. In May Egyptian-born Canadian actor Mena Massoud received heavy criticism in the press and on various social media platforms for his interview with a prominent Israeli online news site. In August commentators and local anti-Zionist organizations strongly criticized a theatre performance on the Holocaust performed by university students and accused members of the cast of glorifying Zionism and insulting Muslims.
On January 28, attorney and activist Samir Sabri brought suit on behalf of a group of Muslim scholars seeking to ban the movie, The Guest, for misrepresenting Islam. The Cairo Court of Urgent Cases scheduled a hearing for February 23, and then postponed it until April 6. The case remained open through year’s end.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. government officials at multiple levels, including the Secretary of State, the Ambassador, and the then-Charge d’Affaires, 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, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, 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 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. They also discussed progress on religious freedom issues, such as issuance of permits for, and new construction of, churches, political support for Christian and Jewish communities, and the restoration of Jewish religious sites. The then-Charge visited Alexandria’s Eliyahu HaNevi Synagogue in October and met with MOA officials to discuss the ministry’s ongoing efforts to restore the synagogue, part of a public effort by the government to preserve the legacy of the Jewish community and to support religious diversity.
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 Imam of Al-Azhar, the Grand Mufti of Dar Al-Iftaa, leading Christian clergy, and representatives of the Jewish, Baha’i, and Shia communities. The embassy also promoted religious freedom on social media during the year, including two posts on the 2018 International Religious Freedom Report that reached 20,000 persons and five posts on the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom that reached 65,000 readers.
The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” It provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, including Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith, although the law is generally not enforced. The law bans “takfiri” sects such as Wahhabism that declare as apostates Muslims who practice a less austere form of Islam. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) does not enforce the federal ban on Baha’i practitioners and recognizes the Baha’i Faith as a religion. Restrictions on freedom of religion, as well as violence against and harassment of minority groups committed by government security forces, remained widespread outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). More than 600 demonstrators were killed in protests against the central government in Baghdad and southern provinces in October and November. The protesters were mostly young Shia Muslims, but minority religious communities, such as Chaldean Catholics, expressed their support for the movement, according to news reports. Sunni Muslims in Anbar were detained by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) for expressing their support of the protests on social media, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) reporting. According to human rights organizations, although the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) and Ministry of Interior security forces were implicated in committing gross human rights abuses, the federal government held no one responsible for killings, illegal detentions, and torture of protestors. NGO leaders said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law to detain individuals without due process. Predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk and Ninewa, reported fewer security incidents compared with 2018. In June a Sunni parliamentarian (MP) from Diyala Province stated Sunnis in his province were being forcibly displaced by government-affiliated Shia militia groups, resulting in systematic demographic change along the Iraq-Iran border. Community leaders continued to state the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, including children born of rape, be listed as Muslim resulted in forced designation as Muslim. Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse by members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS, including at checkpoints and in and around PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians said the PMF controlled the trade roads in the Ninewa Plain, forcing merchants to pay bribes, and controlled real estate in Christian areas. Sources said some government officials sought to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province. Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but local authorities sometimes verbally harassed them.
According to security sources in Khanaqin, in May ISIS attacked a Kurdish village and killed four individuals in two attacks. According to the Directorate General of Yezidi Affairs in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, approximately 3,000 Yezidis remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014. The central government’s Martyrs Foundation announced that during the year, 18 more mass graves had been discovered throughout the country; they contained victims of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Baathist regime, some remains dating back decades. In March the Directorate of Mass Graves, with the support of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh/ISIL (UNITAD), began exhumation of a mass grave of ISIS victims, discovered in 2017, in the village of Kocho, the first such exhumation in the majority-Yezidi district of Sinjar.
Although media and human rights organizations said security conditions in many parts of the country improved from 2018, reports of societal violence mainly by pro-Iran Shia militias continued. Throughout the youth-led reformist protests that began in October, many demonstrators were kidnapped, wounded, and killed by masked individuals and armed groups reportedly affiliated with Iran, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Kataib Hezbollah. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Christian priests, who sought the withdrawal of the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF 30th Brigade (30th Brigade), reportedly received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media. According to a police investigation, two Shia Shabak men assaulted two elderly women belonging to a minority religious group in Bartella in May. Police arrested the two men, who said they believed the women would be easy targets because of their religious affiliation. The attackers were reportedly affiliated with the 30th Brigade.
U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in meetings with senior government officials, through interagency coordination groups, and in targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, and parliamentary committees to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of religious minorities. On July 18, speaking at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington, DC, the Vice President announced the U.S. government had provided $340 million for assistance in northern Iraq, focusing on helping minority religious communities previously targeted by ISIS. He said an additional $3 million would provide shelter and clean water to communities victimized by ISIS. Embassy officials met with Shia, Sunni, and other religious group representatives to underscore U.S. support for their communities and assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 38.9 million (midyear 2019 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. Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population, of which Arabs constitute 24 percent, Kurds 15 percent, and 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 in the north of the country. According to Christian leaders, the Christian population has declined over the past 17 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 continue to report that 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. Most Sunni Shabak and some Shia Shabak reside in Ninewa. Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 7,000 Armenian Christians. According to Kaka’i (known as Yarsani or Ahl al-Haq in Iran) activists, their distinct ethnic and religious community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members and has long been located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk, as well as in Diyala and Erbil.
There are fewer than six adult members in the Baghdad Jewish community, according to a local Jewish community leader. In the IKR, there are 70 to 80 Jewish families, according to the Jewish representative in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA). There are possibly more, as some Jewish families do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution, according to the KRG MERA, and NGO sources. According to the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, there are approximately 60 Zoroastrian families in the IKR.
According to the International Organization for Migration, as of December, nearly 1.5 million persons remain displaced within the country, predominantly in Erbil, Dohuk, and Ninewa Provinces, compared with 1.8 million persons at the end of 2018. Population movements are multidirectional, with some persons fleeing their homes and others returning home. According to the KRG’s Joint Crisis Coordination Center in the KRG, 40 percent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are Sunni Arabs, 30 percent Yezidis, 13 percent Kurd (of several religious affiliations), and 7 percent Christians. Other religious minorities comprise the remaining 10 percent.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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 all individuals, such as Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but it does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. Law 105 of 1970 prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and prescribes 10 year’s imprisonment for anyone practicing the Baha’i Faith. The KRG, however, does not enforce the federal ban on the Baha’i Faith and recognizes it as a religion, while in other parts of the country the law generally is not enforced.
Law 32 of 2016 bans the Baath Party, and also prohibits “takfiri” organizations, such as al-Qa’ida and ISIS, that declare as apostates Muslims who practice a less austere form of Islam. A 2001 resolution prohibits the practice of 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 they require the 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 all non-Muslim women who are identified in their official documents as non-Muslims 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 in the country, with the exception of the Yezidis, have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues.
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.
For the practice of unrecognized religious groups other than Baha’is – including Wahhabi Islam, Zoroastrianism, 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.
Outside the IKR, the law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition. 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 recognized and registered with the KRG MERA: Islam, Christianity, Yezidism, Judaism, Sabean-Mandaeism, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Baha’i Faith.
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 five 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 (25 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 Office of the Prime Minister, organizes a lottery 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: 3.7 million dinars ($3,300) for Hajj travel by land and 4.8 million dinars ($4,200) 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 provides 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 48 Syriac and 18 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 charitable donations. 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 members of the same religion while the Civil Status Court handles all other cases.
National identity cards issued since 2016 do not denote the bearer’s religion, although the online application still requests this information and a data chip on the card still contains data on religion, according to a 2018 study by the Danish Immigration Service. 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 a 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. IKR law 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 religious and ethnic 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 Council of Representatives (COR) rapporteur (administrative) positions is designated for a Christian MP and the other for 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 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.
More than 600 demonstrators were killed in mass protests against the central government in Baghdad and southern provinces in October and November. According to news reports, the protesters were mostly young Shia, but minority religious communities, such as Chaldean Catholics, expressed their support for the movement. Human Rights Watch also documented examples of Sunnis in Anbar being detained by ISF for expressing their support of the protests on social media. The reports stated, however, that there was no evidence that members of minority religions taking part in the protests were specifically targeted by security forces suppressing the protests. According to human rights organizations, including HRW, although the PMC and Ministry of Interior forces were implicated in committing gross human rights abuses, the federal government held no one responsible for killings, illegal detentions, and torture of protestors. In October journalists reported that authorities issued arrest warrants for 130 activists and journalists for covering the demonstrations. The warrants were based on the terrorism law; however, reportedly the real reason for the arrest warrants was their coverage of the demonstrations taking place in Shia-dominant provinces of the country.
International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process. Observers again said the antiterrorism law did not afford due process or fair trial protections. Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their arbitrary detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of ISIS links.
According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some under the PMF umbrella, continued to commit physical abuses and were again implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia. Following the return of central government control in Kirkuk in 2017, Kurds, Turkomans, Kaka’i, Christians, and other minorities faced abuses by PMF and ISF that included violence and forced displacement by PMF and ISF.
In June MP Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni from Diyala Province, warned of forced displacement of Sunnis in Diyala. Al-Dahlaki stated government-affiliated Shia militia groups intimidated the Sunni population in the province, resulting in a systematic demographic change along the border with Iran. There were reports that gunmen attacked the village of Abu Al-Khanzir in the province, killing three members of the same family and prompting a wave of displacement from the village.
Sources said some government officials sought to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, such as Bartalla Subdistrict, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province, including Jurf al-Sakhar District.
In addition to the Christian denominations recognized by the government, there were 14 registered evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches in the KRG, compared with 11 in 2018: 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.
Representatives of minority religious communities continued to state that while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances and even provided security for religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, local authorities in some regions continued to verbally harass and impose restrictions on their activities. Christians again reported abuse, harassment, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, including the 30th Brigade in Qaraqosh, Bartalla, and Karamles, and the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians in Bartalla said they felt threatened by the actions of the Shabak 30th Brigade, such as deploying forces in Christian areas, establishing its headquarters in the Christian sub-district of Bartalla, controlling the trade roads in the Ninewa Plain by establishing check points, forcing merchants to pay bribes, controlling real estate in Christian areas, and other forms of harassment of Christians and Sunni Arabs.
Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the 30th Brigade of verbal harassment of Christians in Bartalla and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District of Ninewa. Members of the Christian community in Bartalla said activities of the 30th Brigade threatened their way of life and could change the area’s demographics. Local residents also said militias posted pictures of Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei and former Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani on shops in Bartalla, as well as Iraqi militia leaders such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq Secretary General Qais al-Khazali and former PMF Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. They also stated that the 30th Brigade refused to comply with government orders to withdraw from checkpoints in the Ninewa Plain. Sources said Shabak individuals threatened priests over social media after the priests sought the withdrawal of the brigade from the area on social media. Local sources said six Shabak Sunni families left their home in Bashiqa District because the 30th Brigade verbally harassed them and pressured them to sell part of their lands. Kaka’i activists and religious leaders reported continued verbal harassment and discrimination by the PMF in Kirkuk and Diyala, who identified Kaka’i men by their distinctive mustaches.
Yezidi community leaders continued to report 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 identification cards, passports, and other governmental services – in part because the Yezidi community did not consider these children to be Yezidi. The Yezidi religion traditionally required a child to have two Yezidi parents to be considered Yezidi. Sources in the community estimated the number of these children ranged from several dozen to several hundred. They said societal stigma made it difficult to obtain accurate numbers. Due to the position of the Yezidi leaders and community on children born of rape, many Yezidi female survivors of ISIS said they were compelled to leave their children in orphanages in Syria or Iraq so they could rejoin their community.
According to Zoroastrian leaders, there were no reported cases of discrimination against them in the IKR during the year. They continued to state, however, that their religion was listed as “Islam” on their federal identification cards, a common problem reported by non-Christian religious minorities.
According to Christian leaders, Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another faith continued to be forced to either register their child as Muslim or to have the child remain undocumented by federal authorities, denying them the ability to legally convert from Islam. Remaining undocumented would affect the family’s eligibility for government benefits such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which depend on family size. Larger families with legally registered children receive higher allotments than those with undocumented children.
According to Christian and other minority community leaders, some Shabak MPs, including Hunain Qado, with the support of some of some Shia elements in the central government, continued to direct the 30th Brigade to harass Christians, drive out the area’s dwindling Christian population, and allow Muslims to settle in the area’s traditionally Christian town centers. Christians in Tal Kayf said the nominally Christian but majority Shia Arab PMF 50th “Babylon” Brigade actively continued to facilitate the settlement of Sunni Arab and Shia Shabak populations in that town, but it no longer blocked Christians from returning to the area.
In Ninewa Province, some Shabak MPs in the COR continued to advocate for the provision of land grants in accordance with a 2017 federal law granting land to the families of mostly Shia Muslim PMF victims who fought ISIS. Throughout the year, according to media and local news reports, Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam resisted political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue such land grants in Hamdaniya. In 2018 Behnam suspended the grants in a historically Christian majority district, citing the constitution’s prohibition of forced demographic change. During the year, government construction of large housing development projects on government-owned land in the outskirts of Bartalla continued. Christian community leaders continued to express concern that all the future occupants of this housing would be Shabak and Arab Muslims not native to Bartalla.
During the year, the Office of the Prime Minister created a committee of security officials and Christian religious leaders to return all Christian properties in Ninewa to their Christian owners. The committee returned tens of houses to their Christian owners and remained active as of the end of year. Reportedly, no similar committee was formed to help return properties in Baghdad or other provinces. According to Christian MP Yonadum Kanna, he and other Christian leaders worked individually to help Christians return to their homes; he said he managed to return 180 homes during the year.
During the year, the PMF Imam Ali Brigade continued to block the return of the members of the Yezidi Sinjar District Council and the mayor to Sinjar City from their temporary location in Dohuk, notwithstanding an official letter from the Office of the Prime Minister provided in 2018 that ordered their return.
Some Yezidi and Christian leaders continued to report physical abuse and verbal harassment by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces in the KRG-controlled portion of Ninewa; some leaders said the majority of such cases were motivated more by territorial disputes rather than religious discrimination.
According to multiple sources, many alleged Sunni ISIS sympathizers or their families whom government forces and militia groups had expelled in 2018 from their homes in several provinces had not returned home by year’s end. Some of these IDPs said PMF groups, including Saraya al-Khorasani and Kata’ib Hezballah, continued to block their return.
The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province. By year’s end, authorities in the KRG’s Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office reported between 2,900 and 3,000 Yezidis, mainly women and children, remained missing in and outside the country. Approximately 150 Christians also remained missing. According to the KRG MERA, as of October more than 3,500 Yezidis had escaped, been rescued, or were released from ISIS captivity since 2014.
As of August the KRG Yezidi Rescue Office, established by then-KRG prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, had spent approximately $5 million since its inauguration in 2014 to rescue captive Yezidis from 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 Yezidis activists and officials, the Yezidis were afraid to return to Sinjar because of the continuing Turkish airstrikes targeting the PKK. In November a Turkish airstrike hit the local headquarters of Yezidi PKK fighters in Sinjar, called the People’s Protection Units (also known as YBS), killing or injuring 20 of them.
According to some Yezidi sources, Yezidis in the IKR continued to experience discrimination when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish. They said only those Yezidis who identified publicly as 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.
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 verbal harassment and restrictions from authorities. Sources reported the ISF returned to the Sunni Endowment the property of a Sunni mosque in Mosul, confiscated by PMF militia in 2018. The Shia Endowment’s seizure of property owned by the Sunni Endowment continued to create tension with Sunnis in Mosul. One unidentified group placed banners throughout Mosul with the hashtag #OurWaqf [religious endowment] is our Red Line.
At year’s end, the central government had not opened an investigation of the alleged ISF and PMF destruction of the second century tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi, despite a lawsuit filed by Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharaf in 2017. According to Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Sharaf, the government had neglected to address the issue.
Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration. According to estimates, including those cited by several Christian MPs, the monthly number of Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, ranged from 10 to 22. A director of an Assyrian NGO reported four Syriac language schools remained closed in Dohuk due to lack of students.
Some Yezidis and Christians continued to maintain their own militias. According to Yezidi and Christian officials, some received support from the central government in Baghdad through the PMC, which oversees PMF forces, while others received assistance from the KRG. Some representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean MPs, stated they needed to have a role in their own security and had requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities; others asked to join regular law enforcement units.
NGOs continued to state that 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 the laws, and no legislation proposed to repeal them.
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 without interference or intimidation to observe their religious holidays and festivals. Provincial governments also continued to designate festivals as religious holidays in their localities.
Government policy continued to require Islamic instruction in public schools outside the IKR, but non-Muslim students were not required to participate. In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula continued to include three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students. 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 were not allowed to leave the classroom during religious instruction. Christian religious education continued to be included in the curricula of at least 255 public schools in the country, including 55 in the KRG, according to the Ministry of Education. Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but they 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-$1,300) to the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Higher Education, depending on the type of school. The KRG subsidized tuition by approximately 25 percent. 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.
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, some schools still did not utilize elements of the universally adopted 2015 Ministry of Education curriculum incorporating lessons of religious tolerance. Other than making small changes to the curriculum, observers stated that the Ministry of Education did not have a clear strategy to implement the rest of the religious tolerance curriculum.
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 continued to partner 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 – an effort that continued through year’s end.
The central government again extended by two years 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 again 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 the northern part of the country.
Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for new construction and renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities, although budget cuts halted some projects. The KRG MERA built four churches and one Christian center during the year.
While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minorities, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the central government Council of Ministers or the KRG Council of Ministers, a situation unchanged from the previous two years. Members of minority religious communities, including Christians, Yezidis, Kaka’is and Sabean-Mandeans, 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 continued to include Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian. Although there were no reliable statistics available, minorities stated 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 they were often passed over for choice government jobs or lucrative contracts by the Shia-dominated government because the Sunnis were allegedly accused of being Baathists who sympathized with ISIS ideology.
Although the IKP had 11 seats reserved for ethnic minority candidates, the law did not restrict who could 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 populations said these votes undermined the intended purpose of the 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.
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 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 the continuing practice of Muslim businessmen using Christians as front men to apply for these permits and operate the stores.
During the year, the Kaka’i community reported it controlled all of its places of worship. In 2018 Kaka’i leaders had reported that the central government’s Shia Endowment had forcibly taken over several places of Kaka’i worship in Kirkuk, Diyala, and Baghdad, converting them into mosques.
In September the KRG announced the closure of a restaurant named the “Hitler Restaurant,” located outside Dohuk. The KRG stated that “Nazism and racism would not be tolerated in the autonomous Kurdish region and such actions are against the law.” The KRG’s Department of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs later released a statement calling for expanded laws to punish genocide denial in the KRG.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. There were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups, in many parts of the country, but no reports of religiously based violence in the IKR. Although media and human rights organizations said security conditions in many parts of the country improved from 2018, reports of societal violence mainly by pro-Iran Shia militias continued. Throughout the protests that began in October, many activists were killed, wounded, and kidnapped reportedly for political reasons by masked individuals and armed groups affiliated with Iran, such as AAH, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Kataib Hezbollah. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Shia religious and government leaders continued to urge PMF volunteers not to commit these abuses. Religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the head of the Shia Marjaiya in Najaf, called for the protection of minorities in a Friday sermon. Political and religious leader Ammar Al-Hakim, the head of the Hikma Party, also called for the protection of religious minorities.
According to media, the Yezidi Supreme Spiritual Council issued a statement in April appearing to accept children born of ISIS rape into the community; days later, however, the council issued a second statement clarifying it was referring to children born of Yezidi parents and kidnapped by ISIS, but not children born of rape.
Christian priests, who sought the withdrawal of the 30th Brigade, reportedly received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media. According to a police investigation, two Shia Shabak men assaulted two elderly women belonging to a minority religious group in Bartella in May. Police arrested the two men, who said they believed the women would be easy targets because of their religious affiliation. The attackers were reportedly affiliated with the 30th Brigade.
Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Provinces, reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when they coincided with Shia 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 continued to ensure that there were no violent incidents disrupting the large Shia commemorations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala.
In an August 6 interview with the National Review on the fifth anniversary of the ISIS invasion of northern Iraq, Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil said, “Christianity in Iraq is perilously close to extinction…Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom.”
Based on Iraqi media reports, there was increasing social recognition of the genocide ISIS committed against the Yezidis. Cross-sectarian genocide commemoration events took place two consecutive years in a row. The KRG marked the genocide’s anniversary with a commemoration ceremony in Dohuk with participants including then-IKR president Barzani, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, Yezidi leader Mir Hazim Beg, KRG ministers, diplomats, and genocide survivors. The same day, the Ninewa Provincial Council also commemorated the anniversary of the genocide in Sinjar. The IKR parliament passed a resolution recognizing August 3 as Yezidi Genocide Remembrance Day.
Leaders of non-Muslim communities continued to state that 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.
During the year, with the stated purpose “To support the faithful and encourage them to stay in their homeland,” the Syriac Catholic Church re-established a diocese for the Kurdistan region. To mark the occasion, the Syriac Catholic patriarch celebrated Mass at the Queen of Peace Syriac Catholic Church in Erbil on August 24.
In Baghdad on February 18, the University of London’s SOAS Jewish Music Institute featured Baghdadi folk songs and lullabies with British-born musician Carol Isaacs, of Iraqi Jewish origin. Titled “The Wolf of Baghdad,” the presentation was a personal familial audiovisual journey, an effort to revive Iraq’s vanishing Jewish community that formed one-third of Baghdad’s population in the 1940s. In December members of the Jewish community from the IKR and abroad gathered in the town of Al-Qosh in the Nineveh Plains to celebrate Hanukkah.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The embassy 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 then-prime minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Issues raised included the presence of undisciplined armed groups in minority areas and creating conditions for the safe and voluntary return of displaced populations. These messages were reinforced through public speeches, and embassy interagency coordination groups promoted religious and ethnic minority community stabilization and humanitarian assistance.
Embassy efforts centered on identifying the most pressing concerns of religious minorities – insecurity, lack of employment, and road closures – and obtaining government and KRG commitments to assist these concerns. Efforts included promoting recruitment of minorities into security forces operating on the Ninewa Plain. UNITAD and 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, medical supplies, psychosocial support and other protection interventions, education, and livelihoods.
On July 18, the Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated two militia figures pursuant to Executive Order 13818: Rayan al-Kildani, the leader of the PMF 50th Brigade, and Waad Qado, the leader of the 30th Brigade, along with two former Iraqi governors, Nawfal Hammadi al-Sultan and Ahmed al-Jabouri. The OFAC press release stated, “Many of the corruption- and abuse-related actions committed by these sanctioned individuals occurred in areas where persecuted religious communities are struggling to recover from the horrors inflicted on them by ISIS. Therefore, today’s sanctions demonstrate solidarity with all Iraqis who oppose corruption and human rights abuse undertaken by public officials and underscore the Administration’s commitment to support the recovery of persecuted religious communities in Iraq.”
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 national 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.
Working with the local business sector, the U.S. Agency for International Development organized the Ninewa Investment Forum on December 4-5 in Erbil to connect local businesses with investors from around the world, including the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. The event featured panel discussions that raised awareness of the business opportunities and challenges that exist in Ninewa, including among religious minority communities.
U.S. officials in Baghdad 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 Consul General in Erbil met leaders of minority religious groups and civil society groups to address their concerns, particularly regarding security and protection. Embassy officials 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.
Israel, West Bank and Gaza
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West Bank and Gaza →
This section covers Israel, including Jerusalem. In December 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The Palestinian Authority (PA) exercises no authority over Jerusalem. In March 2019, the United States recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. A report on the West Bank and Gaza, including areas subject to the jurisdiction of the PA, is appended at the end of this report.
The country’s laws and Supreme Court rulings protect the freedoms of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation, and the 1992 “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” protects additional individual rights. In 2018, the Knesset passed the “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People.” According to the government, that “law determines, among other things, that the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people; the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination; and exercising the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” The government continued to allow controlled access to religious sites, including the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (the site containing the foundation of the first and second Jewish temple and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque). Police closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours on July 27 following clashes with Muslim protesters. Violence occurred between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police on August 11 near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, on a day marking both the Islamic feast of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish commemoration of Tisha B’Av. According to the International Crisis Group, the first months of the year saw low-level violence erupting over control of the Gate of Mercy building within the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which evolved into a power struggle among the government, Jordan, and the Jerusalem Waqf (which under the status quo in place since 1967 remains a Jordanian government institution; the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan recognized Jordan’s “special role” in relation to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem). Violence occurred between Muslims and the police on Jerusalem Day, the June 2 national holiday celebrating the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem and Israeli control over the Old City, after hundreds of Jews were allowed into the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and which coincided with the last 10 days of Ramadan. It was the first time these two holidays overlapped in years and the first time in three decades that non-Muslims entered the site during the final days of Ramadan. Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including Members of the Knesset (MKs), whose presence authorities said they feared would inflame tensions. The government continued to implement policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. Local authorities sought to change the status quo regarding prohibitions on public transportation on Shabbat by operating bus lines sponsored by the municipality. Press reporting cited a growing “religionization” (hadata) of the society, its politics, and institutions. Some minority religious groups complained about what they said was lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. The government maintained its policy of not accepting new applications for official recognition from religious groups, but stated that members of unrecognized religious groups remained free to practice their religion.
On June 8, Jewish youths and seminary students of the Armenian Church each stated that they had been attacked by the other in Jerusalem near the Armenian Church’s seminary in Jerusalem. On May 16, religiously observant Jewish teenagers shouting “Death to Arabs” attacked a Muslim teen from East Jerusalem, who was subsequently hospitalized after being knocked unconscious. Christian clergy and pilgrims continued to report instances of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem harassing and spitting on them. Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity. Approximately 40 individuals, including members of the right-wing organization Lehava, attacked Messianic Jews during a community concert in Jerusalem in June, according to press reports. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported in August a man attacked two of their members, during a door to door activity in Bat Yam and threatened to kill one of them after she called the police. In January Christians launched demonstrations protesting the Haifa Museum of Art’s display of an artwork depicting Ronald McDonald as Jesus on the cross, the center of an exhibition about consumerism and religion.
Visiting high-level U.S. government officials, including the Vice President, met with government officials, religious groups, and civil society leaders to stress the importance of tolerance and dialogue and ways to reduce religiously motivated violence. Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. In meetings with government officials and public speeches, embassy officers stressed the importance of religious freedom and respect for all religious groups. Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated for a shared society for Jewish and Arab populations. Embassy officials participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Baha’i groups to show U.S. support for religious pluralism.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate), including residents and citizens. According to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) classification system, approximately 75 percent of the population is Jewish, 18 percent Muslim, 2 percent Christian, and 1.6 percent Druze. The remaining 4 percent consists of those the CBS classifies as “other” – mostly persons, including many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who identify themselves as Jewish but do not satisfy the Orthodox Jewish definition of “Jewish” the government uses for civil procedures – as well as relatively small communities of Samaritans, Karaite Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Messianic Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Baha’i Faith. The majority of non-Jewish citizens are of Arab origin. This includes approximately 78 percent of the country’s 175,000 Christians, according to the CBS, as of December. Non-Arab Christians are mainly those who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s as descendants of Jews or alongside Jewish family members, and their descendants.
According to a poll by the local NGO Hiddush published in September, 58 percent of Jewish citizens do not affiliate with any religious stream, 18 percent are “Zionist Orthodox,” 12 percent “ultra-Orthodox” (including 2 percent “Zionist ultra-Orthodox”), 7 percent “Reform,” and 6 percent “Conservative.”
Muslim, Druze, and Christian communities are located throughout the country. For example, in the Galilee region, some communities are homogenous, while others feature a mix of these groups. There are also dozens of Muslim-majority communities in the Negev. In addition to an Alawite community in Ghajar, there are several Druze communities in the Golan Heights.
The CBS estimates 546,100 Jews, 328,600 Muslims, and 15,900 Christians live in Jerusalem, accounting for approximately 99 percent of the city’s total population of 901,300, as of 2018.
According to government and NGO data, there are approximately 350,000 foreign workers in the country, including 100,000 documented Palestinian workers; 40,000 undocumented Palestinian workers; 102,000 migrant workers with permits, 75,000 undocumented workers; and 30,000 asylum seekers. Foreign workers and asylum seekers include Protestants, Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-Day Adventists, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Catholics among the foreign worker population include 30,000 Filipinos, 8,000 Indians, 2,000 Sri Lankans, 2,500 Colombians, and 1,100 individuals from South American countries.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Although the country has no constitution, a series of “Basic Laws” enumerate fundamental rights, which are country’s constitutional foundation. The 1992 “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state” and references the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which protects freedom to practice or not practice religious beliefs, including freedom of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religion. The law incorporates religious freedom provisions of international human rights covenants into the country’s body of domestic law, which applies to citizens and non-Israeli residents.
The 2018 “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People” recognizes only the Jewish People as having a national right of self-determination and calls for promotion of “Jewish settlement” in “the Land of Israel. The law recommends – but does not require – that judges use Jewish jurisprudence and heritage as a source of legal principles in cases in which there is no relevant legislation or judicial precedent.
The Chief Rabbinate retains the sole authority to issue certificates of conversion to Judaism within the country under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. The Council of the Chief Rabbinate consists of Orthodox rabbis chosen by an assembly of rabbis, local government leaders, government ministers, and laypersons appointed by the government.
The government provides funding for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversion programs. Relatives of Jewish converts may not receive residency rights, except for the children of converts born after the parent’s conversion was complete.
The law recognizes only Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Druze Faith, and the Baha’i Faith. Christian religious communities recognized according to the adopted Ottoman millet (court) system include Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean (Chaldean Uniate Catholic), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Evangelical Episcopal. The Anglican and Baha’i communities are recognized through a British Mandate-era law adopted by the government. The government does not recognize other religious communities, including major Protestant denominations with a presence in the country, as distinct ethnoreligious communities. There are two legal pathways to formal recognition, according to laws adopted from the British Mandate period: by petitioning either the Prime Minister’s Office according to the Order in Council or the Ministry of Interior (MOI). Groups may appeal rejected applications to the Supreme Court.
Recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation of places of worship and may have separate courts to apply their religion’s personal status law. Municipalities may levy property taxes on religious properties not used for prayer, such as monasteries, pilgrim hostels, and soup kitchens.
Legislation establishes religious councils for Jewish communities and for the Druze. The Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) has jurisdiction over the country’s 133 Jewish religious councils, which oversee the provision of religious services for Jewish communities. The government finances approximately 40 percent of the religious councils’ budgets, and local municipalities fund the remainder. The MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs has jurisdiction over religious matters concerning non-Jewish groups and oversees the religious council for the Druze. The Department of Non-Jewish Affairs annually convenes an interreligious council of all recognized religions, including Judaism, which serves as a discussion forum for recognized religious communities.
