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Bahrain

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 1.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  Of the total population, citizens number 677,000, according to the local government 2017 statistics, its most recent available estimate.  According to 2017 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).

According to the government, the citizen population comprises approximately 45 percent of the total population.  The government does not publish statistics regarding the sectarian breakdown between Shia and Sunni Muslims.  Most estimates from NGOs state Shia constitute 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

Legal Framework

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, the freedom to perform religious rites, and the 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 grounds of gender, origin, language, or faith.  The labor law prohibits discrimination in the public sector on grounds of religion or faith.  The law also stipulates recourse through a complaint process to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development 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.

Parliament consists of an appointed upper house, the Shura (Consultative) Council, and the elected Council of Representatives (COR) lower house, each with 40 seats.  The country holds parliamentary elections every four years.  A 2012 constitutional amendment permits the king to dissolve the COR, but it requires that he first consult with the presidents of both of parliament’s upper and lower houses as well as the head of the Constitutional Court.  The king also has the power to amend the constitution and to propose, ratify, and promulgate laws.  The Shura Council has the power to overrule legislation by the lower house and the lower house has the authority to examine and pass legislation proposed by the king or cabinet.

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 (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 waqfs are endowment boards, which supervise, fund the work of, and perform a variety of activities related to mosques and prayer halls.  Non-Muslim congregations and groups must register with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (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 Ministry of Interior (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.

According to the MOLSD’s official website, 19 non-Muslim religious groups are 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.

The penal code calls for punishment of not more than one year’s imprisonment or a fine of no more than 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 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.  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, whose oversight during the year was changed to 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 Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA) oversees general religious activities taking place within the country, and reviews the parliament’s draft legislation as well as the publication of Islamic studies school curricula and official religious texts.  The council comprises a chairman, a deputy chairman, and 16 prominent religious scholars, eight Sunni and eight Shia, most of them prominent preachers or sharia judges.  The king appoints council members for 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 aired or 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, the Survey and Restoration Directorate, and the Survey Department.  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 law regulates Islamic religious instruction at all levels of the educational 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 be registered 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 engage in religious studies 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.  According to the MOE, in coordination with the SCIA, a team of experts routinely reviews and develops the Islamic studies 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.

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.  It also guarantees the duties and status of women and their equality with men, according to 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, and civil courts make decisions for them on 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.

In June the king signed into law amendments to the Exercising Political Rights Law of 2002, which prohibits the candidacies of leaders and members of political societies dissolved by a final court order.  The law excludes former members of predominantly Shia Wifaq political society as well as other parties, whose membership is not predominantly Shia, including the Wa’ad political society.  The new law also prohibits felons and anyone previously convicted and sentenced to more than six months in prison from running for office.  On July 3, the king signed an amendment to the Law on Associations, Social and Cultural Clubs, Private Bodies Working in the Field of Youth and Sports, and Private Institutions that prevents members of dissolved opposition groups, such as Wifaq and Wa’ad, from serving on the board of directors of nongovernmental and civil society organizations, stipulating that an NGO board member must be able to continue to enjoy “the entirety of his civil and political rights.”

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 of prison.

The country is party to the ICCPR 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.

Government Practices

Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.  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.  Authorities arrested Shia cleric Isa Al Mo’min on February 4 for “inciting hatred against the government” during a Friday sermon and sentenced him to three months in prison.  International and local NGOs reported the police summoned more than 25 individuals, including clerics, in the lead-up to, as well as after, the September 20-21 Ashura commemoration, the most significant day of the Shia religious calendar.  Based on reports it received, AI said that many of those detained were reportedly under investigation for inciting hatred against the regime and more than 15 clerics and lay assistants among them were “interrogated for the content of their sermons.”  The police held many individuals overnight; others were detained and released thereafter.  According to local reports, of those summoned, authorities detained nine for varying periods ranging from one day to over a month pending investigation.  As of October 30, none remained in custody.

AI stated that prior to the November parliamentary elections, security forces carried out a series of arbitrary detentions of activists and religious figures suspected of supporting political opposition to the monarchy.  On October 12, AI received reports that authorities detained approximately a dozen protestors in the village of Karrana and held them for approximately one month for unlawful assembly.  On November 4, security forces entered approximately 10 private homes in the Shia majority town of Karbabad and detained 16 individuals, seven of them minors.  In November AI received reports of the re-establishment of police checkpoints in the majority Shia village of Arad, the neighborhoods of al-Dair and Samahij, which have notable Shia concentrations, and the religiously mixed locality of Hamad Town.  Several internal checkpoints and roadblocks remained in place in the mostly Shia town of Sanabis.  On July 11, the government removed concrete barriers, barbed wire, and police checkpoints that had previously restricted entry into the predominantly Shia neighborhood of Diraz.  Local Shia continued to state that authorities prevented nonresidents, including Shia clerics, from entering to attend or lead prayers at mosques in Diraz.

On November 4, an appeals court sentenced Ali Salman, former leader of Wifaq, and two associates to life in prison for conspiring with Qatar to undermine the government in 2011.  The appeals court reversed a previous June criminal court acquittal following an appeal by the Office of the Public Prosecutor.  Authorities had already imprisoned Salman on another charge of inciting hatred; he was due to be released in December after completion of his original four-year sentence.  The government tried Salman’s two co-defendants, former Wifaq MPs Hasan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali Al Aswad, in absentia.

According to local press, NGO, and social media reports, on November 13, authorities detained former Wifaq MP Ali Al Asheeri for a social media post in which he announced his intention to boycott the elections, saying, “I am a Bahraini citizen deprived of my political and civil rights so I and my family will boycott the elections.”  He was released from detention November 27, and charges were still pending at year’s end.  The Public Prosecution stated authorities were investigating Al-Asheeri for “incitement of non-participation in the elections.”

On April 18, a court sentenced former MP Mohamed Khalid to three months in prison for a posting on social media that “defamed” a religious symbol revered by Shia.

In January Shia cleric Hussain al-Qassab lost his appeal of a suspended one-year sentence and a 100,000 dinar ($265,000) fine for money laundering and collecting funds without a government license.  In 2017, the High Criminal Court convicted prominent Shia cleric Isa Qassim, who employed Qassab, on the same charges, but he did not appeal them.  Media identified Qassim as the leading Shia cleric in the country and his supporters reported his office had collected the money and spent the funds in accordance with Shia customs and obligations, and said the government had targeted him due to his prominent status in the Shia community.  Although Qassim had been under de facto house arrest since June 2016 and had his citizenship revoked, the government facilitated Qassim’s travel to London for medical treatment.  At year’s end Qassim was still undergoing treatment in London.

On October 29, the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the 2017 sentence imposed by the Lower Criminal Court on former Wifaq MP Hasan Isa to 10 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars ($265,000) for helping to finance a terrorist bomb attack in July 2015 that killed two police officers.  Isa denied involvement in the bombing, saying he had not given money to terrorists, but had distributed funds to poor families in his role as a religious leader of his neighborhood.

Several Shia clerics arrested in 2011 remained in prison at year’s end.  They had been associated with the political opposition and 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 November 6, the MOJIA issued a notice to imams, muezzins, and preachers that candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections were prohibited from holding any campaign-related activities in houses of worship or religious centers.  On November 15, both the government-sponsored Sunni and Jaafari Waqf endowment boards called on citizens to participate in the upcoming municipal and parliamentary elections.

In November the UNHRC released its concluding observations on the country and its compliance with its ICCPR obligations.  The government provided input to the UNHRC in February, indicating that the constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and of religious belief, that no law or custom discriminates against any group or religion, and the constitution “envisages freedom of worship and access to such places, without discrimination in favour of one group or religion over another.”  The UNHRC, in its report, stated its concern about reports that “members of the Shia community have been subjected to restrictions of their rights to worship and profess their religious beliefs ….”  The committee also expressed concern about “reports that the Shia population is underrepresented in political and public life, including in the National Assembly.”  On freedom of religion, the committee was “concerned about the existence of practices that adversely affect the exercise of the right to freedom of religion or belief enshrined in article 18 of the Covenant” and suggested the government “should decriminalize blasphemy and guarantee that all people within their territory can fully enjoy the right to freedom of conscience, religion or belief,” including efforts to ensure the Shia population is fairly represented in public and political spheres and protected from discrimination.

In a submission prepared in June for the UNHRC review, a U.S.-based NGO stated that “the government has “intensified restrictions on Shia religious and cultural rights since 2011.”  The submission also stated that “security forces routinely employ violence to suppress the Shia community’s rights to free assembly, free association, free speech, and free cultural or religious expression.”

In December the king appointed Shia citizens to senior leadership positions, including cabinet members and members of the Shura council.  Official statistics on the religious affiliation or sect of public employees, members of parliament, or ministers are not maintained by the government.  However, according to informal estimates, the 40-member Shura Council included 18 Shia members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while the remaining 20 members were Sunni.  Following the parliamentary elections in November and December, sources suggested that of 40 seats in 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.

According to local activists and social media reports, the government’s amendments to the Exercising Political Rights Law of 2002, prevented at least five individuals from registering as candidates in the parliamentary and municipal elections in October due their prior affiliation with Wifaq, the largely Shia political society that was dissolved in 2016, a government decision that was upheld by the court in 2017.  Although the government stated it viewed the amendments as necessary to prevent lawbreakers from participating in elections, many members of the Shia community stated they viewed the law as an attempt to limit participation of opposition-oriented Shia politicians.  AI pointed out that since members of Wifaq, which it described as the largest Shia opposition group in the country, were prohibited from participating in elections, the new law “will have a de facto discriminatory effect on Shias’ political participation.”  According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), this legislation effectively disqualified opposition candidates from participating in the elections.  After the elections, an NGO noted that “the [historic] gerrymandering of electoral districts … has diluted the influence of … [the] Shia majority.”

According to the government, it generally permitted prisoners to practice their religion, but there were reports from Shia activists that authorities sometimes denied prisoners access to religious services and prayer time.  The Office of the Ombudsman, which was criticized by at least one NGO for failing to fulfill its mandate, reported it had not received any complaints or requests for assistance on the rights of prisoners to practice their religion during the year.  According to MOI, 10 inmates were permitted to attend funerals outside of the prison during the year.  The government continued not to provide regular statistics on detainees.  Based on reports it received, AI said Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and ill treatment from prison guards, and denied access to needed medical care, because of their religion.  Government officials continued to state the MOI, which supervised detention facilities, only prohibited practices when they violated prison safety rules, such as waving religious banners or organizing large-scale gatherings for religious ceremonies.  The government reported that special rooms were available to prisoners for worship and prayer regardless of religious affiliation.  The National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR), a government human rights organization, which has been criticized by a U.S.-based NGO for what it said was its lack of independence, stated that it had not received any cases of prisoners being subject to harassment or ill-treatment by prison guards due to their religious affiliation during the year.

In September, according to reports received by HRW, three female prisoners said prison officials assaulted them after they complained authorities denied them the right to participate in religious commemorations of Ashura.  According to one of the women’s relatives, prison authorities later restricted the inmates’ access to family visits, phone calls, and time spent outside their cells.  Following a prison visit, meetings with the detainees, and reviews of prison files, the NIHR issued a statement on October 1 that the claims of interference in religious practice were “incorrect and contrary to reality.”  On October 4, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, an NGO based in the United Kingdom, said the detainees contacted them to dispute the NIHR’s statement.

The government reported no change from 2017 in the 452 licensed Sunni mosques and 91 Sunni community centers, and the number of licensed Shia places of worship remained at 608 mosques and 618 ma’atams (Shia prayer houses, sometimes called husseiniyas in other countries).  The government reported it granted five permits during the year to build Sunni mosques and eight 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 MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it had created for individuals engaged in religious discourse.  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.  The MOJIA also continued to announce how much money an adult should give on a voluntary basis to the poor on religious feast days.  According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police again summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and had them sign pledges that they would avoid discussing politics from the pulpit.

The government continued to permit Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen 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.  Local press estimated the largest procession attracted 150,000-200,000 attendees in downtown Manama.  The government permitted public reenactments of the martyrdom 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 government stated MOI personnel had removed the banners because they violated zoning restrictions or because they contained political messages.

The government continued to permit both registered and unregistered non-Muslim 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 sermons, religious gatherings, and funerals to maintain peace and security.

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.

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.  In June government officials, diplomats, and religious leaders attended the ground breaking for the construction of a Catholic cathedral on land previously donated by the king.  The cathedral, intended to serve as headquarters for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, was scheduled to be completed by mid-2021.  The Bahrain-based head of the Catholic Church’s Northern Vicariate Bishop Camillo Ballin has resided in the country since 2011.

In March the MOJIA reported that it had concluded reconstruction to the extent feasible of 27 of the 30 mosques it had destroyed or damaged in 2011, in compliance with an independent fact-finding commission.  Of the three remaining mosques, the government reported that one, in Salmabad, was reconstructed by local residents without a permit on an “illegal” site, despite the government’s offer for an alternative site in the same neighborhood.  According to the government, the second remaining mosque, in Hawrat Sanad, remained under evaluation because nine other Shia mosques already existed within close proximity.  The government stated the third mosque, in Madinat Hamad, would likely be relocated.  Some Shia stated they remained dissatisfied with three of the 27 reconstructed mosques because they had been rebuilt in different locations.

NGOs stated the government continued its disparate treatment of Shia versus Sunni individuals and stated this different treatment fueled perceptions among the Shia community of a justice system that was biased against them.

In contrast to previous years, there were no reports during the year of Sunnis or Shia accused of crimes having their names or pictures featured in local press prior to a conviction and often that information was omitted even after sentencing.

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 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 complained 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 in-depth religious instruction for students from elementary school through high school; the remainder of their curricula being 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 discrimination against Shia in education continued.  Activists said interview panels for university scholarships continued to ask about students’ political views and family background.  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 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 that the decisions had been biased and did not reflect student merit.  There were continued reports of the MOE refusing to recognize the foreign degrees of some students, primarily those who pursued studies in China.  Some activists said these refusals disproportionately affected Shia students.

On March 14, the government announced a fine ranging from 50 dinars ($130) to 400 dinars ($1,100) for defacing the country’s passports.  It stated that writing, tearing, or stamping a passport was illegal unless done by authorized immigration officials in Bahrain or overseas.  The NIHR stated that the ban included any alterations done 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 new rule did not target sects, religious tours, individuals or countries.

NGOs reported the government continued to monitor closely the collection of funds by religious organizations, including charity donations.  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.

On July 26, at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the Secretary of State in Washington, Minister of Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa delivered remarks highlighting that “religious violence, incitement to hatred, and sectarianism have no place in Bahraini society.”  He announced the government planned to create a position of Ambassador at Large for Peace Coexistence and Religious Freedom to advocate for religious harmony and coexistence across the Middle East.  The government had not filled the position at year’s end.

Press editorials and statements from government and religious leaders emphasized the importance of religious tolerance.  In March the crown prince and foreign minister met with the president of the World Jewish Congress to discuss interfaith and religious tolerance in the country.  In June the government inaugurated the King Hamad Center 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.  In November the Bahrain News Agency reported the minister of education inaugurated the King Hamad Chair in Interfaith Dialogue and Peaceful Co-Existence at Sapienza University in Rome, which according to local Bahraini reports would allow the university students to conduct scientific research and studies in the fields of tolerance and religious science.  Local press featured photos of senior government officials visiting the Diwali festivities of several prominent Hindu families throughout the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During the year, local press reported individuals allegedly associated with militant groups committed attacks on police, and some groups claiming responsibility used Shia religious terminology to justify their attacks.  The government reported 22 police officers suffered injuries from such attacks during the year.  Protestors using Molotov cocktails in one attack on police stated they were throwing “holy fire” to demand the ruling family “step down.”

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 political figures Ali Salman and Isa Qassim.

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.

Christian community leaders stated that they continued to search for a suitable location for a new non-Muslim cemetery.

There were cremation facilities for the Hindu community.  On March 12, however, the Southern Municipal Council announced it was considering banning traditional outdoor Hindu cremations due to environmental and health concerns.  Hindu community leaders said they were not opposed to indoor incinerators since indoor cremations would be consistent with religious guidelines.

Several Hindu temples and Sikh temples operated throughout the country.  The Shri Krishna Hindu Temple was reportedly over 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 a dozen Christian churches, which included a 100-year old evangelical 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

The Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of State, Ambassador, and embassy officers met with government officials to urge respect for freedom of expression, including the right of clerics and other religious leaders to speak and write freely; to ensure full inclusion of all citizens, including members of the Shia majority, in political, social, and economic opportunities; and to pursue reconciliation between the government and Shia communities.  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.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers 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.  The Ambassador and embassy officials visited various houses of worship and attended religious events throughout the year, including the observation of Ashura, 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 sponsor 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.

In July the U.S. Department of State designated Al Ashtar Brigades (AAB) as a foreign terrorist organization.  AAB is an Iran-backed terrorist group that claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks against security targets in Bahrain, and often used Shia religious terminology and symbols in justifying their attacks.

Egypt

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

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

Iran

Executive Summary

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

According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, and employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private sector jobs.  Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.

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

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC.  The following sanction accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

International media and human rights organizations reported that the government executed Mohammad Salas, a member of the Gonabadi Sufi Dervish Order, on June 18 for allegedly killing three police officers during clashes between Gonabadi Sufis and security forces in February.  Human rights organizations, including AI, CHRI, and HRANA, decried Salas’ conviction and execution, noting marked irregularities in his case and allegations of forced confession under police torture.  The authorities reportedly denied Salas access to a lawyer and dismissed defense witnesses who could have testified to the fact that Salas was already in custody at the time of the police officers’ deaths.  According to AI, “Mohammad Salas’ trial was grossly unfair.  He said he was forced under torture to make a ‘confession’ against himself.  This ‘confession,’ taken from his hospital bed, was…used as the only piece of evidence to convict him.  He was not allowed access to his chosen lawyer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to CHRI and other human rights organizations, the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced 20 of the detained Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms for crimes of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disturbing public order,” “disobeying law enforcement agents,” and “propaganda against the state.”  Mostafa Abdi received the most severe sentence with 26 years in prison, 148 lashes, two years of internal exile in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, a two-year ban on social activities, and a two-year prohibition on traveling abroad.  In August HRW reported that authorities had sentenced at least 208 dervishes since May “to prison terms and other punishments that violate their basic rights.”  The courts delivered sentences that included prison terms ranging from four months to 26 years, flogging, internal exile, travel bans, and a ban on membership in social and political groups.  CHRI reported that on February 19 Iranian security forces arrested Reza Entessari and Kasra Nouri, reporters with the Sufi news website Majzooban-e-Noor, while they were covering the violent dispersal of protests of treatment of the Gonabadi dervishes in Tehran.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On November 23, BIC reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in multiple cities in the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan, Mazandaran, and East Azerbaijan over the course of two weeks.  The government also sentenced up to a dozen Baha’is, including nine Baha’is in Isfahan, who received a combined sentence of more than 40 years in prison on charges of “membership in the unlawful administration of the perverse Baha’i sect for the purpose of action against internal security” and “engaging in propaganda against the regime of the Islamic Republic.”

CHRI reported the government detained Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati for 10 days in September for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees.  The judiciary subsequently placed Hajati under judicial surveillance and banned him from his seat on the council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

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

During a September press briefing, the Special Representative for Iran called for an end to religious persecution in Iran, stating:  “What we are demanding of the Iranian regime…stop persecuting civil society, please provide all Iranian citizens with due process regardless of their political and religious beliefs.”  In June a Department of State spokesperson condemned “the Iranian government’s execution of Mohammad Salas, a member of the long-persecuted Iranian Gonabadi Sufi Dervish community.”

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

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State announced the redesignation of Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Israel, West Bank and Gaza

Executive Summary

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


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

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

Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity.  Jehovah’s Witnesses reported in February an unknown man pepper-sprayed two Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ashdod.  According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in October vandals damaged tombs and broke crosses at the cemetery of the Salesian Monastery at Beit Jimal near Beit Shemesh, the third attack on the monastery in three years.  Following the attack, the Israeli government offered to pay for repairs.

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.4 million (July 2018 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, Karaites, Ahmadi Muslims, 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, 17 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 in the Galilee region, some of which are homogenous; 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 September.

According to government and NGO data, as of October, foreign workers included approximately 113,000 documented foreign workers in the caregiving, agriculture, and construction sectors, including a few thousand in the “skilled worker” category and 39,000 who arrived under bilateral work agreements; 100,000 documented Palestinian workers; 40,000 undocumented Palestinian workers; and 100,000 were undocumented workers, mostly from countries of the former Soviet Union, who remained in the country after overstaying a visa-free entry or a work visa.  According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are approximately 31,000 African migrants and asylum seekers residing in the country, in addition to children born in the country to those migrants.  Foreign workers and migrants included Protestants, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims.  According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Catholics among the foreign worker population included 30,000 Filipinos, 8,000 Indians, 2,000 Sri Lankans, 2,500 Colombians, and 1,100 workers from South American countries.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Although the country has no constitution, the unicameral 120-member Knesset enacted a series of “Basic Laws” that enumerate fundamental rights, which it states will become the country’s constitutional foundation.  The “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.  Authorities subject non-Israeli residents to the same laws it applies to Israeli citizens.  Detention of Palestinians  on security grounds falls under military jurisdiction as applied by Israel to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (see “West Bank and Gaza” section), even if detained inside Israel.

On June 19, the Knesset passed a new basic law referred to as the “Nation State Law.”  The new law changed the status of Arabic from an official language, a standing it held since Israel adopted then prevailing British Mandate law in 1948, to a language with a “special status.”  The law also recognized only the Jewish People as having a national right of self-determination and called for promotion of “Jewish settlement” within Israel.

On April 30, the Knesset passed a law recommending – but not requiring – that judges use Jewish jurisprudence and heritage as a source of legal principles in cases in which there is no relevant legislation or judicial precedents.

The Chief Rabbinate retains the 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 male or female converts born after the parent’s conversion was complete.

The law recognizes 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 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.

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 law requires citizens to obtain a permit from the MOI or the Prime Minister for travel to “hostile” countries, including Saudi Arabia, which is the destination for those participating in the Hajj.  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 children, conducted in Hebrew, and Arab children, conducted in Arabic.  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.  Minors 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, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System.  Churches, however, receive only partial government funding to operate “recognized but not official” schools.  Palestinian residents of 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 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 may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religion courses.

The law 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 the Law of Return, those who completed an Orthodox 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 the Law of Return 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 2003 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.  Members of nonrecognized groups may process their personal status documents, including marriage licenses, 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 parallel jurisdiction of both religious courts 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.  On June 25, the Knesset passed a law allowing 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 live 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).  Orthodox Jewish women and Arab Christian and Muslim citizens remain exempt from mandatory military service, although they may voluntarily enlist.

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.  Approximately 400,000 citizens who identify as Jewish but do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” under Jewish religious law, 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.  All citizens who meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” are recorded as Jewish, whether Orthodox or not (unless they convert to another religion).  Of the approximately 30,000 immigrants who arrived to Israel during the year, 17,700 of them did not qualify as Jewish under the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria, according to a press report citing CBS data.

For those who did not wish to be identified with a religion, there was no mechanism to change one’s registration to “lacking religion.”

Religious identification is listed in the National Registry but not on official identity cards.

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 those who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat but not workers, except those who are self-employed.  There are exceptions for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries.  On June 18, the Knesset passed a law prohibiting hiring 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 takes effect on January 1, 2019.  An existing 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.

On January 8, following 2013 and 2017 court rulings permitting municipalities to legislate bylaws allowing commercial activity on Shabbat, the Knesset passed a law granting the minister of interior wider discretion to approve or reject bylaws on this matter.

The law states public transportation 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.  Halacha prohibits the use of motorized vehicles on Shabbat, except in emergencies.

The Chief Rabbinate has sole legal authority to issue certificates of kashrut, which certify a restaurant’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 kashrut.

The Mufti of Jerusalem issued “fatwas” (religious edicts) prohibiting Palestinian participation in Jerusalem municipal elections, and sales of land by Palestinians to the 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.

Government Practices

On July 27, Muslim protestors threw rocks and fireworks at Israeli police officers near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.  According to the government, violent acts and danger to Israeli security forces forced police to “use appropriate means to scatter the riots” and keep the peace and the public safety.  Police closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours.  These clashes led to the arrest of more than 20 individuals and injuries to four police officers, according to media reports.

Following an investigation for more than one year, State Attorney Shai Nitzan announced on May 1 he was closing, without charges, the government’s investigation into a January 2017 incident in which a police officer and a Muslim citizen died during a police action to demolish homes in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran.  Nitzan wrote he decided not to bring criminal charges against police officers after concluding police shot Abu al-Qian because they feared for their lives; however, he recommended disciplinary action against some officers due to “professional mistakes,” according to media reports.  In votes on May 9 and June 13, the Knesset rejected a proposal by MK Taleb Abu Arar, one of three Bedouins in the Knesset, to establish a Knesset inquiry into the events and all subsequent investigations leading up to Nitzan’s decision.  The Arab legal rights organization Adalah stated the decision was evidence of “whitewashing” and that the government treated Arab citizens’ lives as unequal to those of Jewish citizens.

On August 16, following an appeal by the State Attorney’s office, the Supreme Court added 18 months to a four-year sentence for Yinon Reuveni, who burned and vandalized a large section of the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha in 2015.

On April 4 in Jerusalem, two police officers reportedly hit an ultra-Orthodox man with a mental disability on the head after he briefly stopped in the road and waved his hands while walking with a group of ultra-Orthodox protesters toward a demonstration, according to the NGO Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.

On November 22, the Jerusalem District Court acquitted Jerusalem police officer Gil Zaken of charges he choked and hit in the head an ultra-Orthodox demonstrator in 2016.

Christian clergy in Jerusalem said police officers treated them with unnecessary force on two occasions.  First, in June an Ethiopian monk sustained injuries from police officers when they were they evicting him and other monks from their church.  According to media reports, police had suspected the monks of trespassing because they did not provide identification cards.  Second, on October 24, police physically removed several Coptic monks from outside a chapel in the Deir al-Sultan monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, arresting one of them when the monks refused to allow the IAA to enter and perform restoration work.  The government stated the injured monk’s refusal to obey police instructions left police with no choice but to remove him, using necessary and appropriate physical force.  Ownership of the monastery remained the subject of an ongoing dispute between the Coptic and Ethiopian churches.

On August 13, police arrested a senior official in the Chief Rabbinate for allegedly accepting a bribe to expedite issuance 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.

On July 6, a court ordered the head of the banned Northern Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, released to house arrest.  In 2017, police had arrested him on suspicion of incitement and supporting the activities of an illegal organization.

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.

On July 19, police in Haifa briefly detained and questioned Conservative Rabbi Dov Hayun on suspicion he conducted Jewish marriage ceremonies outside of the Chief Rabbinate’s authority.  The attorney general subsequently instructed police to stop investigating the rabbi before they had determined “whether his actions raise suspicion of a criminal offense.”  As of year’s end, police had not taken any further action against the rabbi.

According to data from the MRS, out 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.

Prior to marriage, the Chief Rabbinate required Jewish women to complete bridal counseling sessions.  Existing instructions from the Chief Rabbinate required these sessions 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 May 3, the rabbinical courts, which are government institutions, reported they had issued nine arrest warrants against men who refused to give a get and succeeded in securing 216 gets from intransigent husbands in 2017.  In a speech to new rabbinical court judges on October 15, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef urged them to “have the courage to render judgment” in cases of get refusal, stating, “Do whatever is necessary to make sure a divorce is granted.”

Ultra-Orthodox parties continued to block legislative changes to the status quo regarding issues of halacha and state, which opponents said perpetuated practices that infringed on religious freedom.  For example, on November 21, the Knesset defeated a bill to allow limited public transportation on Shabbat for municipalities that so chose.  Bus cooperatives, however, continued to operate lines on Shabbat in several cities.

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 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 October 29, the Supreme Court ordered Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to explain, within 60 days, why the government had not held a disciplinary hearing for Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu, a government employee.  This order followed a 2016 petition to the Supreme Court by the Israel Religious Action Center, Tag Meir, and other NGOs to initiate disciplinary hearings against Eliyahu, alleging he made a series of racist and offensive statements against Arabs, Druze, women, and the LGBTI community.  The government did not hold a disciplinary hearing for Eliyahu by the end of the year, and the case was ongoing.

The government continued to control 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, despite the fact that no law or published policy prohibits non-Islamic prayer there.  The Jordanian Government Islamic Religious Endowment (Waqf) in Jerusalem maintained the Al-Aqsa Mosque, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supported maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem.  The 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan recognized Jordan’s “special role” in relation to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.  Supporters of the status quo stated that, while not perfect, the post-1967 arrangement allowed the holy sites to be open to visitors from all faiths for the first time in Jerusalem’s millennia-old history.

Israeli police continued to be responsible for security, 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, the entrance through which non-Muslims may enter the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and allowed visitors through the gate during set visiting hours; however, police sometimes restricted this access due to security concerns.  Israeli police maintained checkpoints outside other gates to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, preventing non-Muslims from entering these other areas, but they did not coordinate 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-Muslim 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-Muslim prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

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-Muslim 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.  The government stated that police have no specific policy regarding barring individuals from entering, but police respond both to intelligence information they receive in advance as well as events that unfolding on the ground, without distinguishing between Muslim and non-Muslim visitors.  The government added it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site.  Police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious articles.  Police allowed Jewish male visitors who were visibly wearing a kippah (head covering) and tzitzit (fringes), and those who wished to enter the site barefoot (in accordance with interpretations of halacha) to enter 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-Qibli/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.  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 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.  The government stated that most of the time, police and the Waqf worked in full coordination, including regular joint sessions regarding routine activities.

On August 20, 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 court later granted government requests to extend the deadline for a response into 2019.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again reiterated his support for the post-1967 status quo understandings at holy sites in Jerusalem, including in a statement following his meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan on June 18.  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, including members of the governing coalition, called for reversing the policy of banning non-Muslim prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors.  Some government coalition Knesset members continued to call on the Israeli government to implement time-based division at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to set 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.  MK Yehuda Glick and other members of the Temple Mount movement continued to advocate for reversing the status quo prohibition on non-Muslim prayer at the site, describing it as a restriction on religious freedom.

In accordance with previously instituted practices, Israeli police announced a temporary closure of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to non-Muslim visitors during the last 10 days of Ramadan; however, the police permitted non-Muslim visits to the site during the first two days of this period.  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.”  In July Prime Minister Netanyahu rescinded his 2015 blanket prohibition of MKs and ministers visiting the site and allowed these officials to visit once a month, after obtaining approval of the Chairman of the Knesset and according to police  security assessments.