The law criminalizes the damage, destruction, or desecration of religious sites (subject to seven years’ imprisonment) and actions to “harm the freedom of access” of worshippers to religious sites (subject to five years’ imprisonment). Certain religious sites considered antiquities receive further protection under the antiquities law. The Ministry of Tourism (MOT) is responsible for the protection and upkeep of selected non-Jewish religious sites, while the MRS protects and maintains selected Jewish religious sites. The law also provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for actions “likely to violate the feelings of the members of the different religions” with regard to their religious sites. The law grants the government, not the courts, the authority to decide the scope of the right to worship at certain religious sites.
The law criminalizes willfully and unjustly disturbing any meeting of persons lawfully assembled for religious worship or assaulting someone at such a meeting. It also criminalizes intentionally destroying, damaging, or desecrating any object held sacred by any group of persons, with punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment. Government regulations recognize 16 sites as holy places for Jews, while various other budgetary and governmental authorities recognize an additional 160 places as holy for Jews.
The law criminalizes calling for, praising, supporting, or encouraging acts of violence or terrorism where such actions are likely to lead to violence, including calls for violence against religious groups. The law criminalizes statements demeaning, degrading, or showing violence toward someone based on race, but provides an exception for statements citing a religious source, unless there is proof of intent to incite racism. The infliction of “injury to religious sentiments” constitutes a criminal offense and is punishable by one year’s imprisonment. Such injury includes publishing or saying something that is liable to offend the religious sentiment or faith of others.
The “Nakba Law,” passed in 2011, prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Activities forbidden by the law include rejection of the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”
The law requires citizens to obtain a permit from the MOI or the prime minister for travel to countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel, including Hajj travel to Saudi Arabia; the government issues these permits in the vast majority of cases. Illegal travel is punishable by a prison sentence or fine if the traveler does not request prior approval.
It is illegal to proselytize to a person under 18 years of age without the consent of both parents. The law prohibits offering a material benefit in the course of proselytizing.
The government provides separate public schools for Jewish and Arab children, with instruction conducted in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively. For Jewish children there are separate public schools available for religious and secular families. Individual families may choose a public school system for their children regardless of ethnicity or religious observance. Minor children have the right to choose a public secular school instead of a religious school regardless of parental preference. By law, the state provides the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of “recognized but not official” (a form of semi-private) ultra-Orthodox religious schools affiliated with ultra-Orthodox political parties, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System. Churches, however, receive only partial government funding to operate “recognized but not official” schools. Non-Israeli residents in Jerusalem may send their children to one of these church schools or a private school operated by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf; both include religious instruction. Israeli education authorities use the Palestinian Authority (PA) curriculum in some public schools in Jerusalem. Religious education is part of the PA curriculum for students in grades one through six in these schools, with separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians. Students in these schools may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religion courses.
The Law of Return provides the right for any Jew, including those who converted to Judaism, or any child or grandchild of a Jew, to immigrate to the country from a foreign country with his or her spouse and children. The minor children of a grandchild of a Jew receive humanitarian status but are not automatically granted citizenship. Non-Jews who are not descendants of Jews do not have this route to immigration. Under this law, those who completed an Orthodox Jewish conversion inside or outside the country are entitled to immigration, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry. Those who completed conversion to Judaism outside the country, regardless of affiliation, are eligible for these benefits even if they are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate; this would include Reform, Conservative, and other affiliations of Judaism. Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under this law regardless of the religious beliefs under which they were raised. The law considers those who were eligible for immigration and as adults converted to another religion, including Messianic Judaism, as no longer eligible for benefits under the Law of Return.
The Law of Citizenship and Entry, renewed annually, prohibits residence status for non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, unless the MOI makes a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds.
The Chief Rabbinate determines who may be buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox Jewish standards. The law provides for the right of any individual to burial in a civil ceremony and requires the government to establish civil cemeteries in various areas around the country. The law criminalizes the intentional desecration of, or trespass on, places of burial, which is punishable by three years’ imprisonment.
Laws inherited from the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate periods establish the legal authority of religious courts operated by officially recognized religious communities over their members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial. The law allows for civil registration of two persons as a married couple outside of the religious court system only if they married outside the country, or if the partners are of different religions and their respective religious courts do not object to a civil registration, or if both partners are listed as “lacking religion” in the population registry. A law mandating women’s equality contains language that explicitly exempts matters of marriage, divorce, and appointments to religious positions.
The only domestic marriages with legal standing and that may be registered are those performed according to the religious statutes of recognized religious communities. Marriages performed outside of the country may be registered with the MOI. Members of nonrecognized groups may process their personal status documents, including marriage licenses, only through the authorities of one of the recognized religious communities if those authorities agree.
The law imposes a two-year prison sentence for persons who conduct, or are married in, a Jewish wedding or divorce outside the Chief Rabbinate’s authority.
Religious courts have exclusive jurisdiction over divorce cases when the husband and wife are registered with the same recognized religion. Members of religious groups not permitting divorce, such as Catholics, may not obtain a divorce. Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of sharia courts. Civil courts have jurisdiction over personal status cases when religious courts lack jurisdiction, as in cases of interfaith and same-sex couples.
Matters stemming from divorce proceedings, including alimony, child support, child custody, guardianship, and property division, are under the parallel jurisdiction of religious and civil courts. The first court to receive a case acquires exclusive jurisdiction over it.
In accordance with halacha (Jewish religious law), a Jewish woman whose husband refuses to give her a get (Jewish legal writ of divorce) may not legally remarry in the country. While a rabbinical court may order a husband to give a get, it does not have the power to terminate the marriage if he refuses. In such cases, rabbinical courts may impose community-based punishments on the husband, including avoiding financial dealings with a get-refuser, excluding him from community activities, and advertising these decisions to the public. The law permits rabbinical courts to hear cases of get refusals in which the spouses are not Israeli citizens, if certain other conditions are met (for instance, if the couple lives abroad in a location where there is no rabbinical court).
Secular courts have primary jurisdiction over questions of inheritance, but parties may file such cases in religious courts by mutual agreement. Decisions by these bodies are subject to Supreme Court review. The rabbinical courts, when exercising their power in civil matters, apply religious law, which varies from civil law, including in matters relating to the property rights of widows and daughters.
Military service is compulsory for Jewish citizens, male Druze citizens, and male Circassian citizens (Muslims originally from the northwestern Caucasus region who migrated in the late 19th century).
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and women may request an exemption from military service. For most ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Druze religious students, military service is postponed for several years, after which they receive an exemption. A petition on the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men was pending at the Supreme Court as of the year’s end. Arab Muslims and Christians, as well as Druze and Circassian women receive a de-facto exemption by not being called for military service. Those exempt from military service may volunteer for it or for civil-national service.
Membership in a recognized religion is recorded in the National Registry and generally passed from parents to children, unless a person changes it through a formal conversion to another recognized religion. Religious identification is listed in the National Registry but not on official identity cards.
All citizens who meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” under Jewish religious law are recorded as Jewish, whether Orthodox or not (unless they convert to another religion). Approximately 400,000 citizens who identify as Jewish but do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish,” as well as members of religious groups that are not recognized, are recorded as “lacking religion.” The vast majority are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children, who gained citizenship under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate because they cannot prove they meet the Orthodox definition of Jewish through matrilineal descent.
For those who do not wish to be identified with a religion, there is no mechanism to change one’s registration to “lacking religion.”
There is no legal requirement regarding personal observance or nonobservance of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), from sunset on Fridays until sunset on Saturdays, and on Jewish holidays. The law, however, declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest. The law criminalizes (up to one month imprisonment) employers who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat, except those who are self-employed. There are exceptions for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries. The law instructs the labor and welfare minister to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat. The law prohibits discrimination against workers who refuse to work on their day of rest, based on their religion and regardless of whether they are religiously observant.
The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation based on age, race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and disability. The Equal Employment Opportunities Law prohibits an employer from discriminating against employees, contractors, or persons seeking employment.
On January 10, the Knesset approved an amendment to the penal code that includes a motive of racism or hostility based on the victim’s religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation, or on racism toward or hate for foreign workers as an aggravated circumstance in a murder offense. In the explanatory notes of this amendment, the Knesset noted that murder committed out of racism or hostility justifies severe treatment in the form of mandatory life imprisonment.
The law states public transportation operated and funded by the national government may not operate on Shabbat, with exceptions for vehicles bringing passengers to hospitals, remote localities, and non-Jewish localities, and for vehicles essential to public security or maintaining public transportation services.
The Chief Rabbinate has sole legal authority to issue certificates of kashrut, which certify a restaurant or factory’s adherence to Jewish dietary laws. Alternatively, restaurants are permitted to display “a true presentation regarding the standards it observes and the manner of supervising their observance” without using the word “kosher.”
The Muslim Mufti of Jerusalem, who has no legal status vis-a-vis Israeli authorities, has issued “fatwas” (religious edicts) prohibiting Palestinian participation in Jerusalem municipal elections, and sales of land by Palestinians to Israelis.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with a reservation stating that matters of personal status are governed by the religious law of the parties concerned, and the country reserves the right to apply that religious law when inconsistent with its obligations under the Covenant.
Because religious and national identities were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
The government continued to allow controlled access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The post-1967 status quo pertaining to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif allows non-Muslim visitors but prohibits non-Islamic worship on the compound. According to the AP, violence occurred between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police on August 11 near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, on a day marking both the Islamic feast of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish commemoration of Tisha B’Av. According to the AP, the incident occurred after large numbers of Muslims had gathered at the site’s gates in response to rumors that police would allow Jewish visitors to enter the site. The protestors threw stones at police, who responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets. After clashes broke out, police allowed access to “several dozen” Jews and provided a police escort. Muslims responded by throwing chairs and other objects at the group, which left shortly thereafter.
According to the International Crisis Group, the first months of the year saw low-level violence erupting over control of the Gate of Mercy building within the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which evolved into a power struggle among Israel, Jordan, and the Waqf. The Jordanian government Islamic Religious Endowment (Waqf) in Jerusalem maintains the Al-Aqsa Mosque, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supports maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem. The Waqf opened the building, which media reported had not been open or used for prayers since 2003, on February 14 when worshippers began using it as a prayer hall. The government issued restraining orders against more than 20 Waqf guards and arrested 19 Muslims, including two minors who confessed to throwing a Molotov cocktail into a police post at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which resulted in a one-day closing of the site on March 12. According to the government, this closure was done in order to allow the police investigate the incidents and check the scene. Police also closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours on July 27 following clashes with Muslim protesters. Tensions continued at the site, although Muslim worshipers continued to have access to it at the end of the year.
Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including MKs, whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions. According to Makor Rishon journalist Arnon Segal, 152 persons were arrested between September 10, 2018 and August 25, 2019. The government stated the police banned individuals from accessing the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif only in cases of violation of public order or a disturbance to the freedom of worship. According to the government, 334 individuals were banned from Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for different time periods. While the government stated it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities banned Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, Jerusalem residents, as well as Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. In addition, these organizations said Israeli authorities at times restricted Muslim males under a certain age from entering the site during periods of tension.
Israeli authorities allowed West Bank Muslims to visit the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif during Ramadan and facilitated transportation for tens of thousands of Palestinian worshipers. Israeli authorities allowed men over 40 years old, boys under 16, and women of all ages to enter Jerusalem without permits issued by the Israeli military on the four Fridays of the month. Married men between 30 and 40 were eligible to apply for military permits valid Sunday-Thursday during the month – normally, only men over 50 and women over 45 may transit Israeli checkpoints from the West Bank for worship without military permits.
On April 15, Israeli authorities allowed Temple Mount activists to conduct a ritual slaughter of sheep for Passover in Jerusalem’s Old City. On April 18, the police detained at least two suspects who allegedly sought to make a Passover sacrifice at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, as well as two journalists who were with them. According to media reports, the suspects were interrogated on offenses of behavior which might disturb public order, and for animal abuse.
On August 6, a police officer detained an ultra-Orthodox protester and pulled him by his earlock. The police suspended the officer, and authorities continued to investigate the case as of November.
On July 24, the state prosecutor’s office announced it would indict, pending a hearing, a senior official in the Chief Rabbinate for bribery and breach of trust regarding the expediting of kashrut certificates. A 2017 report from the state comptroller called for comprehensive reform of the kashrut regulation system and criticized the MRS, Chief Rabbinate, and local religious councils for structural failures that enabled fraud, waste, poor supervision, and nepotism.
Press reported that prosecutors dropped a case against two Jewish activists, Yinon Reuveni and another man who was a minor at the time of his arrest, for membership in a terror organization and vandalizing the Benedictine Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem in 2016, due to lack of evidence. A court had previously dismissed as inadmissible the second defendant’s confession, ruling that authorities obtained it illegally. The vandalism of the abbey, considered by some Christians the site of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, included graffiti that said “death to Christians” and “Jesus is a monkey.” A spokesman for the church said the decision to acquit the two men was “unacceptable.”
According to the Times of Israel, Muslims and police clashed violently on Jerusalem Day, the June 2 national holiday celebrating the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem and which coincided with the last 10 days of Ramadan, after police allowed hundreds of Jews onto the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. It was the first time in three decades that non-Muslims were able to enter the site during the final 10 days of Ramadan. The government stated that each year police assess the security situation and decide whether it is necessary to close the site to non-Muslims during this period, “in order to allow for a proper course of prayer for Muslim worshipers during Ramadan.” Prior to the incident, police had announced the compound would be closed to Jews and tourists after the High Court of Justice rejected a petition to overturn the closure. The court subsequently rejected a case that sought to change the route of the “flag march” marking Jerusalem Day, when thousands of Jews participate in the annual parade through Jerusalem’s Old City, where the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is located, including its Muslim quarter. According to the Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem Day has been embraced by the “national religious” community. The paper said marchers consisted mostly of young people singing songs of praise and prayer for the unification of the city and the capture of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in the 1967 Six Day War. One Muslim bakery worker said that the march through the Muslim Quarter was a provocation. Another stated that he objected to the staging of the parade during Ramadan, and that the march was disrespectful to Muslims.
According to press and NGO reports, following an appeal of a decision by the Central Elections Committee, the High Court of Justice barred the leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, Michael Ben Ari, from running in Knesset elections because of expressed anti-Arab ideology and incitement. The attorney general had urged the court to ban Ben Ari for his “severe and extreme” racism. The Otzma Yehudit party has described itself as proud disciples of Meir Kahane, the founder of the Kach party, which was banned in 1988 for being racist and antidemocratic. The appeal cited a 2019 statement by Ben Ari, “We have to change the equation regarding anyone who dares to speak against a Jew…. [Such a person] is a dead man. He must not come out alive. No expelling him, no stripping him of his citizenship. He does not live! A firing squad takes him out as the Arabs understand [best].” Ben Ari later said he was talking about Hamas leaders and not all Arabs.
Some religious minority groups complained of lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. Data from the NGO Tag Meir and media reports indicated in recent years authorities had indicted few suspects in attacks on religious sites in the country.
According to data from the MRS, of 70,326 individuals who registered for a Jewish marriage in 2018, rabbinical courts instructed 3,996 who self-identified as Jewish to prove their Jewish lineage. Of these, 122 were unsuccessful. On November 6, the Jerusalem Post reported on new rabbinate regulations allowing marriage registrars to approve marriage applications of converts based on the list of rabbinical courts approved by the Chief Rabbinate, clarifying the criteria for recognition of conversions.
According to the Jerusalem Post, data compiled by the religious freedom NGO Hiddush, which was based on multiple surveys conducted in recent years through the Smith Polling Institute, showed that 70 percent of the country’s adult Jewish population supported recognition by the state of freedom of choice in marriage, doing away with the rabbinate’s monopoly, and equally recognizing civil and non-Orthodox religious marriages. According to the same sources, 53 percent of the public stated that had they been allowed a choice, they would not have married in an Orthodox ceremony, compared with 35 percent who expressed the same sentiment in 2009, 39 percent in 2013, and 47 percent in 2016.
The Chief Rabbinate continued to require Jewish women to complete bridal counseling sessions prior to marriage. Existing instructions from the Chief Rabbinate require these sessions to address only the wedding ceremony, but in practice the content varied widely and often included marital relations and “family purity” in accordance with halacha, according to a report in Ma’ariv newspaper. Neither halacha nor civil law mandated such counselling sessions, according to the NGO ITIM.
On April 7, a magistrate court convicted an individual who refused to give a get to his wife of violating a legal order and sentenced him to 15 months’ imprisonment and seven months’ probation. On August 20, President of the Rabbinical Courts Chief Rabbi David Lau instructed authorities to delay the burial of a get refuser’s mother as a means to pressure him. The refuser then agreed to give a get to his wife.
Local authorities circumnavigated the ban on public transportation on Shabbat by funding privately operated bus lines. On July 7, the municipal council in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, approved the operation of two bus lines on Shabbat in central areas of the city as long as they did not enter residential neighborhoods. In November the Tel Aviv city council approved and funded free bus lines on Shabbat for the entire city as well as other major cities in the central area of the country. MK Uri Maklev of the United Torah Party denounced the initiative and called on the transportation minister to stop the service. The orthodox organization Hotam criticized the proposal as “harming Shabbat,” while the secular group Be Free Israel said that the initiative recognized public transportation as a “basic right.” On December 11, the nearby city of Bat Yam decided against offering public transportation on the Sabbath. In a poll released by Hiddush on December 9, 71 percent of Jewish citizens were favor of transportation on weekends, including 94 percent of citizens who described themselves as secular.
Some observant Jews, based on their religious beliefs, may only attend concerts and other entertainment events in venues that allow for the separation of genders. As permitted by attorney general directives until August, cities and municipalities with significant population groups of observant Jews were able to plan and execute events with these guidelines observed. Some women’s rights organizations, including the Israel Women’s Action Network (IWN), expressed concern about gender segregation in any publicly funded or sponsored events, arguing that gender segregation as supported by Orthodox Jews violated antidiscrimination laws and attorney general directives. On August 14, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of an NGO petition objecting to a gender-segregated concert held by the Afula municipality in accordance with the religious practices of a large percentage of its population. The event went forward prior to the Supreme Court ruling as a lower court had initially ruled in favor of the municipality. Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri made an appearance onstage at the concert and criticized the NGO for attempting to impose requirements on all Afula residents irrespective of their beliefs. On August 18, the Office of the Attorney General issued a directive stipulating certain circumstances in which gender-segregated events could be held, pending further examination of the issue. The new guidelines deviated from a previous directive that permitted segregation only in events of a religious nature, under which many observant Jews were not able to participate in municipality events.
In June MK Bezalel Smotrich said the justice system should adhere to religious law, and the country should run itself as “in the days of King David” and “restore the Torah justice system.” Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu responded to Smotrich’s remarks by saying that the country “will not be a halacha state.” On August 5, Smotrich, who had then been appointed as minister of transportation, told a conference of rabbis in Jerusalem “We would all like the state to act according to the Torah and halacha.” Smotrich also said that he would work to prevent construction, infrastructure, and maintenance work on Shabbat. On August 6, after criticism, Smotrich said that while his comments reflected the “religious will of any observant Jew,” they also made clear that “we all understand we cannot, nor do we want to, force our beliefs on others” and that policy solutions must consider the views of the entire public.
The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize as Jewish some citizens who self-identified as Jewish, including Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism and others who could not prove Jewish matrilineage. As a result, the government prohibited those individuals from accessing official Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial services in the country. Some Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis, however, officiated at a growing number of these ceremonies outside of the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. Likewise, the government continued not to allow Jewish men with priestly patrilineage (kohanim) to marry converts or divorcees, in accordance with halacha.
On May 3, Walla News reported that in a new book, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called reform synagogues idolatrous.
The Supreme Court scheduled a hearing for early 2020 on its 2018 injunction that required the government to explain why it had not held a disciplinary hearing for Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu for allegedly making racist and offensive statements against Arabs, Druze, women, and the LGBTI community, following a 2016 petition by the Israel Religious Action Center, Tag Meir, and other NGOs.
Israeli police continued to be responsible for security of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, with police officers stationed both inside the site and outside each entrance. Israeli police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and inside buildings on the site and regulated pedestrian traffic exiting and entering the site. Israeli police continued to maintain exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance through which non-Muslims may enter the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and allowed visitors through the gate during set hours; however, police sometimes restricted this access, citing “security concerns.” Local media, the Waqf, and Jewish Temple Mount groups reported that Israeli police maintained checkpoints outside other gates to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, preventing non-Muslims from entering these other areas without coordinating with Waqf guards inside. Some Jewish groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif despite the ban on non-Islamic prayer. NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount advocacy groups continued to report that changes in relations between police and the Temple Mount advocacy movement created a more permissive environment for non-Muslim religious acts on the site. In response, the government reiterated that non-Islamic prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious articles. Police allowed Jewish male visitors who were visibly wearing a kippah (head covering) and tzitzit (fringes), and those who wished to enter the site barefoot (in accordance with interpretations of halacha) to enter the site with police escort.
The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif from entering the Dome of the Rock and other buildings dedicated for Islamic worship, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It also lodged objections with Israeli police concerning non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing. Israeli police sometimes acted upon these objections.
Waqf officials repeated previous years’ complaints over their lack of control of access to the site. The Waqf reportedly objected to non-Muslims praying or performing religious acts on the site and to individuals who dressed immodestly or caused disturbances, but they lacked authority to remove such persons from the site. Waqf officials stated Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions regarding entry and barring of Muslim and non-Muslim visitors to the site. Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza, but Waqf officials said they were able to exercise only a limited oversight role. The government stated that most of the time, police and the Waqf worked in full coordination, including regular joint sessions regarding routine activities.
In August 2018, the Supreme Court ordered the government to respond within 60 days to a petition by the NGO Moked Israeli Center for the Advancement of Democracy and Protection of Human Rights, which objected to a sign near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif discouraging non-Muslim visitors from entering the site. The case was ongoing as of the years’ end.
Many Jewish leaders, including the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for reasons of ritual purity. Some MKs, however, called for reversing the policy of banning non-Islamic prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors. Some Knesset members continued to call on the government to implement time-based division at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif by setting aside certain days or hours for Jewish access and/or worship, similar to the arrangement used at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the West Bank.
The government continued to allow MKs and ministers to visit the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site once a month, after obtaining approval of the Chairman of the Knesset and after reviewing police security assessments. This was in accordance with a 2018 decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu, which rescinded his 2015 blanket prohibition of MKs and ministers visiting the site. MKs also must inform the Knesset guard at least 24 hours prior to the visit to allow for coordination with the visit with the police.
At the main Western Wall plaza, the place of worship nearest the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to enforce a regulation prohibiting the performance of “a religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, which harms the feelings of the public towards the place.” Authorities interpreted this prohibition to include mixed-gender Jewish prayer services and other ceremonies not conforming to Orthodox Judaism.
Members of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements continued to criticize gender segregation and rules governing how women may pray at the Western Wall. Authorities continued to prohibit visitors from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall plaza and women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site. Authorities, however, permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions.
Authorities allowed the group Women of the Wall to hold its monthly service in the women’s area of the main Western Wall plaza but in a barricaded area. In March and October, Jerusalem Rabbi Shlomo Amar called on people to arrive at the Western Wall to oppose Women of the Wall during their monthly prayer service, referring to their activities as an effort to “hurt the sanctity of the place.” Representatives of Women of the Wall complained of a lack of effort by police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Western Wall site, to intervene when ultra-Orthodox women and men disrupted their monthly prayer service with screaming, whistling, and pushing. In response, the government stated that large numbers of Israeli police, ushers, and security personnel maintained order on occasions when Women of the Wall prayed there. Women of the Wall filed a petition to the Supreme Court in March 2017 to require ushers and police to prevent disruption to their services. The case was ongoing as of the end of the year.
Authorities continued to allow use of a temporary platform south of the Mughrabi ramp and adjacent to the Western Wall, but not visible from the main Western Wall plaza, for non-Orthodox “egalitarian” (mixed gender) Jewish prayers. Authorities designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, including for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs. In response to an ongoing Supreme Court case from 2013 on the issue of prayer access at the Western Wall, the government stated in January it intended to upgrade the egalitarian prayer space. In June 2017, the government “froze” a 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that offered symbolic recognition to the Conservative and Reform Judaism movements in addition to upgrading the egalitarian prayer space. In August 2018 a special government committee approved expansion of the platform. According to the government, the renovation of the platform has not been accomplished due to regulatory procedures. The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill the agreement with the government. The court case was ongoing as of the end of the year.
On June 3, the National Infrastructure Committee approved, in an expedited process, a plan for the establishment of a cable car from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City. On November 4, the Housing Cabinet approved the plan. The cable car route would pass over a Karaite cemetery, something opposed by the Karaite community and which, according to the Karaite belief would desecrate the cemetery, preventing its further use. While the original plan included a physical roof over the cemetery, which contradicted Karaite customs, the approved plan does not include a roof. The government stated the cable car was meant to solve accessibility problems to holy sites such as the Western Wall, although some NGOs said the project was meant to promote Jewish touristic sites in East Jerusalem. The plan was pending final approval from the government at year’s end.
The security barrier dividing most of the West Bank from Israel also divided some communities within Jerusalem, affecting access to places of worship. The Israeli government previously stated the barrier was highly effective in preventing attacks in Israel.
Several groups, including religious minorities and human rights NGOs, continued to criticize the 2018 Nation State Law. During the April and September general election campaigns, members of the Druze community, as well as others, demonstrated in front of the residences of party candidates and demanded a promise to amend the law by adding an equality clause, or to rescind it. Several politicians, including Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, voiced support. As of the end of the year, multiple lawsuits challenging the Nation State Law were pending with the Supreme Court. In the campaign for the April election, PM Netanyahu wrote on Instagram, “Israel is not a state of all its citizens … it is the nation-state of the Jewish people only.” In November the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights released observations stating that it was “deeply concerned about the possible discriminatory effect” of the Nation State Basic Law on non-Jews.
Press reporting cited growing “religionization” (hadata) of the society, its politics, and institutions. According to the August 23 issue of the New Yorker, “manifestations of hadata appear throughout civic life,” but “nowhere have those changes been more pronounced or more influential than in the public school system.” According to the article, “much of the curriculum these days is being taught through the narrow prism of religious orthodoxy.” A November report in Haaretz noted, “According to the Education Ministry, Jewish-Israeli culture is taught in a pluralistic and sometimes critical fashion. But countless examples prove otherwise.”
On April 16, six orthodox female halacha students and NGOs petitioned the Supreme Court, demanding that women be allowed to register for the Halachic exams of the State of Israel. This petition followed a rejection of their registration by the Chief Rabbinate, which the petitioners stated they viewed as wrongful discrimination. In May 2018, the government began recruiting women as legal advisors in rabbinical courts, following a petition to the Supreme Court by ITIM and Bar Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women.
The MOI continued to rely on the sole discretion and approval of the Jewish Agency, a parastatal organization, to determine who qualified to immigrate as a Jew or descendant of a Jew. The government continued to deny applications from individuals, including those holding Messianic or Christian beliefs, whom the government said became ineligible when they converted to another religion.
A group of Orthodox rabbis continued to operate a private conversion court for children of families whom the state or rabbinical courts did not recognize as Jews. The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they remained eligible for immigration under the Law of Return if they converted outside the country.
A series of Supreme Court cases on conversion rights, including a petition demanding immigration rights to those who completed Reform or Conservative conversions inside the country, continued through year’s end.
According to ITIM, some individuals from the former Soviet-Union were asked by the rabbinate to take DNA tests in order to prove their Judaism. While the Supreme rabbinical court overturned two such requests, in a response to a Supreme Court petition, the government stated on September 16 that it supported consensual DNA tests as a last resort. The case was ongoing at year’s end.
According to a June report in Haaretz, a “large majority” of Jews in the country would strip the Chief Rabbinate of its authority to determine who qualified as Jewish in the country, according to a survey published July 2 by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute.
District courts declared two Jewish men as “lacking religion” due to their requests in January and March to change to this status and demanded that the MOI change their status in the civil population registry.
Petitions of four municipalities against Interior Minister Deri’s rejection of their bylaws that would have legalized commerce on Shabbat were pending at the Supreme Court. An additional petition was dismissed without prejudice on July 23.
The MRS listed 21 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and the West Bank for persons the government defined as “lacking religion,” but only two were available for use to the broader general public regardless of residence. The one MRS-administered cemetery in the West Bank was available only for the burial of Israeli citizens. Additionally, 13 MRS-administered cemeteries in 10 agricultural localities were authorized to conduct civil burial (i.e., not affiliated to a religion) for these localities and nearby residents. Some persons, however, who sought a civil burial for a relative reported several civil cemeteries near Tel Aviv were unusable because they were full or restricted to local residents. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that the distant location of such cemeteries made it difficult to arrange and attend burials. In 2018, the MRS published a call for proposals to develop or expand cemeteries for civil burials, following a 2016 report by the state comptroller that criticized the MRS for not implementing the civil burial law and thereby preventing the right of citizens to civil burial. On July 18, Hiddush petitioned the Supreme Court demanding the state to allow civil burial in agricultural localities. On July 4, following another Hiddush petition, the IDF announced it would change its orders to allow for non-Orthodox military burial ceremonies.
The government again did not propose new draft legislation to respond to the 2017 Supreme Court decision striking down the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military service and setting a deadline of one year to pass new legislation to reduce inequality in the burden of military service between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews. The government requested additional time to pass a new draft law and received a postponement until January 2020. Some ultra-Orthodox communities stated that mandatory conscription was a violation of the right to conscientious objection on the basis of their religious beliefs; however, the Ministry of Defense rejected this argument. Those exempt from compulsory military service continued to have the option to join the National Service, a civilian alternative in which volunteers work for two years to promote social welfare in schools, hospitals, or NGOs. According to government officials and NGOs, this alternative was more popular among women from “national religious” Jewish Orthodox backgrounds than other exempt groups.
Members of the ultra-Orthodox “Eda Haredit” community did not receive an exemption from military service based on its members’ conscientious objection on religious grounds. Because its yeshivas were not recognized by the state, they did not receive the same postponement and exemption from military service as other yeshiva students. As a result, dozens of them were arrested every month, according to representatives of the community.
In December, the IDF stated that it had made a counting mistake in recent years in the number of ultra-Orthodox in the military. According to media reports, numbers were doubled and even tripled to meet the objectives set by the law. The IDF stated data was not skewed intentionally and the Chief of Staff appointed a committee to inquire regarding the gaps in the figures.
According to the website of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center, the government maintained an agreement with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that no member of the Church “will engage in proselytizing of any kind” within Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Some other nonrecognized Christian communities reported the MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs discouraged them from proselytizing or holding large public gatherings outside their houses of worship.
The government maintained its policy of not accepting applications for official recognition from nonrecognized religious groups, including evangelical Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government stated no religious community had attempted to apply for recognition during the year. The government stated some leaders of nonrecognized religions were invited and participated along with the leaders of recognized religions at official events or ceremonies.
On June 13, a judicial panel reviewed an appeal by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Supreme Court that requested official recognition as a religious community. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite repeated requests, the government had not taken action on their 2017 application. The panel did not make a decision by year’s end.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on January 16, a judicial panel reviewed an appeal to the Supreme Court in connection with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ efforts to obtain recognition of the Watchtower Association of Israel as a “public institution” under the Land Taxation Law. The Jehovah’s Witnesses made their original application in 2012 and although the tax authority approved the application, the Finance Committee of the Knesset, which has the authority to grant such exemptions, placed the application on hold. In response to a 2017 lawsuit by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the committee stated it was within its rights to deny tax exemptions to “missionary associations.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses then appealed to the Supreme Court. The judicial panel gave the tax authority additional time for further review and investigation and ordered it to present a final position on whether or not the Watchtower Association met the requirements for an exemption. After a hearing on May 22, the tax authority informed the Supreme Court on November 7 that it approved the application for tax exemption. At year’s end, the Knesset Finance Committee had not reviewed that decision.
Public Hebrew-language state schools taught Jewish history, culture, and some basic religious texts. Many ultra-Orthodox religious schools in the “recognized but not official” category continued not to offer the basic humanities, math, and science curriculum. The government, however, included the basic curriculum in public ultra-Orthodox schools. Public Arabic-speaking schools continued to teach religion classes on the Quran and the Bible to both Muslim and Christian Arab students. A few independent mixed Jewish-Arab schools also offered religion classes. For example, the curriculum at the nonprofit school Hand-in-Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education, which received a third of its funding from the government, emphasized commonalities in the holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
According to the NGO Noar Kahalacha, dozens of Jewish schoolgirls were still unable to attend ultra-Orthodox schools due to discrimination based on their Mizrahi ethnicity (those with ancestry from North Africa or the Middle East), despite a 2009 court ruling prohibiting ethnic segregation between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi schoolgirls. A 2017 report from the state comptroller criticized the Ministry of Education (MOE) for failing to respond effectively to discrimination in educational institutions, including discrimination against girls in ultra-Orthodox schools. The government stated the MOE did not tolerate any form of discrimination, and schools that refused to accept students for discriminatory reasons were summoned to hearings, sometimes leading to delays and denial of their budgets until the schools resolved the discrimination.
The government funded approximately 34 percent of the budget of Christian school systems in the “recognized but not official” category, in which schools have autonomy over hiring teachers, admitting students, and the use of school property, according to church officials. The government repeated its offer made in previous years to fully fund Christian schools if they became part of the public school system, but churches rejected this option, stating that, unlike in Orthodox schools, they would lose autonomy over those decisions. Church leaders criticized the disparity in government funding between their school system and those affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, which were also categorized as “recognized but not official” but received full government funding.
Seventh-day Adventists stated they faced difficulty traveling to their houses of worship in cities in which public transportation was unavailable on Shabbat, including Jerusalem. Some nonrecognized religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, received a property tax exemption on their houses of worship, although others, such as Buddhists and the Church of Scientology, did not. The government has stated local authorities conducted tax collection from nonrecognized religious groups in accordance with the law. The government stated it was unaware of any recent case in which a religious house of worship was not granted a property tax exemption, although representatives of religious groups stated that tax collection by local authorities remained a concern.
Christian leaders reported little difficulty obtaining visas for clergy to serve in the country, except for Christian clergy from Arab countries, some of whom reported long delays and periodic denials of their visa applications. The government stated Christian clergy from Arab countries were subject to the same entry laws and similar security procedures as clergy from other parts of the world and that any visa delays or denials were due to security reviews. The government also said there were some “unavoidable delays” in cases of applicants from countries that did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Church officials noted the clergy visa did not allow the bearer access to basic social benefits such as disability insurance or national health insurance, even for those who had served in the country for more than 30 years.
The government continued to approve annual “delays” of conscription to military service for individual Jehovah’s Witnesses upon presentation of documentation of their continued affiliation with their religious community, although without acknowledging their right to conscientious objection. Because members of the community were not exempt from military service, they could not participate in the national civil service program as alternative service.
The MOI continued to train Druze and Muslim clerical employees of the state on how to work with government ministries. The MOI appointed and funded approximately half of the Druze and Muslim clerics in the country. Muslim leaders criticized the MOI for appointing non-Muslims to head the Muslim Affairs Department at the ministry, mostly Druze former military officials. Muslim leaders again said the MOI routinely monitored and summoned for “talks” those whom the ministry suspected of opposing government policies. According to the government, the government did not monitor clerics, but government employees of all faiths were “expected not to incite against the state in their official capacities.” The government stated the remaining Druze and Muslim clerics were not state employees due to either the preference of the local community or lack of MOI budget. Muslim leaders stated sharia court judges, who were Ministry of Justice employees, were their preferred religious representatives.
No Islamic seminaries remained in the country, and students of Islam traveled elsewhere, primarily Jordan or the West Bank, to study. The government stated there were “Islamic colleges” in Umm al-Fahm, Baqa’a al-Gharbia, and Kfar Baraa. Muslim leaders rejected this assertion, stating the institutes in Umm al-Fahm and Kfar Baraa, operated by an NGO that teaches some Islamic studies, were not recognized as educational institutions by the Israeli Council for Higher Education. The Muslim leaders also said Al-Qasemi College in Baqa’a al-Gharbia was a teachers’ college that included a program for teaching Islam in schools. The leaders stated that none of those institutes was an Islamic seminary.
The government continued to promote measures to encourage increased Israeli residence and economic development in the thinly populated Negev Desert in the south of the country, including development plans for military industries, railways, the expansion of Road 6, and a phosphate mine. Civil society organizations criticized the government for these plans, stating they could lead to the displacement of 36,000 Bedouins. The government made more funding available for government-approved Bedouin cities and towns to relocate Bedouins displaced by the economic expansion.
The government also took measures aimed at strengthening the nine Bedouin municipalities in the Negev by improving the municipalities’ management to better utilize the three billion shekels ($870 million) provided through the Ministry of Agriculture’s (MOA) Socioeconomic Development Plan for Negev Bedouin 2017-2021 to improve infrastructure, education, public services, and employment in government-approved Negev Bedouin cities and towns. The government held joint planning forums to address violence, women’s employment, strategic planning, and education in Bedouin municipalities, with the stated intention of improving communication between the Bedouin municipalities and the government. According to the NGO Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, 115 of 126 communities in the Negev maintained admission committees to screen new residents, which the NGO stated effectively excluded non-Jewish residents. Following objections by multiple NGOs, authorities canceled plans for new communities called Daya, Eshel HaNasi, and Neve Gurion that would have replaced existing Bedouin villages.
As of year’s end, Bedouin residents in the unrecognized village of Umm al-Hiran had not fulfilled the agreement they reached in 2018 with the Ministry of Agriculture Authority for the Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev to self-demolish their structures and relocate to vacant plots in the Bedouin town of Hura. This agreement followed years of legal battles and negotiations, in preparation for replacing Umm al-Hiran with a community called Hiran. Families sponsored by the OR Movement (an organization dedicated to expanding the Israeli population of the Negev and Galilee regions) to move to Hiran remained in the forest outside Umm al-Hiran, living in mobile homes donated by the Jewish National Fund, while waiting for the village land to become available.
Some former mosques and Islamic cemeteries remained sealed and inaccessible, including to Muslims. These sites belonged to a defunct prestate Waqf (distinct from the Jerusalem Jordanian-administered Waqf of the Haram al-Sharif) until confiscated by the state after the 1948 War of Independence. Other former mosques continued to be used for secular purposes. In December 2018, following a decades-long legal battle between the Jaffa Muslim community and a real estate developer, the government approved a request from the Tel Aviv Municipality to recognize Tasou Cemetery in Jaffa as an Islamic cemetery. This decision included authority for the Muslim community to manage the cemetery but did not transfer its ownership. The Islamic Council in Jaffa welcomed the decision, publicly calling it “a just decision that’s been waiting for more than 70 years.”
Muslim community leaders reported no difficulties obtaining municipal approval for construction of mosques in Muslim-majority localities, but they sometimes faced difficulty in Jewish-majority localities.
On June 6, the Karaite community submitted a second petition to the Supreme Court, which remained pending at year’s end, to block the expropriation of land, previously allocated to a Karaite synagogue in Ramla, for the construction of a highway interchange. The Karaites stated that the loss of land and the new interchange would disrupt their religious and communal activity. In 2018, the Ministry of Transportation ordered the expropriation of the land, and the Karaites subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court. Later in 2018, the Supreme Court dismissed the Karaites’ appeal on procedural grounds, stating the case should be submitted to a lower court. The government subsequently reported it had reached an agreement with the Karaite community that would minimize the amount of land expropriated and optimize use of the land for the synagogue’s needs. The Karaites, however, denied an agreement had been reached and submitted the second petition to the Supreme Court.
The IDF continued to have only Orthodox Jewish chaplains; the government employed civilian clergy of different faiths as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier died in service. The MOI continued to provide imams to conduct military funerals for Muslim soldiers according to Islamic customs.
In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, private organizations posted “modesty signs” demanding women obscure themselves from public view to avoid distracting devout men. The local municipality of Beit Shemesh failed to comply with court orders from 2015 and 2016 to remove the signs, and the Jerusalem District Court ruled in 2017 that the municipality would face a fine of 10,000 shekels ($2,700) per day if the signs remained posted. Following the municipality’s refusal to remove the signs, the Supreme Court ruled in November 2018 that authorities must comply with the order by December 31, 2018 or start paying fines. The Supreme Court later extended the deadline until August 30. According to the government, the municipality did not fully implement the ruling by the end of the year, and some signs that were taken down were replaced by new ones. Vandals repeatedly tore down or defaced billboards showing pictures of women, including commercial advertisements, public awareness campaigns, and political advertisements.
NGOs Adalah and the Secular Forum organized petitions against a ban on bringing non-kosher-for-Passover foods (known as hametz) into public hospitals during Passover. On March 5, the Supreme Court issued an injunction demanding that the government explain why it could not implement “proportional solutions” to the problem, such as the use of disposable plates and utensils at the hospital. In response, on July 15, the government maintained its support for establishing “hametz zones” on hospital premises but outside of hospital buildings and explained that solutions such as the use of disposable utensils were technically problematic. In October, the Chief Rabbinate told the Supreme Court it opposed the use of disposable utensils as well as the establishing “hametz zones.” It stated that bringing hametz into hospitals during Passover would violate religious freedom and the right to life, as it would lead some individuals to avoid going to the hospital during Passover.
According to the NGO HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in Israel, including Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits because of the citizenship and entry law, with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families. There were also cases of Palestinian spouses of non-Israeli residents living in East Jerusalem without legal status. Some non-Israeli residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the security barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency. According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry Christians from the West Bank or elsewhere (Christians who hold neither citizenship nor residency). A Christian religious leader expressed concern this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively impacted the long-term viability of their communities.
In a May 20 statement, leaders of the Catholic churches in Jerusalem said the failure of international diplomacy and the peace process led many residents to feel “their lives have become more and more unbearable,” causing some to emigrate, with “many more consider leaving … [while] some are resorting to violence.” According to NGOs, community members, and media commentators, other factors contributing to Christian emigration included political instability; the inability to obtain residency permits for spouses due to the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry; limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions; difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits; loss of confidence in the peace process; and economic hardships created by the establishment of the security barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions. The government stated such difficulties stemmed from the “complex political and security reality” and not from any restrictions on the Christian community.
While the law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administers the 93 percent of the country in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return. This public land includes approximately 12.5 percent owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose statutes prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews. The application of ILA restrictions historically limited the ability of Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who are not citizens to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of Jerusalem. In recent years, however, an increasing number of non-Israeli citizens in Jerusalem have acquired property built on ILA-owned land. Arab citizens are allowed to participate in bids for JNF land, but sources stated that the ILA will grant the JNF another parcel of land whenever an Arab citizen of Israel wins a bid.
On June 11, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court 2017 decision in favor of Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish pro-settlement organization, which signed a 99-year lease through three companies in 2004 for three properties owned by the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Church had argued that its official who signed the lease was not authorized to do so. In a July 11 protest of the court’s ruling, Christian leaders prayed outside the disputed buildings and, according to the Times of Israel, the Greek Orthodox patriarch said that “extremist groups [were] trying to weaken the unity and identity of the Christian neighborhood.” In August the Greek Orthodox Church filed a new lawsuit seeking to overturn the Supreme Court decision, stating it had new evidence of corruption and fraud involving the sale. After filing the case, the patriarchate said that changing Jerusalem’s status quo “threatens the continuous hundreds-of-years old mosaic and balance that shores [up] the good relations between Jerusalemites of different faiths.” In November, after representatives of the three companies used by Ateret Cohanim failed to respond to the Church’s lawsuit, the Jerusalem District Court ordered the case reopened.
Some NGOs reported incidents in which they said authorities violated the freedom not to practice religion, particularly in the secular public education system and the military. For example, the Secular Forum continued to criticize the MOE’s “Jewish Israeli culture curriculum” for students in the first to ninth grades, referring to it as “religious indoctrination to young children.” The Secular Forum also opposed religious programs in those schools by private religious organizations, such as presentations about Passover in March by the Chabad ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement. The government denied students were subjected to religious indoctrination or coercion, stating the secular public school curriculum included lessons “on the culture of the Jewish people,” including elements of the Jewish faith and traditions, such as the Jewish calendar and holidays. According to Haaretz, in May the minister of education canceled a regulation that required schools to inform parents of activities of religious NGOs in schools and the option to allow children to opt out of participation.
In November the Secular Forum and Hiddush filed a freedom of information petition to a district court in order to obtain information regarding the repeated cancelation of visits of families in some IDF bases on Shabbat, according to the Secular Forum, in order not to discriminate against religiously observant soldiers. The IDF responded to the petition, admitting that some bases were not holding visits on Shabbat, and established a committee to offer recommendations. The recommendations were pending as of the year’s end. In some instances, IDF soldiers were punished for keeping non-kosher foods in their rooms.
Women’s rights organizations cited a growing trend of gender segregation reflecting increased incorporation of Jewish religious observance in government institutions, including in the IDF, as accommodation to increase the enlistment of participants who follow strict interpretations of Jewish law prohibiting mixing of the sexes. On April 14, following a wave of protests by national religious rabbis, the IDF stopped allowing women to serve in combat positions in the armored corps despite a successful pilot program, citing economic and logistical reasons. Many observers, however, stated that the trend in recent years has been toward greater inclusion of women in the IDF, including in combat roles and senior leadership positions.
Following a petition by Tebeka, a human rights group focusing on issues involving the Ethiopian Jewish community, the Chief Rabbinate Council adopted recommendations on October 31 according to which it would be prohibited to verify a person’s Judaism based on their origin or skin color. Tebeka petitioned the Supreme Court to object to a demand by the Kiryat Gat rabbinate to verify the Judaism of Ethiopian workers of a catering company in order for the business to receive a certificate for the most stringent level of kosher supervision.
Certain NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem continued to state the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) emphasized archaeological finds that bolstered Jewish claims while minimizing historically significant archaeological finds of other religions. Archeologists from the NGO Emek Shave disputed the government’s representation of the “pilgrim’s road,” a tunnel dug by the IAA and inaugurated in Silwan on June 30, as being historically part of the pilgrimage route to the Jewish Second Temple; Emek Shemek said the excavation method did not establish with certainty the date and purpose of the road. NGOs such as the Ir David Foundation and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies supported the government’s position.
According to the AP, the government was trying to end the custom of polygamy among Bedouins in the Negev and, for the first time, prosecuted suspected polygamists. Many Bedouins stated they saw this new policy as a means to curb their population growth and criminalize community members. Emi Palmor, the former director general of the Ministry of Justice, stated she was determined to enforce the law but was trying to do so with input from the community, and said she spent two years researching the issue and discussing solutions with Bedouin activists. Although the country outlawed polygamy decades ago, approximately 20 to 30 percent of Bedouin men practiced polygamy, according to government figures, with the rate as high as 60 percent in some villages. On September 20, the Beer Sheva District Court convicted Amin Abu Sakik from the Bedouin town of Rahat of polygamy and sentenced him to seven months in prison. The decision superseded a lighter sentence issued by the Beer Sheva Magistrate’s Court of community service, one-year suspended sentence, and a fine. Abu Sakik was the first person to be convicted of polygamy since enforcement of the law was renewed in 2017.
At the beginning of the year, the 120-member Knesset had 16 members from religious minorities (12 Muslims, three Druze, and one Christian). At year’s end, following two elections, the Knesset had 14 members from religious minorities (nine Muslims, three Druze, and two Christians). As of June, the 23-member cabinet included one Druze minister; there were no Muslim or Christian cabinet members. At year’s end, there were no Druze, Muslim, or Christian members of the cabinet.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religious and national identities were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
According to an article in the Jewish Press, a U.S. weekly newspaper, on June 8, 60 seminary students from the Armenian Church punched and kicked two Jewish youths in Jerusalem. Both victims required medical treatment, and one was hospitalized. Subsequently, the Armenian Patriarchate said the newspaper’s article about the incident was “a pure lie and malicious slander.” In its statement, the patriarchate stated that a group of 20 seminarians and the seminary’s dean were attacked by three Jews and their dog, which, after its muzzle was removed, was ordered to attack the dean. According to the patriarchate, the three Jews also attacked the group, while the seminarians shielded the priest from the dog. One seminarian’s hand was broken in the attack. Both sides filed complaints at the local police station.
According to Haaretz, on May 16, five or six religiously observant Jews shouting “Death to Arabs” attacked a Palestinian teen from East Jerusalem. The attackers hit the youth, identified as Ibrahim Sawilam, knocking him unconscious and requiring that he be taken to the hospital. Although his family filed a complaint with the police, who said they would open an investigation, Haaretz reported that they had not followed up with either Sawilam or any of his friends who were with him at the time of the attack.
Christian clergy and pilgrims continued to report instances of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem harassing or spitting on them. According to missionary organizations, societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion to other religions continued to be negative. Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity, such as Messianic Jews. For example, approximately 40 individuals, including members of the right-wing organization Lehava, attacked Messianic Jews during a community concert in Jerusalem in June, cursing, screaming, using pepper spray, and tossing live frogs at them, according to Haaretz. Several eyewitnesses said the police did not respond appropriately in defense of the concertgoers and organizers. The police detained two persons for questioning and later released them without charges. In a written response, the Israel National Police said it denounces all violence and closed the case for lack of evidence.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported in August that a man in Bat Yam attacked two of their members during door-to-door activity and threatened to kill one of them after she called the police. The police closed the investigation four days after it was opened, and Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed the decision on September 23. The case remained pending at year’s end.
Lehava members continued to criticize or assault Arab men who were in relationships with Jewish women and to harass “mixed” couples. In May Lehava Director Ben-Tzion Gopstein sent a letter to MK Gideon Saar of the Likud Party demanding he put a stop to a relationship between Saar’s daughter and her Arab partner. Another organization, Yad L’Achim, continued to stop instances of cohabitation between Jewish women and Arab men by sometimes “launching military-like rescues from ‘hostile’ Arab villages,” according to its website. Following a 2017 petition from the Israel Religious Action Center, which represents the Reform Movement, to the High Court demanding Ben-Tzion Gopstein be indicted on a series of offenses, the Jerusalem district attorney held a pre-indictment hearing in 2018 and indicted him on November 26, 2019 for incitement to terrorism, violence and racism. In August the Central Elections Committee disqualified Gopstein’s Knesset candidacy due to incitement to racism.
There continued to be reports of ultra-Orthodox Jews in public areas of their neighborhoods harassing individuals who did not conform to Jewish Orthodox traditions, such as by driving on Shabbat or not wearing modest dress. The harassment included verbal abuse, spitting, and throwing stones.
On January 30, unknown individuals removed the cross from a church in the Golan Heights, abandoned since 1967. According to Kan News, the police received a complaint alleging a hate crime.
According to media reports, on November 15, unknown individuals spray painted a swastika on a Magen David Adom (MDA) ambulance whose staff were treating a patient in Tel Aviv. The MDA team filed a police complaint.
Muslim activists reported hijab-wearing women experiencing harassment by non-Muslims. According to a September report in Haaretz, a dental clinic in Netanya would not hire a dentist because she wore a hijab. In a conversation with the dentist, which the applicant recorded, the clinic director conceded that the Muslim woman had made a positive impression on the clinic’s staff members but said patients would not want her to treat them because of her hijab. In a subsequent lawsuit, the Tel Aviv Regional Labor Court awarded the dentist 40,000 shekels ($11,000) in compensation, finding that employer’s refusal to hire her constituted illegal discrimination.
On June 4 a group of Muslim students at David Yellin College of Education, a teachers’ college in Jerusalem, wrote “Ramadan Kareem” (“Blessed Ramadan”) on a communal student chalkboard. This same chalkboard was being used for commemorative notes recognizing Israel’s Day of Remembrance. Other members of the community who filmed the incident said the Muslim students had “desecrated the memory” of fallen Israeli soldiers. The college punished the students for “inappropriate conduct,” and banned two students, Reem Jouabra and Maram Abu Sneineh, from entering the college campus until August and revoked academic honors and grades awarded to them. The college also ordered the students to complete community service and to apologize to the community and the college president. Following an appeal by the NGO Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the college rescinded most of the penalties imposed on the two students.
Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community and other citizens, including concerns related to service in the IDF, housing, public transportation, and participation in the workforce. On January 26, unknown individuals burned Torah scrolls and spray-painted graffiti on a Conservative synagogue in Netanya, following several vandalism cases at the same synagogue in 2018. On January 29, unknown individuals vandalized an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem, cut the ark in which Torah scrolls are kept, destroyed Torah scrolls, and broke into the safe. On June 11, unknown individuals broke into the safe of an Orthodox synagogue in Bnei-Brak and stole Torah scrolls.
The most common “price tag” offenses, according to police, included attacks on vehicles, defacement of real estate, damage to Muslim and Christian holy sites, assault, and damage to agricultural lands. For example, on July 27, vandals sprayed graffiti on a truck and walls in Kfar Qasim referring to marriages between Jews and Arabs that said: “the daughter of Israel to the people of Israel,” and “enough with the intermarriage.” On December 12, unknown individuals sprayed Stars of David and sayings including “Muhammad is a pig” and damaged a car in the village of Manshiya Zabda in northern Israel.
The NGO Tag Meir continued to organize visits to areas where “price tag” attacks occurred and to sponsor activities promoting tolerance in response to the attacks.
Although the Chief Rabbinate and rabbis of many denominations continued to discourage Jewish visits to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site due to concerns relating to Jewish religious beliefs regarding the ongoing halakhic debate about whether it is permissible or forbidden for Jews to enter the Temple Mount, some Orthodox rabbis continued to say entering the site was permissible. Increasing numbers of the self-identified “national religious” Zionist community stated they found meaning in setting foot on the site. Groups such as the Temple Mount Faithful and the Temple Institute continued to call for increased Jewish access and prayer there, as well as the construction of a third Jewish temple on the site. In some cases, Israeli police acted to prevent individuals from praying and removed them; in other cases reported on social media and by NGOs, police appeared not to notice the activity. According to local media, some Jewish groups escorted by Israeli police performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration. According to the Jerusalem Waqf and Temple Mount activist groups, visits by activists associated with the Temple Mount movement increased during the year to record levels, including a single-day record of 1,451 visits on “Jerusalem Day” in May. According to Temple Mount activist groups and the Waqf, during the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot, activists conducted 3,009 visits, a 25 percent increase over 2017. According to Yareah, an organization that promotes Jewish visits to the Temple Mount, 30,416 Jews visited the site during the year, the first time the number of Jewish visitors exceeded 30,000 since Israel’s founding.
Individuals affiliated with the Northern Islamic Movement, which the government declared illegal in 2015, continued to speak of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif as being “under attack” by Israeli authorities and an increasing number of Jewish visitors. Some small Jewish groups continued to call for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque to enable the building of a third Jewish temple.
In January Christians launched demonstrations protesting the Haifa Museum of Art’s display of an artwork depicting Ronald McDonald as Jesus on the cross, the center of an exhibition about consumerism and religion. On January 11, hundreds protested the exhibit and police arrested one man on suspicion of assault and searched for two other persons who had thrown firebombs at the museum. Police said that three police officers were hurt as dozens of demonstrators tried to forcibly enter the museum. On January 17, Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem said the sculpture would be taken out of the exhibition following consultations with church leaders, noting that it was due to return to the Finnish museum from which it was borrowed at the end of January. The Association for Civil Rights condemned the move, stating that the decision was “a capitulation to violence and a severe violation of artistic freedom of expression.”
NGOs reported that some LGBTI minors who revealed their sexual orientation in religious communities faced expulsion from their homes and stigmatization from rabbis. NGOs noted reports of mental illness among the LGBTI minor community, leading some to attempt suicide. Other NGOs noted an increasing number of rabbis, educators, and community leaders in Orthodox Jewish communities were adopting a more inclusive approach to LGBTI minors.
Some religious figures and politicians spoke against LGBTI individuals. On July 18, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and former Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar called on religious LGBTI individuals to throw away their kippahs and Shabbat observance, saying they were sinning against the Jewish people with their bodies.
Several religious NGOs, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, sought to break the rabbinate’s monopoly over issues that included kashrut certificates for burial, marriage, and divorce. In its first year, the unofficial kashrut certification of Tzohar, a network of Zionist Orthodox rabbis, gained 150 businesses.
According to the NGO Panim, more than 2,610 weddings took place outside of the Rabbinate’s authority in 2018, compared with 2,400 in 2017. These included unofficial orthodox, conservative, reform and secular ceremonies. The Chuppot initiative, an effort by some Orthodox Jews to challenge the Rabbinate’s exclusive supervision of Jewish religious ceremonies and practices, held 216 unofficial Orthodox weddings during 2019. The only mechanism for Jews to gain state recognition of a non-Rabbinate Orthodox wedding remained to wed outside the country and then register the marriage with the MOI.
According to the Rackman Center, thousands of Jewish women were “trapped” in various stages of informal or formal get refusals, especially in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. The Rackman Center stated that in some instances a woman’s husband made granting a get contingent on his wife conceding to extortionate demands, such as those relating to property ownership or child custody. One in three Jewish women who divorced faced such demands, according to the Center for Women’s Justice. A child born to a woman still married to another man is considered a mamzer (child of an unpermitted relationship) under Jewish law, which restricts the child’s future marriage prospects in the Jewish community. In February, Mavoi Satum, an organization that deals with issues of divorce in Israel, tried to set a precedent through an appeal to the High Rabbinical Court, which demanded that the court not close cases until a get is issued. The court did not take up the issue.
A rabbinical court in September ruled that a woman who engaged in an extramarital relationship was entitled to only 20 percent of joint property, accumulated from the date of her infidelity. On June 6, the president of the Supreme Court ordered an additional hearing for April 2020 on a 2018 Supreme Rabbinical Court ruling which found that a woman who engaged in an extramarital relationship had no rights to her and her husband’s home.
In an October decision, a rabbinical court moved the custody of children from their mother to their father because the mother stopped observing Judaism, although the father had been previously convicted in violent offenses, according to Haaretz. Haaretz reported that state social services were against the move but could not intervene because the divorce case was taking place in a rabbinical court. As a part of the custody agreement, the mother had to sign an agreement tying custody to a religious lifestyle, in order to obtain a get.
A variety of NGOs continued to try to build understanding and create dialogue among religious groups and between religious and secular Jewish communities, including Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, the Abraham Fund Initiative, Givat Haviva, the Hagar and Hand-in-Hand integrated Jewish-Arab bilingual schools, Hiddush, Israeli Religious Action Center, Mosaica, and Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA). For example, IEA held 384 interfaith encounters throughout the year. The number of children studying at integrated Yad BeYad Jewish-Arab schools in the school year beginning in September was 1,800, up from 1,700 in the previous year.
The Tomb of the Kings, a 2,000-year-old archaeological site in Jerusalem owned by the government of France, reopened to the public two days a week in October for the first time since 2010. Ultra-Orthodox Jews were seeking unrestricted worship at the ancient Jewish tomb and challenged French ownership of the site.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with government officials, embassy officials stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for all religious groups. The Ambassador spoke at the Christian Media Summit hosted by the government to promote religious freedom in the region, and the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith reception for representatives of the country’s diverse religious groups. Additionally, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism represented the U.S. government at President Reuven Rivlin’s emergency conference on combating anti-Semitism.
Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The embassy continued to support workshops at the American Center in Jerusalem that addressed topics including religion in public schools, democracy and religious freedom, and prevention of societal attacks on religious minorities.
Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated a shared society for Arab and Jewish populations. Embassy officials advocated for the right of persons from all faiths to practice their religion peacefully, while also respecting the beliefs and customs of their neighbors.
Throughout the year, embassy officials participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Baha’i communities and used embassy social media platforms to express U.S. support for tolerance and the importance of openness to members of other religious groups.
In March the Ambassador visited the Beit Jimal Monastery to condemn the vandalism of the monastery’s cemetery. The embassy produced a video that included the Ambassador’s remarks and amplified the video on Twitter and Facebook.
In July the embassy held a roundtable discussion on religious freedom issues hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute and livestreamed by the Jerusalem Post, with the participation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NGOs.
Embassy-hosted events included an interfaith iftar, an interfaith Rosh Hashanah reception, and an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner. The embassy also promoted the reduction of tensions between religious communities and an increase in interreligious communication and partnerships by bringing together representatives of many faith communities to advance shared goals and exchange knowledge and experience. Embassy programs supported mixed Jewish-Arab educational and community initiatives to reduce societal tensions and violence through sports, the arts, environmental projects, and entrepreneurship. Initiatives included a continuing project by the Citizens Accord Forum that brought together ultra-Orthodox, Muslim, and Christian citizens to create a shared civic agenda and language to deal with common issues and concerns in their communities. Another project supported joint training sessions for Muslim and Jewish teachers of religion.