The Waqf expressed its continued concern over calls by some Jewish activists to build a third Jewish temple on the site, as well as increased numbers of visits by Jews whom the Waqf described as Jewish “Temple Mount activists.”  The Waqf also objected to increased attempts by activists to pray on the site or conduct other religious activity on the site in violation of the status quo.  Waqf officials also stated Israeli police restricted the Waqf’s administration of the site by prohibiting building and infrastructure repairs.  For example, police prevented the Waqf from carrying out repairs without advance approval and oversight from the IAA and refused to permit the entry of most maintenance equipment onto the site, according to the Waqf.  The government stated maintenance of the site was supervised by police and coordinated in advance, adding that larger scale renovations required approval and supervision by the IAA and of a ministerial committee to ensure the site is properly preserved and no archeological findings are destroyed or covered by the renovators.  In August Israeli authorities briefly detained four Waqf employees attempting to carry out repairs, but they subsequently permitted the repairs.

Waqf officials reported Israeli police on occasion detained Waqf employees (typically guards) or expelled them from the site and from the vicinity of visiting non-Muslim groups.  The government stated that on some occasions, Waqf employees with suspected connections to terrorist organizations, such as Hamas and Shabab al-Aqsa, instigated “provocations,” which police handled either by issuing a directive limiting the proximity of the Waqf employees to visiting Jewish groups, or in extreme cases, removing them from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project and other group and individuals criticized the Waqf for the “destruction of the heritage of Jews as well as Christians and Muslims” for moving soil, stones, and artifacts from dirt mounds in the courtyard the Waqf had previously dug up during controversial excavations.  According to a media report, the mixed pile of dirt had limited archaeological value because it was already out of its original archeological strata; however, artifacts in the dirt could be of historical value.

On March 26, for the first time, authorities allowed Temple Mount activists to conduct a ritual slaughter of sheep for Passover in the Davidson Center Archaeological Park, below the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

At the main Western Wall plaza, the place of worship nearest Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to permit persons of all faiths to pray individually and quietly and Jewish men to conduct Orthodox Jewish prayer in groups, with separation of women and men.  The government, however, continued to prohibit at the main plaza 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.

Police continued to allow the group Women of the Wall to enter the women’s area of the main Western Wall plaza for its monthly service.  In June, following a request from the police and the government-sponsored Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Attorney General’s Office ruled the Women of the Wall must hold their monthly service in a barricaded area in the women’s section, which police set up on a side of the women’s section not touching the Western Wall.  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.  The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill the agreement.  In August a special government committee approved expansion of the platform through a fast-track planning process.  The court case was ongoing as of the end of the year.

On May 13, the government allocated 200 million shekels ($53.35 million) to the MOT for the planning and establishment of a cable car from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City.  The plan included building a roof over a Karaite cemetery under the path of the cable car to resolve Orthodox Jewish concerns about use of the cable car by Jewish men with priestly patrilineage (kohanim), for whom it is halachically forbidden to contract ritual impurity by “sheltering” over a corpse.  The Karaite community objected to the plan, saying building a roof over the cemetery would render it ritually impure according to Karaite beliefs, preventing further use of the cemetery.

The security barrier dividing most of the West Bank from Israel also divided some Palestinian communities in 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, criticized the July passage of the new Nation State Law.  The law called for promoting “Jewish settlement,” which non-Jewish organizations and leaders said they feared would lead to increased discrimination in housing and land issues.  Druze leaders decried the law for relegating what they termed a loyal minority that serves in the military to second-class-citizen status.  Opponents, including the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, also criticized the law for failing to mention the principle of equality in order to prevent harm to the rights of non-Jewish minorities.  Supporters stated it was necessary to anchor the country’s Jewish character in a basic law to balance the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, which anchored the country’s democratic character with protection of individual rights, noting the Supreme Court had already interpreted the 1992 law as mandating equality.  According to press reports, on August 4, a demonstration in Tel Aviv comprised of approximately 90,000 members of the Druze community and Jewish supporters protested the law.  A week later, press reported that 30,000 Arab citizen protestors and their Jewish supporters also took part in a protest against the law in Tel Aviv.  Political leaders conceded the need to address the criticisms of the Druze community.  As of the end of the year, multiple lawsuits challenging the Nation State Law were pending with the Supreme Court.

On May 5, the government announced it had begun 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.  In 2017, the Rabbinical Courts Administration named a female deputy director-general for the first time.  Because only men may become rabbis under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law, there were no female judges in rabbinical courts, although some women have acted as rabbinic pleaders (equivalent to lawyers) since 1995.

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 whom the government said became ineligible when they converted to another religion, including those holding Messianic or Christian beliefs.

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.  In August, for the first time, the Jerusalem District Court recognized a non-Rabbinate Orthodox conversion through the NGO Giyur k’Halacha.  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 Supreme Court case to grant immigration rights to those who completed Reform or Conservative conversions inside the country continued through year’s end.

On June 3, a committee headed by former Justice Minister Moshe Nissim made recommendations for proposed legislation on a new conversion law.  Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed the committee in 2017 in response to the 2005 Supreme Court petition by the Conservative and Reform Jewish movements for recognition of non-Orthodox conversions inside the country.  The recommendations did not receive political support from any of the Jewish Knesset factions, and the government did not act on them by the end of the year.  At a Supreme Court hearing on December 17, the government requested a six-month extension for the presentation of its plan.  By year’s end, the court had not rendered a decision on the extension request.

On January 15, the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs discussed incidents in which the Population and Immigration Authority incorrectly registered as Christian immigrants from the former Soviet Union who self-identified as Jewish.  Ha’aretz reported in September 2017 that the Chief Rabbinate had changed the registration status of 900 persons from Jewish to non-Jewish or “pending clarification” in 2015 and 2016.  ITIM petitioned the Supreme Court against these changes and the case continued at year’s end.

In October an individual petitioned the District Court in Haifa to change his registration from Jewish to “lacking religion.”  The court scheduled a hearing for January 2019.

Several municipalities filed legal challenges in the Supreme Court against the January 8 law granting the minister of interior wider discretion to approve or reject bylaws allowing commercial activity on Shabbat.  These challenges followed Interior Minister Aryeh Deri’s rejection from June to August of five municipalities’ bylaws that would have legalized commerce on Shabbat, according to media reports.  Sources stated some non-kosher restaurants that opened on Shabbat paid fines that varied according to local laws.

On July 19, Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev signed a regulation conditioning government funding of Israeli sports associations, except soccer associations, on their accommodation of Shabbat-observant athletes.

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 Israel 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.  On May 29, 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 February 19, the government passed a motion to recognize more Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders (keisim) and integrate them into Jewish religious councils.  According to recommendations published November 7 by a special government committee, keisim would be allowed to conduct some community religious functions but not marriages and funerals, unless they underwent the rabbinical ordination process and applied individually to the Chief Rabbinate.  On October 7, the cabinet approved a plan to facilitate immigration of approximately 1,000 parents from Ethiopia’s Falash Mura community whose children were already in Israel.

In 2017, the government cable and satellite-broadcasting regulator fined Channel 20, the “Heritage Channel,” 100,800 shekels ($26,900) for excluding the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements from its programming, because its license described the outlet as a platform for all streams of Judaism.  Channel 20 appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.  On May 9, the court ruled an administrative court would adjudicate the appeal.  The case was ongoing in the Court for Administrative Affairs in Jerusalem as of the end of the year.

In June, following a Supreme Court challenge by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the government announced attendance at a presentation to introduce an expedited Orthodox Jewish conversion course would no longer be mandatory for IDF soldiers who self-identified as Jewish but were not recognized by the Rabbinate as Jewish.  The government stated the IDF would instead send invitations to IDF soldiers for the presentation; those who do not wish to participate could be excused.

In September 2017, the Supreme Court struck down the existing arrangement to exempt ultra-Orthodox men from military service, and it set a deadline of one year to pass new legislation to reduce inequality in the burden of military service between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews.  Some ultra-Orthodox communities stated that mandatory conscription was a violation of the right to conscientious objection on the basis of their religious beliefs.  On October 14, the Ministry of Defense sent a letter to the Eda Haredit community rejecting this argument.  Following a request from the government for more time to pass a new draft law, on December 2, the Supreme Court agreed to postpone the deadline to 2019.

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.

The government continued to operate a special police unit for the investigation of “ideology-based offenses” in Israel and the West Bank, including “price tag” attacks, which refer to violence by Jewish individuals and groups against non-Jewish individuals and property with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government against the attackers’ interests.  The government continued to classify any association using the phrase “price tag” as an illegal association and a price tag attack as a security (as opposed to criminal) offense.  On March 29, the Lod District Court convicted one person of “membership in a terrorist organization” for a 2015 price tag attack, according to media reports.

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, according to the website of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center.  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.

In April the Watchtower Association of Israel (Jehovah’s Witnesses) sued the government in the Supreme Court to process its application for a tax exemption from capital gains transactions, which it submitted in 2012.  In 2016, the tax authority had approved its application and forwarded it to the Knesset Finance Committee, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The Supreme Court scheduled a hearing for January 16, 2019.

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.  However, the government included the basic curriculum in public ultra-Orthodox schools.  This category included 43 schools with 5,652 students in the 2017-2018 school year, an increase of 20 percent from the previous year, according to media reports.  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 school girls were 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 fund fully Christian schools if they became part of the public school system, but the churches rejected this option, stating 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.

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.  In April the Jehovah’s Witnesses submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court requesting official recognition as a religious community.  A hearing was scheduled for January 2019.  The government stated some leaders of nonrecognized religions were invited and participated along with the leaders of recognized religions at official events or ceremonies.

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 religions in accordance with the law.  The government stated it was unaware of any recent case in which a religious house of worship in Israel was not granted a property tax exemption.

In February the Jerusalem municipality began to enforce collection of taxes on church properties used for nonworship activities, such as friars’ residences and parish halls, issuing retroactive fines and placing liens on bank accounts belonging to several churches.  Then-Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat said the city was owed 650 million shekels ($173.4 million) in uncollected taxes on church assets.  On February 25, leaders of 14 Christian churches in Jerusalem, including the Greek Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), and Armenian Orthodox Churches, issued a joint letter condemning the decision, after the Jerusalem municipality announced it would start collecting back taxes on church-owned property and freeze financial accounts used by churches for their day-to-day operations.  Church leaders also expressed concern over the introduction of a draft Knesset bill that would allow the government to expropriate lands sold by a church to private investors, with compensation to the investors for the price they paid for the land.  In their joint statement, the church leaders accused the government of a “systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land.”  The bill’s sponsor stated the purpose of the bill was to protect thousands of residents living in buildings built on church lands that private developers purchased from a church.  Those residents reportedly feared massive price hikes or eviction when their leases expired.

In protest against the tax collection and the property expropriation bill, church leaders closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on February 25, the first such closure since 1990.  They reopened the church on February 28 after Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the government would freeze the tax collection and suspend consideration of the property expropriation bill and establish a working group led by Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi to examine the two issues.  In a statement following Minister Hanegbi’s meeting with the working group on October 23, the MFA stated the government “has no intention to confiscate church lands or to cause any economic damage to the churches.”  When church leaders learned the bill would come before the Knesset on November 11, they pressured the government, which again froze debate on the bill.  Church leaders again expressed outrage when the bill was scheduled to be read in the Knesset on December 24, Christmas Eve.  The bill did not progress further before the Knesset voted to dissolve itself on December 26.

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.  The government also said there were some “unavoidable delays” in cases of applicants from states 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 have 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.

On June 28, the Supreme Court rejected a petition from the organization Yesh Gvul demanding the government give equal weight to military exemption requests based on conscientious objection as for those based on religious beliefs.  The court ruled the two kinds of exemptions were based on different parts of the Security Service Law; exemption for Orthodox Jewish women based on their religious beliefs was a right, while exemption of conscientious objectors was at the discretion of the defense minister.

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 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 nonstate 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 includes a program for teaching Islam in schools.  The leaders stated that none of those institutes was an Islamic seminary.

According to the NGO Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF), 115 of the 126 Jewish communities in the Negev maintained admission committees to screen new residents, effectively excluding non-Jewish residents.  Following objections by multiple NGOs, authorities canceled plans for new Jewish communities called Daya, Eshel HaNasi, and Neve Gurion to replace existing Bedouin villages.  In August the National Planning and Building Council recommended that the government proceed with the establishment of a town called Ir Ovot, which was to include a zone for approximately 50 Bedouin Israelis to remain in their current locations.

On April 11, Bedouin residents of Umm al-Hiran signed an agreement 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 decision followed years of legal battles and negotiations, in preparation for replacing Umm al-Hiran with a Jewish community called Hiran.  Jewish families sponsored by the OR Movement (an organization dedicated to expanding the Jewish population of the Negev region), who planned 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 cemeteries remained sealed and inaccessible, including to Muslims.  These sites belonging to the defunct prestate Waqf (not to be confused with the 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.  On December 5, 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 a Muslim 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.”  In November MK Ayman Odeh raised 160,000 shekels ($42,700) to help the Haifa Muslim community repurchase a section of the Independence Mosque in Haifa that government-appointed trustees had previously sold.

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.  For example, Be’er Sheva’s Muslim population of approximately 10,000 continued to travel to nearby Bedouin towns to pray because e they could not use an Ottoman-era Be’er Sheva mosque the government previously converted to a museum of Islamic culture and the government would not authorize the construction of another mosque.

On July 30, the Ministry of Transportation ordered the expropriation of land previously allocated to a Karaite synagogue in Ramle for the purpose of building a highway interchange.  The Karaites said the loss of land and the new interchange would disrupt their religious and communal activity.  On December 11, the Supreme Court dismissed their appeal on procedural grounds, stating the case should be submitted to a lower court.  The government subsequently reported the government and community reached an agreement that would minimize the amount of land expropriated and optimize use of the land for the synagogue’s needs.

The IDF continued to have only Orthodox Jewish chaplains; the government employed civilian non-Jewish clergy as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier died in service.  The MOI continued to provide imams to conduct military funerals according to Islamic customs.  In 2017, the IDF issued new regulations allowing secular military funerals.

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, leading the Jerusalem District Court to rule in 2017 that the municipality would face a fine of 10,000 shekels ($2,700) per day if the signs remained posted.  In December 2017, the municipality took down six of the eight signs, but did not then remove the remaining two due to a protest.  Local residents put up new signs to replace those the municipality removed.  On February 18, the Supreme Court ordered the municipality to install security cameras and take action against individuals posting the signs.  As of September police had not made any arrests.  The municipality had not installed cameras as of November, according to media reports.  The court case continued through December.

In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, vandals repeatedly tore down or defaced billboards showing pictures of women, including commercial advertisements, public awareness campaigns, and political advertisements.  In July police arrested six ultra-Orthodox men for vandalizing campaign signs of a female candidate for mayor of Jerusalem, according to media reports.

In response to NGO Secular Forum’s petition against a ban on bringing leavened bread and similar foods into public hospitals during Passover, the government told the Supreme Court in July that it would expand the role of hospital security guards on Passover to include checking visitors’ belongings for such foods.  The case was ongoing at year’s end.

The government continued to enforce the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry prohibiting non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, from obtaining resident status unless the MOI made a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds.  The government stated it has extended the law annually due to government reports that Palestinian family reunification allowed entry to a disproportionate number of persons who were later involved in acts of terrorism.  The NGO HaMoked said that statistics from government documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests contradicted these terrorism allegations, and the denial of residency to Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza for the purposes of family reunification led to cases of family separation.