The embassy worked to mitigate interreligious and intercommunal tensions between the country’s non-Jewish and Jewish citizens through the greater integration of the Arab minority into the broader national economy – especially the high-tech sector. An ongoing grant supported efforts by Arab, ultra-Orthodox, and Ethiopian Jewish NGOs to break down social and religious barriers and better integrate their communities into the technical workforce.
The embassy awarded a grant to the Mosaica religious peace initiative to establish a mechanism for crisis prevention and management in Jerusalem, with particular focus on Islamic and Jewish holy sites in the Old City.
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West Bank and Gaza →
The constitution declares Islam the religion of the state but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality. It stipulates there shall be no discrimination based on religion. It does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so. According to the constitution, matters concerning the personal and family status of Muslims come under the jurisdiction of sharia courts. Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates. Seven of the 11 recognized Christian groups have religious courts to address such personal status matters for their members. In April parliament ratified amendments to the Personal Status Law (PSL), stipulating that mothers, regardless of religious background, should retain custody of their children until age 18. The government continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses. On August 1, the government temporarily closed Aaron’s Tomb, a religious site near Petra popular with tourists, after photographs and videos appeared on social media showing a group of Jewish tourists praying at the site. Members of some unregistered groups continued to face problems registering their marriages and the religious affiliation of their children, and also renewing their residency permits. The government continued to monitor mosque sermons and required that preachers refrain from political commentary and adhere to approved themes and texts during Friday sermons. Converts to Christianity from Islam reported that security officials continued to question them to determine their “true” religious beliefs and practices. Security forces increased their presence in Christian areas, especially during special events and holidays. Several Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of a government effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including security for worshippers. A few members of the Christian community, however, said they felt intimidated and targeted by these extra precautionary measures.
Interfaith religious leaders reported continued online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and moderates, frequently through social media. Social media users also defended interfaith tolerance, condemning videos and online posts that criticized Christianity or tried to discourage interfaith dialogue. Some converts to Christianity from Islam continued to report ostracism as well as physical and verbal abuse from their families and communities, and some worshipped in secret as a result of the social stigma they faced. Some converts reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor. The Jordanian Philosophical Society hosted a lecture by physics professor Hisham Ghassib in which he described Judaism as a “primitive” and “despicable” religion. Observers reported occasional friction between Christian denominations officially recognized by the government and evangelical churches that are not.
The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels, including the minister of awqaf, grand mufti, minister of foreign affairs, and officials at the Royal Hashemite Court, to raise the rights of religious minorities, the protection of cultural resources, interfaith tolerance, and the legal status of religious workers and volunteers. Embassy officers also engaged with Muslim scholars and Christian community leaders to promote interfaith tolerance and dialogue. The embassy supported exchange programs promoting religious tolerance, as well as civil society programs to preserve the cultural heritage of religious minorities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims, virtually all of whom are Sunni, make up 97.2 percent of the population. Some church leaders estimate that Christians make up approximately 1.8 percent of the country’s population. Groups constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, and Druze (who are treated as Muslims by the government). According to the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies (RIIFS), there is also a small community (consisting of a few families) of Zoroastrians. The Ministry of Labor issued more than 300,000 work permits to foreign workers during the year, but civil society sources note that the number of migrant workers exceeds 800,000. Most of the migrant workers are from Egypt, South and East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa and South and East Asia are often Christian or Hindu. There are more than 744,000 refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 57 countries of origin, including more than 654,000 Syrians and 66,000 Iraqis. The Syrian and Iraqi refugee populations are mostly Sunni Muslim. Shia Muslims and Christians account for less than one third of the Iraqi refugee population.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam “the religion of the state” but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality. It stipulates there shall be no discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion and states the king must be a Muslim. The constitution allows for religious courts, including sharia courts for Muslims and ecclesiastical courts for Christian denominations recognized by the government. According to the General Ifta’ Department, in adjudicating personal status cases, sharia courts follow the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence.
The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so. The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims; these courts do not recognize converts from Islam to other religions. Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates. Neither the penal code nor the criminal code specifies a penalty for apostasy. Sharia courts, however, have jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and individuals declared to be apostates may have their marriages annulled or be disinherited, except in the case of a will that states otherwise. Any member of society may file an apostasy complaint against such individuals before the Sharia Public Prosecution. The Sharia Public Prosecution consults with the Council of Church Leaders (CCL), a government advisory body comprising the heads of the country’s 11 officially recognized Christian denominations, before converting a Christian to Islam, in order to avoid conversions for purposes of marriage and/or divorces only, and not religious conviction. The penal code contains articles criminalizing acts such as incitement of hatred, blasphemy against Abrahamic faiths, undermining the regime, or portraying citizens in a manner that violates their dignity. The penal code criminalizes insulting the Prophet Muhammad, punishable by one to three years’ imprisonment. The law also provides a term of imprisonment not exceeding three months or a fine not exceeding 20 Jordanian dinars ($28) for anyone who publishes anything that offends religious feelings or beliefs.
Authorities may prosecute individuals who proselytize Muslims under the penal code’s provisions against “inciting sectarian conflict” or “harming the national unity.” Both of these offenses are punishable by imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of up to 50 Jordanian dinars ($71).
Islamic religious groups are granted recognition through the constitution and do not need to register with the government. Non-Islamic religious groups must obtain official recognition through registration. If registered as “denominations,” they may administer rites such as marriage. (There is no provision for civil marriage.) They may also own land, open bank accounts, and enter into contracts. Religious groups may also be registered as “associations” and if so, they must work through a recognized denomination on matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, but they may own property and open bank accounts. They must obtain government approval to accept foreign funding. Recognized non-Islamic religious groups are tax-exempt but do not receive the government subsidies granted to Islamic religious groups.
Religious groups not recognized as denominations or associations lack legal status and may not undertake basic administrative tasks such as opening bank accounts, purchasing real estate, or hiring staff. Individuals may exercise such activities on behalf of the unrecognized group, however. To register as a recognized religious denomination, the group must submit its bylaws, a list of its members, its budget, and information about its religious doctrine. In determining whether to register or recognize Christian groups, the prime minister confers with the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) and the CCL. Although the practice is not explicitly mandated by the law, church leaders have stated that the CCL must endorse recognition for new Christian groups prior to the prime minister’s approval. To achieve official recognition as denominations, Christian groups must be recommended by the MOI and approved by the cabinet. The government also refers to the following criteria when considering recognition of Christian groups: the group’s teachings must not contradict the nature of the constitution, public ethics, customs, or traditions; the Middle East Council of Churches, a regional body comprising four families of churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant/Evangelical), must recognize it; its religious doctrine must not be antagonistic to Islam as the state religion; and the group’s membership must meet a minimum number of citizens, although a precise figure is not specified.
An annex to the 2014 Law for Councils of Christian Denominations lists 11 officially recognized Christian religious groups: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic. In 2018 five additional evangelical Christian denominations, formerly registered under the Ministry of Justice, were recognized by the MOI as associations, but none have been permitted to establish an ecclesiastical court: the Free Evangelical Church, Church of the Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Baptist Church. The government granted legal status as an association to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2018.
The CCL consists of the heads of the country’s 11 historically recognized Christian denominations and serves as an administrative body to facilitate tax and customs exemptions, as well as the issuance of civil documents (marriage or inheritance). In other matters, such as issuing work permits or purchasing land, the denominations interact directly with the relevant ministries. Religious groups that do not have representatives on the CCL handle administrative tasks through the ministry relevant to the task. Nonrecognized Christian groups do not have representatives on the CCL, have no legal status as entities, and must have individual members of their groups conduct business with the government on their behalf.
According to the constitution, a special provision of the law regulates the activities and administration of finances of the Islamic awqaf (religious endowments). Per this provision of the law, the Ministry of Awqaf Islamic Affairs and Holy Places (Ministry of Awqaf) manages mosques, appoints imams, pays mosque staff salaries, manages Islamic clergy training centers, and subsidizes certain mosque-sponsored activities, such as holiday celebrations and religious observances. Other Islamic institutions are the Supreme (Sharia) Justice Department, which is headed by the Office of the Supreme (Sharia) Justice (OSJ) and is in charge of the sharia courts, and the General Ifta’ Department, which issues fatwas.
The government requires imams to adhere to officially prescribed themes and texts for Friday sermons. Muslim clergy who do not follow government policy may be suspended, issued a written warning, banned from delivering Friday sermons for a certain period, or dismissed from the Ministry of Awqaf. In addition to these administrative measures, a preacher who violates the law may be imprisoned for a period of one week to one month or be given a fine not to exceed 20 Jordanian dinars ($28).
The law forbids any Islamic cleric from issuing a fatwa unless authorized by an official committee headed by the grand mufti in the General Ifta’ Department. This department is independent from the Ministry of Awqaf, with the rank of mufti being equal to that of a minister.
The law prohibits the publication of media items that slander or insult “founders of religion or prophets” or are deemed contemptuous of “any of the religions whose freedom is protected by the constitution,” and it imposes a fine on violators of up to 20,000 Jordanian dinars ($28,200).
By law, public schools provide Islamic religious instruction as part of the basic national curriculum; non-Muslim students are allowed to opt out. Private schools may offer alternative religious instruction. The constitution provides “congregations” (a term not defined in the constitution, but which according to the legal code includes religious groups recognized as denominations and associations) with the right to establish their own schools provided “they comply with the general provisions of the law and are subject to the control of government in matters relating to their curricula and orientation.” To operate a school, religious institutions must receive permission from the Ministry of Education, which ensures the curriculum meets national standards. The ministry does not oversee religious courses if religious groups offer them at their places of worship. In several cities, Christian groups – including Baptists, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics – operate private schools and are able to conduct classes on Christianity. Private schools, both nonreligious and religious, are open to adherents of all religions.
Knowledge of the Quran is required by law for Muslim students in both public and private schools but is optional for non-Muslims. Every student, however, must pass an Arabic language exam in their final year of high school that includes linguistic mastery of some verses of the Quran. The Islamic religion is an optional subject for secondary education certificate exams for non-Muslim students following the standard curriculum, or for Muslim students following international curricula.
The constitution specifies the judiciary shall be divided into civil courts, religious courts, and special courts, with religious courts divided into sharia courts and tribunals of other recognized religious communities. According to the constitution, matters concerning personal status, which include religious affiliation, marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are under the jurisdiction of religious courts. Matters of personal status in which the parties are Muslim fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the sharia courts. A personal or family-status case in which one party is Muslim and the other is non-Muslim is heard by a civil court unless both parties agree to use a sharia court. Per the constitution, matters of the personal status of non-Muslims whose religion the government officially recognizes are under the jurisdiction of denomination-specific courts of religious communities. Such courts exist for the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, and Anglican communities. According to the law, members of recognized religious groups lacking their own courts may take their cases to civil courts, which, in principle, follow the rules and beliefs of the litigants’ denomination in deciding cases, unless both parties to a case agree to use a specific religious court. There are no tribunals for atheists or adherents of nonrecognized religious groups. Such individuals must request a civil court to hear their case.
The OSJ appoints sharia judges, while each recognized non-Islamic religious community selects the structure and members of its own tribunal. The law stipulates the cabinet must ratify the procedures of each non-Islamic religious (known as ecclesiastical) court. All judicial nominations must be approved by a royal decree.
According to the constitution, sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with respect to cases concerning “blood money” (diya) in which the two parties are Muslims or one of the parties is not a Muslim and the two parties consent to the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. Sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with regard to matters pertaining to Islamic awqaf. Muslims are also subject to the jurisdiction of sharia courts on civil matters not addressed by civil status legislation.
Sharia courts do not recognize converts from Islam as falling under the jurisdiction of their new religious community’s laws in matters of personal status. Sharia court judges may annul the marriages of converts and transfer child custody to a Muslim nonparent family member or declare the children “wards of the state” and convey an individual’s property rights to Muslim family members.
According to sharia, marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man are not permitted; the man must convert to Islam for the marriage to be considered legal. If a Christian woman converts to Islam while married to a Christian man, her husband must also convert to Islam for their marriage to remain legal. If a Christian man converts to Islam while married to a Christian woman, the wife does not need to convert to Islam for the marriage to remain legal. There is no legal provision for civil marriage or divorce for members of nonrecognized religious groups. Members of nonregistered Christian groups, as well as members of groups registered as associations, may obtain marriage certificates from any recognized Christian denomination such as the Anglican Church, which they then may take to the Civil Status Bureau to receive their government marriage certificates.
Sharia governs all matters relating to family law involving Muslims or the children of a Muslim father. Historically, if a Muslim husband and non-Muslim wife divorce, the wife would lose custody of the children when they reached seven years of age. In April parliament ratified amendments to the PSL, stipulating that mothers, regardless of religious background, should retain custody of their children until age 18. Minor children of male citizens who convert to Islam are considered Muslims and are not legally allowed to reconvert to their father’s prior religion or convert to any other religion. (Like citizenship, religion is transmitted only via the father). In accordance with sharia, adult children of a man who has converted to Islam become ineligible to inherit from their father if they do not also convert to Islam, unless the father’s will states otherwise. All citizens, including non-Muslims, are subject to the PSL, which mostly follows Islamic legal provisions regarding inheritance if no equivalent inheritance guidelines are codified in their religion or if the state does not recognize their religion. In practice, Christian ecclesiastical courts use sharia-based rules to adjudicate inheritance.
National identification cards issued since May 2016 do not list religion, but religious affiliation is contained in records embedded in the card’s electronic chip and remains on file in other government records. Passports issued since May 2016 do not list religion. Atheists and agnostics must list the religious affiliation of their fathers as their own. Per the ban on conversion from Islam under sharia, converts from Islam to Christianity are not allowed to change their religion on electronic records. Converts from Christianity to Islam must change their religion on their civil documents such as family books (a national registration record issued to every head of family) and on electronic records.
According to the electoral law, Christians are allocated nine of 130 parliamentary seats. Christians may not run for additional seats. No seats are reserved for adherents of other minority religious groups. The law stipulates that Muslims must hold all parliamentary seats not specifically reserved for Christians. There are no reserved seats for the Druze population. The government classifies Druze as Muslims and permits them to hold office as Muslims.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On August 1, the minister of awqaf temporarily closed Aaron’s Tomb, a religious site near Petra popular with tourists, after photographs and videos appeared on social media showing a group of Jewish tourists praying at the site. In an August 2 statement, a local tourism official said the government would not allow non-Islamic religious ceremonies at the site and that the tomb had nothing to do with Judaism historically or archaeologically. Upon reopening the site to non-Israeli visitors after nine days, the minister of awqaf issued a statement calling on visitors to obey all rules and regulations at the shrine. Following bilateral discussions between Jordan and Israel in November, an announcement was made on December 1 that the site would reopen to Israeli tourists in prior coordination and with on-site guides and security.
Converts to Islam from Christianity continued to report security officials questioning them about their religious beliefs and practices, as well as surveillance, as part of the government’s effort to prevent conversions of convenience for the purpose of receiving advantageous divorce or inheritance benefits. Some converts to Christianity from Islam reported they continued to worship in secret to avoid scrutiny by security officials. Because of the sharia ban on conversion, government officials generally refused to change the religion listed on official documents from Islam to any other religion. Accordingly, the converts’ religious practice did not match their official religion, opening them up to claims of apostasy and personal status issues involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance.
The government’s Media Commission regulates the publishing and distribution of all books and media. If the Media Commission deems that passages “violate public norms and values, are religiously offensive, or are insulting” to the king, it can request a court order to prohibit the distribution of the book. During the year, the commission banned distribution of 55 books for insulting religion as well as displaying pornographic images and promoting homosexuality.
Members of religious groups who were unable to obtain religious divorces converted to another Christian denomination or to Islam to divorce legally, according to reports from religious leaders and the Ministry of Justice. The chief of the OSJ continued to ensure that Christians wanting to convert to Islam did not have a pending divorce case at one of the Christian religious courts to prevent them from converting for the sole purpose of obtaining a legal divorce. The OSJ continued to enforce the interview requirement for converts to Islam, introduced in 2017, to determine whether their conversion reflected a genuine religious belief.
The Ministry of Awqaf continued to monitor sermons at mosques and required that preachers refrain from political commentary. Authorities continued to disseminate themes and required imams to choose from a list of recommended texts for sermons. Imams who violated these rules risked being fined or banned from preaching. Unofficial mosques continued to operate outside Ministry of Awqaf control in many cities, and imams outside of government employment preached without Ministry of Awqaf supervision. According to the grand mufti, the Ministry of Awqaf discovered some unregistered imams leading prayers in mosques in 2018. In these cases, the government ordered all attendees and imams to cease their activities and gather in a designated mosque in their area for the Friday sermons led by a registered imam. In light of concerns expressed by religious minorities regarding intolerant preaching by some Muslims, the government called in 2018 for the consolidation of Friday prayers into central mosques over which they had more oversight, a practice that was implemented partially in major cities. During the year, the Ministry of Awqaf allowed smaller mosques to continue Friday sermons along with their area’s central mosque after identifying accessibility and commuting difficulties, especially for the elderly.
The Ministry of Awqaf continued to provide official government support for religious travel for Muslims. During the year, in support of the Hajj pilgrimage, the ministry implemented an electronic tracking system for buses carrying pilgrims to follow up on vehicle breakdowns and ensure carriers met safety standards. The government received a quota from the Saudi government of approximately 7,000 visas for the Hajj, excluding guides, controllers, and drivers. The government assigned the visas to citizens based on military or government service, age (the elderly are granted preference), and a national lottery.
During the year, expatriate religious volunteers from the evangelical Christian community continued to report bureaucratic delays in the renewal of residency permits. In 2018 the government began enforcing a new residency policy to limit the ability of churches to sponsor religious volunteers for residency. Observers suggested that the volunteers were illegally proselytizing Muslims. Authorities previously allowed the churches to obtain residency status for religious volunteers with the approval of the MOI and a letter of sponsorship from the church. Volunteers now obtained additional approvals, including from the Ministry of Labor, lengthening the average renewal process by several months, according to church officials.
The government policy of not recognizing the Baha’i Faith continued, but the government continued to allow Baha’is to privately practice their religion and included them in interfaith events. Sharia courts and the courts of other recognized religions continued not to issue Baha’is the marriage certificates required to transfer citizenship to a foreign spouse or to register for government health insurance and social security. The Department of Civil Status and Passports also continued not to recognize marriages conducted by Baha’i assemblies, but it issued family books to Baha’is, allowing them to register their children, except in cases of marriages between a Baha’i man and a Baha’i woman erroneously registered as Muslim. In those cases, the children were considered illegitimate and were not issued birth certificates or included in family books and subsequently were unable to obtain citizenship or register for school. The Baha’is were able to obtain some documents such as marriage certificates through the civil courts, although they reportedly were required to pay fees that sometimes amounted to more than 500 Jordanian dinars ($710) for documents normally available for five Jordanian dinars ($7) through religious courts. Kamel Abu Jaber, the director of the Royal Institute of Interfaith Studies and former foreign minister, stated in an August report on Al-Monitor, a U.S. website focusing on Middle East news, that a law recognizing the Baha’i Faith would be hard to pass in parliament. Abu Jaber said that during his tenure as foreign minister, he relayed a request from the Baha’i community for official recognition. According to Abu Jaber, the government declined to take action, fearing reactions in both the parliament and across society.
There continued to be two recognized cemeteries registered in the name of the Baha’i Faith through a special arrangement previously agreed between the group and the government. Baha’i leaders reported they continued to be unable to register other properties under the name of the Baha’i Faith but remained able to register property under the names of individual Baha’is. In doing so, the Baha’i leaders said they continued to have to pay new registration fees whenever they transferred property from one person to another at the death of the registered owner, a process that created a large financial burden. Baha’i leaders said they were using the civil courts to challenge their group’s property registration restrictions. The Baha’i community’s request for religious exemptions for property registration fees remained pending.
The government continued to deny official recognition to other religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other nonrecognized religious groups reported that they continued to operate schools and hospitals and that they were able to hold services and meetings if they were low profile.
Security forces confirmed they devoted extra resources to protect Christian neighborhoods and churches for holidays and special events, increasing security even further after a 2018 attack targeting security forces near a music festival outside the predominantly Christian town of Fuhais. Several Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of the government’s effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including for religious worshippers. These church leaders stated they appreciated the extra protection during religious holidays and at large events, although a few members of the Christian community said they felt intimidated and targeted by these extra measures.
Religious minorities, including Christians and Druze, continued to serve in parliament and as cabinet ministers. Christians served as deputy prime minister, cabinet ministers, senators, and ambassadors. There was one Druze cabinet member.
Druze continued to worship and socialize in buildings belonging to the Druze community. The government continued to record Druze as Muslims on civil documents identifying the bearer’s religious affiliation, without public objection from the Druze. Druze continued to report discrimination hindered their coreligionists from reaching high positions in government and official departments.
The government continued to permit non-Muslim members of the armed forces to practice their religion. Christians and Druze achieved general officer rank in the military, but Muslims continued to hold most senior positions across the security and intelligence services.
Members of non-Muslim religious groups continued to report occasional threats by the government to arrest them for disrupting public order if they proselytized Muslims. Security officials continued to refuse to renew residency permits for some foreign religious leaders and religious volunteers after raising concerns their activities could incite extremist attacks, according to multiple nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Others were refused on the basis of proselytization accusations, while additional requirements were imposed for residency renewals for religious volunteers in general.
The Ministry of Education did not undertake school curriculum revisions during the year, following a rescindment of curriculum revisions that met with resistance in 2017. The changes were intended to promote tolerance, but parents and teachers’ groups stated that the changes were distancing students from Islamic values and promoted normalization of relations with Israel. The curriculum continued the past practice of omitting mention of the Holocaust.
Amendments to the cybercrimes law remain pending with parliament. The new amendments define hate speech as “any statement or act intended to provoke sectarian or racial tension or strife among different elements of the nation.”
On October 7, King Abdullah presented awards to a number of leading international Islamic scholars at the 18th General Conference of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in recognition of their efforts to promote religious understanding and interfaith dialogue. On May 7, the king announced plans to help fund the restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem from his personal funds. Church leaders in Jerusalem previously could not decide on funding the renovation because of competing Christian claims regarding administration of the site. In April the king hosted a number of Muslim and Christian religious leaders at the World Interfaith Harmony Week prize ceremony.
On March 29, King Abdullah received the “Lamp of Peace” award from the Catholic Franciscan order in Assisi, Italy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the 2018 honoree, presented the king with the award. The Franciscans bestowed the award to the king for promoting human rights and interfaith dialogue, as well as his support of Middle East peace and Syrian refugees. In his acceptance speech, the king stated, “The principles of coexistence and interfaith harmony are deeply embedded in Jordan’s heritage.” He added, “Our country is home to a historic Christian community. All our citizens actively share in building our strong nation. Indeed, Christians have been part of Middle East societies for thousands of years and are vital to the future of our region.”
A London-based NGO, the Minority Rights Group, noted on its website that the acceptance of Christianity in the midst of a Muslim majority has been the “norm” in the country’s modern history and that the government has been “overwhelmingly tolerant” of its Christian minority.
The National Center for Human Rights, a quasi-independent institution established by law, received both government and international funding. The prime minister nominates its board of trustees, and the king ratifies their appointment by royal decree. In August a new board of trustees was appointed, to include Islamists, former ministers, former judges, current members of parliament, religious leaders, and civil society representatives.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Converts from Islam to Christianity reported continued social ostracism, threats, and physical and verbal abuse, including beatings, insults, and intimidation, from family members, neighbors, and community or tribal members. Some reported they worshipped in secret because of the social stigma they faced as converts, while others reported persistent and credible threats of violence from family members protecting traditional honor. According to international NGOs, female converts from Islam were particularly vulnerable to harassment. NGOs also reported cases of forced marriage to Muslims by female converts from Islam in order to “retain family honor.” Church leaders continued to report incidents of violence and discrimination against religious converts and persons in interfaith romantic relationships; the latter continued to report ostracism and, in some cases, feuds among family members and violence toward those involved. Some converts from Islam expressed interest in resettlement abroad due to discrimination and threats of violence. Converts from Christianity also reported social stigma from the church and Christian society. Nonbelievers reported societal intolerance and discrimination.
Religious leaders reported continuing online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and those who advocated religious moderation, frequently through social media. A well-known religious scholar and television host reported such negative reactions on social media to his televised programs, in which he advocated religious moderation and interfaith understanding.
On September 7, in an open lecture hosted by the Jordanian Philosophical Society, physics professor Hisham Ghassib described Judaism as a “primitive” and “despicable” religion, adding that that the concept of a Jewish nation was a “myth.” A video of the lecture posted on social media received a muted local response, but numerous Israeli newspapers criticized the remarks. The government did not respond to the criticism or issue an official condemnation.
Criticism online and in social media continued to target converts from Islam to other religions. Religious minorities expressed concerns some Muslim leaders preached intolerance. Christians reported they self-segregated into Christian enclaves to escape social pressure and threats.
Observers reported occasional friction between Christian denominations on the CCL and evangelical churches not recognized by the government. Leaders from some CCL-affiliated churches said there were “recruitment efforts” against their members by evangelical churches and that evangelical churches were disrupting interfaith harmony and the CCL’s relationship with the government and security services.
During the year, the RIIFS hosted two events on religious pluralism and interfaith understanding. RIIFS also produced manuals for imams and female religious leaders focused on human rights and religious freedom. The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute, Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, Community Ecumenical Center, and Catholic Center for Media Studies also continued to sponsor initiatives promoting collaboration among religious groups. Baha’is continued to be included by other religious groups in interfaith conferences, religious celebrations, and World Interfaith Harmony Week in February, which included activities across the country and within the armed forces.
In an August report, Arab Barometer, an international research consortium focusing on the Middle East and North Africa, found that only 22 percent of individuals between ages 15 and 29 in the country identified as religious. This represented a decline of 7 percentage points since the last survey in 2017. In a December 2019 poll, Arab Barometer also found a decline in trust in Islamist parties since 2013.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels, including the minister of awqaf, grand mufti, minister of foreign affairs, and officials at the Royal Hashemite Court, to raise the rights of religious minorities, the protection of cultural resources, interfaith tolerance, and the legal status of expatriate religious workers and volunteers. In May the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith iftar to highlight religious diversity, increase engagement with civil society about tolerance and religious freedom, and build partnerships to advance minority rights. The gathering brought together a diverse set of religious leaders, including evangelical Christian pastors, the director of the Baha’i Faith community, heads of NGOs specializing in interfaith cooperation, sharia judges, and the grand mufti. In August the Charge hosted a luncheon for participants in the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., to hear feedback from the conference and discuss general religious freedom trends in the country.
Embassy officers continued to meet frequently with representatives of religious communities, including nonrecognized groups, religious converts, and interfaith institutions such as RIIFS, to discuss the ability to practice religion freely.
The embassy continued its sponsorship of the participation of religious scholars, teachers, and leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and understanding. The embassy awarded a two-year, $265,000 grant to upgrade a revenue-generating cheese production business in Karak operated by women from religious minorities. The embassy continued to administer a $750,000 grant awarded in 2018 for a project to preserve religious and cultural heritage, focusing on protecting the country’s interfaith tradition and highlighting the heritage of religious minorities. The U.S. NGO Search for Common Ground was implementing the project, building interfaith youth coalitions in six communities to promote and preserve religious heritage sites. The project aims to empower local communities, increase mutual respect, preserve religious-cultural heritage, and foster interreligious dialogue and cooperation. The embassy used social media posts to promote religious tolerance and mark religious holidays, including through posting video messages. The Charge d’Affaires appeared in a video for Eid al-Fitr marking the end of Ramadan that showed her participating in the tradition of handing out date-filled cookies to friends and colleagues. In mid-December, dozens of embassy staff and their family members participated in the filming of a Christmas greeting video that was disseminated on social media.
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 provision amended by the Taif Agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and mandated proportional representation between Christians and Muslims in parliament, the cabinet, and other senior government positions. Media reported on June 21 that the Hadath municipality prohibited Christian residents from renting or selling property to Muslims. According to Human Rights Watch, some municipal governments in largely Christian cities have, since 2016, forcibly evicted mostly Muslim Syrian refugees and expelled them from localities. The Internal Security Forces (ISF) summoned a senior member of the Jewish Community Council for interrogation concerning the identities of visitors to synagogues and cemeteries during the summer months. Authorities banned a Brazilian metal band, Sepultura, from entering the country after its members were accused of being “devil worshippers,” according to concert organizers. Organizers also said the band was denied entry due to cultural perceptions that metal music is “satanic” and “anti-religion.” 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. While then minister of interior Raya al-Hassan and several other political figures vocalized support for optional civil marriage, at least 30 applications for interreligious civil marriage remained pending following the government’s continuation of the halt on their registration in the face of criticism, particularly by religious leaders.
Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, continued to exercise control over some territory, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut and southern areas of the country, both of which are predominantly Shia Muslim.
Organizers of the Byblos International Festival canceled a planned August 9 concert by internationally known indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila, citing the need “to avoid bloodshed.” Political and religious figures, as well as many private citizens, criticized the band for a four-year-old post on Facebook of a controversial image that transposed the face of pop diva Madonna onto an image of the Virgin Mary. The Maronite Eparchy of Byblos accused the group of “offend[ing] religious and human values and insult[ing] Christian beliefs,” while figures ranging from members of parliament (MPs) to private citizens threatened violence. In a December incident, during months of political protests reportedly driven by the country’s economic and political problems, hundreds of Shia protesters demonstrated in Beirut after a video produced by a Sunni individual appeared on social media insulting Shia political and religious figures. A prominent Sunni imam said the posting did not represent the views of the Sunni community. The author of the video later apologized for posting it. The Jewish Community Council reported acts of vandalism, including dumping of trash and rubble, at Jewish cemeteries in Beirut and Sidon. Muslim and Christian community leaders said relationships among individual members of different religious groups continued to be amicable. On July 30, an interreligious spiritual summit convened in Beirut at the House of Druze Communities; senior religious leaders from the Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities attended the event.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers engaged government officials to encourage tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect among religious communities and to highlight the importance of combating violent religious extremism. The Ambassador met on March 7 with a group of religious leaders in Tripoli to discuss relations among the different communities. Embassy public outreach and assistance programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious groups, including through interfaith exchange programs.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations estimate the total population includes 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 67.6 percent of the citizen population is Muslim (31.9 percent Sunni, 31 percent Shia, and small percentages of Alawites and Ismailis). Statistics Lebanon estimates 32.4 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, Armenian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Assyrians, Chaldean Catholics, Copts, Protestants (including Presbyterians, Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists), Roman (Latin) Catholics, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).