According to 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 residents’ Palestinian spouses living in East Jerusalem without legal status.  Some Palestinian residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the security barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency.  According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry foreign Christians (Christians who hold neither citizenship nor residency).  Christian religious leaders 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.  Other factors 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 restriction 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.  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 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have acquired property built on ILA-owned land.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that during the year the government positively addressed two longstanding visa cases involving foreigners married to citizens.

NGOs reported incidents in which authorities violated the freedom not to practice religion, particularly in the secular public education system and the military.  For example, the Secular Forum criticized the MOE’s “Jewish Israeli culture curriculum” for students in first to ninth grade, 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.

In some instances, the IDF did not permit soldiers to cook or heat water for a shower on Shabbat, according to media reports.  The government stated soldiers were expected to respect Shabbat and kashrut in IDF base kitchens “in order to accommodate religious and kosher-observant soldiers.”  The government said it was not aware of limitations on heating water for showers on bases.

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.  For example, IDF commanders sometimes asked female soldiers serving in leadership or instructor positions to allow a male colleague to assume their duties when religious soldiers who objected to interacting with females were present, according to the Israel Women’s Network.  In response to this claim and similar allegations in media reports, IDF Chief of Personnel Director Major General Almoz said such practices “are in violation of Army orders and policy, do unnecessary harm to large groups serving in the Army, and are inconsistent with IDF commanders’ responsibility.”  According to many observers, the trend in recent years has been toward greater inclusion of women in the IDF, including in combat roles and senior leadership positions.

NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem continued to state the IAA emphasized archaeological finds that bolstered Jewish claims while minimizing historically significant archaeological finds of other religions.  In 2017, the Supreme Court upheld the MRS’ declaration that the Western Wall tunnels were an exclusively Jewish holy site, but ruled that the MRS and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation must ensure those sections of the tunnels significant to Muslims and Christians – including excavations of a Christian chapel, an Islamic school, and Islamic Mamluk-era buildings – were properly managed to protect the antiquities and to ensure access for members of other religions.  The government stated the IAA conducted impartial evaluations of all unearthed archeological finds and by law the IAA must document, preserve, and publish all findings from excavations.  It added that IAA researchers “have greatly intensified their research of ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk, and Ottoman periods.”

The interreligious council convened on May 8 and discussed the integration of Bedouin Muslims into the Israeli economy and higher education, according to the government.

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 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, security camera footage showed ultra-Orthodox men vandalizing the Beit Hallel Messianic Jewish house of worship in Ashdod in September, and members of the Ashdod Messianic Jewish community complained of stalking, verbal abuse, and harassment from anti-missionary organizations.

Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that on February 17, a man pepper-sprayed two Jehovah’s Witnesses who had knocked on the door of his home in Ashdod.  Police closed the case on the grounds the suspect was unknown, even though the victims provided police with the address of the house where the attack occurred.  Jehovah’s Witnesses said a television reporter conducted an “ambush interview” on June 14 in front of a Jehovah’s Witnesses literature display in Tel Aviv, selecting a member of Yad L’Achim, a Jewish group that opposes conversion of Jews to other religions, to comment about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Yad L’Achim activist made numerous discriminatory and derogatory statements about them.

Lehava, described by press as a radical right-wing Jewish group opposing romantic relationships between Jews and non-Jews, continued to assault Arab men whom they perceived to be consorting with Jewish women, according to the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).  Following a 2017 IRAC petition to the High Court demanding Lehava leader Ben-Tzion Gopstein be indicted on a series of offenses, the Jerusalem District Attorney held a pre-indictment hearing for Gopstein on March 8 on charges of incitement to violence, racism, terrorism, and obstruction of justice.  On March 14, IRAC withdrew its petition after the government stated to the court that it would decide whether to indict Gopstein.  In August IRAC wrote a letter to the state attorney requesting a decision regarding an indictment.  Prosecutors had not filed an indictment as of the end of the year.

In April authorities indicted seven Jewish Israelis on charges of terrorism targeting Arab (Muslim or Christian) citizens of Israel in a series of attacks, including a stabbing, in Be’er Sheva that began in 2016, according to media reports.  According to the indictment, on several occasions the defendants assaulted men whom they believed were Arab to deter them from dating Jewish women.  In a plea bargain, the Be’er Sheva District Court issued a five and a half year sentence to Raz Amitzur, the “main spirit of a group that perpetrated these attacks with a racist motive,” according to prosecutors.  The court sentenced four other members of the group to community service, according to media reports.

There continued to be reports of ultra-Orthodox Jews in public areas of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods harassing, with verbal abuse, spitting, or throwing stones, individuals who did not conform to Jewish Orthodox traditions, such as by not wearing modest dress or driving on Shabbat.  For example, on July 15, a widely publicized video showed a group of ultra-Orthodox men in Beit Shemesh chasing and yelling at a girl for dressing in a way they perceived as immodest.  There continued to be reports of ultra-Orthodox men spitting at individuals wearing Christian clerical clothing, according to church leaders.  In Jerusalem, these incidents often occurred in the Old City and near the shared holy site of the Cenacle (devotional site of the Last Supper)/David’s Tomb outside the southeastern wall of the Old City.

Muslim activists reported hijab-wearing women sometimes experienced harassment by non-Muslims on public buses in Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

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 March 22, in a demonstration by the ultra-Orthodox Hapeleg Hayerushalmi group against the arrest of a military deserter, clashes broke out between demonstrators and police.  According to media reports, demonstrators threw stones and other objects at police, used tear gas against police officers, and vandalized cars.  Police dispersed protesters with “skunk water” (a foul-smelling, nonlethal liquid used by the government for crowd control) and arrested more than 30 protesters.  In a separate incident on April 4, police used stun grenades against ultra-Orthodox protestors who threw objects at cars, according to media reports.

In June Yad L’Achim posted videos of their activists harassing alleged proselytizers.  The organization also claimed to have “rescued” individuals from Messianic Jewish congregations and continued to offer assistance to Jewish women and their children to “escape” cohabitation with Arab men, sometimes by “launching military-like rescues from hostile Arab villages,” according to Yad L’Achim’s website.  Media reported in October, in the context of municipal elections, that the Ramle branch of the Jewish Home party posted billboards warning against marriages between Jews and Muslims.  The national Jewish Home party reportedly disavowed the billboards.  The October wedding of Muslim news anchor Lucy Aharish and Jewish actor Tzahi Halevi drew rebukes from Jewish politicians who opposed marriage between Jews and non-Jews.

Unknown suspects vandalized a Conservative synagogue in Netanya in three incidents in May.  According to media reports, an unidentified individual spray-painted Nazi symbols on the Mikdash Moshe Synagogue in Petakh Tikva on August 13, and vandals placed a pig’s head at the entrance to the Sukkat Shaul Synagogue in Ramat Hasharon on November 9.

The most common “price tag” offenses, according to police, were attacks on vehicles, defacement of real estate, damage to Muslim and Christian holy sites, assault, and damage to agricultural lands.  For example, according to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in October vandals damaged tombs and broke crosses at the cemetery of the Salesian Monastery at Beit Jimal near Beit Shemesh, the third attack on the monastery in three years.  An October 18 statement from the Latin Patriarchate criticized Israeli authorities for failing to apprehend the culprits in any of the preceding cases.  The same day, the MFA condemned the desecration of the cemetery.  The MOI offered to pay for the repair of the damaged cemetery markers and headstones.

On April 25, vandals burned two cars and spray-painted anti-Arab graffiti in the village of Iksal in the northern part of the country in a suspected “price tag” attack.  Police had not arrested any suspects as of October.  On October 26, vandals punctured tires and spray-painted “revenge” and “price tag” in Hebrew on 20 cars in Yafia, near Nazareth, according to media reports.  The NGO Tag Meir continued to organize visits to areas where “price tag” attacks occurred and sponsored activities to promote 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, 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, but in other cases reported on social media and by NGOs, police appeared not to notice the acts.  Some Jewish groups escorted by Israeli police performed religious acts such as prayers, wedding rituals, 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, a national holiday commemorating Israel’s establishment of control over all Jerusalem in the 1967 war.  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.

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 October, following press reports Jews had purchased 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, members of the Palestinian community called on al-Husseini to relinquish the keys to the church.  According to Ha’aretz, in November every cemetery in East Jerusalem refused to bury a victim of a car accident because his name was associated with the sale of a house to Jews.

NGOs reported that some LGBTI minors who revealed their sexual orientation in religious communities faced expulsion from their homes and stigmatization from rabbis as suffering from mental illness, leading some to attempt suicide.  Other NGOs noted increasing numbers of rabbis, educators, and community leaders in Orthodox Jewish communities were adopting a more inclusive approach to LGBTI minors.

On February 6, Tzohar, a network of Zionist Orthodox rabbis, announced it was opening a nongovernmental certification authority for businesses adhering to Jewish dietary laws.  Tzohar’s decision followed a September 2017 Supreme Court ruling allowing a business to display “a true presentation regarding the standards it observes and the manner of supervising their observance,” but without using the word “kashrut,” which the court affirmed only the Chief Rabbinate had authority to determine.

In June media reported the Barkan kosher winery had removed workers of Ethiopian descent from their positions in the production of wine after the NGO Badatz Eda Haredit expressed doubt that Ethiopian-Israelis were Jewish.  Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef criticized the winery and the Badatz Eda Haredit, and stated categorically that Jews of Ethiopian descent were Jewish.  Barkan Winery subsequently issued a statement that their products with a Badatz Eda Haredit kashrut certificate would be destroyed, according to Kan Radio.

According to sources who conducted Jewish weddings outside the Rabbinate’s authority (i.e., did not register them), the vague wording of the law dealing with those who conducted such weddings and the government’s nonenforcement of the law enabled non-Rabbinate Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish weddings to occur openly, often as an act of protest against the Rabbinate’s authority.  According to the NGO Panim, more than 2,400 Jewish weddings took place outside of the Rabbinate’s authority in 2017, an increase of 8 percent from 2016.  Most Jewish citizens, including those who were secular, continued to use Rabbinate-approved Orthodox rabbis to conduct their weddings.  The only mechanism for Jews to gain state recognition of a non-Orthodox wedding or a non-Rabbinate Orthodox wedding, however, remained to wed outside the country and then register the marriage with the MOI.  Approximately 15 percent of marriages registered with the MOI in 2016, the most recent year available, occurred abroad, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.  According to data from the MRS, most of these weddings involved Israelis who had emigrated from the former Soviet Union.

In July, after police detained and questioned a Conservative rabbi in Haifa for conducting weddings outside of the Rabbinate, dozens of officiants and couples who had married outside of the Rabbinate turned themselves in at police stations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and others “confessed” their crime on social media.  Police declined to arrest any of the individuals involved.

According to the Rackman Center, thousands of Jewish women were “trapped” in various stages of informal or formal get refusal, especially in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities.  In two cases of get refusal, the NGOs Center for Women’s Justice and Mavoi Satum helped women receive marriage nullification decrees from nongovernmental Orthodox rabbinical courts in June and July.

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 June the Israel Women’s Network asked the Tel Aviv Municipality and the deputy attorney general not to allow an ultra-Orthodox group to hold a gender-segregated event in Tel Aviv.  The municipality canceled the event, and then accepted a Tel Aviv District Court suggestion to allow the event with partial gender segregation on June 24.  According to a media report citing government data, the Office for Development of the Periphery, Negev, and Galilee funded more than 80 gender-segregated events during the year to accommodate strict interpretations of halacha.

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 245 interfaith encounters in Israel (including Jerusalem), of which 120 included Palestinians residents of the West Bank.  The number of children studying at integrated Jewish-Arab schools in the school year beginning in September was 1,700, up from 1,100 five years earlier, according to media reports.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

During a visit in January, the U.S. Vice President met with the prime minister, the president, and other government officials.  Discussions included combating religious-based violence and building a future of trust, harmony, tolerance, and respect for members of all faiths.  The Vice President visited religious sites and the Yad Vashem memorial for Holocaust victims in Jerusalem.

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 at public events, embassy officials also stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for all religious groups, including in two embassy-hosted live discussions of religious freedom on social media in November.  The online discussions 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, including conferences at which 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.

Embassy-hosted events included an interfaith Ramadan 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, including a project by the Citizens Accord Forum that brought together ultra-Orthodox, Muslim, and Christian citizens to create a shared civic agenda and implement activities related to social issues of common concern in their communities.  Another project supported dialogue between religious Jewish, Muslim, and Christian women.

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.  For example, the Ambassador and Minister of Social Equality Gila Gamliel hosted an investment conference promoting Arab high-tech startups with Israeli Jewish and international investors in Nazareth on December 11.

The embassy supported a project to bring together Jewish, Muslim, and Christian female artists in Haifa, Jerusalem, and Lod to foster economic empowerment and encourage interfaith dialogue.

The embassy and consulate jointly provided a grant to the Abu Tor Good Neighbors project to advance cooperation and mutually beneficial community services for Jews and Arabs living in the mixed Jerusalem residential neighborhood of Abu Tor, where Jews and Arabs live on opposite sides of a road without much interaction.


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

Jordan

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.5 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims, virtually all of whom are Sunni, make up 97.2 percent of the population and Christians 2.2 percent.  Groups constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, and Druze (who are considered Muslim by the government).  These estimates do not include migrant workers or refugees.  According to the Ministry of Labor (MOL), there are approximately 670,000 migrant workers in the country, mostly from Egypt, South and East Asia, and Africa.  Migrant workers from Africa and South and East Asia are often Hindu or Christian.  There are more than 757,000 refugees in the country registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 57 countries of origin, including approximately 670,000 Syrians and 67,000 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

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam “the religion of the state” but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality.  The constitution stipulates there shall be no discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion.  It states the king must be a Muslim.  The constitution allows for religious courts, including sharia courts for Muslims and courts for non-Muslim for religious communities recognized by the government.

The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so.  The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims and allow these courts to prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion.  Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates.  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 presence 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 Churches before converting a Christian to Islam, 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 Jordanians in a manner that violates their dignity, according to government statements.

Authorities may prosecute individuals who proselytize Muslims under the penal code’s provisions against “inciting sectarian conflict” or “harming the national unity.”  Although these prosecutions may occur in the State Security Court, cases are usually tried in other courts.  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.  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 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.

Nonrecognized religious groups 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 and as such may designate an individual to perform these functions on behalf of the unrecognized group, however.  To register as a recognized religious group, 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 minister of the interior and the Council of Church Leaders (CCL), a government advisory body comprising the heads of the country’s 11 officially recognized Christian denominations.  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.

The law 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 Ministry of Interior as well, but have not been permitted to establish a court:  the Free Evangelical Church, Nazarene Church, Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Baptists.  The government has continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The government granted legal status 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 and Islamic Affairs manages mosques, including appointing imams, paying mosque staff salaries, managing Islamic clergy training centers, and subsidizing 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.

Since 2017, the government requires imams to adhere to officially prescribed themes and texts for Friday sermons.  According to the law, 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 Ministry of Awqaf employment.  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 dinars ($28).