According to Statistics Lebanon, 4.52 percent of the population is Druze, 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 country’s Jewish community, estimates 70 Jews reside in the country.
UNHCR estimates there are 1.3 million refugees from Syria in the country, mainly Sunni Muslims, but also Shia Muslims, Christians, and Druze. United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) estimates there are between 250,000 and 280,000 Palestinians living in the country as UN-registered refugees in 12 camps and surrounding areas. They are mostly the descendants of refugees who entered the country in the 1940s and 1950s and are mostly Sunni Muslims but also include Christians.
UNHCR states there are approximately 14,000 UNHCR-registered Iraqi refugees in the country. Refugees and foreign migrants from Iraq include mostly Sunni Kurds, Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Chaldeans. There were also Coptic Christians from Egypt and Sudan. According to the secretary-general of the Syriac League, a nongovernmental organization (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. According to the same NGO, the majority of Iraqi Christian refugees are not registered with UNHCR and so are not included in their count.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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, allowing the convert to register her or his new religion with the Ministry of Interior’s (MOI’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 criminalizes defamation and contempt for religion and stipulates a maximum prison term of three years for either of these offenses.
By law, religious groups may apply to the government for official recognition. To do so, a religious group 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, a nonrecognized religious group may apply for recognition by seeking affiliation with another recognized religious group. In doing so, the nonrecognized 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. According to the government, these include five Muslim groups (Shia, Sunni, Druze, Alawite, and Ismaili), 12 Christian groups (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean, Copt, evangelical Protestant, and Roman Catholic), and Jews. Groups the government does not recognize include Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, several Protestant groups, and the Church of Jesus Christ.
Official recognition of a religious group allows baptisms and marriages performed by the group to receive government recognition, which 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. While the religious courts and religious laws are legally bound to comply with the provisions of the constitution, the Court of Cassation, the highest civil court in the judicial system, has very limited oversight of religious court proceedings and decisions.
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 often require the nonbelonging partner to pledge to raise his or her children in the religion of the partner and/or to relinquish certain rights, such as inheritance or custody claims, in the case of divorce.
Nonrecognized religious groups may own property, assemble for worship, and perform 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 nonrecognized groups have no 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 operate 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. The government permits but does not require religious education in public schools. 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 major 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.) 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. This proportional distribution also applies to high-level positions in 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,” and cabinet positions must be allocated on the same basis. Druze and sometimes 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.
The Taif Agreement, which ended the country’s 15-year civil war in 1989, also mandates elections based on the principle of proportional representation between Muslims and Christians in parliament, but resetting the Christian and Muslim allocation at 50 percent each. The agreement also amended powers of the Maronite Christian presidency and Sunni Muslim prime minister, reducing constitutional powers of the president and increasing those of the prime minister, while also subjecting the designation of the prime minister to binding consultations with parliament and the designations of all ministers to a parliamentary vote of confidence.
In addition, the Taif 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 ISF and the Directorate of General Security (DGS) 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 any change or accommodation generally must be mutually agreed by the confessions concerned.
The Taif Agreement mandates a cabinet with seats allocated equally between Christians and Muslims (which includes Druze and sometimes Alawites)
The Taif Agreement’s stipulations on equality of representation among 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.
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, its most senior religious leader. The government’s Council of Ministers must endorse the nomination of Sunni and Shia muftis, as well as the 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; 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.
On June 21, there were media reports that the Hadath municipality, on the outskirts of Beirut’s southern suburbs, prohibited Christians from renting or selling property to Muslims, and local residents and politicians raised concerns of discrimination based on religion. Head of the municipality George Aoun defended his decision and said the ban was instituted in 2010, has been enforced since then, and was intended to preserve the composition of each village or town. He added the decision encouraged coexistence. Aoun said that before the civil war, Hadath was purely Christian but that since then, so many Muslims had moved to the community that they made up 60 percent of its residents. Then minister of interior Raya al-Hassan said she considered this ban to be unconstitutional and promoted sectarian division.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) continued to report that, since 2016, some municipal governments in largely Christian cities forcibly evicted mostly Muslim Syrian refugees from their homes and expelled them to other locations in the country. The HRW report stated religious affiliation was among several reasons for the evictions. Most of those interviewed by HRW said their eviction were 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. While many of those interviewed by NGOs continued to state that their eviction was due in part to their religious identities, 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 did not identify religious discrimination as the key driver of tension between refugees and host communities. NGOs and international organizations, including 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 the country’s history with Syria.
According to the ISF and the Jewish Community Council, the ISF Information Branch summoned senior Jewish Community Council member Semaria Bihar on September 18 for questioning concerning the number of visitors to Beirut’s synagogues and cemeteries over the summer months. Authorities released Bihar the same day but kept his phone overnight.
The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion. For the fourth year in a row, however, there was no judicial action on the lawsuit filed in 2015 by MP Ziad Aswad of the Free Patriotic Movement against “You Stink” activist Assad Thebian, who was accused of “defamation and contempt of religion” for comments he made about Christianity.
On October 31, press reported DGS censored a caricature of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei published in the French weekly Courrier International. DGS covered the caricature with a sticker before allowing the publication to enter Lebanon. DGS reviewed all films and plays, and there were complaints by civil society activists that DGS’s decision-making process lacked transparency and that the opinions of religious institutions and political groups influenced it.
On April 19, a promoter of rock concerts in the country issued a press release stating authorities banned a Brazilian metal band, Sepultura, from entering the country after members of the band were accused of being “devil worshippers.” Organizers, who were only informed of the ban and not allowed to see the government’s official ban order circulated within the government, provided a media statement saying the band was denied entry due to cultural perceptions that metal music is “satanic” and “anti-religion.”
According to local NGOs, 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 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, while members of the Church of Jesus Christ said they registered as evangelical Protestant.
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 officially recognized name). Additionally, the Jewish community faced difficulty importing material for religious rites; customs agents were reportedly wary of allowing imports of any origin containing Hebrew script given a national ban on trade of Israeli goods.
Non-Maronite Christian groups reiterated criticisms made following May 2018 parliamentary elections that the government had made little progress toward the Taif 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. During protests that sprang up across the country beginning on October 17, some of the protesters, religious figures and politicians began calling for an electoral law that was not based on religious affiliation.
Similarly, some women’s rights advocates among protesters highlighted the absence of a civil code governing issues of personal status and objected to the country’s reliance on gender-discriminatory family codes adjudicated solely by religious courts.
Members of all confessions may serve in the military, intelligence, and security services. While most confessions had members serving in these capacities, some groups did not do so, usually because of their small number of adherents in the country. Members of the largest recognized confessions dominated the ranks of senior positions.
During Ramadan, the prime minister designated an official delegation, including a medical team that accompanied pilgrims going on Hajj to assist them in administrative and medical matters.
During the July 16-18 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, then foreign Minister Gebran Bassil praised the country’s confessional system as a stronghold of religious freedom, saying “no minority feels unsafe or threatened by the majority, and no confession fears violation of rights.” He said his presence at the ministerial was a “manifestation of his deepest conviction and the attachment of his country to religious freedom, to protect minorities, and to preserve diversity in the Middle East.”
Speaking on the issue of civil marriage, then minister of interior Raya al-Hassan stated during a February 15 television interview that she “will try to open the door to a serious and deep dialogue on this issue with all religious and other authorities … until civil marriage is recognized.” Al-Hassan’s remarks elicited support from some political figures including Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the predominantly Druze Progressive Socialist Party. Her remarks drew strong opposition from religious figures. According to NGO representatives, civil society figures cautiously engaged both Christian and Muslim leaders throughout the year to assuage fears that civil marriage would pose a threat to religious leaders’ ability to administer their own confessional affairs. During the year, the MOI took no action on the 30 or more cases of civil marriage that awaited registration with the ministry since 2013.
On December 15, Beirut Governor Ziad Chehib, with the permission of the Beirut Municipality and Department of Antiquities, ordered the removal of a sculpture in downtown Beirut because of the statue’s resemblance to the Star of David, the symbol of Judaism. Created by a British artist and installed in 2018, the sculpture was formed of three large metal squares interlocked to form a cube shape, and from above appeared as the Star of David. The gallery that organized the installation said the piece had nothing to do with Israel, but it was nonetheless removed to “avoid any clashes.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On July 30, organizers of the Byblos International Festival canceled a planned August 9 concert by internationally recognized indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila, citing the need “to avoid bloodshed.” Mashrou’ Leila publicly supported LGBTQ rights and regularly sang about subjects such as sectarianism and corruption. Political and religious figures, as well as many private citizens, strongly criticized the band for a four-year-old post on Facebook of a controversial image that transposed the face of pop diva Madonna onto an image of the Virgin Mary. The Maronite Eparchy of Byblos accused the group of “offend[ing] religious and human values and insult[ing] Christian beliefs,” while figures ranging from MPs to private citizens threatened violence. Following a six-hour interrogation by security officials, band members met with religious authorities in an attempt to resolve the issue, and the band removed the contested image from social media. Local and international human rights activists, as well as many members of the public, characterized criticisms of the band as an assault on freedom of speech and artistic creativity, calling on the public to play the group’s music in protest.
In December, during months of protests driven by the country’s economic and political problems, hundreds of Shia protesters in one incident demonstrated in Beirut, throwing rocks and fireworks at police and soldiers, after a video appeared on social media insulting Shia political and religious figures, including the speaker of the parliament and the leader of Hizballah. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. The video showed a Sunni individual from the northern city of Tripoli, Samer al-Saydawi, cursing Shia, their leaders, and their religious figures. A prominent Sunni imam criticized the posting and said it did not represent the views of the Sunni community. Saydawi, who lived abroad at year’s end, later released a second video, apologizing for his previous message.
On May 16, the country’s top political and religious leaders, as well as foreign dignitaries and representatives, attended the state funeral of Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir. Sunni Grand Mufti Abdel Latif Deryan described Sfeir as “a role model for moderation, openness, wisdom, dialogue, love, and coexistence between Muslims and Christians.”
On January 15, Rabbi Alex Goldberg met with Tripoli Mufti Malek Chaar. Mufti Chaar issued a statement afterwards saying the meeting resulted from an appointment request made by the Association of Dialogue for Reconciliation and Life. Mufti Chaar received a foreign delegation from 12 countries comprising 27 persons from different religions.
Following issuance of a permit to the Jewish Community Council to restore the Sidon cemetery in 2018 after acts of vandalism, the council did not begin any restoration during the year. 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. Once again, the Jewish Community Council reported acts of vandalism, including dumping of trash and rubble, at Jewish cemeteries in Beirut and Sidon. Despite the council submitting a formal complaint to the municipality of Beirut, no substantial progress was made regarding preventing construction debris and other garbage from being dumped in the Beirut Jewish cemetery.
Religious leaders stated relationships among individual members of different religious groups remained amicable, demonstrated by continued participation by Christian and Muslim religious leaders in interfaith dialogues. On July 30, an interreligious spiritual summit sponsored by Sheikh al-Aql Naim Hassan convened in Beirut at the House of Druze Communities. Senior religious leaders from the Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities attended. The religious leaders gathered at the summit in an attempt to restore calm following an increase in intra-Druze tensions. Summit participants issued a joint communique stating national unity represented an indispensable guarantee to build a better future for the country, and coexistence among the different components of the population must be preserved from any threat connected to the resurgence of sectarian impulses and conflicts.
At year’s end, approximately 70 percent of students attended private schools, which despite many having ties to confessional groups, often were open to children of other religious groups as well.
Local pluralism and religious freedom NGO Adyan Foundation initiated a project funded by the government of Denmark, titled “Women, Religions and Human Rights in Lebanon.” The project’s stated long-term objective was to end discrimination against women through reforms that would amend the country’s laws by altering or ending the role played by religious communities and their courts over personal status issues.
A November report published by Arab Barometer, an international research consortium, showed personal piety in the country declined dramatically in the past decade: only 24 percent of the population described themselves as religious compared with 44 percent in 2010. In addition, those attending religious services weekly dropped by 21 percentage points from 2007 to 2018; the country’s population also experienced a 28 percentage point drop in those reading or listening to religious texts. Despite these reported changes, intolerance toward members of other religions rose: 20 percent of those polled stated they would not like neighbors of a different religious group, an increase of 16 percentage points since 2010. Support for religion in the public sphere increased, with Shia and Druze being somewhat more likely than Christians to favor incorporating religion into politics; however, 71 percent said religious leaders should not influence voters, a 20-point decline since 2010.
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 frequently met with individual politicians representing different religious groups to discuss their views, including on relations with other religious groups, and to promote religious tolerance.
The Ambassador met on multiple occasions 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 often met with civil society representatives to convey similar messages.
The Ambassador met on March 7 with a group of religious leaders in Tripoli, including the Mufti of Tripoli Sheikh Dr. Malek Chaar, Greek Orthodox Bishop of Tripoli Afram Keryakos, and Maronite Bishop of Tripoli Georges Abou Jaoude, to discuss relationships among the different communities. The group praised U.S. assistance in the region and highlighted the positive impact that their close working relationship had on relationships among the different religious communities in Tripoli.
In March embassy officials met with Chaldean Bishop Michel Kassarji to explore opportunities for enhanced engagement and to identify steps to improve the eparchy’s communication and cooperation in provision of assistance from international agencies, including UNHCR. This was a continuation of 2018 meetings among Iraqi Christian refugees, Chaldean Church officials, and UNHCR, which stemmed from complaints of religious-based discrimination in the provision of services to refugees that were assessed by the U.S. Agency for International Development as unfounded. In May following embassy outreach to minority refugee communities, the World Food Program (WFP) added a significant number of beneficiaries to its U.S.-funded food program. More than 2,300 Iraqi and other non-Syrian refugee households comprising approximately 8,900 refugees (primarily religious minorities) began receiving $27 per month through a card that could be used to purchase food at WFP-approved grocery stores.
The embassy continued for the ninth consecutive year to fund and manage a scholarship program at the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University that brings together religiously and geographically diverse students to increase their understanding of religious diversity. Each scholarship includes full tuition, up to one year of intensive English courses, housing or transportation expenses, a monthly stipend, books, medical insurance, and a laptop. Nearly 140 religiously diverse students from 70 high schools, including 20 percent from UNRWA schools, participated during the year. Students from a variety of religious backgrounds also collaborated to develop and lead community service projects serving geographically and religiously diverse communities across the country as part of a project that directly served more than 4,000 high school students since 2007.
For the ninth consecutive year, the embassy selected five students between the ages of 18 and 25 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 related cultural activities.
The 2011 Constitutional Declaration functions as the interim constitution and states that Islam is the state religion and sharia the principal source of legislation. The activities of non-Muslims remained curtailed by legal prohibitions on the distribution or publication of information aimed at changing the country’s “social structure,” which were used to ban circulation of non-Islamic religious materials, missionary activity, or speech considered “offensive to Muslims.” The criminal code effectively prohibits conversion from Islam, according to scholars and advocates. 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. Multiple authorities and armed groups vied for influence, with little effective exercise of government authority in practice, according to international observers. The Government of National Accord (GNA) did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the south and east, where non-GNA entities competed for control over territory and governance by setting up parallel government institutions. Armed groups provided security and administered 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. One militia was involved in several arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Some of these detainees reported they were tortured and otherwise abused.
Some areas of the country, including the eastern part, operated under the influence of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and LNA-affiliated armed groups. Nonstate actors and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country, including in Benghazi and parts of Tripoli, 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 Middle East Concern (MEC), 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, some nominally aligned with the GNA, assumed law enforcement functions. U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations that included al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ISIS continued to operate within the country.
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, faced threats of violence or dismissal from employment and their communities because of their beliefs.
The U.S. Embassy to Libya operated from Tunis, Tunisia, its officials making periodic trips into the country when security conditions permitted. The U.S. government supported international efforts to end the conflict and establish a unified, stable, democratic, and tolerant Libyan state, and continued to raise issues of religious freedom in conversations with authorities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and others.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to reports by the International Organization for Migration, 12 percent of the population are migrants. Sunni Muslims represent between 90 and 95 percent of the population, Ibadi Muslims account for between 4.5 and 6 percent, and the remainder includes small communities of Christians, Hindus, Baha’is, Ahmadi Muslims, and Buddhists. Many members of the Amazigh ethnic minority are Ibadi Muslims. Nearly all non-Muslim residents in the country are foreigners.
Estimates of the number of Christians in the country vary. According to Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List Country Profile (which covers 2019), there are 36,200 Christians. 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 nationalities. 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 1,500 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 Jews reside permanently in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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. Islamic law (sharia), however, applies in any case in which a Muslim is involved. 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 laws governing religious practice predate the internal conflict.
The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) administers mosques, supervises clerics, and has primary responsibility for ensuring all religious practices conform to state-approved Islamic norms.
Sharia courts govern family matters for Muslims, including inheritance, divorce, and the right to own property. Under the law, 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, 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.
Religious instruction in Islam is in principle required in public and private schools, but schools in several major cities were often closed due to the conflict. Attendance at religious instruction is mandatory for all students, with no opt-out provisions.
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 country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Since 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.
Multiple authorities and armed groups vied for influence, with little effective exercise of government authority in practice, according to international observers, a situation which worsened following the LNA offensive to seize the capital in April. The GNA did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the south and east. The GNA’s response to instances of violence against members of minority religious groups within the parts of the country it controlled was limited to condemnations of acts of violence.
The Rada Special Deterrence Forces (SDF), a nominally GNA-aligned militia in Tripoli, engaged in Islamic religious policing in the capital. According to human rights activists, the SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Christian groups operating in the country identified the SDF as among the Islamic militant groups involved in the harassment of Christians. Detainees of the SDF reported torture and other abuse while being held in official and extrajudicial detention facilities.
Armed groups provided security and administered 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 MEC, in November, a taxi driver in an eastern city robbed a passenger at gunpoint and forced him from the vehicle after learning the passenger was Christian.
Some detention facilities had no provision for non-Muslim burials. According to media reports, early in the year a number of critically ill migrants held at a Zintan detention camp were transferred to a camp in Gharyan near heavy fighting after the Zintan facility’s authorities complained they could not manage the volume of corpses of deceased Christian detainees.
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 or supervision of clerics.
In Tripoli, according to civil society sources, women’s rights activists, and human rights NGO officials, some militias and armed groups, such as the SDF, 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.
The Ministry of Education worked 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.
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.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
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, faced threats of violence or dismissal from employment and from their communities because of their beliefs or lack of belief.
International observers said Christians who converted from Islam practiced their faith in semi-secrecy and faced violence and intense pressure from their families and communities to renounce their faith. Christians said they felt pressure to refrain from missionary activities as a result of security threats and social pressure from the local community, as well as because of legal prohibitions against conversion and missionary activity. 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 in 2013-15.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Following the 2014 embassy evacuation from Tripoli and suspension of operations there, U.S. diplomats have operated out of Tunis, Tunisia, making periodic trips into the country when security conditions permitted. The U.S. government supported international efforts to end the conflict and establish a unified, stable, democratic and tolerant Libyan state. Embassy representatives discussed religious freedom on a number of occasions with a variety of local and national leaders. Embassy officials frequently met with human rights activists, including MEC, the AOHRL, Human Rights Watch, and independent activists and researchers to address religious freedom issues. The embassy used its social media platforms to amplify the Secretary of State’s Ramadan message calling for inclusion of and respect for religious minority communities. The embassy also continued to partner with the Ministry of Education to disseminate new civil education curricula for grades four to nine that promote inclusivity and tolerance.
According to the 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 that 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 as well as political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments that denigrate or infringe on Islam. The law penalizes the use of enticements to convert a Muslim to another religion and prohibits criticism of Islam. In February media reported authorities closed unlicensed mosques in Casablanca, Kenitra, and Inezgane, which were operating in the homes of members of the Justice and Charity Organization (JCO), a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority. In March, prior to a visit by Pope Francis, the Committee of Moroccan Christians of the unregistered Moroccan Association for Religious Rights (AMDLR/CMC) released a widely publicized letter to Pope Francis asking him to pressure the government to open investigations into what it described as systemic harassment of Christian citizens by security forces, allegations disputed by a number of local and foreign Christian leaders. Foreign clergy, because of fear of being criminally charged with proselytism, said they discouraged 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 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. 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 March 30, King Mohammed VI welcomed Pope Francis to Rabat. During the pope’s visit, the king announced that he interpreted his title “Commander of the Faithful” as “the Commander of all believers… [including] Moroccan Jews and Christians from other countries, who are living in Morocco.” In April the king launched the construction of a new Jewish cultural museum in a building that was once a school near the historic Jewish neighborhood and cemetery in Fez. On an April 14 television program, Minister of State for Human Rights and Relations of Parliament Mustapha Ramid stated that the government did not criminalize conversion from Islam, distinguishing it from the crime of “shaking” others’ faiths or attempting to convert Muslims to another religion.
Representatives of minority religious groups 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 2018-2019 Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) report, there was continued societal harassment of Shia and Shiism in the press and in Friday sermons. During Ramadan, a teenage girl eating in public was attacked by a bus driver and several young men were arrested and then released but charged a fine for smoking in public.
The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Charge d’Affaires, and other U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in visits with key government officials. In these meetings, U.S. government officials recognized the Moroccan government’s efforts to promote interfaith dialogue while encouraging the government to recognize the existence of all of its religious minority communities as well as establish a legal framework for non-Muslim/non-Jewish citizens to address personal legal status matters, including marriage. U.S. government officials also met with members of religious minority and majority communities, 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 34.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). More than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, and 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 citizen Christian community leaders estimate there are between 2,000 and 6,000 Christian citizens distributed throughout the country; however, the Moroccan Association of Human Rights estimates there are 25,000 Christian citizens. One media source reported that while most Christians in the country are foreigners, there are an estimated 8,000 Christian citizens and that “several thousand” citizens have converted, mostly to Protestant churches.
Foreign-resident Christian leaders estimate the foreign-resident Christian population numbers at least 30,000 Roman Catholics and an estimated 10,000 Protestants, many of whom are recent migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or lifelong residents of the country whose families have resided and worked in the country for generations but do not hold 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.
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.
BBC Arabic reports that 15 percent of the population identifies as nonreligious, up from under 5 percent in 2013.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, the country is a Muslim state, 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 or her religious affairs. The constitution states the king holds the 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. Religions other than Islam and Judaism are not recognized by the constitution or laws.
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 ($20,800).
The law penalizes anyone who “employs enticements to undermine the faith” or convert a Muslim to another faith by exploiting his weakness or need for assistance, or through the use of educational, health, or other institutions and provides punishments of six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21-$52). The same penalties apply to anyone who intentionally interferes with religious rites or celebrations where this causes disturbances or affects the dignity of such religious acts. 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 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-$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-$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 5 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 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 (e.g., open and hold bank accounts, rent property, acquire land and building grants, and have access to customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities) or to hold public gatherings. Associations must register with local Ministry of Interior (MOI) officials in the jurisdiction of the association’s headquarters. 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 (NGOs) 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 (churches run by and attended by foreign residents only) 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, which allows them to preserve houses of worship and assign foreign clergy.
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 including or omitting 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. Such fatwas are considered binding only on Maliki Achari Sunni Muslims. If the king or parliament declines to ratify a decision of the council, the decision remains nonbinding and unenforced.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Authorities still denied Christian citizen groups freedom of worship in churches, the right to Christian or civil marriage, and funeral services. The government does not allow Christian citizens to establish churches.
The JCO, a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority, remained banned but continued to operate. 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. According to media, there were instances in which the government prevented the organization from meeting and restricted public distribution of JCO’s published materials. On February 6, media reported authorities closed unlicensed mosques operating in the homes of JCO members in Casablanca, Kenitra, and Inezgane. According to Agence France Presse, local authorities in Casablanca stated the homes served as “places of prayer and gatherings” and were home to illegal activities.
In March the AMDLR/CMC released a widely publicized letter to Pope Francis asking him to pressure the government to open investigations into what it said was systemic harassment of Christian citizens by security forces. A number of local and foreign Christian leaders disputed the AMDLR/CMC claims that there was systemic harassment by security forces of Christian citizens. AMDLR leader Jawad El-Hamidy said that while “foreign Christians” were free to exercise their religious freedom, Moroccan converts were not and must worship in private. According to a February press report, El-Hamidy said, “There is lack of recognition of freedom of belief and an absence of legal guarantees when it comes to practicing some non-Islamic religious rituals: Morocco does not tolerate people converting to Christianity from Islam,” adding, “Christians do not possess ‘normal’ citizenship rights, and there is no political willingness to protect them.” Local citizen Christian leaders reported being closely monitored by state authorities during the pope’s visit from March 30 through 31.
Some foreign-born clergy and other community members tried to dissuade citizens from attending public worship services, for the citizens’ safety and that of the church and its members.
During the year, there were no reports of authorities prohibiting nonregistered religious groups from practicing their religion in private.
According to community leaders, Christian citizens said authorities continued to make phone or house calls to demonstrate they monitored Christian activities.
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 to allow Shia Muslim groups to register as associations continued to prevent these groups from gathering legally for public religious observations. There were no known Shia mosques. Shia representatives reported they did not attempt to register during the year because they feared security forces would harass them as had been the case in previous years.
AMDLR reapplied for registration as an association during the year. Authorities refused to accept the application, according to the head of AMDLR. A Christian group that applied to register as an association in 2018 was still awaiting a response from the MOI at year’s end.
The U.S. NGO Open Doors stated in its annual 2019 World Watch List that the penal code, which criminalizes “shaking the faith” of a Muslim, put many Christians who talked to others about their faith at risk of criminal prosecution and arrest. The NGO also stated that while the penal code provision “only punish[ed] proselytization, converts to Christianity [could] be punished in other ways, such as loss of inheritance rights and custody of their children.”
Church officials reported Christian citizens rarely attended officially recognized churches, and they discouraged them from doing so to avoid official accusations of proselytizing, which could lead to their inability to continue leading the church and its ability to provide services, and to avoid putting other priorities, such as building projects, at risk.
On August 27, authorities in the Al Houz region outside Marrakesh demolished a partially constructed installation described by its builder, German artist Olivier Bienkowski and his NGO PixelHelper, as a “memorial dedicated to the murdered Jews in Europe and standing against the persecution of minorities such as the Sinti and Romani (Eastern Europe), Muslim Uigurs (China), and gays,” after PixelHelper failed to obtain proper building permits. In media interviews, Bienkowski said he hoped to construct the first Holocaust Memorial in northern Africa for educational purposes and to memorialize forced labor camps in the nearby desert during World War II where Jews and others were confined. The government ordered Bienkowski to leave the country in August. Local authorities disputed Bienkowski’s version of events, stating the country had a “proud history” of diversity and peaceful coexistence of its various religious communities and emphasizing the lack of coordination with appropriate government offices and proper permits. According to a media report, a leader of the local Jewish community said that Bienkowski intended to harm the country by conveying a false image of it as anti-Semitic. He also said that the Jewish community in the Al Houz region welcomed the decision of the authorities to demolish the project.
The 2017 ban on the import, production, and sale of the burqa 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 continued to prohibit anchors on national television and police and army personnel in uniform from wearing a hijab or burqa.
The MEIA remained the principal government institution responsible for shaping the country’s religious life and promoting its interpretation of Sunni Islam. It employed 2100 morchidines (male Muslim spiritual guides) and 901 morchidates (female Muslim spiritual guides) 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.
The government required religious leaders who work in the country to abide by the guidelines outlined in the MEIA-issued Guide of the Imam, Khatib, and the Preacher. 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. In January the MEIA suspended an imam for saying that celebrating the January 1 New Year was “haram” (against religion) during a sermon in a mosque in Rabat.
The MEIA continued to monitor Quranic schools to prevent what the ministry considered inflammatory or extremist rhetoric and to 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 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.
Some Amazigh (Berber)-rights activists reported intolerance and suppression of traditional Amazigh customs in rural Amazigh villages by government-appointed morchidates.
The government’s policy remained to ban the sale of all books, videotapes, and DVDs it considered extremist.
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 higher education courses.
The government continued drafting and implementing an educational charter mandating traditional education be based on “values” and the “respect for religious and legal studies.” The Ministry of Education (MOE) continued a review of the religion curriculum used in primary and secondary education to make reforms based on universal values of liberty, empathy, solidarity, and honesty. Since the review began in 2016, 29 textbooks have been rewritten and modifications to textbooks continued during the year. The government was sharing its experience with other countries.
There were no reports from Shia citizens that security forces detained and questioned Shia citizens about their beliefs. In contrast to previous years, the MOE reported it granted the only two exemptions from mandatory Islamic education requested during the year.
The government continued to allow the operation of registered foreign-resident Christian churches. In contrast to previous years, Christian leaders said there were no reports of authorities pressuring converts to renounce their faith by informing friends, relatives, and employers of the individual’s conversions. Foreign residents and visitors attended religious services without restriction at places of worship belonging to officially recognized churches. An estimated 10,000 individuals, including sub-Saharan African Christians as well as some who identified as Sunni Muslims, attended the Sunday Mass Pope Francis led in Rabat on March 30.
Jewish and Christian citizens continued to state 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 and Judaism over dedicated state-funded television and radio channels. Television channel Assadissa (Six) 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 (PJD), the largest party in the governing coalition, and continued to operate without restriction, according to media reports.
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. According to the government and Jewish leaders, the MEIA did not interfere in the operations or the practices in synagogues. In April the king launched the construction of a new Jewish cultural museum in a building that was once a school near the historic Jewish neighborhood and cemetery in Fez.
The Prison Administration authorized religious observances and services provided by religious leaders for all prisoners, including religious minorities.
During the annual commemoration of the anniversary of the king’s reign, the king bestowed honors on the Grand Rabbi of Casablanca and the heads of the Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Russian Orthodox churches in recognition of their contributions to religious tolerance in the country.
On March 30, King Mohammed VI received Pope Francis at Tour Hassan, the burial site of his father and grandfather, Kings Hassan II and Mohamed V. The by-invitation ceremony included foreign and domestic religious leaders, the diplomatic corps, sub-Saharan migrants, security forces, and local government officials. The king’s nationally televised remarks promoted interfaith dialogue and interreligious coexistence. Alternating between Arabic, French, Spanish, and English during his speech, the king said he interpreted his title “Commander of the Faithful” as “the Commander of all believers… [including] Moroccan Jews and Christians from other countries, who are living in Morocco.”