The law forbids any Islamic cleric from issuing a fatwa unless officially 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 imposes a fine on violators of up to 20,000 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 legally including 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.”  In order to operate a school, religious institutions must receive permission from the Ministry of Education, which ensures the curriculum meets national standards.  The Ministry of Education does not oversee religious courses if religious groups offer them at their places of worship.  In several cities, recognized Christian groups – including Baptists, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics – operate private schools and are able to conduct classes on Christianity.  The schools 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 it is optional for non-Muslims.  Every student, however, must pass an Arabic language exam in his or her final year of high school, which includes linguistic mastery of some verses of the Quran.  Islamic religion is an optional subject for university entrance 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 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 denominations lacking their own courts must 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-Muslim religious community selects the structure and members of its own tribunal.  The law stipulates the cabinet must ratify the procedures of each non-Muslim religious (known as ecclesiastical) courts.  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 for their 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 loses custody of the children when they reach seven years of age.  In December an amendment to the Personal Status Law was passed, stipulating that mothers should retain custody of their children until age 18.  The new amendment contains no mention of religious affiliation.  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.  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 Islamic legal provisions regarding inheritance if no equivalent inheritance guidelines are codified in their religion or if the state does not recognize their religion.

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 families 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 the electronic records.  Converts from Christianity to Islam may 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 out of 130 parliamentary seats or 6.9 percent.  Christians may not run for additional seats.  No seats are reserved for adherents of other minority religious groups.  The government classifies Druze as Muslims and permits them to hold office.

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

Government Practices

On December 10, the Attorney General ordered the detention of media personality Mohammad al-Wakeel and an editor working at his website, Al-Wakeel News, for posting on Facebook a cartoon deemed offensive to Jesus.  Authorities charged the men with sectarian incitement and causing religious strife per the article of the penal code stipulating hate speech, as well as with violations of the cybercrimes law and the press and publications law.  The cartoon, posted on December 8, depicted Turkish chef “Salt Bae” – real name Nusret Gokce – sprinkling salt on the food at the Last Supper of Jesus.  Social media users commented to the website that the drawing was religiously insensitive and would cause strife between Muslims and Christians in the country.  The post was taken down a few hours later, and al-Wakeel published an apology to the public.  Authorities released Al-Wakeel and the editor, Ghadeer Rbeihat, two days later.

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 ban on conversion under sharia, government officials generally refused to change 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.  During the year, several adult Christians reported discovering that because of a parent’s subsequent conversion to Islam, the individuals had been automatically re-registered as Muslims in some government files, leading to inconsistencies in their records and causing bureaucratic obstacles and administrative holdups when trying to apply for marriage licenses or register for university.

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 reportedly continued to try 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 reportedly continued to enforce the interview requirement, introduced in 2017, for converts to Islam to determine whether their conversion reflected a genuine religious belief.

According to journalists who cover religious topics, the government continued to monitor sermons at mosques and to require that preachers refrain from political commentary, which the government deemed could instigate social or political unrest, and to counter radicalization.  Authorities continued to disseminate themes and required imams to choose from a list of recommended texts for sermons.  Imams who violated these rules continued to risk being fined or banned from preaching.  According to the grand mufti, the Ministry of Awqaf discovered some unregistered imams leading prayers in mosques during the year.  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 for the consolidation of Friday prayers into central mosques over which they had more oversight.  There continued to be unofficial mosques operating outside Ministry of Awqaf control in many cities, as well as imams outside of government employment who preached without Ministry of Awqaf supervision.

In March the government began enforcing a new residency policy enacted in October 2017 to limit the ability of churches to sponsor religious volunteers for residency, suggesting that the volunteers were illegally proselytizing Muslims.  Authorities previously allowed the churches to obtain residency status for religious volunteers with the approval of the Ministry of Interior and a letter of sponsorship from the church.  Volunteers must now obtain additional approvals, including the MOL, lengthening the average renewal process by several months.

The government policy of not recognizing the Baha’i Faith continued, but the government continued to allow Baha’is to practice their religion and included them in interfaith events.  Sharia courts and the courts of other recognized religions continued not to issue to 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 the family 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 which sometimes amounted to more than 500 dinars ($710) for documents normally available for five dinars ($7) through religious courts.

Other nonrecognized religious groups reported they continued to operate schools and hospitals, and also to hold services and meetings if they were low profile.

According to observers, recognized Christian denominations with the rights and privileges associated with membership in the CCL guarded this status, and continued to foster a degree of competition among other religious groups hoping to attain membership.  Despite efforts to alter their status, some evangelical Christian groups remained unrecognized either as denominations or as associations.  Leaders from some CCL-affiliated churches continued to say that 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.

Some Christian leaders continued to express concern the CCL did not meet regularly and lacked the capacity to manage the affairs of both recognized and nonrecognized Christian groups effectively and fairly, especially in relation to their daily lives.  Most CCL leaders remained based in Jerusalem.

Security forces confirmed they devoted extra resources to protect Christian neighborhoods and churches for holidays and special events, increasing security even further after an August 10 attack targeting Jordanian security forces near a music festival outside the predominantly Christian town of Fuhais.  Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of the government effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including security for religious worshippers.  The church leaders stated they especially appreciated the extra protection during religious holidays and large events.

Druze continued to worship at 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.  Religious minorities, including Christians and Druze, served in parliament and as cabinet ministers.  Druze continued to report discrimination in 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 violating the public order if they proselytized Muslims.  Security officials continued to refuse to renew residency permits for some foreign religious leaders and religious volunteers living in the country after raising concerns their activities could incite extremist attacks.  Others were refused on the basis of proselytization accusations and additional requirements were imposed on residency renewals for religious volunteers in general.

There continued to be two recognized Baha’i 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 constituting a large financial burden.

The Ministry of Education did not undertake school curriculum revisions during the year, following a rolling back of curriculum revisions that met with resistance in 2017.  Intended to promote tolerance, 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.

In August amendments to the cybercrimes law were introduced to parliament including increased penalties for a broadened definition of online hate speech, defined as “any statement or act that would provoke religious, sectarian, ethnic, or regional sedition; calling for violence and justifying it; or spreading rumors against people with the aim of causing them, as a result, physical harm or damage to their assets or reputation.”  After sustained public protest, the amendments were withdrawn and re-submitted to parliament with a tighter definition that excluded mention of religion.  The new amendment, still under consideration by parliament at the end of the year, defines hate speech as “any statement or act intended to provoke “sectarian or racial tension or strife among different elements of the nation.”

In June the Templeton Foundation announced that King Abdullah would receive the 2018 Templeton Prize, which honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.  In the award announcement, the foundation said the king “has done more to seek religious harmony within Islam and between Islam and other religions than any other living political leader.”  The king received the award in a ceremony at the Washington National Cathedral on November 13.

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 converts from Islam to Christianity reported they worshipped in secret because of the social stigma they faced as converts.  Some converts from Islam reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor.

Interfaith religious leaders reported continuing online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and those who advocated religious moderation, frequently through social media.  Mohammad Nuh al-Qudah, a member of parliament and prominent Muslim preacher, on his online television show criticized females, especially young women, who did not wear the hijab, calling them blasphemous and stupid.

There was also an uptick in hate speech in social media and in the press directed at the Jewish faith after the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Articles frequently appeared in mainstream media outlets such as Al Ghad that referred to Judaism in Arabic as “the heresy of the Zionist people,” described estimates of the number of Jews as fabricated, celebrated a perceived decline in the number of Jews, and ended with statements such as “the future is ours.”

Some social media users defended religious freedom, including a mostly critical reaction to al-Qudah’s remarks and calls for his show to be cancelled.  Thousands of Christians and Muslims also left comments online condemning a University of Jordan professor’s lecture in March which criticized the Bible along with the Christian and Jewish faiths.  Following this incident, which provoked condemnation from Speaker of Parliament Atef Tarawneh and other members of parliament, the professor ended his many-year practice of posting lectures online.   

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.

Church leaders continued to report incidents of violence and discrimination against religious converts and individuals in interfaith romantic relationships.  Some converts from Islam expressed interest in resettlement abroad due to discrimination and threats of violence.  Individuals in interfaith romantic relationships continued to report ostracism and, in some cases, feuds among family members and violence toward the individuals involved.

The Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute, Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center (JICRC), Community Ecumenical Center, and Catholic Center for Media Studies continued to sponsor initiatives promoting collaboration among religious groups.  In September the JICRC and National Council for Family Affairs hosted a Family and Societal Harmony Conference, which compared the family and institutional experiences of Muslims and Christians in Jordan and explored ways to work together to counter violence, extremism, and terrorism.  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.

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, the grand mufti, the 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.  In June the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith iftar during Ramadan with the expressed purpose of highlighting religious diversity, increasing engagement with civil society about tolerance and religious freedom, and building 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 interfaith cooperation nongovernmental organizations, sharia judges, and the grand mufti.

Embassy officers continued to meet frequently with representatives of religious communities, including nonrecognized groups, religious converts, and interfaith institutions such as the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, to discuss the ability to practice religion freely.  In September the embassy hosted the Jordanian delegation to the summer Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. to discuss follow-up from the conference and general religious freedom trends in the country.  Representatives from the embassy attended the JICRC’s conference on Societal Harmony and engaged with conference leaders on potential programmatic collaborations.

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 a better understanding of the right to practice one’s faith as a fundamental human right and source of stability.  In October the embassy granted a $750,000 award 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 nonprofit organization Search for Common Ground is scheduled to implement the project, building interfaith youth coalitions in six communities to promote and preserve religious heritage sites.

Lebanon

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, continued to exercise control over territory, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut and southern areas of the country, both of which are predominantly Shia.  There, it provided a number of basic services such as health care, education, food aid, infrastructure repair, and internal security.  There continued to be reports of Hizballah controlling access to the neighborhoods and localities under its control, including in Beirut’s southern suburbs and areas of the Bekaa and South Lebanon.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

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

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

Oman

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.6 million (July 2018 estimate).  Citizens constitute 55 percent of the population.  The government did not publish statistics on the percentages of Omani citizens who practice Ibadhi, Sunni, and Shia forms of Islam.  Estimates from academic and religious community sources of the percentage of citizens who are Ibadhi Muslims (Ibadhi Islam is the historically dominant religious group in the country and distinct from Shia and Sunni Islam) range between 45 percent, according to many sources, and 75 percent, according to government estimates.  Academic sources estimate Shia Muslims comprise 5 percent of citizens and live mainly in the capital area and along the northern coast, while another 5 percent are Hindus and Christians, mainly extended families of naturalized citizens of South Asian origin.  According to academic sources, the remainder of the citizen population is Sunni Muslim.

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

Legal Framework

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion and declares that 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.

In January the government passed a new penal code, which increases the maximum prison sentence for “insulting the Quran” and “offending Islam or any [Abrahamic] religion” from three to 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 new code, Abrahamic religions are protected from blasphemy, but the new code does not mention non-Abrahamic faiths in this context.  Using the internet in a way that “might prejudice public order or religious values” is also 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 the MERA.  New non-Muslim religious groups unaffiliated with a previously recognized sponsor must gain approval from the 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.  The MERA must also grant its approval for new Muslim groups to form.

All individuals who deliver sermons in recognized religious groups must register with the MERA.  The licensing process for imams prohibits unlicensed lay members from preaching sermons in mosques, and licensed imams must follow government-approved sermons.  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.

Civil courts adjudicate cases according to the nonsectarian civil code.  The law states Shia 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 violations 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 the 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.

Hasan Al-Basham, a former diplomat who had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in 2016 for what NGOs based outside the country reported were charges of “using the internet in what might be prejudicial to religious values” in his comments on social media, died in prison in April.  NGOs based outside the country had previously reported he had won an appeal on medical grounds to commute his sentence, but, according to the NGOs, in November 2017, a court reinstated the original verdict and authorities took Al-Basham back into custody.  The semigovernmental Oman Human Rights Commission, which followed the case closely, stated he lost his appeal and was subsequently imprisoned in accordance with the law.

According to international human rights advocacy organizations, on June 13, in connection with Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s Eid al-Fitr amnesty, authorities released writer and online activist Abdullah Habib.  He had served three months of a six-month sentence for violating the Information Technology Crimes Act by “using internet technology … to prejudice public order or religious values” and the penal code for “insulting an Abrahamic religion.”  In April the Muscat Appeals Court suspended the remaining two and one-half years of his sentence but prohibited him from traveling outside the country during that time.  According to the media advocacy group PEN America, during his imprisonment, authorities denied Habib regular access to his medication.

According to religious leaders, the MERA continued to monitor sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics.  Imams were required to preach sermons within politically and socially acceptable parameters, which the government distributed monthly, with outlines 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 of the designated government parameters.

Religious groups continued to report issues with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration.  While no published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for new religious groups to receive ministerial approval, the MERA reportedly considered a group’s size, theology, belief system, and availability of other worship opportunities before granting registration, and reportedly employed the same criteria whether the group was Muslim or non-Muslim.  Observers said the precise process remained vague, although there were reports the MERA consulted with existing religious communities before ruling on the application of a new religious group.  According to the 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, despite representing a significant population in Oman, 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.

The 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.  According to the media, in May during Ramadan, the MERA organized an event entitled “The Quran speaks to you” to inform non-Muslims about Islam.

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 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 the MERA before importing religious materials and to submit a copy to the MERA.  Religious minority leaders said that in practice the ministry did not review all imported religious material for approval and that non-Muslims were often able to import literature without government scrutiny.

The government provided land for all religious sites in the country.

Although the Basic Law states sharia is the basis for legislation, in practice the civil code continued to have precedence over sharia, consistent with the replacement of sharia courts by civil courts in 1999 with passage of the Judicial Authority Law.  Under this law, judicial outcomes reached under sharia jurisprudence could not contradict civil statutes.

The government continued to fund the salaries of some Ibadhi and Sunni imams, but Shia or non-Muslim religious leaders were privately funded.

There is no law stating religious affiliation is tied to custody, but according to legal contacts, judges often considered the religiosity of a Muslim parent during custody hearings.

The government, through the MERA, continued to publish Al-Tafahum (Understanding), an annual 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.

Government Practices

Hasan Al-Basham, a former diplomat who had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in 2016 for what NGOs based outside the country reported were charges of “using the internet in what might be prejudicial to religious values” in his comments on social media, died in prison in April.  NGOs based outside the country had previously reported he had won an appeal on medical grounds to commute his sentence, but, according to the NGOs, in November 2017, a court reinstated the original verdict and authorities took Al-Basham back into custody.  The semigovernmental Oman Human Rights Commission, which followed the case closely, stated he lost his appeal and was subsequently imprisoned in accordance with the law.

According to international human rights advocacy organizations, on June 13, in connection with Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s Eid al-Fitr amnesty, authorities released writer and online activist Abdullah Habib.  He had served three months of a six-month sentence for violating the Information Technology Crimes Act by “using internet technology … to prejudice public order or religious values” and the penal code for “insulting an Abrahamic religion.”  In April the Muscat Appeals Court suspended the remaining two and one-half years of his sentence but prohibited him from traveling outside the country during that time.  According to the media advocacy group PEN America, during his imprisonment, authorities denied Habib regular access to his medication.

According to religious leaders, the MERA continued to monitor sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics.  Imams were required to preach sermons within politically and socially acceptable parameters, which the government distributed monthly, with outlines 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 of the designated government parameters.

Religious groups continued to report issues with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration.  While no published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for new religious groups to receive ministerial approval, the MERA reportedly considered a group’s size, theology, belief system, and availability of other worship opportunities before granting registration, and reportedly employed the same criteria whether the group was Muslim or non-Muslim.  Observers said the precise process remained vague, although there were reports the MERA consulted with existing religious communities before ruling on the application of a new religious group.  According to the 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, despite representing a significant population in Oman, 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.

The 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.  According to the media, in May during Ramadan, the MERA organized an event entitled “The Quran speaks to you” to inform non-Muslims about Islam.