On March 30, the king and Pope Francis also visited the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, which trains domestic, European, and African imams and morchidines and morchidates on a moderate interpretation of Sunni Islam as a counter to the spread of radical Islam, an institute the pope praised for “provid[ing] a suitable preparation for future religious leaders.” The institute trains up to 1,400 students to serve as imams, including foreign students.
After the pope and king visited the Imam Training Center in Rabat on March 30, their hosts staged a musical performance fusing the Islamic call to prayer with Jewish and Christian hymns. The International Union of Muslim Scholars, a Salafist organization, denounced the performance as offensive to Islam’s values. Many citizens turned to social media to denounce the criticism and defend the musical performance as an example of interreligious coexistence.
On October 3-4, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MFA) in partnership with the Rabita Mohammedia of Religious Scholars, an association of religious scholars promoting openness and tolerance in Islam and founded by the king in 2006, hosted the “First Regional Conference on Cultural Heritage Protection for Religious Communities.” Government officials, religious leaders, and cultural preservation experts from Morocco and other countries participated in the two-day conference that covered policies that promote respect for and protection of cultural heritage and efforts to restore cultural heritage sites of religious significance for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities. The conference also aimed to raise public awareness, particularly among youth, of the importance of cultural heritage related to religious communities. At the conference, Secretary of State of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Mounia Boucetta said, “Moroccans have made an irreversible choice to uphold and practice the values of tolerance, coexistence, and peace, a choice that honors the legacy of our past but most importantly it is the only choice we have to ensure a stable and prosperous future for our country.”
On an April 14 television program, Minister of Human Rights Mustapha Ramid stated the government did not criminalize conversion from Islam, distinguishing it from the crime of “shaking” others’ faiths or attempting to convert Muslims to another religion. Stating that the convert was not “culpable,” Ramid said the criminal code focused on proselytizing that exploits the “fragility” and “needs” of potential converts.
Member of Parliament Amina Maelainine, a PJD member, said in March that “the veil is not an Islamic pillar” and that she had previously put “disproportionate” emphasis on physical appearance and modesty as central to Islam. She also stated that some members of her party were “open on the question of the hijab” but could not openly express their views because of “party and social constraints.” Faith, she said, was entirely a personal matter, and “freedom of conscience should be guaranteed for everyone.” Maelainine’s comments followed release of photographs on social media showing her unveiled during a visit to Paris.
MOI and MEIA authorization continued to be a requirement for the renovation or construction of churches. On June 21, the St. John’s Anglican Church in Casablanca, which is home to an expatriate Anglican community, hosted the grand opening of its community center, built with approval from government authorities; the church building was under government-approved renovation, with an expected grand opening in 2020.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Representatives of minority religious groups 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.
During Ramadan, the press reported a teenage girl in Ouazzane was attacked on a bus by the bus driver for eating in public. Media reported she filed a complaint with the local authorities who opened an investigation into the case. In August the government reported the prosecutor general’s office closed the case after the victim and perpetrator of the attack came to a mediated resolution. During Ramadan, authorities arrested and fined several individuals for smoking in public.
According to the 2018-2019 AMDH report, there was continued societal harassment of Shia and Shiism in the press and through Friday sermons. Shia reported they observed Ashura in private to avoid societal harassment. Shia Muslims said that many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.
In March the New York Times reported the country’s citizens could not freely express atheistic beliefs or conversion to another faith, adding that “Criticizing Islam remains extremely sensitive, and worship for indigenous Christians … is problematic, particularly for those who converted from Islam.”
There were reports from 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 reportedly did not reveal their faith because they believed they might be expelled from their homes unless they renounced Christianity.
Jewish citizens continued to state that they lived and attended services at synagogues in safety. They said they were able to visit religious sites regularly and to hold annual commemorations. Several Jewish citizens, however, reported increased perceived societal intolerance, particularly when news media gave prominent coverage to Israeli-Palestinian issues.
Media continued to report women had difficulty finding employment in some private businesses if they wore a hijab or other head covering. When women who wore a hijab obtained such employment, they reported employers either encouraged or required them to remove their headscarves during working hours. Conversely, some women cited on media outlets societal pressure to wear the hijab given the widespread societal emphasis on physical appearance and modesty as central to Islam. According to a media report, during an October 12 roundtable at the 12th annual Fez Festival of Sufi Culture, an audience member called for a woman wearing a hijab to remove her head covering before posing a question to the roundtable’s panel of experts. The woman wearing the hijab defended her right to do so and noted the forum was an Islamic festival.
In contrast to previous years, Baha’i leaders said they did not experience harassment during the year. Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors.
Muslim citizens continued to study at private Christian and Jewish schools, reportedly because these schools maintained a reputation for offering a good education. According to school administrators, Muslim students continued to constitute a significant portion of the students at Jewish schools in Casablanca.
Abdelilah Benkirane, former prime minister and former secretary general of the PJD, told the press in May that the role of political parties is to find solutions faced by their country, independent from religion. Benkirane, who described the PJD as a political party with an Islamic orientation, said religion and politics can be separate, “The state’s body of laws should not necessarily be in line with Islamic rulings.”
A report published on June 27 by the Arab Barometer, an international research and polling network, found 38 percent of citizens said they were religious compared to 44 percent who were somewhat religious and 13 percent who identified themselves as not religious. Those aged 18-29 were more than 40 percent less likely to identify as religious compared to those aged 60 or older. The report also found “the younger generation is substantially less likely to want religious figures to have a say over government.” The report added, “Among…Muslims, roughly a quarter (27 percent) believe that the law should be entirely (12 percent) or mostly (15 percent) based on the sharia. Instead, a plurality (32 percent) say the law should be based equally on the sharia and the will of the people, while 21 percent say it should be based mostly on the will of the people, and 15 percent say it should be entirely based on what the people prefer. Support for making laws mostly or entirely based on the sharia has declined since 2016, falling by 9 points.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officials, and visiting U.S. government officials, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, met with government officials, including from the MFA, MOI, and Ministry of Justice, to promote religious freedom and tolerance, as well as the rights of minority communities. For example, on January 8, the Charge d’Affaires met with Minister of State for Human Rights and Relations with Parliament Mustapha Ramid and the Inter-Ministerial Delegate for Human Rights Ahmed Benayoub to underscore the importance of preserving and protecting the rights of all religious communities. In October the Ambassador at Large and Charge d’Affaires recognized the government’s efforts to promote interfaith dialogue while also encouraging the government to recognize the existence of all of its religious minority communities as well as to establish a legal framework for non-Muslim or Jewish citizens to address personal legal status matters, including marriage.
Embassy and consulate general officials met members of religious minority and majority communities throughout the country, where they highlighted on a regular basis the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.
In May the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies (TALIM) organized an academic seminar on the relationship between the country’s Muslim and Jewish communities and the country’s tradition of tolerance and coexistence at the U.S. Legation, a U.S. government-owned building (and the only National Historic Landmark located outside of U.S. territory) leased to TALIM, which receives regular embassy funding for cultural and outreach programming. Embassy officials attended the seminar and publicized it on embassy communications platforms.
In June an embassy official delivered remarks recognizing religious freedom as an inalienable right that should be preserved and advanced for all at the opening ceremony for the Anglican Church Community Center in Casablanca. On October 3, the Ambassador at Large delivered remarks at the opening of the First Regional Conference on Cultural Heritage Protection for Religious Communities, cohosted and coordinated by the MFA, Rabita, and the U.S. government. In his remarks, the Ambassador highlighted the U.S. commitment to cultural preservation and religious freedom and recognized the country as a regional leader in preserving its Jewish sites around the country.
The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion but prohibits discrimination based on religion and protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” According to the law, offending Islam or any other Abrahamic religion is a criminal offense. There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief. Proselytizing in public is illegal. According to social media reports, in August police detained and brought in for questioning at least five individuals who had gathered to perform Eid al-Adha prayers a day before the official date announced by the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA). MERA monitored sermons and distributed approved texts for all imams. Religious groups continued to report problems with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration. Nonregistered groups, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and others, remained without permanent, independent places of worship. Non-Muslim groups said they were able to worship freely in private homes and government-approved houses of worship, although space limitations continued to cause overcrowding at some locations. MERA continued to require religious groups to request approval before publishing or importing religious texts or disseminating religious publications outside their membership, although the ministry did not review all imported religious material. In September Catholic and Muslim leaders, including a senior MERA official, attended the inauguration of a new Catholic church in Salalah. In February the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called on the government to remove a number of anti-Semitic titles being sold through the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair.
Members of religious minorities reported conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community. At least one Arabic-language Omani newspaper featured anti-Semitic imagery in cartoons critical of the Israeli government. The Protestant-run interfaith group Al-Amana Center and the MERA continued to host programs to introduce Protestant seminary students to Islam.
At various times throughout the year, U.S. embassy officers met with government officials to encourage the government to continue to support religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with minority religious groups to assess and support the ability of their faith communities to freely practice their respective religions.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The government’s National Center for Statistics and Information estimates the population at 4.7 million; citizens constitute 57 percent of the population. The government does not publish statistics on the percentages of citizens who practice Ibadhi, Sunni, and Shia forms of Islam. In 2015 the Dubai-based Al Mesbar Center estimated Ibadhi Muslims at 45 percent of the citizen population, Sunnis at nearly 50 percent, and Shia Muslims, Hindus, and Christians at a combined 5 percent.
Academic sources state the majority of non-Muslims are foreign workers from South Asia. Noncitizen religious groups include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians. Christians are centered in the major urban areas of Muscat, Sohar, and Salalah and include Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Protestants.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion and declares sharia is the basis for legislation. It protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” The Basic Law prohibits discrimination based on religion. According to the Basic Law, the sultan must be a Muslim.
There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief.
The penal code sets the maximum prison sentence for “insulting the Quran,” “offending Islam or any [Abrahamic] religion,” or “promoting religious and sectarian tensions” at 10 years. The law also penalizes anyone who, without obtaining prior permission, “forms, funds, [or] organizes a group…with the aim of undermining Islam…or advocating other religions” with up to seven years’ imprisonment. Holding a meeting outside government-approved locations to promote another religion is also criminalized with a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. Under the penal code, Abrahamic religions are protected from blasphemy, but the code does not mention non-Abrahamic faiths in this context. The law allows authorities to prosecute individuals for any message sent via any medium that “violates public order and morals.” Using the internet in a way that “might prejudice public order or religious values” is a crime, with a penalty of between one month and one year in prison and a fine of not less than 1,000 Omani rials ($2,600).
All religious organizations must register with the government. The law does not specify rules, regulations, or criteria for gaining ministerial approval. Groups seeking registration must request meeting and worship space from one of the sponsor organizations recognized by MERA. New non-Muslim religious groups unaffiliated with a previously recognized sponsor must gain approval from MERA before they can register. Muslim groups must register, but the government – as benefactor of the country’s mosques – serves as their sponsor. For non-Muslim groups, the ministry recognizes the Protestant Church of Oman (a partnership between the Reformed Church of America and the Anglican Church), Catholic Church in Oman, Al-Amana Center (an interdenominational organization affiliated with the Reformed Church of America that promotes Muslim-Christian understanding), Hindu Mahajan Temple, and Anwar Al-Ghubaira Trading Company in Muscat (Sikh) as official sponsors. The sponsors are responsible for recording and submitting to the ministry the group’s religious beliefs and the names of its leaders. MERA must also grant its approval for new Muslim groups to form.
All individuals who deliver sermons in recognized religious groups must register with MERA. The licensing process for imams prohibits unlicensed lay members from preaching sermons in mosques, and licensed imams must deliver sermons within politically and socially acceptable parameters. Lay members of non-Muslim groups may lead prayers if they are specified as leaders in their group’s registration application.
The law restricts collective worship by non-Muslim groups to houses of worship on land specifically donated by the sultan for the purpose of collective worship.
The law prohibits public proselytizing by all religious groups, although the government authorizes certain “Islamic propagation centers.”
The law states the government must approve construction and/or leasing of buildings by religious groups. In addition, new mosques must be built at least one kilometer (0.6 miles) from existing mosques.
Islamic studies are mandatory for Muslim students in public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. Non-Muslim students are exempt from this requirement if they notify school administrators they do not wish to attend such instruction. The classes take a historical perspective on the evolution of Islamic religious thinking, and teachers are prohibited from proselytizing or favoring one Islamic group over another. Many private schools provide alternative religious studies courses.
The Basic Law states sharia is the basis for legislation. Principles of sharia inform the civil, commercial, and criminal codes, but passage of the Judicial Authority Law in 1999 replaced sharia courts with civil courts. Civil courts adjudicate cases according to the nonsectarian civil code. The law states Shia Muslims, whose jurisprudence in these matters differs from that of Sunni and Ibadhi Muslims, may resolve family and personal status cases according to Shia jurisprudence outside the courts, and they retain the right to transfer their cases to civil courts if they cannot find a resolution within the Shia religious tradition. The law allows non-Muslims to seek adjudication of matters pertaining to family or personal status under the religious laws of their faith or under civil law.
Citizens may sue the government for abuses of their right to practice religious rites that do not disrupt public order; there have been no known cases of anyone pursuing this course in court.
Birth certificates issued by the government record an individual’s religion. Other official identity documents do not do so.
Foreigners on tourist visas who are not clergy may not preach, teach, or lead worship. Visa regulations permit foreign clergy to enter the country to teach or lead worship under the sponsorship of registered religious groups, which must apply to MERA for approval before the visiting clergy member’s entry.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to social media reports, in August police detained and brought in for questioning at least five individuals after they gathered to perform Eid al-Adha prayers a day before the official date announced by MERA.
According to at least one online media outlet, in July the government-appointed grand mufti criticized Muslims who sent their daughters to study abroad for not protecting their “morals and values.”
According to religious leaders, MERA continued to monitor sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics. The government required all imams, regardless of their branch of Islam, to preach sermons within what the government considered politically and socially acceptable parameters. These parameters, which the government outlined monthly, included the distribution of a list of acceptable topics, along with standardized and approved Friday sermons for Ibadhi and Sunni imams. Mosques under the purview of the Diwan (Royal Court), such as the Grand Mosque in Muscat, were not subject to this monitoring. The government-appointed grand mufti, the senior Ibadhi cleric in the country, remained the only imam able to speak publicly outside the designated government parameters.
Religious groups reported opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration, but none reported they were actively seeking to register with the government. While no published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for new religious groups to receive ministerial approval, MERA reportedly considered a group’s size, theology, belief system, leadership structure, and the availability of other worship opportunities before granting registration. MERA reportedly employed the same criteria whether the group was Muslim or non-Muslim. Observers said details of the process remained vague, although there were reports MERA consulted with existing religious communities before ruling on the application of a new religious group. According to MERA, there was no limit on the number of religious groups it could register.
The Church of Jesus Christ remained without a registration sponsor or a permanent place of worship, but Church leaders said the government was working with the group to reach a solution. Other religious minority groups reported they did not have permanent independent places of worship as recognized groups, even though they represented a significant population in the country, primarily of expatriate workers.
Non-Muslims who worshipped in private homes continued to say the government did not interfere with Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious groups in their regular private worship services despite continuing legal prohibitions on worship outside of government-approved locations. Non-Muslim minority groups continued to report overcrowding at their places of worship. According to some religious leaders, space limitations also caused overcrowding at some private homes used for non-Islamic worship.
In September Catholic and Muslim leaders, including a senior MERA official who spoke at the gathering, attended the inauguration of a new Catholic church in Salalah, built on land donated by the sultan.
MERA approved major religious celebrations for non-Muslim groups in commercial or public areas on a case-by-case basis. For example, several Hindu groups held large religious celebrations in indoor and outdoor venues throughout the country, which they coordinated with MERA by submitting an annual calendar of events.
Religious groups said that, consistent with the government’s censorship policy mandating prior review of any published material, religious groups continued to need MERA approval to publish texts in the country or disseminate religious publications outside their membership. Religious groups stated they did not attempt, however, to share material with members of the public outside their places of worship. The government also continued to require religious groups to notify MERA before importing religious materials and to submit a copy to MERA. Religious minority leaders said the ministry did not review all imported religious material for approval, and non-Muslims were often able to import literature without government scrutiny.
The government provided land for all approved religious groups to build and maintain religious facilities in the country.
According to members of the legal community, judges often considered the religiosity of a Muslim parent during custody hearings, although there is no law stating that custody is tied to religious affiliation.
The government continued to fund the salaries of some Ibadhi and Sunni imams, but Shia or non-Muslim religious leaders were privately funded.
In February the ADL called on the government to remove a number of anti-Semitic titles being sold through the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair. According to the ADL, the listings included more than a dozen versions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a dozen copies of Mein Kampf, as well as Henry Ford’s The International Jew. The ADL stated that the book fair also included books deeply intolerant of other religious faiths, including Shia Islam and the Yezidi and Baha’i faiths.
The government, through MERA, continued to publish Al-Tafahum (Understanding), a quarterly periodical whose purpose, according to the government, was to broaden dialogue within Islam and promote respectful discussion with other faiths.
According to religious minority leaders, the Royal Oman Police collected religious affiliation information from expatriates applying for work visas.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Although not prohibited by law, according to some minority religious leaders, conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community.
At least one Arabic-language Omani newspaper featured anti-Semitic imagery in cartoons critical of the Israeli government. For example, some imagery portrayed characters wearing the Star of David as violent or manipulative.
The interfaith Al-Amana Center, which was founded and supported by the Reformed Church in America, a Protestant denomination, continued to sponsor programs to promote interreligious dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims. It hosted immersion courses in conjunction with the MERA to introduce Islam to Protestant seminary students from different denominations. The center also worked closely with MERA to promote interfaith dialogue.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officers met with MERA officials to encourage the government to continue its outreach efforts promoting religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. Embassy officers also raised concerns about overcrowding at minority religion places of worship and encouraged MERA to find a solution for religious groups seeking officially sanctioned space for worship.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with minority religious groups to assess and support the ability of their faith communities to freely practice their respective religions.
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 by 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 January and May, police raided predominantly Shia villages in al-Qatif Governorate, stating the raids were carried out to arrest terrorist cells or preempt terrorist attacks. On November 13, rights groups announced that Hussein al-Ribh, a 38-year-old Shia activist who was in detention since 2017, died in Dammam Prison. Some Shia activists outside the country stated that authorities tortured al-Ribh while he was detained. In April the government executed 37 citizens for “terrorism crimes,” the largest mass execution since 2016. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 33 of the 37 were from the country’s minority Shia community and had been convicted following what they stated were unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses. In January rights groups reported Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmed al-Amari died as a result of poor prison conditions and mistreatment, and in August, Sheikh Saleh Abdulaziz al-Dhamiri died due to a heart condition while held in solitary confinement in Tarafia Prison. Authorities detained Thumar al-Marzouqi, Mohammed al-Sadiq, and Bader al-Ibrahim, three Shia Muslims who have written in the past on the discrimination faced by Shia Muslims, in April with no official charges filed; they remained in detention at year’s end. On February 1, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that the public prosecutor was no longer seeking the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained since 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests in the Eastern Province. During the year, government leaders, including the crown prince and the head of the government-sponsored Muslim World League (MWL), took new steps to combat religious extremism and to encourage interreligious tolerance and dialogue, conducting prominent public outreach, particularly with Christian and Jewish leaders and groups.
According to press and NGO reports, in February in Medina, an unidentified man beheaded a six-year-old boy on the street in front of his mother reportedly because he was Shia. In September an academic at Qassim University, Dr. Ahmed al-Hassan, called in a tweet for rooting out heretic Shia from the holy city of Medina. Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in legal and security matters and in private sector employment. Some social media platforms for discussion of current events and religious issues included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in social media discourse. Anti-Semitic comments appeared in the media.
In his address to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 18, Vice President Pence called on the Saudi government to release blogger Raif Badawi, stating that Badawi, among others he highlighted, “stood in defense of religious liberty, the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure.” The Vice President added that “the United States calls on Saudi Arabia to “respect the freedom of conscience and let these men go.” In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 18, 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 33.6 million (midyear 2019 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 and at least one-quarter of the Eastern Province’s population. Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (Shia who recognize 12 imams) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. The Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region. Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000. Twelver Shia adhere to the Ja’afari school of jurisprudence. Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Ja’afar as the Seventh Imam). Seveners number approximately 500,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they probably constitute a majority of the province’s inhabitants. Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, probably number at least a few hundred, most of whom are of 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 noncitizen population, 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
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.” On January 25, authorities issued implementation regulations that 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 these cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and during Umrah pilgrimage throughout the rest of the year. The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims. The 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.
Muslim clerics are vetted and employed by the MOIA. Only government-employed clerics are permitted to deliver sermons, which must be vetted by the MOIA in advance.
Clerics traveling abroad for proselytization activities must be granted approval by the MOIA and operate under MOIA supervision. The stated purpose of the regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel or to preach overseas and to prevent the appearance of interference, or actual interference, by clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.
Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Private schools are not permitted to deviate from the official, government-approved religious curriculum. Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students sometimes receive a course on Islamic civilization, or alternative coursework in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; courses amount to one hour of instruction per week. Private international schools may also teach courses on other religions or civilizations.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency with authority to monitor social behavior and report violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the king’s behalf. By decree, the CPVPV’s activities are limited to providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to the police. The CPVPV may not detain, arrest, pursue, or demand the identification documents of any person; those actions are explicitly reserved as the purview of the police and counternarcotics units. According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Mohammed.” CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges. The CPVPV’s religious purview includes the prohibited public practice of non-Islamic faiths or displaying emblems (such as crosses) thereof; failing to respect Islam, including Ramadan fasting; “immodest” dress; displaying or selling media “contrary to Islam;” and venerating places or celebrating events inconsistent with approved Islamic practices.
The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna. All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects. In several areas, including commercial and financial matters, and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts. Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) that reports to the king. 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, where in some instances, appellate decisions have resulted in a harsher sentence than the original court decision. Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali school.
In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation sometimes differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff. In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, a court may rule the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation a Muslim male would receive; in some circumstances, 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 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.
Social media users who post or share satire attacking religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. 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.”
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
There were NGO and Shia activist reports of prison authorities abusing Shia prisoners, including two cases of abuse that led to prisoners’ deaths. On November 13, human rights NGOs announced that Hussein al-Ribh, a 38-year-old Shia activist in detention since 2017, died in Dammam Prison. Some Shia activists outside the country said that authorities tortured al-Ribh while detained. In January another Shia activist, Naif al-Omran, died after eight years in detention, while serving a 20-year sentence for protest-related charges in Qatif dating back to 2011. According to al-Omran’s family, his body bore visible marks of abuse.
On April 23, the MOI announced the execution of 37 citizens in Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, the Eastern Province, Qassim, and Asir regions in connection with “terrorism crimes.” According to HRW, at least 33 of the 37 were from the country’s minority Shia community and had been convicted following unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses, espionage, and terrorism. Shia Rights Watch (SRW) reported that Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Attiyah was among the executed. Amnesty International said those executed were convicted after sham trials that violated international fair trial standards and which relied on confessions extracted through torture. In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet commented, “It is particularly abhorrent that at least three of those killed were minors at the time of their sentencing.” According to the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), at least six of the executed were minors at the time of their alleged offenses: Abdullah Salman al-Sarih and Abdulkarim Mohammed al-Hawaj, whose charges date back to age 16; and Said Mohammed al-Sakafi, Salman Amin al-Quraysh, Mujtaba Nadir al-Sweiket, and Abdulaziz Hassan al-Sahwi, whose charges date back to age 17. The government denied the individuals were minors and disputed the ages reported by HRW and ESOHR. The mass executions were the largest since January 2016.
On January 7, security forces raided the predominately Shia al-Jish village for suspected “links to cases of state security” in al-Qatif Governorate, killing six people and arresting others after an exchange of fire, according to Saudi Press Agency. Five officers were also wounded in the operation.
On May 11, security forces killed eight members of an alleged Shia terrorist cell in a security operation in Taroot in Qatif Governorate in the Eastern Province, according to the Presidency of State Security. The statement added the newly formed “terrorist cell” had plans to carry out terrorist operations targeting vital installations and security sites.
On January 8, security forces stormed the Shia village of Umm al-Hamam, killing five persons and injuring an unspecified number, according to SRW. SRW said authorities also used armored vehicles in a separate operation in Jaroudiya town. SRW also reported a number of arrests during these operations, including Qatif-based Shia rights activist Mohammemod Nabil al-Jowhar on January 11.
On January 20, the London-based human rights group ALQST (“Justice” in Arabic) reported that Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmed al-Amari died as a result of poor prison conditions and possible torture. Authorities detained Al-Amari, the former dean of the School of Quran at the University of Medina, in 2018, and he suffered a brain hemorrhage on January 2. The Twitter account Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, and ALQST reported the 69-year-old’s death was caused by “intentional neglect” on the part of the prison authorities.
On August 3, rights groups reported the death of Sheikh Saleh Abdulaziz al-Dhamiri due to health complications he had developed at Tarafia Prison. Authorities kept Al-Dhamiri, who suffered from a heart condition, in solitary confinement, according to the Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account.
On November 13, family members of Islamic scholar Sheikh Fahd al-Qadi announced that al-Qadi had died in prison. The government detained Al-Qadi in 2016 and sentenced him in October to six years in prison. The circumstances surrounding his death remained unknown at year’s end. Prisoners of Conscience reported he was detained after he sent a letter of advice to the Royal Court.
As many as 39 individuals, most of them believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution, according to ESOHR. ESOHR also reported that up to seven minors faced possible execution, including Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher. The government disputed the claim that these individuals were minors at the time they committed the acts for which they were convicted, and noted the courts use the hijri (lunar/Islamic) calendar for age computations (which could differ from Western Gregorian calendar ages by a few months). Five Shia individuals, including al-Nimr, al-Marhoon and al-Zaher, faced a final death sentence and nine faced preliminary death sentences, which still needed to be upheld by an appellate court, the Supreme Court, and the king. The trials of 25 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing at year’s end, and one of those convicted was awaiting the ruling of the Court of Appeal after his second verdict. Some human rights NGOs reported that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture.” International human rights NGOs reported that these individuals said 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.
On August 25, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib, who was serving a seven-year prison sentence, to an additional five years in prison and a five-year ban on international travel after he was convicted of supporting demonstrations in Qatif and cybercrimes. 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.
On February 1, human rights NGOs reported the public prosecutor was no longer seeking the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who was detained in 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests. At year’s end, she was on trial at the SCC along with five other Shia individuals, including her husband.
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. Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes and authorities suggested informally that there were no current plans to do so. According to international human rights contacts, Badawi declared a hunger strike in September to protest his poor treatment and lack of medical attention while in prison. In December he reportedly went on a second hunger strike to protest his placement in solitary confinement.
The government continued to imprison individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery. In January local media reported authorities arrested an Arab expatriate of unspecified nationality for sorcery.
In April, authorities detained Thumar al-Marzouqi, Mohammed al-Sadiq, and Bader al-Ibrahim, who wrote in the past on the discrimination faced by Shia in the country. By year’s end, authorities had not filed official charges against them and they remained in detention. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, al-Sadiq and al-Ibrahim write regularly for Al-Arabi al-Jadeed, a Qatari funded news website based in London, while al-Marzouqi published articles on his own blog as well as contributing to Al-Arabi al-Jadeed and to the Okaz newspaper.
During the year, the SCC continued trials against some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari. The three were arrested in 2017. According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor 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 the 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.” 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. Amnesty International reported al-Odah was ill-treated while in prison, including solitary confinement.
On May 18, authorities released Shia cleric Tawfiq al-Amer from prison after he completed his eight-year jail term. Officers arrested al-Amer in 2011 and the SCC convicted him in August 2014 of slander against the state and abuse of the faith, stirring up sectarian strife, and calling for change in a series of sermons delivered in 2011.
In March authorities detained Shia cleric Majed al-Sadah for three days over comments criticizing concerts sponsored by the government’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) in his hometown of Saihat, Qatif Governorate. According to online activists, al-Sadah had to sign a written pledge to refrain from interfering in internal affairs. According to Al-Jazeera, authorities arrested cleric Omar al-Muqbil in September after he criticized music concerts sponsored by GEA, calling them a threat to the kingdom’s culture, according to the Prisoners of Conscience rights group. Al-Muqbil described in a video the GEA’s actions as “erasing the original identity of society.”
A court sentenced an Indian national to 10 years for “misusing social media,” “blasphemy,” and “hurting the religious and national sentiment of the Kingdom.”
During the year, social media reported the SCC held many hearings in the trial of influential religious scholar Safar al-Hawali. The government detained al-Hawali along with three of his sons in 2018. 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.
During the year, the SCC held at least five hearings on the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by HRW as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017. In 2018, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed), propagating deviant beliefs, holding an impure (takfiri) ideology, insulting the rulers and CSS and labeling them as extremists, glorifying the Khomeini-led revolution in Iran, and supporting Hizballah and ISIS.
In February Deputy Governor of Makkah Province Badr bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz ordered the arrest of comedian Yasir Bakr for allegedly mocking the CPVPV at an entertainment event in Jeddah. Bakr, founder of Al-Comedy Club in Jeddah, later appeared in a video on Twitter apologizing for his comments.
On April 20, local media reported that the public prosecutor summoned a man for investigation regarding a tweet that “disturbed public order” under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. According to press reports, the man tweeted a call for all women in the country wearing a niqab to come together at Riyadh Boulevard in order to burn them, according to media reports.
On June 23, authorities arrested Dammam-based Shia cleric Sheikh Abdullatif Hussain al-Nasser when he attempted to travel to Bahrain. The government provided no reason for his arrest. Security officials interrogated Abdullatif and then transferred him to the State Security Prison in Dammam, according to activists.
On June 27, the SCC held the first hearing for three Shia men, Ramzi al-Jamal, Ali Hasan al-Zayyed, and Mohammed Issa al-Labbad, who turned themselves in to security authorities in 2017 after their names appeared on a list of 23 individuals wanted by the authorities. The public prosecutor sought the death penalty for the three on protest-related charges, according to ESOHR and activists.
Human rights NGOs and legal experts continued to criticize antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.
The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religion. According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to detention, discrimination, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. 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 MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance on the substance of Friday sermons; it restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. 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. 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 2018 the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable. A May article in a government-linked newspaper described the hotline as a 24/7 service to report “undisciplined imams and mosques that need maintenance.” In 2018 the MOIA launched a mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) which monitors sermons and allows mosque-goers to rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.
In March the Council of Ministers approved a new regulation for imams and muezzins of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina stipulating that the clerics be “moderate,” among other requirements.
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. Some Shia community members reported that Shia pilgrims were permitted to celebrate Eid al-Ghadir, a Shia-specific holiday, after the Hajj. Sources also stated that Shia pilgrims were permitted to approach, but not touch, the graves of the four Shia imams buried in the al-Baqi Cemetery in Medina for a period of two hours after morning prayers and two hours after noon prayers.
Since 2016, authorities have permitted large-scale public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the largest Shia population in the country. These commemorations included 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 government policy, non-Muslims generally were prohibited from being buried in the country. There is, however, a public, non-Islamic cemetery in Jeddah, although the government did not support it financially. There also is a private, non-Muslim cemetery only available to Saudi Aramco employees. Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.
In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer. In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer. In smaller Shia villages, community members stated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times per Sunni practice), or in some instances not to close at all.
The government continued to set policy aimed at enforcing Islamic norms; for example, the government prohibited eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan. According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.
The government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious centers of instruction for employment credit, while the government generally recognized graduates of Sunni religious training institutions for government positions and religious jobs.
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 Institute for Gulf Studies found that Saudi textbooks in 2019 were still teaching students that “Christians, Jews, and other Muslims are ‘enemies’ of the true believer, and to befriend and show respect only to other true believers, specifically the Wahhabis.” According to the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, Saudi textbooks in 2019 taught students “to consider Jews ‘monkeys’ and ‘assassins’ bent on harming Muslim holy places, and to punish gays by death.” Shia community representatives in the Eastern Province reported throughout 2018-19 that textbooks no longer disparaged Shia beliefs. The Anti-Defamation League reported the newest edition of textbooks for the fall of 2019 continued to contain problematic passages.
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 government continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring online content that contained “objectionable” content such as views of religion it considered extremist or ill-informed. The government 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 anti-cybercrimes law. The government also 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.
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 approve extension of endorsement of these mosques, according to some NGO reports. The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques; Shia congregations self-funded construction, maintenance, and repairs. 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. Authorities allowed Shia communities to rebuild a mosque in Taroot, near Qatif, during the year. Two Shia mosques in Dammam remained licensed by the government and served approximately 750,000 worshippers. 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. Community sources reported Sunni judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.
Reported instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur, particularly 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 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 stated that openly identifying as Shia would negatively affect career advancement.
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. The 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, a Shia Ismaili, who has held the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs since 2014. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders. There were seven Shia members of the 150-member Shura Council. A small number of Shia Muslims occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.
Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Muslims were concentrated, had significant proportions of Shia members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia Muslims held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils. Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts. Shia Muslims were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, there was some Shia representation in the ranks of the traffic police, municipal government, and public schools. According to HRW, the Saudi government systematically discriminated against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in the justice system, education, and employment.
According to international human rights groups, Shia Muslims were not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals remained Sunni, although some teachers were Shia. Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.
There were continued media reports that some Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, used anti-Semitic and religiously intolerant language in their sermons. Reports of government-employed clerics using anti-Semitic language in their sermons, including some instances at Friday prayers in Mecca, reportedly were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities. During the year, the MOIA issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. 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 hosted many Jewish and Christian religious leaders, but did not officially permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with resident clergy, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries. Catholic and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis, continued to hold low-profile services without government harassment, although they reportedly found restrictions on clergy travel particularly problematic. Authorities also allowed regular visits by the Catholic bishop, resident in Bahrain, who has responsibility for Catholics in the country, and by evangelical Protestant leaders.
In November the Presidency of State Security released a video on Twitter that categorized feminism, homosexuality, and atheism as extremist ideas. The animated clip said “all forms of extremism and perversion are unacceptable.” It also included takfir, the practice by some Muslims of labeling followers of other schools of Islam unbelievers, among the categories of unacceptable behavior. The security agency later deleted the post and said the video contained “many mistakes” while suggesting that those behind it would face a formal investigation, according to a statement posted by the official press agency.
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, [and] The Protocols of [the Elders of] Zion.” In addition, the reports characterized the university’s course curriculum as heavily anti-Semitic, speaking of the “evil traits” of the Jewish people.
On April 5, August 23, October 11, and December 27, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered Friday sermons in the Holy Mosque in Makkah in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.”
In May the Muslim World League’s (MWL) Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa called for the protection of followers of religions and places of worship after the terrorist attack on a Jewish temple in California and previous terrorist crimes. Al-Issa offered condolences to a number of Jewish religious leaders in New York.
During the May MWL International Conference on Moderation in Islam in Mecca, King Salman called for encouraging “concepts of tolerance and moderation, while strengthening the culture of consensus and reconciliation.” He added that the country was founded on values of moderation. The conference adopted the “Mecca Charter,” which calls for laws “to deter the promotion of hatred, the instigation of violence and terrorism, or a clash of civilizations, which foster religious and ethnic disputes.”
During the year, some Qatari nationals again reported being unable to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage due to logistical obstacles stemming from border closures and restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt on Qatar in 2017. The Saudi Press Agency announced that Qataris and foreign residents of Qatar would be allowed to land at Jeddah or Medina airports to perform the Hajj. The government offered Qatari pilgrims internet registration and visa issuance on arrival in Jeddah and Medina. In May, however, the government of Qatar stated that the Saudi government continued to deny Qatar-based religious tour operators’ access to Saudi Arabia to make Hajj and Umrah arrangements for pilgrims. Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah Abdul Fattah Mashat said that the government rejected the politicization of the holy rituals, adding that it has never barred any nationalities from performing them.
On September 10, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Jeddah. Following the meeting, the group met with 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. The delegation and the MWL agreed in a joint statement to promote respect for religions and mutual trust and to encourage religious harmony.
On April 28, al-Issa visited a New York synagogue, the first such trip by an MWL leader to a Jewish house of worship in the United States, and signed an agreement with the NGO Appeal of Conscience Foundation supporting the protection of religious sites around the world. On April 30, al-Issa signed a memorandum of understanding with American Jewish Committee (AJC) in which the MWL and AJC agreed “to further Muslim-Jewish understanding and cooperate against racism and extremism in all its forms.” In May the MWL invited a Jewish delegation to visit the country in January 2020. Al-Issa said discussions during the visit, the first ever by a Jewish group, would address the issue of Holocaust denial.
In November the Saudi Press Agency reported that al-Issa visited Utah and met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to discuss “ways of supporting bridging relations between followers of religions and cultures to promote peace and positive harmony.”
At the annual Jeddah International Book Fair, several vendors sold anti-Semitic material, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf. Additional titles were observed that linked Jews to conspiracies.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to press and NGO reports, in February in Medina, an unidentified man beheaded a six-year-old boy on the street in front of his mother, reportedly because he was a Shia. Local media reported the public prosecutor’s office in Medina assured the victim’s family that it was investigating the perpetrator.
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” (of the first three caliphs that Sunni Muslims recognize as the Prophet Mohammed’s legitimate successors), which Shia consider insulting, were commonly found in public discourse. In September an academic at Qassim University, Ahmed al-Hassan, called in a tweet for rooting out Shia from the holy city of Medina, stating that “myths and self-flagellation of Persians has reached the holiest place on earth… They must be uprooted and eradicated before this disease spreads.” In January cleric Nasser Saleh al-Muazaini named Shia “rejectionists” in a tweet. In February another tweet described Shia as “enemies of God” and “infidels.”
Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment.
Community members reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution. The NGO Open Doors reported that women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.
Anti-Semitic comments occasionally appeared in the media. In January columnist Muhammad al-Sa’idi wrote in an article in Al-Watan newspaper that Jews deliberately promote the publication and circulation of anti-Semitic literature in Arab countries that describes them as secretly running the world “in order to convince the Arabs of their power and thereby demoralize and frighten them.” When the same literature appears in the West, he added, the Jews fight it in order to maintain their positive image and present themselves as victims.”
On March 3, journalist and businessman Hussein Shobakshi wrote in his column in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat Arabic daily, owned by a member of the royal family, of the “deeply rooted hatred of Jews in Islamic culture,” in which the term “Jew” is strongly derogatory. He stated, “Anti-Semitism in the Arab world is the product of loathsome, racist education that is rooted in the Arab mentality that is used to labeling people according to tribal, family, and racial affiliation, and according to the religious school to which they belong.”
On April 5 and August 23, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered Friday sermons in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.” His prayer included, “Oh Allah, show us the wonders of Your might and ability inflicted upon them.”
In May columnist Mansour al-Nugaidan, who U.S. National Public Radio described as a former “jihadi” turned “moderate,” said in an interview with Dubai-based Rotana Khalijiah TV channel “atheism is a faith that should be respected because it’s man’s choice.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In his address to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 18, the Vice President called on the government to release blogger Raif Badawi, stating Badawi and others “stood in defense of religious liberty, the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure.” The Vice President added the United States calls on Saudi Arabia to “respect the freedom of conscience and let these men go.” Senior embassy and consulate general officers pressed the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers engaged Saudi leaders and officials at all levels on religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador and embassy officers raised religious freedom principles and cases with the HRC, members of the Shura Council, the MFA, the MOIA, the Muslim World League, and other 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 December 18, 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.
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. The law states the government oversees Islamic prayer services by subsidizing mosques, appointing imams, and paying their salaries. The government 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 and in the period preceding the 2019 national elections, the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) declared that it would terminate employment of any imam or mosque employee who engaged in partisan politics. In September the Aleph Institute, an international Jewish organization that assists individuals in prisons, expressed concern about possible anti-Semitism in the treatment of two Jewish detainees held in the country, including Jewish citizen Ilane Racchah, who remained in pretrial detention from July 2018 to October 2019 and whose case remained pending at the end of the year. On July 5, in the immediate aftermath of two terrorist attacks in downtown Tunis, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed issued a prohibition on wearing face coverings in administrative and public institutions, in order to “maintain public security and guarantee optimal implementation of safety requirements.” Government officials denied that the restriction limited religious freedom and stressed that its goal was to promote improved security. According to Human Rights Watch, on May 19, police in Kairouan arrested and detained Imed Zaghouani, a cafe owner, after Zaghouani declined to close his cafe during Ramadan. The Ministry of Interior issued a statement in late May denying that it issued orders to close cafes or restaurants during Ramadan and explained that the ministry works to apply the constitution, including the protection of freedom of belief and conscience. 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. The Baha’i community reported that it was unable to proceed with an appeal of a 2018 court decision that denied its petition to be registered as an association, because it did not have information on the grounds for 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. The MRA established an Office for Religious Minorities to assist in the ministry’s efforts to coordinate with the country’s main religious minorities. The minister of religious affairs met with representatives of the Christian, Jewish, and Baha’i Faith communities. The grand mufti, grand rabbi, and Catholic archbishop attended the October 23 swearing in of President Kais Saied.
Christian converts from Islam said threats from members of their families and other persons reflected societal pressure against Muslims leaving the faith. The multicultural Attalaki Association for Freedom and Equality reported a positive exchange with a member of parliament from the Nahda political party, imams from the Association of Imams for Moderation and Rejection of Extremism, and representatives of the Christian community during a May colloquium organized to discuss interfaith issues, particularly for the Christian community. The association praised this exchange as a first step towards building strong communication among these communities, with a commitment to work together to advance several proposals raised by the Christian community, including efforts to facilitate their desire to license a cemetery and a church. Some atheists reported facing societal pressure to conceal their atheism, including by participating in Islamic religious traditions.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers met with government officials at the MRA, the Office of 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. Following the pilgrimage, the Ambassador and embassy officials attended a multifaith iftar near the El-Ghriba Synagogue.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.6 million (midyear 2019 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, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 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
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 modus vivendi 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 modus vivendi, 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 attend these courses but may seek an exemption. The curriculum for secondary school students also includes references to the history of Judaism and Christianity. 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.
On July 5, in the immediate aftermath of two June 25 terrorist attacks in downtown Tunis, Prime Minister Chahed issued a prohibition on wearing face coverings in administrative and public institutions, in order to “maintain public security and guarantee optimal implementation of safety requirements.” This directive remained in effect at year’s end. Government officials denied that the restriction limited religious freedom and stressed that its goal was to promote improved security. The media reported police and security forces harassed some women who wore the niqab.
According to Human Rights Watch, on May 19, police in Kairouan arrested Imed Zaghouani, a cafe owner, after Zaghouani declined to close his cafe during Ramadan. After he spent 10 days in jail, on May 29, a court sentenced Zaghouani to a suspended sentence of one month’s imprisonment and a fine of 300 dinars ($110) for “publicly offending modesty” or “publicly offending morality.” The Ministry of Interior issued a statement in late May denying any orders to close cafes or restaurants that were open during Ramadan, adding that the ministry works to apply the constitution, including the protection of freedom of belief and conscience.
In September the Aleph Institute, an international Jewish organization that assists individuals in prisons, expressed concern about possible anti-Semitism in the treatment of Jewish detainees held in the country’s prisons. In one case, the institute reported that Ilane Racchah was held from July 2018 to October 2019 in pretrial detention and that the investigative judge posted social media comments that “appear anti-Semitic” by referencing Racchah’s religion and “the history of Jews and Arabs” in his judgment. Authorities accused Racchah of inciting others to burn a car. Racchah’s legal case remained pending at year’s end. Although prison officials allowed his family to bring him kosher meals, the normal visiting hours precluded the family from visiting Racchah on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays, and the limited hours prevented the family from bringing him meals in a timely manner.
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. The Baha’i community reported that it was unable to proceed with an appeal of a 2018 court decision that denied its petition to be registered as an association because it did not have information on the grounds for the court’s decision. As of year’s end, the ministry had not responded to the Baha’i community’s request.
In contrast with previous years, Bahai leaders reported there were no instances of interrogation of members by security force personnel during the year.
The government continued to publicly urge 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.
On April 12, the First Instance Court of Tunis sentenced an imam to 20 years in prison for belonging to a terrorist group. Authorities also accused the imam of involvement in the 2013 assassination of politician Chokri Belaid. Separately, media reported that on April 19, the judicial police responsible for investigating terrorism cases interrogated an imam on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization based on documents uncovered during a search of his house.
In the period preceding the national elections in September and October, the MRA declared it would terminate employment of any imam or mosque employee who engaged in partisan politics. The MRA noted that ahead of the national elections, it prepared a charter for imams to guarantee their political neutrality inside of mosques. The MRA reminded imams and other religious leaders not to make political statements inside of mosques prior to the elections.
The MRA remained responsible for organizing citizens’ participation in the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage. The ministry maintained responsibility for the safety of all of the country’s pilgrims and for making travel arrangements such as flight tickets, hotel, and transportation. The ministry conducted training sessions for the pilgrims prior to their travel dates. During the year, the ministry received 236,000 requests to participate in the Hajj pilgrimage and supported the travel of 10,982 citizens. The ministry sets the selection criteria for participation in the pilgrimage with priority given to older applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. The number of pilgrims the ministry supported matched the quota allocated to Tunisia by the government of Saudi Arabia.
On July 26, Prime Minister Chahed banned Egyptian preacher Wajdi Ghonim from entering the country after Ghonim criticized late president Beji Caid Essbessi for “fighting sharia law.”
Christian citizens continued to state there was strong governmental and societal pressure not to discuss publicly a church’s activities or theology. MRA officials met with Christian leaders in March to discuss revisions to update legal protections for the Christian minorities in the country in line with the constitution.
Members of the Christian community reported the government allowed churches to operate within set guidelines and provided security for their services. The government generally restricted public religious services or processions outside churches. On August 15, however, the Santa Costa Church held a celebration in the streets of the city of La Goulette in honor of the Catholic Feast of the Assumption. A number of Muslim citizens, including Mayor of La Goulette Amal El Imam and regional Ministry of Interior representative Fathi Hakami, attended this celebration.
Christian citizens reported the government continued to deny them the right to establish a legal entity or association that would grant them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery. The local Christian community again did not submit a formal request for an association or legal status during the year. Christian cemeteries exist for foreign members of the Christian community; Christian citizens, however, continued to need permission from the government to be buried in a Christian cemetery. Citizens reported they generally did not request this permission due to what they said was a pattern of governmental nonresponse.
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 not those located in other cities, including Sousse and El Kef.
Minister of Religious Affairs Ahmed Adhoum hosted two conferences on religious tolerance and coexistence, the first in Tabarka from January 30-February 1 and the second held in connection with the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage in Djerba on May 22. 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 28, Adhoum hosted a Ramadan iftar in partnership with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, inviting representatives from the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities in the country. Throughout the year, Adhoum met with representatives of the Christian, Jewish, and Baha’i communities.
Authorities again provided a high 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. In May, during the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage, the Jewish community of Djerba inaugurated a new school for 120 girls from the Jewish community.
The Jewish community initiated applications to establish associations to better advocate with the government on behalf of Jewish community interests and serve as an organizing body for the Jewish communities in Gabes, Medenine, and Tunis. The MRA expressed support for this initiative.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
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. Christians reported that family members frequently accused converts of bringing “shame” to the family after their conversion. In one example, church officials reported that a nineteen-year-old Christian convert faced abuse from her family after her conversion, including physical and psychological abuse, prior to her family forcing her from the home.
The multicultural Attalaki Association for Freedom and Equality reported a positive exchange with a member of parliament from the Nahda political party, imams from the Association of Imams for Moderation and Rejection of Extremism, and representatives of the Christian community during a May colloquium organized to discuss interfaith issues, particularly for the Christian community. The association praised this exchange as a first step towards building strong communication among these communities, with a commitment for those outside of government to work together to advance several proposals raised by the Christian community, including efforts to facilitate their desire to license a cemetery and a church.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with government officials, including in the MRA, the Office of the Presidency, and the MRCB, to discuss issues concerning religious freedom and encourage tolerance of religious minorities. 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. On May 21-24, 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. Following the pilgrimage, the Ambassador and embassy officials attended a multifaith iftar near the El-Ghriba Synagogue hosted by the minister of tourism, a prominent member of the Jewish community, for more than 150 persons, including the prime minister and the ministers of religious affairs and culture.
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. 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.
West Bank and Gaza
Read A Section: West Bank And Gaza
West Bank and the Gaza Strip residents are subject to the jurisdiction of different authorities. Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Jordanian and Mandatory statutes in effect before 1967, military ordinances enacted by the Israeli Military Commander in the West Bank in accordance with its authorities under international law, and in the relevant areas, Palestinian Authority (PA) law. Israelis living in the West Bank are subject to military ordinances enacted by the military commander and Israeli law and Israeli legislation. The PA exercises varying degrees of authority in the West Bank. Although PA laws apply in the Gaza Strip, the PA does not have authority there, and Hamas continues to exercise de facto control over security and other matters. The PA Basic Law, which serves as an interim constitution, establishes Islam as the official religion and states the principles of sharia shall be the main source of legislation, but provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality. It also proscribes discrimination based on religion, calls for respect of “all other divine religions,” and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law. Violence between Palestinians and Israelis continued, primarily in the West Bank and the periphery of Gaza. PA President Mahmoud Abbas granted legal recognition to the Council of Local Evangelical Churches, a coalition of evangelical churches operating in the West Bank and Gaza. Continued travel restrictions impeded the movements of Muslims and Christians between the West Bank and Jerusalem. The PA released in January an individual holding a Jerusalem identification card whom Palestinian courts had found guilty of participating in the sale of land in Jerusalem to Israelis, and who had been sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. The Israeli government stated that authorities maintained a zero-tolerance policy against what it described as “Israeli extremists’ attacks” on Palestinians and made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank. During the first six months of the year, Israeli police had investigated 31 allegations of nationalistic-based offenses committed by Israelis in the West Bank and 87 allegations against Palestinians. Some official PA media channels, as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling Fatah political movement, featured content praising or condoning acts of violence, at times referring to assailants as “martyrs.” The Fatah branch in the city of Salfit in March praised Omar Abu Laila – suspected of carrying out an attack in which two Israelis were killed – following his killing by Israeli security forces. Anti-Semitic content also appeared in Fatah and PA-controlled media. The PA and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinians killed while engaged in violence, including killings against Israeli Jews. They also continued to provide separate stipends to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism. Both the European Union and Norwegian parliaments called for funding restrictions to the Palestinian Ministry of Education if incitement to violence and anti-Semitism were not removed from Palestinian textbooks. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released a report in August 2019 that expressed concern for the first time about “hate speech in certain media outlets, especially those controlled by Hamas, social media, public officials’ statements, and school curricula and textbooks, which fuels hatred and may incite violence, particularly hate speech against Israelis, which at times also fuels anti-Semitism.” In his September UN General Assembly (UNGA) remarks, President Abbas said, “We… reaffirm our condemnation of terrorism in all its forms….” However, he concluded, “We salute our honorable martyrs, courageous prisoners and wounded heroes, and salute their resilient families whom we will not [abandon].” Senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders condemned violent acts, including property crimes, by Jewish individuals and groups against Palestinians. The European Union announced in March that it would conduct a review of new Palestinian school textbooks following a study that found them to be more radical than in the past and containing incitement and rejection of peace with Israel.
Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization with de facto control of Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other extremist groups disseminated anti-Semitic materials and advocated violence through traditional and social media channels, as well as during rallies and other events. Hamas also continued to enforce restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia.
In some cases, Palestinian and Israeli perpetrators justified incidents of violence on religious grounds. Palestinians violently clashed with Israeli security forces in multiple instances when Jewish groups visited Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. On two occasions, Israeli security forces prevented attempts to detonate explosive devices when Jewish worshipers visited the Tomb. In June and October, unknown persons also threw explosive devices at Rachel’s Tomb from the West Bank. Various Israeli and Palestinian groups continued to protest against interfaith social and romantic relationships and other forms of cooperation. Some Jewish settlers in the West Bank continued to justify “price tag” attacks on Palestinians and their property as efforts to obtain compensation for government actions against the settlers, or as necessary for the defense of Judaism. According to a report by the Israeli MOJ, Israeli officials, including high-ranking politicians and senior officials from law-enforcement bodies, have declared an unequivocal zero-tolerance policy towards “price-tag” offenses by Israelis against Palestinians.
Senior U.S. officials publicly raised concerns about anti-Semitism by PA officials and more broadly in Palestinian society throughout the year. Senior White House officials and other U.S. officials repeatedly pointed out that Palestinian leaders did not consistently condemn individual terrorist attacks nor speak out publicly against members of their institutions, including Fatah, who advocated violence. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and other senior officials advocated with Israeli authorities to issue permits for Gazans to travel to Jerusalem and the West Bank for religious reasons. U.S. government representatives, including the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, met with Palestinian religious leaders to discuss religious tolerance and a broad range of issues affecting Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities. They met with political, religious, and civil society leaders to promote interreligious tolerance and cooperation. U.S. representatives met with representatives of religious groups to monitor their concerns about access to religious sites, respect for clergy, and attacks on religious sites and houses of worship, and also met with local Christian leaders to discuss their concerns about ongoing Christian emigration from Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total Palestinian population at 2.8 million in the West Bank and 1.9 million in the Gaza Strip (midyear 2019 estimates). According to the U.S. government and other sources, Palestinian residents of these territories are predominantly Sunni Muslims, with small Shia and Ahmadi Muslim communities. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics reports an estimated 427,000 Jewish Israelis reside in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. According to various estimates, 50,000 Christian Palestinians reside in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and according to media reports and religious communities, there are at most 1,000 Christians residing in Gaza. According to local Christian leaders, Palestinian Christian emigration has continued at rapid rates. A majority of Christians are Greek Orthodox; the remainder includes Roman Catholics, Melkite Greek Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Maronites, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, other Protestant denominations, including evangelical Christians, and small numbers of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christians are concentrated primarily in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus; smaller communities exist elsewhere. Approximately 360 Samaritans (practitioners of Samaritanism, which is related to but distinct from Judaism) reside in the West Bank, primarily in the Nablus area.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
West Bank and the Gaza Strip residents are subject to the jurisdiction of different authorities. Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Jordanian and Mandatory statutes in effect before 1967, military ordinances enacted by the Israeli military commander in the West Bank in accordance with its authorities under international law, and in the relevant areas, PA law. Israelis living in the West Bank are subject to military ordinances enacted by the Military Commander and Israeli law and legislation. Palestinians living in the portion of the West Bank designated as Area C in the Oslo II Accord are subject to military ordinances enacted by the military commander. Palestinians who live in Area B fall under PA civil and criminal law, while Israel retains the overriding responsibility for security. Although per the Oslo II Accord, only PA civil and security law applies to Palestinians living in Area A of the West Bank, Israel applies military ordinances enacted by its military commander whenever the Israeli military enters Area A, as part of its overriding responsibility for security. The city of Hebron in the West Bank – an important city for Jews, Muslims, and Christians as the site of the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs – is divided into two separate areas: area H1 under PA control and area H2, where approximately 800 Israeli settlers live and where internal security, public order, and civil authorities relating to Israelis and their property are under Israeli military control.
In 2007, Hamas staged a violent takeover of PA government installations in the Gaza Strip and has since maintained a de facto government in the territory, although the area nominally falls under PA jurisdiction.
An interim Basic Law applies in the areas under PA jurisdiction. The Basic Law states Islam is the official religion, but calls for respect of “all other divine religions.” It provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality. It criminalizes the publishing of writings, pictures, drawings, or symbols, of anything that insults the religious feelings or beliefs of other persons. The Basic Law also proscribes discrimination based on religion and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law. The law states the principles of sharia shall be the main sources of legislation. It contains language adopted from the pre-1967 criminal code of Jordanian rule that criminalizes “defaming religion,” with a maximum penalty of life in prison. Since 2007, the elected Palestinian Legislative Council, controlled by Hamas, has not convened. The Palestinian Constitutional Court dissolved the Palestinian Legislative Council in December 2018 and called for new elections. The President of the PA promulgates executive decrees that have legal authority.
There is no specified process by which religious organizations gain official recognition; each religious group must negotiate its own bilateral relationship with the PA. The PA observes nineteenth century status quo arrangements reached with the Ottoman authorities, which recognize the presence and rights of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Catholic Churches. The PA also observes subsequent agreements that recognize the rights of the Episcopal (Anglican) and Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The PA recognizes the legal authority of these religious groups to adjudicate personal status matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Recognized religious groups may establish ecclesiastical courts to issue legally binding rulings on personal status and some property matters for members of their religious communities. The PA’s Ministry of Religious Affairs is administratively responsible for these family law issues.
Islamic or Christian religious courts handle legal matters relating to personal status, including inheritance, marriage, dowry, divorce, and child support. For Muslims, sharia determines personal status law, while various ecclesiastical courts rule on personal status matters for Christians. By law, members of one religious group may submit a personal status dispute to a different religious group for adjudication if the disputants agree it is appropriate to do so.
The PA maintains some unwritten understandings with churches that are not officially recognized, based on the basic principles of the status quo agreements, including the Assemblies of God, Nazarene Church, and some evangelical Christian churches, which may operate freely. Some of these groups may perform some official functions such as issuing marriage licenses. Churches not recognized by the PA generally must obtain special one-time permission from the PA to perform marriages or adjudicate personal status matters if these groups want the actions to be recognized by and registered with the PA. These churches may not proselytize.
By law, the PA provides financial support to Islamic institutions and places of worship. A PA religious committee also provides some financial support for Christian cultural activities.
The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Oslo Accords) stipulated that protection of 12 listed Jewish holy sites and visitors in Area A is the responsibility of the Palestinian police, and created a joint security coordination mechanism to ensure “free, unimpeded and secure access to the relevant Jewish holy site” and “the peaceful use of such site, to prevent any potential instances of disorder and to respond to any incident.” Both sides agreed to “respect and protect the listed below religious rights of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Samaritans” including “protection of the Holy Sites; free access to the Holy Sites; and freedom of worship and practice.”
Religious education is part of the curriculum for students in grades one through six in public schools the PA operates, as well as some Palestinian schools in Jerusalem that use the PA curriculum. There are separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians. Students may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religion courses. Recognized churches operate private schools in the West Bank, which include religious instruction. Private Islamic schools also operate in the West Bank.
Palestinian law provides that in the defunct 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council, six seats be allocated to Christian candidates, who also have the right to contest other seats. There are no seats reserved for members of any other religious group. A 2017 presidential decree requires that Christians head nine municipal councils in the West Bank (including Ramallah, Bethlehem, Birzeit, and Beit Jala) and establishes a Christian quota for the same, plus one additional municipal council.
PA land laws prohibit Palestinians from selling Palestinian-owned lands to “any man or judicial body corporation of Israeli citizenship, living in Israel or acting on its behalf.” While Israeli law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority, which administers the 93 percent of Israeli land in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show they qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return.
Although the PA removed the religious affiliation category from Palestinian identity cards issued in 2014, older identity cards continue to circulate, listing the holder as either Muslim or Christian.
Because religion and ethnicity or nationality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
Media reported the PA released in January an individual holding an Israeli residency card that Palestinian courts had found guilty of “seizing/tearing away part of the Palestinian Territories to a foreign State” – participating in a land sale in Jerusalem to Israelis – and who had been sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. Palestinian authorities arrested the defendant in 2018 for his involvement in the sale of a property in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter owned by Adeeb Joudeh al-Husseini, the representative of a Muslim family historically entrusted with safeguarding the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
On July 10, Israeli authorities arrested four individuals suspected of planning to plant an explosive device at Joseph’s Tomb prior to the arrival of 1,200 Jewish worshippers. On July 29, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) neutralized a pipe bomb planted near Joseph’s Tomb and responded to rioters when attacked with stones and burning tires, reportedly resulting in injuries to 13 Palestinians.
Israeli police and the IDF reported investigating other instances of religiously motivated attacks and making arrests. In general, however, NGOs, religious institutions, and media continued to state that arrests in religiously motivated crimes against Palestinians rarely led to indictments and convictions. The Israeli NGO Yesh Din also reported Palestinian victims generally feared reprisals by perpetrators or their associates. Both of these factors increased Palestinian victims’ reluctance to file official complaints, according to Yesh Din.
On April 25, a clash occurred in the majority Christian West Bank town of Jifna, near Ramallah, between town residents and armed persons media reported were affiliated with a faction of the Fatah political party. Some of the armed individuals demanded the Christians pay jizya, a historical Muslim poll tax, the Begin-Sadat Center reported.