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 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 the MERA before importing religious materials and to submit a copy to the MERA.  Religious minority leaders said that in practice the ministry did not review all imported religious material for approval and that non-Muslims were often able to import literature without government scrutiny.

The government provided land for all religious sites in the country.

Although the Basic Law states sharia is the basis for legislation, in practice the civil code continued to have precedence over sharia, consistent with the replacement of sharia courts by civil courts in 1999 with passage of the Judicial Authority Law.  Under this law, judicial outcomes reached under sharia jurisprudence could not contradict civil statutes.

The government continued to fund the salaries of some Ibadhi and Sunni imams, but Shia or non-Muslim religious leaders were privately funded.

There is no law stating religious affiliation is tied to custody, but according to legal contacts, judges often considered the religiosity of a Muslim parent during custody hearings.

The government, through the MERA, continued to publish Al-Tafahum (Understanding), an annual 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.  Several Arabic-language Omani newspapers featured cartoons depicting anti-Semitic imagery when criticizing the Israeli government.  Social media commentary regarding the Israeli government, especially after the October visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman, sometimes took an anti-Semitic tone.

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 ongoing immersion courses in conjunction with the MERA to introduce Islam to Protestant seminary students from different denominations.  The center also worked closely with the 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, and discussed its efforts to counter violent extremism related to religion.  Embassy officers also raised concerns about overcrowding at minority religion places of worship and encouraged the MERA to find a solution for religious groups seeking officially sanctioned space for worship.

In November the Ambassador hosted a lunch with leaders of religious minority communities to encourage those communities to engage with each other and to listen to each other’s experiences working with the government.  The Ambassador attended a Hindu religious event and engaged with Hindu community members, and hosted Jewish holiday services at his residence.  Embassy officers met with minority religious groups and supported efforts to promote interfaith understanding across all religious groups.

Qatar

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population as 2.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  Citizens make up approximately 12 percent of the population, while noncitizens account for approximately 88 percent.  Most citizens are Sunni Muslims, and almost all of the remaining citizens are Shia Muslims.  Reliable figures are unavailable, but estimates based solely on the religious composition of expatriate source countries suggest Muslims, while they are the largest religious group, likely make up less than half of the total population.  .  The breakdown of the noncitizen population between Sunni, Shia, and other Muslim groups is not available.

Other religious groups in descending order of size include Hindus, almost exclusively from India and Nepal; Roman Catholics, primarily from the Philippines, Europe, and India; and Buddhists, largely from South, Southeast, and East Asia.  Smaller groups include Anglicans and Protestant denominations, Egyptian Copts, Baha’is, and Greek and other Eastern Orthodox.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and states sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation.  The constitution guarantees the “freedom to practice religious rites” to all persons “in accordance with the law and the requirements of the maintenance of public order and morality.”  It prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.  According to the constitution, the emir must be Muslim.

Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971.

The law provides for a prison sentence of up to seven years for defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.  The law stipulates a seven-year prison term for producing or circulating material containing slogans, images, or symbols defaming these three religions.  The law also prohibits publication of texts provoking social discord or religious strife, with punishment if convicted of up to six months in prison.

To obtain an official presence in the country, non-Muslim religious groups must apply to register with the MFA.  The only registered religious groups are Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations.  Protestant denominations other than the registered eight denominations, including nondenominational house churches, may be registered with the government with the support of the CCSC – an umbrella organization consisting of representatives of the eight already registered denominations.  The eight registered Christian denominations are the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Maronite, evangelical Protestant, and the Inter-Denominational Christian Churches.  In practice, nearly all of the remaining denominations are registered under the aegis of the Anglican Church.

Non-Christian groups must apply for registration through the MFA.  Registered groups may hold bank accounts in the organization’s name, apply for property to build worship space (or have already built structures such as private villas recognized as worship spaces to avoid problems with authorities), import religious texts, and publish religious newsletters or flyers for internal distribution, whereas unregistered entities are unable to open accounts, solicit funds, worship in private spaces legally, acquire religious texts from outside the country, publish religious-themed newsletters or pamphlets, or legally hire staff.

According to the law, unregistered religious groups (i.e., those not registered or under the patronage of one of the registered groups) that engage in worship activities are illegal, and members of those groups are subject to deportation.

The law restricts public worship for non-Islamic faiths.  It prohibits non-Muslim religious groups from displaying religious symbols, which includes banning Christian congregations from advertising religious services or placing crosses outdoors where they are visible to the public.  The law criminalizes proselytizing on behalf of an organization, society, or foundation of any religion other than Islam and provides for punishment of up to 10 years in prison.  Proselytizing on one’s own accord for any religion other than Islam can result in a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment.  The law calls for two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 riyals ($2,700) for possession of written or recorded materials or items that support or promote missionary activity.  The law allows importation of religious holy books, such as Bibles.

The government regulates the publication, importation, and distribution of all religious books and materials.  The government reviews, censors, or bans foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content.  Religious groups may publish newsletters without government censorship but may only distribute them internally within their respective communities.  To import religious materials, groups must submit one copy to the Ministry of Culture and Sports and receive written approval before making large orders or risk having the entire shipment confiscated.

The only religions registered to have their own places of worship are Islam and Christianity.  All mosques and Islamic institutions in the country must be registered with the MEIA.  The law designates the MEIA minister as the final authority for approving Islamic religious centers.  The MFA approves non-Islamic houses of worship in coordination with the private office of the emir.

While a non-Muslim woman is not required by law to convert to Islam when marrying a Muslim, the law considers offspring of such a marriage to be Muslim.  A non-Muslim man marrying a Muslim woman must convert to Islam.

Islamic instruction is compulsory for Muslim and non-Muslim students attending state-sponsored schools.  Non-Muslims may provide private religious instruction for their children at home or in their faith services.  All children may attend secular and coeducational private schools.  These schools must offer optional Islamic instruction; non-Islamic religious education is prohibited.

A unified civil court system, incorporating sharia and secular law, has jurisdiction over both Muslims and non-Muslims.  The unified court system applies sharia in family law cases, including those related to inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody.  For Shia Muslims, a judicial panel decides cases regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other family matters utilizing Shia interpretations of religious law.  In other religious matters, the country’s family law applies across all branches of Islam.  Non-Muslims are subject to sharia in cases of child custody, but civil law covers other personal status cases, including those related to divorce and inheritance.

Criminal law is based on the principles of sharia.  The type of crime determines whether those convicted receive a sharia-based sentence.  There are certain criminal charges, such as alcohol consumption and extramarital sex, for which Muslims are punished according to sharia principles, including court-ordered flogging.  Sharia-based punishments may also apply to non-Muslims in these cases.  The government often commutes harsher punishments mandated by sharia.  Muslim convicts may earn a sentence reduction of a few months by memorizing the Quran while imprisoned.  Secular law covers dispute resolution for financial service companies.  The law approves implementing the Shia interpretation of sharia upon the agreement and request of the parties involved in the dispute.

The government submitted documents to the United Nations on May 21, following cabinet approval on March 14, to accede to the ICCPR, with a formal statement in its treaty accession document that the government shall interpret Article 18, paragraph 2, of the ICCPR (“No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”) “based on the understanding that it does not contravene the Islamic Sharia” and that the government would reserve the right to implement paragraph 2 in accordance with its understanding of sharia.  The government also formally stated in its accession document that it would interpret several other provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including Article 27 (regarding the rights of minorities “to profess and practice their own religion”).  The government made a formal reservation against being bound by gender equality provisions in Article 3 and Article 23.4 regarding family law and inheritance.

Government Practices

The government continued to state it would consider requests from nonregistered religious groups to acquire a place of worship if they applied to register but, as in previous years, said none had done so.  The government continued to permit adherents of unregistered religious groups, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Baha’i Faith, and unregistered small Christian congregations, to worship privately in rented villas, their homes, workplaces, and with others, although they lacked authorized facilities in which to practice their faiths.

The Office of the Secretary General of the MFA was responsible for handling church affairs, replacing the Department of Consular Affairs within the MFA.  It worked in coordination with the director of the Human Rights Department within the MFA.  This new leadership worked to engage with Christian leaders and reported direct contact and dialogue with the CCSC to develop channels of communication for addressing concerns such as the impact of security restrictions.  In August the assistant office director for services affairs of the Office of the Secretary General met with church leaders at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex also known as “Church City” and located on government-owned land, to discuss challenges faced by the Christian community.  In October the head of the MFA’s Human Rights Department led a delegation of the National Committee for Human Rights in an official visit to the complex.  Church leaders stated both visits were positive, being the first of their kind by high-ranking officials.

The MEIA reported it continued to hire clerics and assign them to specific mosques.  The ministry continued to provide on an ad hoc basis thematic guidance for Friday sermons, focusing mainly on Islamic rituals and social values, with clear restrictions from using the pulpits to express political views or attack other faiths.  The ministry reviewed content but did not require clerics to obtain prior approval of their sermons.  The government reserved the right to take judicial action against individuals who did not follow the guidance.

The MEIA continued to remind the public during Ramadan of its view of the correct way for Muslims to perform their religious duties.  The penal code stipulates that individuals seen eating or drinking during daylight hours are subject to a fine of 3,000 riyals ($820), three months’ imprisonment, or both.  There were no reports of arrests or fines during the year for violation of this stipulation of the code.  All restaurants not located in hotels were required to close in daylight hours during Ramadan.

The government discouraged citizens and residents from taking part in the Umrah or Hajj due to the ongoing dispute with Saudi Arabia that started in mid-2017.  Officials at the MEIA stated the decision was made because of concerns for pilgrims’ security, due to the lack of diplomatic representation or coordination with Saudi religious and security authorities.

In its report on the government’s accession to the ICCPR, Human Rights Watch stated that the government rejected the ICCPR’s gender equality provisions in marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance on grounds that they contravened sharia.  The government also declared it would interpret several provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including those defining cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment; bans on capital and corporal punishment; minimum marriage ages; and freedom of religion.

Although the law prohibited Christian groups from advertising religious services, Christian churches continued to post hours of services and other information on publicly accessible websites; however, they were not permitted to publish such information in local newspapers or on public bulletin boards.

The government maintained its policy of reviewing, censoring, or banning newspapers, magazines, books, and social media for “objectionable” religious content, such as an attack on Islamic values or depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.  More commonly, journalists and publishers reportedly practiced self-censorship regarding material the government might consider contrary to Islam.

In April the ADL reported that in the past year the “government has actually continued to use its prominent platforms to promote strident anti-Semitic preachers…”  The ADL cited imams, including Abdullah al-Naama and Mohammed Hassan al-Muraikhi, who had delivered anti-Semitic sermons at the state-controlled Grand Mosque in Doha.  The minister of the MEIA stated that the ministry did not condone anti-Semitic language and would investigate the matter.  Earlier in the year, the Education City Mosque in Doha, which serves learning institutions on the Education City campus, including branches of several U.S. universities, hosted four Friday sermons by Shaqer al-Shahwani, whose sermons were promoted at government-controlled mosques.  Al-Shahwani had previously stated on Twitter that “the Jews” are “behind every immorality and vice” in the world.  In July the ADL reprinted an article that a member of its staff had written for the online blog, The Long War Journal, stating that al-Naama and al-Muraikhi continued to deliver regular Friday sermons at the Grand Mosque that demonized the Jewish people and told fellow Muslims that Jews and Christians were their natural enemies, according to sermon transcripts on the Grand Mosque’s website.  The report said state television awarded each imam with a series of Ramadan specials during the year.

According to the ADL, the government also demonstrated support during Ramadan for at least five other preachers with hateful messages through the MEIA, using its Twitter account to promote their lectures during the month at prominent locations, including the Grand Mosque, the mosque in Katara cultural village, and the Education City Mosque.  These preachers included Thabit al-Qahtani, who through his Twitter account called upon God to “destroy the Jews”; Mowafi Azab, who declared (on a government website for fatwas called IslamWeb) that “the Jews” used pornographic movies to “destroy the world and control it”; and Ahmed al-Farjabi, who issued rulings on that same website calling the Jewish people “our enemy.”

According to an August 10 article in The Hill newspaper, written by the CEO of the ADL and reprinted on the organization’s website, the government-owned al-Jazeera media network continued “to be a major exporter of hateful content against the Jewish people…”  The report cited a May 23 news story carried by the network that cast doubt on the Nazi genocide of Jews, referring to “the alleged Holocaust.”  In July al-Jazeera broadcast a speech by a Hamas official calling for “the cleansing of Palestine of the filth of the Jews” and called for the establishment of a caliphate “after the [Muslim] nation has been healed of its cancer, the Jews.”  A blog post published on the network’s website accused the Jewish people of “killing the Prophets” and asserted that the historical existence of a Jewish temple in Jerusalem was a fabrication.  A separate article on its Arabic news webpage decried the “control of the Jews over the pornography industry.”

The Mesaymeer Religious Complex continued to provide worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, with clear government instructions that Christian symbols such as crosses, steeples, and statues, were not permitted on the exterior of church buildings.  The government allowed unregistered churches to worship there as well, but only under the patronage of one of the eight recognized denominations.  The Anglican Center within the Mesaymeer Religious Complex housed a number of other smaller denominations and offered space to 88 congregations of different denominations and languages.  In addition to the primary buildings, the churches were allowed to erect additional tent structures during Easter and Christmas outside of the primary complex to house surge volumes of congregants.

In April the Maronite Patriarch laid the foundation stone at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex for the Saint Charbel Maronite Church, which would be the first Maronite church in the Gulf region.  During the year, the Maronites continued to worship at the Roman Catholic Church building but intended to move to the new church once completed.  Land was designated and fund raising began for a new Ethiopian church.

The CCSC reported that Christian clergy were allowed to visit members of their congregations when they were hospitalized and have monthly trips to both male and female prisons to meet with incarcerated Christians.

The government continued to enforce strict security measures at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex, including closing parking lots, setting a curfew on church access, and using metal detectors.

The government prohibited the slaughter of animals outside of licensed facilities – a measure it said was intended to ensure hygienic conditions.  In practice, individuals were able to conduct ritual slaughter in private.

Church leaders and religious groups continued to state that individuals practiced self-censorship when expressing religious views online and relied mostly on word of mouth, church websites, social media platforms, and email newsletters to distribute information about religious groups’ activities.

Church leaders stated their ability to collect and distribute funds for charity continued to be limited by the government’s restrictions on the number and type of bank accounts churches could hold, as well as reporting requirements on donors and on contractors doing business with churches.  Some smaller unregistered churches continued to use the personal accounts of religious leaders for church activities.

Leaders of the Evangelical Church Alliance in Qatar (ECAQ) stated that the government, represented by the MOI, retained the possession of a plot of land after it had been allocated to the alliance, saying the plot of land would be used as a police station.  The government promised to provide ECAQ leaders with an alternative plot of land, but as of the end of the year, had not done so.  The ECAQ leaders stated the government’s decision caused the alliance to sustain financial damage because it had already laid a foundation for the building and paid contractors for the work.

The MOI allowed more than 100 house churches to operate throughout the country, including 90 that were allocated to members of the ECAQ.

In December the ADL criticized the government-sponsored Doha International Book Fair for including anti-Semitic books.  The book titles included Lies Spread by the Jews; Talmud of Secrets: Facts Exposing the Jewish Schemes to Control the World; The History of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the History of the Corruption of the Jews, and the Demise of their Entity; Awakening to Jewish Influence in the United States of America by David Duke; The Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Purported Temple; and The Myth of the Nazi Gas Chambers.

On November 29, the government-funded al-Jazeera News Channel broadcast a conference held in Gaza marking the UN-declared International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, during which a Palestinian youth recited a poem entitled “Rifle” that included references to Jewish people as “apes” and “pigs.”

The Ministry of Culture and Sports approved the staging of a major two-day Christian musical conference in Doha in November that was attended by 18,000 persons.

The government-funded DICID, which operated independently, hosted discussions on the freedom to worship within one’s home, and on how seminars and roundtable discussions on religious tolerance could be used to resolve intercommunal strife.  The center also hosted discussions on difficulties faced by non-Muslim groups.  In November the DICIC held its eighth interfaith roundtable, inviting Christian church leaders and Muslim scholars to the event.

In December the Lebanese Maronite Patriarch consecrated a church in Lebanon that was funded by a donation from the emir.  The country’s ambassador to Lebanon, attending the ceremony, stated the emir was a “fervent supporter” of Islamic-Christian dialogue.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Private media in the country published anti-Semitic material.  In March a cartoon in al-Arab depicted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Jewish leaders with stereotypical “Jewish features” meeting in New York and discussing the Palestinian issue.  Following the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in May, newspapers published anti-Semitic editorial cartoons.  One appeared in al-Watan on May 15, showing a pig marked with the Star of David resting on a pillow with the pattern of the U.S. flag, with its stars replaced by Stars of David.

Members of the Church Steering Committee stated that select pamphlets containing anti-Christian and anti-Semitic content, which had previously been removed from some public places such as schools and hospitals, had sporadically reappeared.  The members reported the government was generally receptive to removing the content when it was identified.

In October the Doha branch of Georgetown University faced backlash from Qatari social media users, including threats of violence against campus staff, following publicity surrounding an advertisement for a discussion titled “This House Believes That Major Religions Should Portray God as a Woman.”  The event was eventually cancelled by campus management, who stated that the organizers had failed to follow standard operating procedures to obtain permission to hold the event.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers continued to meet with relevant government bodies, including the Office of the Secretary General and Human Rights Department at the MFA, the MOI Department of Human Rights, and the MEIA, as well as quasi-governmental religious institutions such as the DICID, concerning the rights of religious minorities, Sunni-Shia relations in the country, interest in international exchange programs for imams and MEIA officials, and government efforts to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies within mosques.  In November the embassy participated in DICID’s eighth roundtable discussion, attended by Christian church leaders and Muslim scholars.  The embassy facilitated two sets of meetings between MFA officials and Christian church leaders at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex.

The embassy worked with the Ministry of Culture and Sports and other stakeholders to secure the required approvals for the November Christian musical concert featuring American performers in Doha.

Embassy officials facilitated an agreement between the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs and the CCSC to raise awareness among churchgoers about recent changes to the labor law, which affected the expatriate population, and the means to submit complaints to authorities concerned.  The ministry agreed in principle to use churches as dissemination platforms to highlight reforms and help educate congregations about future labor law developments.  The ministry subsequently held multiple meetings with clergy to discuss how to proceed with a similar outreach event in 2019.

The embassy held a Thanksgiving dinner attended by representatives from a wide spectrum of faiths in Doha, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, and Hindus.

In December the embassy responded to complaints from the ADL that anti-Semitic literature was displayed at the Doha International Book Fair.  Embassy officials raised these concerns with high-level officials at the Ministry of Culture and Sports.  The ministry responded by removing the offensive content and pledging to take a more proactive approach to prohibiting anti-Semitic content in the next book fair on the grounds that the books violate their exhibitor rules of conduct and the country’s laws.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad).  The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted within the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.  Freedom of religion is not provided under the law.  The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion.  The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”  The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim.  In March UN experts said 15 Shia were convicted of spying for Iran and financing terrorism and were facing execution after legal processes that human rights organizations deemed lacking in fair trial guarantees and transparency.  In January the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib to seven years in prison after the Public Prosecution’s objection to his 2017 acquittal.  Some human rights organizations stated convictions of Shia on security charges, including several carrying the death penalty, stemming from 2017-18 clashes were motivated by sectarianism, while the government stated the individuals were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced as a result of security-related crimes and in accordance with the law.  A December report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism expressed concern at the “systemic repression against the country’s Eastern Province, where the majority Shia population lives.”  Charges announced by the government during the year for prominent clerics, religious scholars, and academics, reportedly detained in September 2017, include alleged connections to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or MB-affiliated groups.  The government continued to censor or block some religion-related content in the media, including social media and the internet.  The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV, commonly known outside the country as the “religious police”) monitored social behavior to encourage obedience to laws and regulations protecting “public morals.”  Many observers noted a continued decreased public presence of CPVPV officers in major cities, with the exception of Mecca and Medina, and fewer reports of CPVPV harassment.  On March 4, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met publicly with Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral.  On November 1, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Riyadh.

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

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

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  Most recently, on November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

Some human rights organizations stated convictions of Shia on security charges, including several carrying the death penalty, stemming from 2017-18 clashes were motivated by sectarianism, while the government stated the individuals were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced as a result of security-related crimes and in accordance with the law.  On March 15, UN experts said 15 individuals convicted of spying for Iran and financing terrorism were facing imminent execution after their sentences were referred to the Royal Court for ratification by the king.  The Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced the 15 individuals, all of whom were Shia, to death in December 2016 and further court rulings in July and December 2017 upheld the sentences.  Human rights organizations widely decried the legal process as not heeding international standards for fair trial guarantees and transparency.  At the end of the year, the government had not carried out the sentences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In April, in the first visit to the country by a senior Catholic official, Chairman of the Pontifical Council for Interfaith Dialogue Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh to discuss the role of followers of religions and cultures in renouncing violence, extremism, and terrorism and achieving worldwide security and stability.  On March 4, the crown prince met publicly with Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral.

On November 1, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Riyadh.  Following the meeting, the group met with the government-sponsored Muslim World League’s (MWL) Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa to discuss ways both parties could counter extremism and exchanged ideas on possible initiatives and programs to increase mutual respect at the grass roots level.  Al-Issa stated the meeting was an exchange to advance understanding and the message of a “moderate and tolerant Islam.”  On January 28, al-Issa wrote a public letter to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, calling the Holocaust “an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”  In October MWL representatives discussed religious cooperation with several non-Muslim religious community leaders including a prominent U.S. Jewish leader at the MWL-sponsored Cultural Rapprochement Between the US and the Muslim World conference in New York.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  Most recently, on November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Sudan

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 43.1 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the Sudanese government, approximately 97 percent of the population is Muslim.  It is unclear whether government estimates include South Sudanese (predominantly Christian or animist) who did not leave after the 2011 separation of South Sudan or returned after conflict erupted in South Sudan in 2013, or other non-South Sudanese, non-Muslim groups.  The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports more than 927,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the country, including 768,819 South Sudanese refugees.  Some religious advocacy groups estimate non-Muslims make up more than 20 percent of the population.

Almost all Muslims are Sunni, although there are significant distinctions among followers of different Sunni traditions, particularly among Sufi orders.  Small Shia Muslim communities are based predominantly in Khartoum.  At least one Jewish family remains in the Khartoum area.

The government reports the presence of 36 Christian denominations in the country.  Christians reside throughout the country, primarily in major cities such as Khartoum, Port Sudan, Kassala, Gedaref, El Obeid, and El Fasher.  Christians also are concentrated in some parts of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State.

Relatively small but long-established groups of Coptic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians are located in Khartoum, El Obeid in North Kordofan, River Nile and Gezira States, and eastern parts of the country.  Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox communities, largely made up of refugees and migrants, are located in Khartoum and the eastern part of the country.  Other larger Christian groups include the Roman Catholic Church, Episcopal Anglican Church, Sudan Church of Christ, Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and Presbyterian Church of the Sudan.  Smaller Christian groups include the Africa Inland Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Sudan Interior Church, Sudan Pentecostal Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Government statistics indicate less than 1 percent of the population, primarily in Blue Nile and South Kordofan States, adheres to traditional African religious beliefs.  Some Christians and Muslims incorporate aspects of these traditional beliefs into their religious practice.  A small Baha’i community primarily operates underground.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Interim National Constitution, passed in 2004, provides for freedom of religious creed and worship, and grants individuals the right to declare their religious beliefs and manifest them through worship, education, practice, or performance, subject to requirements of laws and public order.  The constitution prohibits the coercion of individuals to adopt a faith they do not believe in or to engage in rites or services without consent.  The constitution also states that nationally enacted legislation shall be based on sharia.  The government has not amended the constitution to reflect the 2011 independence of South Sudan.

The law does not permit Shia Muslims to hold worship services; however, they are allowed to enter Sunni mosques to pray.

The constitution allows religious groups to establish and maintain humanitarian and charitable institutions, acquire property and materials related to their religious rites and customs, write and disseminate religious publications, teach religion, solicit public and private contributions, select their own leaders, observe days of rest, celebrate religious holidays, and communicate with constituents on matters of religion.

The constitution denies recognition to any political party that discriminates based on religion and specifically prohibits religious discrimination against candidates for the national civil service.  Constitutional violations of freedom of religion may be pursued in the Constitutional Court; however, cases of discrimination often originate and are addressed in lower courts.

National laws are based on a sharia system of jurisprudence.  The criminal code states the law, including at the state and local level, shall be based on sharia sources and include hudood, qisas, and diyah principles (specific serious crimes and related restitution and punishment).  The criminal code takes into consideration multiple sharia schools of jurisprudence (madhahib).  The Islamic Panel of Scholars and Preachers (Fiqh Council) determines under which conditions a particular school of thought will apply.  Other criminal and civil laws, including public order laws, are determined at the state and local level.

The president appoints the Fiqh Council, an official body of 40 Muslim religious scholars responsible for explaining and interpreting Islamic jurisprudence, to four-year renewable terms.  The council advises the government and issues fatwas on religious matters, including levying customs duties on the importation of religious materials, payment of interest on loans for public infrastructure, and determination of government-allotted annual leave for Islamic holidays.  The council’s opinions are not legally binding.  Muslim religious scholars may present differing religious and political viewpoints in public.

The criminal code does not explicitly mention proselytizing, but it criminalizes both conversion from Islam to any other faith (apostasy) and acts that encourage conversion from Islam.  Those who convert from Islam to another religion as well as any Muslim who questions or criticizes the teachings of the Quran, the Sahaba (the Companions of the Prophet), or the wives of the Prophet may also be considered guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death.  Those charged with apostasy are allowed to repent within a period decided by the court but may still face up to five years in prison.  The law does not prohibit individuals from converting to Islam from another religion.

The criminal code’s section on “religious offenses” criminalizes various acts committed against any religion.  These include insulting religion, blasphemy, disturbing places of worship, and trespassing upon places of burial.  The criminal code states, “whoever insults any religion, their rights or beliefs or sanctifications or seeks to excite feelings of contempt and disrespect against the believers thereof” shall be punished with up to six months in prison, flogging of up to 40 lashes, and/or a fine.  The article includes provisions that prescribe penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment and 40 lashes for any non-Muslim who curses the Prophet Muhammad, his wives, or members of his respective households.

The Ministry of Guidance and Endowments (MGE) regulated Islamic religious practice, including activities such as reviewing Friday sermons at mosques, supervised churches, and was responsible for guaranteeing equal treatment for all religious groups.  The MGE also provided recommendations to relevant ministries regarding religious issues government ministries encounter.  In September President Omar al-Bashir dissolved the previous government and established a restructured government that eliminated the MGE.  The next month Bashir created a Higher Council for Guidance and Endowments (HCGE) and appointed the former minister of the MGE to be the council’s chairperson.  The HCGE maintains the same mandate as the former ministry.

In October the government formed a new interagency committee to discuss religious coexistence and religious issues more broadly with a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs chairing the committee and members from the security services, HCGE, Human Rights Commission, Ministry of Education, and other bodies.

To gain official recognition by the government, religious groups must register at the state level with the HCGE, or a related ministry such as the Ministry of Culture, or the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), depending on the nature of the group and its activities.  The HAC oversees NGOs and nonprofit organizations.  Religious groups that also engage in humanitarian or development activities must register as nonprofit NGOs by filing a standard application required by the HAC for both local and international NGOs.  Only religious groups that register are eligible to apply for other administrative benefits, including land ownership, tax exemptions, and work permits.

The law does not permit Shia Muslims to hold worship services; however, they are allowed to enter Sunni mosques to pray.

The state-mandated education curriculum requires that all students receive religious instruction.  The curriculum further mandates that all schools, including international schools and private schools operated by Christian groups, provide Islamic education classes to Muslim students, from preschool through the second year of university.  The law does not require non-Muslims to attend Islamic education classes, and it mandates that public schools provide Christian students with other religious instruction if there are at least 15 Christian students in a class.  According to the Ministry of Education, following the separation of South Sudan, this number was not reached in most schools.  Non-Muslim students therefore normally attend religious study classes of their own religion outside of regular school hours to fulfill the religious instruction requirement.

The Ministry of Education is responsible for determining the religious education curriculum.  According to the ministry, the Islamic curriculum must follow the Sunni tradition.

The HCGE determines, along with the state-level entities responsible for land grants and planning, whether to provide authorization or permits to build new houses of worship, taking into account zoning concerns such as the distance between religious institutions and population density (the allocation of land to religious entities is determined at the state level).  The HCGE is mandated to assist both mosques and churches in obtaining tax exemptions and duty-free permits to import items such as furniture and religious items for houses of worship; the HCGE also assists visitors attending meetings sponsored by religious groups and activities to obtain tourist visas through the Ministry of Interior.  The HCGE coordinates travel for the Hajj and Umra.

Public order laws, based largely on the government’s interpretation of sharia, vary by state.  These laws prohibit “indecent” dress and other “offenses of honor, reputation, and public morality.”  Authorities primarily enforce such laws in large cities and enforce laws governing indecent dress against both Muslims and non-Muslims.  The criminal code states that an act is contrary to public decency if it violates another person’s modesty.  In practice, the special Public Order Police and courts, which derive their authority from the Ministry of Interior, have wide latitude in interpreting what dress or behaviors are indecent and in arresting and passing sentence on accused offenders.

Some aspects of the criminal code specify punishments for Muslims based on government interpretation of sharia punishment principles.  For example, the criminal code stipulates 40 lashes for a Muslim who drinks, possesses, or sells alcohol; no punishment is prescribed for a non-Muslim who drinks or possesses alcohol in private.  The criminal code stipulates if a non-Muslim is arrested for public drinking, or possessing or selling alcohol, he or she is subject to trial, but the punishment will not be based on hudood principles.  The penalty for adultery with a married person is hanging and for an unmarried person is 100 lashes.  An unmarried man could additionally be punished with expatriation for up to one year.  These penalties apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims.  Adultery is defined as sexual activity outside of marriage, prior to marriage, or in a marriage that is determined to be void.

Under the law, the justice minister may release any prisoner who memorizes the Quran during his or her prison term.  The release requires a recommendation for parole from the prison’s director general, a religious committee composed of the Sudan Scholars Organization, and members of the Fiqh Council, which consults with the MGE to ensure decisions, comply with Islamic legal regulations.

Under the law, a Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman (although most Sudanese sharia schools of thought advise that the non-Muslim women must be “people of the book,” i.e., either Christian or Jewish).  A Muslim woman, however, legally may marry only a Muslim man.  A Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim man could be charged with adultery.