The Israeli government stated that authorities maintained a zero-tolerance policy against what it described as “Israeli extremists’ attacks” on Palestinians and made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank, including through task forces, increased funding, and hiring additional staff members. During the first six months of the year, in the West Bank, Israeli police investigated 31 allegations of what the MOJ described as involving “ideologically-based” offenses by Israelis, 21 of which involved “nationalistic-based” and public order offenses against Palestinians and others (e.g., the police or IDF) and 87 such allegations involving Palestinian offenses. This compared to 100 cases opened against Israelis during 2018, of which 68 were allegations of nationalistic-based offenses. By July Israeli authorities issued two indictments in these cases, including from prior years’ investigations. Offenses against property constituted 16 of these cases. Israeli authorities investigated four cases of Israelis allegedly physically assaulting Palestinians.
According to local human rights groups and media, Israeli authorities rarely prosecuted Jewish suspects in attacks against Muslims and Christians, failing to open investigations or closing cases for lack of evidence. The Israeli government stated it had made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank, which led to a decrease in ideologically based offenses and an increase in the numbers of investigations and rates of prosecution.
Attacks by Israeli citizens, some of whom asserted their right to settle in what they stated is the historic Jewish homeland in the West Bank, continued, as well as Palestinian attacks on settlers. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported 816 attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2019, and140 Palestinians injured. In 2018, UNOCHA reported 712 attacks, and 195 Palestinians injured. In 2019 UNOCHA reported 175 attacks by Palestinians against Israelis in the West Bank, with 34 Israeli injuries. In 2018, UNOCHA reported 397 attacks by Palestinians and 47 Israelis injured. In November Nadav Argaman, head of the Israel Security Agency, said that in 2019 the agency had prevented more than 450 “significant terrorist attacks.” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said terrorism in the West Bank in 2019 continued a multiyear trend of declining in number of incidents and causalities, due to efforts of Israeli security forces, security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, and a disinterest by the general Palestinian population in the West Bank to “take a significant part in terrorism and protest activities against Israel.”
In 2018, Aysha al-Rabi, a Palestinian resident of Bidya Village, died when an unidentified individual threw a two-kilogram (4.4 pound) stone through her car windshield. Israeli authorities announced in January they had arrested five suspected perpetrators, yeshiva students from the nearby settlement of Rehelim. Authorities arraigned one of those arrested in May on a charge of manslaughter; at year’s end, he remained under house arrest awaiting trial. The other four were conditionally released in January due to a lack of evidence. At year’s end, the case remained under investigation.
PA President Abbas granted legal recognition on October 30 to the Council of Local Evangelical Churches, a coalition of evangelical churches operating in the West Bank and Gaza. The presidential decree authorized the council to issue civil documents for members such as birth and marriage certificates. The decree also allowed the churches to have legal rights, open financial accounts, and possess property rights. It permits members of the churches to address family matters, such as divorce and child custody, in the Christian religious court system most affiliated with them.
The PA continued to provide imams with themes they were required to use in weekly Friday sermons in West Bank mosques and to prohibit them from broadcasting Quranic recitations from minarets prior to the call to prayer.
The PA recognized Easter as a public holiday for government employees, after a public outcry in 2018 when it was only given as a holiday to Christian public servants.
Unrecognized religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses faced a continued PA ban on proselytization but stated they were able to conduct most other functions unhindered. Palestinian authorities generally recognized on a case-by-case basis personal status documents issued by unrecognized churches. The PA, however, continued to refuse to recognize personal status legal documents (e.g., marriage certificates) issued by some of these unrecognized churches, which the groups said made it difficult for them to register newborn children under their fathers’ names or as children of married couples. Many unrecognized churches advised members with dual citizenship to marry or divorce abroad to register the action officially in that location. Some converts to unrecognized Christian faiths had recognized churches with which they were previously affiliated perform their marriages and divorces. Members of some faith communities and faith-based organizations stated they viewed their need to do so as conflicting with their religious beliefs. During the year, Palestinian authorities established a procedure for registering future marriages involving Jehovah’s Witnesses that would also enable couples to register their children and protect the children’s inheritance rights.
Religious organizations providing education, health care, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians in and around East Jerusalem continued to state that the security barrier begun by Israel during the Second Intifada (2000-2005) impeded their work, particularly south of Jerusalem in West Bank Christian communities around Bethlehem. Clergy members stated the barrier and additional checkpoints restricted their movements between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries, as well as the movement of congregants between their homes and places of worship. Christian leaders continued to state the barrier hindered Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. They also said it made visits to Christian sites in Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who lived on the west side of the barrier. Foreign pilgrims and religious aid workers also reported difficulty or delays accessing Christian religious sites in the West Bank because of the barrier. The Israeli government previously stated it constructed the barrier as an act of self-defense, and that it was highly effective in preventing terrorist attacks in Israel.
Christian expatriate workers in Israeli settlements complained that lack of public transportation on Saturdays prevented them from participating in religious activities and worship in Jerusalem.
Bethlehem residents said political instability affected tourism, Bethlehem’s key economic sector. Christians also criticized the PA for failing to better protect their communities and way of life, which was under pressure from lack of economic opportunities and other drivers of emigration. During the year, Bethlehem had the highest unemployment rate among West Bank cities, which sources stated was a factor compelling many young Christians to emigrate. Community leaders estimated Bethlehem and surrounding communities were only 12 percent Christian, compared with more than 70 percent in 1950, and 23 percent in 1998.
President Abbas said on Palestinian media on March 24, “We want to achieve our right and our state peacefully…We will not choose a path other than negotiations to achieve our right.” According to Palestinian media, however, based on a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute, Abbas said on August 10 while visiting a refugee camp, “Jerusalem is ours whether they like it or not…We shall enter Jerusalem – millions of fighters! We shall enter it! All of us, the entire Palestinian people, the entire Arab nation, the Islamic nation, and the Christian nation…They shall all enter Jerusalem…We shall remain, and nobody can remove us from our homeland. If they want, they themselves can leave. Those who are foreign to this land have no right to it. So we say to them: Every stone you [used] to build on our land and every house you have built on our land is bound to be destroyed, Allah willing…No matter how many houses and how many settlements they declare that they [plan to build] here and there – they shall all be destroyed, Allah willing.”
Palestinian leaders, media and social media regularly used the word “martyr” to refer to individuals killed during confrontations with security forces. Some official PA media channels, social media sites affiliated with the Fatah political movement, and terrorist organizations glorified terrorist attacks on Jewish Israelis, referring to the assailants as “martyrs.” On April 27, Omar Yunis allegedly attempted to carry out a stabbing attack on an IDF unit, whereupon Israeli soldiers shot and killed him. Fatah published on its official Facebook page a poster of Yunis referring to him as a “martyr.” Several local Fatah chapters on social media referred to individuals who had engaged in terrorist attacks as “martyrs” and posted memorials, including photographs of suicide bombers. The Fatah branch in the city of Salfit in March praised Omar Abu Laila – suspected of carrying out a terrorist attack in which two Israelis were killed – following his killing by Israeli security forces, and referred to him as a “martyr.” The Fatah Bethlehem Chapter in January commemorated the 1979 “martyrdom” of Ali Hassan Salameh, who was connected with the attack against the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics among other violent attacks.
The PA and the PLO continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinians killed during terrorist acts, as well as stipends to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism. Such payments and separate stipends were initiated by the PLO in 1965 and have continued under the PA since the signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel. PA President Abbas reiterated support would continue for the families of the prisoners and “martyrs.” In accordance with the July 2018 Israeli Deduction Law – which states that Israel must deduct that portion of the revenues it collects for the PA equal to the expenditures by the PA in the previous year for payments to families of people killed, injured, or imprisoned for attacks on Israel – Israel withheld the monthly sum equal to what the PA paid to them (approximately 41.8 million shekels –$12.1 million) from its monthly clearance transfers to the PA. The PA subsequently in March refused to accept any of the remaining approximately 496 million shekels ($144 million) in tax revenues from Israel, which altogether represented approximately 65 percent of the PA’s budget. As the PA’s fiscal situation worsened, Israel and the PA eventually reached an agreement on October 5 for the PA to accept most of the taxes Israel collected on the PA’s behalf. In December Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced that the Israeli government would begin withholding an additional 149 million shekels ($43.1 million) annually from PA revenues for payments to families of Palestinians who were wounded or died while committing terrorist acts or in connection with terrorism. The PA stated that these payments were social payments for families who lost their primary breadwinner. The Israeli government stated that the payments incentivized, encouraged, and rewarded terrorism, with higher monthly payments for lengthier prison sentences tied to more severe crimes.
The PA Ministry of Waqf and Religious Affairs continued to pay for construction of new mosques, maintenance of approximately 1,800 existing mosques, and salaries of most Palestinian imams in the West Bank. The ministry also continued to provide limited financial support to some Christian clergy and Christian charitable organizations.
Israeli officials demolished a mosque under construction near Hebron in area C September 2 for lacking an Israeli building permit, according to UNOCHA and media reports. UNOCHA estimated the mosque would have served approximately 300 community members.
The Israeli government and the PA sometimes prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting Jewish religious sites in PA-controlled territory in the West Bank for security reasons, due to the threat of tensions and violence between Palestinian protestors and the visitors. The Kohlet Policy Forum, an Israeli NGO, assessed that the obligation to provide free access to Jewish religious sites in PA-administered areas of the West Bank lay entirely with the PA under Oslo II and that the PA had failed to fulfill that obligation.
An Israeli NGO reported in August that Israeli authorities and settlers prohibited access by Palestinians to several mosques in the West Bank located within Israeli settlements. Israeli authorities declared all legal settlements as restricted Israeli military zones. Palestinians were unable to visit them without Israeli government approval.
The government continued to discourage Israeli citizens in unofficial capacities from traveling to the parts of the West Bank under the civil and security control of the PA (Area A), with large road signs warning Israelis against entering these areas and stating it was dangerous for Israelis and against Israeli law to do so. Some Israelis chose to privately visit Area A, without repercussions. While these restrictions in general prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting several Jewish religious sites, the IDF provided special security escorts for Jews to visit religious sites in Area A under Palestinian control, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, a site of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Some Jewish religious leaders said this policy limiting travel to parts of the West Bank prevented Jewish Israelis from freely visiting several religious sites in the West Bank, including Joseph’s Tomb, because they were denied the opportunity to visit the site on unscheduled occasions or in larger numbers than permitted through IDF coordination. IDF officials said requirements to coordinate Jewish visits to Joseph’s Tomb were necessary to ensure Jewish Israelis’ safety. Palestinian and Israeli security forces coordinated some visits by Jewish groups to PA-controlled areas within the West Bank, which generally took place at night to limit the chance of confrontations with Palestinians who opposed the visit.
Rachel’s Tomb, a Bethlehem shrine of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims under Israeli jurisdiction in Area C, remained separated from the West Bank by the security barrier built during the Second Intifada, and Palestinians could only access it if Israeli authorities permitted them to cross the barrier. Residents and citizens of Israel continued to have relatively unimpeded access. Israeli police closed the site to all visitors on Saturdays, for the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat). In June and October unknown individuals threw explosive devices at the shrine from the West Bank.
The IDF continued occasionally to limit access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, another site of significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the tomb of Abraham. Palestinian leaders continued in statements to local media to oppose the IDF’s control of access, citing Oslo-era agreements that gave Israel and the PA shared administrative responsibility for the site, although Israel retained full security responsibility for it. Some Muslim leaders publicly rejected a Jewish connection to the site. The IDF again restricted Muslim access during the 10 days corresponding to Jewish holidays, and Jewish access during the 10 days corresponding to Islamic holidays. The IDF restricted Muslims to one entry point, manned by soldiers and metal detectors, while granting Jews access via several entry points that lacked security screening. Citing security concerns, the IDF periodically closed roads approaching the site, and since 2001 has permanently closed Shuhada Street, the former main Hebron market and one of the main streets leading to the holy site, to Palestinian-owned vehicles. The government said the closure was done to prevent confrontations. Both Muslims and Jews were able to pray at the site simultaneously in separate spaces, a physical separation that was instituted by the IDF following a 1994 attack by an Israeli that killed 29 Palestinians. Israeli authorities continued to implement frequent bans on the Islamic call to prayer from the Ibrahimi Mosque, stating the government acted upon requests by Jewish religious leaders in Hebron in response to requests of Jewish worshippers at the site.
In his September UNGA remarks, President Abbas said “We… reaffirm our condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and sources.” However, he concluded, “We salute our honorable martyrs, courageous prisoners, and wounded heroes, and salute their resilient families, whom we will not [abandon].” He also said Israel is “[attempting] to violate the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” and to deny worshipers access to the holy sites. Following an August 15 terrorist attack near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, Israeli authorities briefly closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif while conducting a security search. On August 19, President Abbas’s Advisor on Religious Affairs and Chief Justice of the Sharia Court Mahmoud al-Habbash said the closure was a “declaration of war against Islam and the Muslims,” and he called on Muslims to “religiously defend” the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the PA official news agency WAFA reported.
The PA’s Palestinian Broadcasting Company’s code of conduct states it does not allow programming that encourages “violence against any person or institution on the basis of race, religion, political beliefs, or sex.” Some official PA media channels, as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling political movement Fatah, however, featured content praising or condoning acts of violence against Jews. Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in official PA media. On October 7, a host on the program The Cause in the Egyptian Halls broadcast on PA TV, summarized a commentator’s remarks by saying that Israeli authorities were creating “a forgery of history” in respect to Jewish history in Jerusalem. On October 6, a guest speaker on another program on PA television, Palestine This Morning, said the children of Israel [Jewish people] were historically never present in the “land of Palestine.” On July 7, official Palestinian television aired a speech by Jordanian Ibrahim Badran describing Israel as “a barbaric, racist state that has outdone what Hitler did.” In March, the PA official daily newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida published an opinion piece which made anti-Semitic remarks regarding prominent U.S. Jewish officials, according to the National Council of Young Israel. On February 10, on social media, Fatah Central Committee Secretary Jibril Rajoub protested a conference on peace and security in the Middle East by describing the meeting as part of “a plan to carry out a ‘holocaust’ against this [Palestinian] cause.” Media reported that Fatah preemptively restricted access to its official Facebook page in September so it could only be viewed by those expressly invited due to concerns that the site would be shut down because of its content.
Both Palestinians and Israelis evoked ethnoreligious language to deny the historical self-identity of the other community in the region. On July 7, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on social media, “The Palestinians’ connection to the Land of Israel is nothing compared to the 4,000-year connection the Jewish people have with the land.” On August 26, official PA television broadcast an interview with the PA minister of culture in which he said the State of Israel “came out of nowhere, without a history and without geography.”
Anti-Semitic, militaristic, and other adversarial content continued to be directed against Israel in Palestinian textbooks, while references to Judaism were absent in the context of discussions of other religious, according to Palestinian Media Watch and the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se). The European Union announced in March that it would conduct a review of new Palestinian school textbooks following a study that found them to be more radical than in the past and containing incitement and rejection of peace with Israel. IMPACT-se reported in September that PA schoolbooks for the 2019-2020 school year contained material glorifying terror and promoting violence, with a “systematic insertion of violence, martyrdom, and jihad across all grades and subjects.” The Jerusalem-based Center for Near East Policy Research reported in August that PA teacher guides published in 2016-18 delegitimize Jews’ presence, and demonize Jews as “aggressive, barbarous, full of hate, and bent on extermination,” and “enemies of Islam since its early days.”
Both the European Union and Norwegian parliaments called for funding restrictions to the Palestinian Ministry of Education if incitement and anti-Semitism were not removed from Palestinian textbooks. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released a report in August that expressed concern for the first time about “hate speech in certain media outlets, especially those controlled by Hamas, social media, public officials’ statements, and school curricula and textbooks, which fuels hatred and may incite violence, particularly hate speech against Israelis, which at times also fuels anti-Semitism.”
Under the Israeli Antiquities Law, excavations within a sacred site require the approval of a ministerial committee, which includes the ministers of culture, justice, and religious affairs. The government stated the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), a government entity, conducted impartial evaluations of all unearthed archeological finds, and the IAA was obligated by law to document, preserve, and publish all findings from excavations. It added that IAA researchers “have greatly intensified their research on ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk and Ottoman periods.” Some NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in the West Bank continued to state the IAA exploited archaeological finds to bolster Jewish claims, while overlooking other historically significant archaeological finds involving other religions or the needs of Palestinian residents at these sites. In July an Israeli court ruled that administration of the Tel Shiloh site could remain under the control of the Benjamin district council, with involvement of the Israeli Civil Administration in the site’s management, instead of direct administration by Israeli authorities. Israeli NGOs Emek Sheveh and Yesh Din had filed the case, arguing that the site under the administration of the district council focused on its Jewish heritage and did not give sufficient weight to its Christian and Islamic history. Tel Shiloh is identified with the site of ancient Jewish worship before the construction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The ruins of a Byzantine Church are also located there, and sources stated that it also has significance for some Messianic beliefs in Christianity, as well as some Islamic attachment.
The Israeli government retained its previous regulations regarding visa issuance for foreigners to work in the West Bank, regulations Christian institutions said impeded their work by preventing many foreign clergy and other religious workers from entering and working. The government continued to limit Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank to single-entry visas, which local parish leaders said complicated needed travel to other areas under their pastoral authority outside the West Bank or Jerusalem, such as Jordan. Clergy, nuns, and other religious workers from Arab countries said they continued to face long delays in receiving visas and reported periodic denials of their visa applications. The government stated visa delays or denials were due to security processing, and visitors from states without diplomatic relations with Israeli could face delays. Officials from multiple churches expressed concerns that non-Arab visa applicants and visa-renewal applicants also faced long delays. While Christian clergy generally were able to obtain visas, Christian leaders said Israel’s visa and permit policy adversely affected schoolteachers and volunteers affiliated with faith-based charities working in the West Bank. Israeli authorities issued permits for some Christians to exit Gaza to attend religious services in Jerusalem or the West Bank. Christian leaders said Israel issued insufficient permits to meet the full demand, and the process was lengthy and time consuming.
According to some church officials, Israel continued to prohibit some Arab Christian clergy, including bishops and other senior clergy seeking to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority, from entering Gaza. Israel facilitated visits by clergy, including bishops from non-Arab countries, to Gaza on multiple occasions.
At year’s end, Christians held minister-level positions in three PA ministries (Finance and Health, plus Tourism, traditionally occupied by a Christian) and the cabinet-level office of deputy prime minister for public information.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religion and ethnicity or nationality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
There were incidents of deadly violence that perpetrators justified at least partly on religious grounds. Actions included killings, physical attacks and verbal harassment of worshipers and clergy, and vandalism of religious sites. There was also harassment by members of one religious group of another, social pressure to stay within one’s religious group, and anti-Semitic content in media.
On March 18, a Palestinian shot and killed Rabbi Achiad Ettinger and an Israeli soldier and wounded another soldier near the West Bank settlement of Ariel. On August 8, an Israeli soldier in a religious studies program was abducted and killed while returning to his yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Ofra. On August 23, media reported that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine detonated an explosive device at a popular tourist site near the West Bank settlement of Dolev, injuring a rabbi and his son and killing his daughter.
Palestinians at times violently protested when Jewish groups visited holy sites where freedom of access was guaranteed by the PA in the Oslo Accords in the West Bank, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. Palestinians threw stones and Molotov cocktails and clashed with IDF escorts during visits of Jewish groups to Joseph’s Tomb (located in Area A) on several days during the year. The IDF used tear gas, rubber bullets, and live fire to disperse Palestinian protesters, secure the site, or evacuate Jewish worshippers. On two occasions, Israeli security forces prevented attempts to detonate explosive devices when Jewish worshipers visited the Tomb. In June and October, unknown persons also threw explosive devices at Rachel’s Tomb from the West Bank. Media reported in October that vandals spray painted swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans on the tomb of Joshua Bin-Nun and Kalev Ben Yefune, in the Palestinian village of Kafel Harath (located in Area A), prior to an IDF coordinated visit by Jewish worshippers.
According to local press and social media, some settlers in the West Bank continued to justify their attacks on Palestinian property, or “price tag” attacks, such as the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees, as necessary for the defense of Judaism. Israeli officials, including high-ranking politicians and senior officials from law-enforcement bodies, have declared an unequivocal zero-tolerance policy towards the phenomenon of “price tag” offenses by pro-settlement Israelis against Palestinians.
Media reported that NGO Tag Meir, which monitors hate crimes, expressed concern in April after Rabbi Shlomo Avenir of Beit El in the West Bank wrote on a website that burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was “a divine punishment against Christianity,” and that there was a religious duty (“mitzvah”) for Jews to burn Christian churches in Israel, but that it was not worth doing as they would simply be rebuilt.
According to members of more recently arrived faith communities in the West Bank, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, established Christian groups opposed the efforts of the recent arrivals to obtain official PA recognition because of the newcomers’ proselytizing.
Political and religious groups in the West Bank and Gaza continued to call on members to “defend” Al-Aqsa Mosque.
According to the NGO Middle East Media Research Institute, Maryam Abu Moussa, identified as a “Gaza Return Activist,” told a foreign television network that Palestinians would soon bury the Jews in “the ditches of Hitler.” She added that when Hitler ordered the Russians to dig ditches to bury the Jews in World War II, they refused to do so because they were “humane.” Conversely, she said when Hitler ordered the Jews to bury the Russians in ditches, “they did so immediately.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that burial of its members remained challenging since most cemeteries belong to churches. The Jehovah’s Witnesses said the challenge was greatest in Bethlehem, where churches from the main traditions control most graveyards and refused access to them.
According to Palestinian sources, some Christian and Muslim families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip pressured their children, especially daughters, to marry within their respective religious groups. Couples who challenged this societal norm, particularly Palestinian Christians or Muslims who sought to marry Jews, encountered considerable societal and family opposition. Families sometimes reportedly disowned Muslim and Christian women who married outside their faith. Various Israeli and Palestinian groups continued to protest against interfaith social and romantic relationships and other forms of cooperation.
According to polling information released in November by Arab Barometer, an international research consortium, “relatively few Palestinians favor a role for religion in politics.” Approximately three quarters (73 percent) of Palestinians (74 percent in the West Bank and 73 percent in Gaza) said they agreed or strongly agreed that religious leaders should not interfere in voters decisions in elections.” The survey stated, “A considerable proportion (53 percent overall; 49 percent in the West Bank and 59 percent in Gaza) think that laws in Palestine should be either mostly or entirely based on the sharia.” Most Palestinians (45 percent in the West Bank and 51 percent in Gaza) said they believed that the most essential aspect of a government that applies sharia is a system without corruption, and 32 percent of respondents in both the West Bank and Gaza said that a government implementing sharia is one that provides basic services such as health facilities, schools, garbage collection, and road maintenance. Only 8 percent in the West Bank and 14 percent in Gaza said that the most essential aspect of the sharia was a government that used physical punishments to make sure people obey the law, and 3 percent in the West Bank and 2 percent in Gaza said that government employing sharia should restrict women’s roles in public. The report concluded: “These results suggest that people conceptualize sharia based on instrumentalist characteristics, improving public services and preventing misappropriation of sources.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Senior White House and other U.S. officials publicly raised concerns about anti-Semitism by PA officials and more broadly in Palestinian society throughout the year. Senior White House officials and other U.S. officials repeatedly and publicly pointed out that Palestinian leaders did not consistently condemn individual terrorist attacks nor speak out publicly against members of their institutions, including Fatah, who advocated violence. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and other senior officials advocated with Israeli authorities to issue permits for Gazans to travel to Jerusalem and the West Bank for religious reasons.
U.S. government representatives, including the Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, met with representatives of a range of religious groups from Jerusalem, the West Bank, and when possible, the Gaza Strip. Engagement included meetings with Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and Reform rabbis, as well as representatives of various Jewish institutions; regular contacts with the Greek Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), and Armenian Orthodox patriarchates; and meetings with the Holy See’s Custodian of the Holy Land, leaders of the Anglican and Lutheran Churches, the Syrian Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and leaders of evangelical Christian groups, as well as Muslim community leaders. U.S. government representatives also met with political and civil society leaders to promote tolerance and cooperation to combat religious prejudice. These meetings included discussions of the groups’ concerns about religious tolerance, access to religious sites, respect for clergy, attacks on religious sites and houses of worship, as well as concerns by local Christian leaders about ongoing Christian emigration from the West Bank and Gaza.
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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 began 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. In August, following clashes between government forces and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), STC forces gained control of Aden, the temporary capital, and the cabinet moved to Riyadh. Following a cease-fire, military withdrawal, and power sharing agreement known as the Riyadh Agreement between the government and STC on November 5, a few members of the government returned to Aden. The government did not, however, exercise effective control over much of the country’s territory, and had limited ability to address abuses of religious liberty by nonstate actors. The government publicly condemned religious persecution by the Houthi movement. To highlight what they describe as a sectarian aspect of the country’s conflict, some sources pointed to the support of Shia-majority Iran for the Houthis, who have historical roots as a Zaydi revivalist movement, and the support of Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia for the government. Some analysts emphasized that Houthi Zaydism is distinct from the Twelver Islam dominant in Iran, although both are generally considered to fall within the broad category of Shia Islam, and said that political and economic issues are more significant overall drivers of the conflict. Many sources, including in the international media, continued to describe the conflict as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia. According to the UN, nongovernmental organizations, and the media, military actions by all parties to the conflict damaged places of worship and religious institutions and caused casualties at religious gatherings.
At year’s end, the Houthis controlled approximately one-third of Yemeni territory and nearly 80 percent of the population. In areas they controlled, the Houthis followed a strict religious regimen and increasingly discriminated against those not following those practices, particularly religious minorities. A Houthi-controlled court held hearings throughout the year regarding the appeal of Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, a Baha’i sentenced to death by the Houthi-controlled National Security Bureau (NSB) in 2018 on charges of espionage. Haydara had been imprisoned since 2013, accused of apostasy, proselytizing, and spying for Israel. He remained in prison at year’s end. According to the Baha’i International Community (BIC), at year’s end there were six Baha’is in prison in the country for practicing their faith, including Haydara, and more than 20 Baha’is facing charges of apostasy and espionage leveled by a Houthi-controlled court in September 2018. On September 26, a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution condemned the persecution of the Baha’i in the country. According to media reports, militants attacked a mosque in Ad-Dhale Governorate in June, killing at least five worshipers and abducting three. A local human rights organization reported that since the signing of the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018 the Houthis have destroyed 49 mosques in Hudaydah alone. Progovernment clerics were reportedly among those arrested by STC-aligned forces during that group’s August takeover of Aden. According to the United Nations, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remained active in Hadramawt, Shabwah, Ma’rib, Bayda’ and Abyan.
In contrast to previous years, the media did not report any killings of Muslim clerics in Aden. Jewish community members reported their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices.
On April 22, the Department of State spokesperson issued a statement condemning the imprisonment of Haydara, expressing the U.S. government’s concern about the treatment of the Baha’i population in the country, and calling on the Houthis to end their “mistreatment” of the Baha’is.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 29.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). More than 99 percent of the population is Muslim (2010 estimate), associating their beliefs with either the Shafi’i order of Sunni Islam or Zaydi Islam, a distinct form of Shia Islam. There are also significant numbers of Sunni followers of the Maliki and Hanbali schools, and significant numbers of Ismaili and Twelver followers of Shia Islam. While there are no official statistics, the U.S. government estimates 55 percent of the population to be Sunni and 45 percent Zaydi. 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.
There is no firm estimate of the number of persons of Indian origin or of those who practice Hinduism, Sikhism, or the Dawoodi Bohra variant of Ismaili Shia Islam residing in the country. The pre-conflict Hindu population was 150,000 (2010 estimate), concentrated in Aden, Mukalla, Shihr, Lahaj, Mokha, and Hudayah. According to one source, the current number of Indian nationals is fewer than 3,000. Many members of the Indian-origin community have resided in the country for generations and hold Yemeni nationality.
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
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 that “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” 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 a faction of 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 the country under the Houthi-led regime in Sana’a. The government and the international community have deemed the SPC unconstitutional and illegitimate. The SPC is not related to the STC, the Southern Transitional Council.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In August renewed fighting between the government and the STC-aligned Security Belt Forces (SBF) forced government cabinet members to move to Riyadh, the site of the government-in-exile since 2014. Following the signing of the Riyadh Agreement on November 5, some government officials returned to Aden, but implementation of the agreement stagnated. The government did not exercise effective legal or administrative control over much of the country throughout the year, which limited its ability to address abuses of religious liberty by nonstate actors in areas not under its control.
Saudi-led coalition airstrikes damaged at least one place of worship and caused casualties, according to the UN, nongovernmental organizations, and media, but there were fewer reported incidents than in previous years.
A Saudi-led coalition airstrike in September hit a mosque in Amran and killed seven persons, according to the UN Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and media reports. The Saudi-led coalition did not confirm the reports. The UN Special Envoy to Yemen reported to the Security Council in November that coalition air strikes were down by 80 percent in a two-week period owing to what he described as de-escalation between the Houthis and the coalition. According to the NGO Yemen Data Project, the number of airstrikes in 2019 fell by 65 percent compared to the year prior.
In December the government publicly condemned the Houthi movement for persecuting religious minorities.
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 continuing conflict, information on the use of these religious sites was again unavailable during the year.
Because of the conflict and the government’s exile to Riyadh, the government was unable to verify the content of the religious curriculum taught in private schools. Many public and private schools remained closed, and those operating were open for only a few hours a day.
The Ministry of Endowments reported approximately 25,000 local pilgrims went on the Hajj during the year. Of these, approximately 7,000 came from Houthi controlled areas, but these numbers were difficult to verify. The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs sponsored 2,000 Yemenis, whose relatives were killed in the conflict, to perform the Hajj in August 2019.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In contrast to previous years, the media did not report any killings of Muslim clerics in Aden during the year.
Jewish community members continued to report their declining numbers, which made it difficult to sustain their religious practices.
Due to the conflict, there was no way to verify the status of the small, isolated Ismaili Muslim community.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Department of State suspended embassy operations at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a in February 2015 and has operated since then as the Yemen Affairs Unit based in Saudi Arabia. In meetings with officials from the government, U.S. officials continued to stress the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue.
On April 22, 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 mistreatment of the Baha’is, stating, “The Houthis have targeted dozens of Baha’is with charges similar to those imposed on Hamed bin Haydara and other unfounded charges related to religious affiliation. This persistent pattern of vilification, oppression, and mistreatment by the Houthis of Baha’is in Yemen must end. Baha’is face daily discrimination and persecution as they seek to practice their faith in Yemen and elsewhere around the world. Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right and a source of stability for all countries. Every person around the world should be free to practice their religion without fear of intimidation or reprisals.”