Separate family courts exist for Muslims and non-Muslims to address personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and child custody, according to their religion.  By law, in custody dispute cases where one parent is Muslim and the other is Christian, courts grant custody to the Muslim parent if there is any concern that the non-Muslim parent would raise the child in a religion other than Islam.

According to Islamic personal status laws, Christians (including children) may not inherit assets from a Muslim.

Government offices and businesses are closed on Friday for prayers and follow an Islamic workweek of Sunday to Thursday.  The law requires employers to give Christian employees two hours off on Sundays for religious activity.  Leave from work is also granted to celebrate Orthodox Christmas, an official state holiday, along with several key Islamic holidays.

An interministerial committee, which includes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), and in some cases Military Intelligence, must approve foreign clergy and other foreigners seeking a residency permit.

The constitution’s bill of rights says all rights and freedoms enshrined in international human rights treaties, covenants, and instruments ratified by the country are integral parts of the constitution’s bill of rights.

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

Government Practices

According to international reports, on October 13, a group of security agents raided the private home of Tajedin Yousifa, a Christian pastor, in South Darfur and arrested 13 Christian men who were there for a series of prayer meetings.  Of those arrested, reports stated 10 were of Darfuri origin and converts from Islam.  NISS was reportedly monitoring the home and had two pickup trucks parked outside the home.  NISS agents reportedly took the individuals to an unknown NISS facility in Nyala, where they were interrogated.  NISS then transferred the detainees to a Nyala police station on October 18.  Authorities initially charged the men with disturbing public peace but released 12 of the detainees on October 21 with no charges.  All detainees were reportedly in poor health upon release and required medical attention for injuries sustained in police detention.  Authorities kept the pastor in detention for additional questioning.  Initial reports indicated that authorities also charged him with apostasy and crimes against the state, which carry a death sentence if convicted.  Authorities released the pastor on October 23 and dropped all charges.  Authorities stated they also considered the group to be supporters of the leader of an armed Darfuri rebel movement.

In August the Omdurman Criminal Court convicted Samson Hamad Al-Haras, a member of the government-backed Presbyterian Evangelical Community Committee (ECC), of murder in the killing of SPEC elder Yonan Abdullah during an April 2017 altercation between ECC supporters and opponents within SPEC over control of the SPEC-operated Omdurman Evangelical Church School.  Al-Haras was sentenced to death.  The other 60 or more SPEC leaders arrested in opposition to the ECC’s efforts to sell the school remained in various stages of prosecution.

On December 28, government security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at a group of 300-400 worshippers leaving a mosque associated with the opposition National Umma Party in Omdurman following Friday prayers.  The incident occurred on the 10th day of antigovernment demonstrations and protests of rising food prices, and activists had urged protesters to gather in large numbers following Friday prayers.

According to reports, the Public Order Police frequently charged women with “indecent dress” and “indecent behavior,” and there were numerous court convictions.  Religious leaders and government officials again reported the Public Order Police fined and lashed Muslim and Christian women on a daily basis in Khartoum for wearing pants and other dress the police considered indecent.  In November the Public Order Police arrested a Coptic singer after she performed at a concert for which the organizer had not received the proper permit.  The police searched the singer’s private phone while she was in custody and charged her with indecent behavior because of photographs they found on her phone.  A judge convicted her and sentenced her to 10 lashes and a fine of 5,000 Sudanese pounds ($110).  Authorities lashed her immediately following the conviction.

Minority religious groups, including Muslim minority groups and especially Shia Muslims, expressed concern they could be convicted of apostasy if they expressed beliefs or discussed religious practices that differed from those of the Sunni majority group.  Some Shia reported they remained prohibited from writing articles about their beliefs and religious issues remained a redline for news media to address.  Many individuals from Muslim minorities, such as Shia or Quranist groups, reported that their places of worship had remained closed since 2014.  According to lawyers working on the Quranists’ issues, the Constitutional Court dismissed the court case against them due to mounting international pressure and ordered that the group not gather again.  The lawyers also stated the Quranists needed to keep a low profile regarding their places of worship, as well as religious events and gatherings.

SPEC leaders continued to face lengthy and prolonged trials for charges including “criminal mischief” and “trespassing,” after they continued to use properties belonging to the SPEC.

In early July, the Pentecostal Cultural Centre, located in downtown Khartoum opposite Unity Catholic School, reopened.  The government had closed the center in 2014 and temporarily turned it into a NISS office after the government claimed the church did not have legal documentation proving ownership of the building.

In September an Omdurman court ruled the SCOC national leadership committee led by Moderator Ayoub Tilliano had ownership of the SCOC headquarters in Omdurman.  The leadership committee was engaged in a legal case over ownership of the property following a 2015 raid by security forces on SCOC headquarters, after which the security forces confiscated all their legal documents and brought charges against the leadership council for trespassing.  The committee received the legal documents back from security services on September 24.

Government security services were reported to continue to monitor mosques closely for Friday sermon content.  Multiple sources stated authorities provided talking points and required imams to use them in their sermons.  If an imam’s sermon diverged from the government-provided talking points, the imam would be removed from his position.  Some individuals from minority religious groups expressed concern that the Friday sermons encouraged discriminatory or hateful beliefs against the minority groups.

Prisons provided prayer spaces for Muslims, but sources stated that authorities did not allow Shia prayers.  Shia prisoners were permitted to join prayer services led by Sunni imams.  Some prisons, such as the Women’s Prison in Omdurman, had dedicated areas for Christian observance.  Christian clergy held services in prisons, but access was irregular.

The government continued to state it did not have non-Muslim teachers available to teach Christian courses in public schools.  Some public schools excused non-Muslims from Islamic education classes.  Some private schools, including Christian schools, received government-provided Muslim teachers to teach Islamic subjects, but non-Muslim students were not required to attend those classes.  Most Christian students attended religious education classes at their churches based on the availability of volunteer teachers from their own church communities.  Their families reported that the children’s schools did not usually recognize the classes, and students in those cases did not receive credit.

On February 11, authorities demolished the SPEC church in the Haj Youssef neighborhood of Khartoum North.  Police arrived at the scene following Sunday worship services and ordered congregants to vacate the premises immediately.  Police then confiscated the property inside the church, including the pews and Bibles, and razed the building with a bulldozer.  Church leaders said they had no advance warning of the demolition.  The church had already been seized by a local businessman, who claimed ownership of the church despite ownership deeds in the name of the church dating back to 1989.  At year’s end, the church was engaged in an appeal of the decision and the confiscation of the church’s property, but authorities repeatedly postponed court sessions.  At year’s end, church leaders had yet to receive compensation for damages or been given an alternative site for worship.

In May a Muslim human rights lawyer fled the country after he was arrested and interrogated by security services for his work advocating for minority religious groups.  He had already faced repeated incidents of harassment and intimidation from NISS, including two break-ins of his home the previous year.  Human rights activists expressed concern about the departure of the lawyer from their community, as he was a vocal proponent of religious freedom and worked to defend the rights of religious minorities.

According to various church representatives, the government continued to favor mosques over churches in the issuance of permits for houses of worship.  Some churches reported they were less willing to apply for land permits or to construct churches given the government’s previous repeated denials.  The government attributed its denial of permits to the churches not meeting government population density parameters and zoning plans.

Local parishioners reported that, compared to Islamic institutions, Christian places of worship continued to be disproportionately affected by zoning changes, closures, and demolitions.  The government said places of worship that were demolished or closed lacked proper land permits or institutional registration and that mosques, churches, schools, hospitals, and residences were all affected equally by the urban planning projects.  Sources estimated at least 24 churches, Christian schools, libraries, and cultural centers were “systematically closed,” demolished or confiscated by the government between 2011 and 2017.  During the year, only one church demolition was reported.  Government authorities also stated that mosques were affected and provided photographs of mosque demolitions; however, lack of detailed information on the alleged demolitions made it difficult to verify the information, according to observers.

The NISS noted the locations of churches and mosques it was tracking that were located on what the government referred to as “unplanned areas” in Khartoum State.  Christian leaders and lawyers said that gaining outright land titles remained very difficult given that the government legally owned all land, and thus the legal status of churches remained unclear.

During the year, 22 churches filed complaints with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) following an outreach campaign to Christian religious communities in the Khartoum area by the NHRC.  Most of the complaints related to land and administrative issues.  At year’s end, the commission was following up with the complaints and established a working group to investigate systematic issues related to the registration of and land permits for Christian places of worship.

Following a July 2017 order from the Ministry of Education for Khartoum State mandating that schools (except for Coptic schools) operate from Sunday to Thursday, non-Coptic Christian schools either continued to operate on Sundays to adhere to the national general education guidelines, or they increased instruction hours on other school days to avoid operating on Sundays.  Multiple members of the government, including the foreign affairs minister and the minister of education for Khartoum State, continued to publicly express concern that the order would damage the country’s international reputation and unnecessarily impeded individuals’ religious freedom.  Government officials stated, however, that they were unaware of how to overturn the order because its origins were unclear.

The government continued to restrict some religiously based political parties, including the Republican Brothers Party, which opposes the government’s use of sharia as a source of law.  The Political Parties Affairs Council, which oversees the registration of political parties, refused to register the party in 2014, and the party’s leader filed an appeal of the decision to the Constitutional Court in 2015, but the court refused the appeal.  A local community center and library associated with the party in Omdurman remained closed due to government restrictions on its operation.

Government officials continued to state Islamic principles should inform official policies and often pointed to sharia as the basis for the country’s legal framework.  President Bashir and other senior figures frequently emphasized the country’s Islamic foundation.  In a February speech responding to public opposition to subsidy cuts and a currency devaluation, Bashir said that anyone who protested the economic situation or his administration’s policies was an enemy of Islam and working against the Islamic faith.

The government denied Christian churches or their humanitarian institutions tax-exempt status, although the government granted this status to Muslim relief agencies.  Christian churches reported authorities required them to pay or negotiate taxes on items such as vehicles.

The government continued to restrict non-Muslim religious groups from operating or entering the country and continued to monitor activities and censor material published by religious institutions.  The MGE and the HCGE again said they had granted a limited number of Christian missionary groups permission to engage in humanitarian activities and promote Muslim-Christian cooperation.

Many officials from various churches reported the government refused to grant, or delayed renewing, work and residency visas to church employees of foreign origin, including missionaries and clergy, or to individuals the government believed would proselytize in public places.  Local members of the Catholic Church said these denials had a particularly negative impact on the Catholic Church, whose clergy are mostly of foreign origin, while most clergy of other Christian denominations are ethnically Sudanese or South Sudanese.  The government only granted residence permits with less than a year’s validity.  The government required clergy to pay a fine of 70 Sudanese pounds ($1) for every day they were not in residency status.

The government reportedly closely scrutinized those suspected of proselytizing and used administrative rationales, or other aspects of the law such as immigration status, to either deport or exert financial pressure on such individuals.

Some religious groups reported the government barred the import of unapproved religious texts and said most Christian denominations were unable to import teaching materials and religious texts as guaranteed by the constitution.  According to international reports, in September authorities released two shipping containers with Arabic-language Bibles destined for the Bible Society in Khartoum after they had been detained in Port Sudan for three years.

A small number of Christian politicians, the majority of whom were members of the Coptic Church, continued to hold seats in the government.

During the year, Christian groups called for a Christian director of the MGE Office of Church Affairs.  MGE officials said they agreed to appoint a Christian but had yet to do so because Christian communities could not agree on a representative.  Christian groups said the government never expressed a willingness to appoint a Christian, although government officials publicly stated such willingness on multiple occasions.  After the government dissolved the MGE and established the HCGE, the opportunities for non-Muslim representation were not clear.

In January the government convened a group of representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, former MGE, Inter-Religious Council, Ministry of Education, and others to discuss the state of religious coexistence.  The group identified several areas of concern, including religious education inequities, and resolved to establish an intragovernmental working group on religious coexistence.  In October the government formed a new higher-level interministerial group chaired by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the same structure and mandate.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Individual Muslims and Christians reported generally good relationships at the societal level and stated that instances of intolerance or discrimination by individuals or nongovernmental entities were generally isolated.

The Sudan Inter-Religious Council, a registered nonprofit, nonpolitical organization consisting of scholars, half of whom were Muslim and the other half Christian, was mandated by its constitution to advise the MGE/HCGE and to encourage interfaith dialogue.

A segment about gender equality in the country on the Deutsche Welle’s (DW) Arabic-language talk show “Shabab Talk” went viral on September 21.  During the segment, a young woman, Weam Shawky, addressed Mohammed Osman Saleh, the chair of the Sudan Scholars Association, and criticized the widespread harassment and intimidation of women because of their clothing.  Immediately following the episode, Saleh gave a press conference in which he said the show was put on by “enemies of our culture.”  Muslim clerics responded by calling for protests and violence against DW’s production partner, television channel Sudania 24, in Khartoum.  Several Muslim clerics decried the show in their Friday sermons, and one cleric accused the host, Jaafar Abdul Karim, of “spreading atheism.”  Many human rights activists and other members of the local community defended the show and praised Sudania 24 for initiating an open discussion on the topic of women’s rights and the public order system.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings between the Charge d’Affaires and the minister of foreign affairs and the ministry’s director for human rights, women, and children, the Charge promoted religious freedom as a means of achieving peace and stability.  He emphasized that religious freedom formed a key basis for broader normalization of bilateral relations.  The Charge and other embassy officials also made this point repeatedly in regular meetings of the Joint Review Committee of the U.S.-Sudan engagement plan.  The Charge further emphasized that persons of different religions needed to be able to practice their religious beliefs freely and that creating an environment without fear of harassment based on religion was crucial to bringing peace and stability to the country’s conflict areas.  He also raised the issues of the denial of licenses for new churches, demolition of houses of worship without an alternative, court cases against religious leaders, harassment of Muslim religious minorities, government interference in internal church affairs, and enforcement of “indecent dress” laws.

The embassy held a weeklong series of meetings in May on religious freedom with civil society representatives, religious leaders, and journalists.  In the meetings, embassy officials raised religious freedom issues regarding property ownership, access to education and school days conflicting with Christian worship services, and women’s rights.

The U.S. embassy partnered with the Canadian embassy in Khartoum and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to hold a two-day workshop in May on interreligious dialogue.  Senior government officials, leaders of religious communities, diplomatic representatives, media, and nongovernmental organizations attended the workshop and shared their views on the state of religious freedom in the country.  The main topics discussed were education laws, laws governing religious freedom, and registration of religious properties.  An official from the Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom attended the workshop and met with government representatives, including Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour.  The official discussed ways the government could take concrete steps toward substantially improving the state of religious freedom in the country.

Embassy officials met regularly with imams and Sufi clerics, and clergy and parishioners of Catholic and Protestant churches to hear their views on the religious freedom situation.  Embassy officials attended religious ceremonies of different groups and underscored in regular meetings with leaders of Muslim and Christian groups the importance of religious tolerance.  U.S. government representatives closely monitored the legal proceedings concerning religious organizations and religious leaders.

The embassy regularly utilized its social media outlets to share articles and messaging related to religious tolerance and freedom.

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

Syria

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these do not disturb the public order.  There is no official state religion, although the constitution states the religion of the president of the republic is Islam.  The constitution states Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

There were continued reports that the war waged by the Alawi dominated government against opposition forces and terrorist groups resulted in significant casualties among the majority Sunni population.  The government continued its widespread and systematic use of unlawful killings, including through the repeated use of chemical weapons, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, including civilians, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

The COI and numerous independent sources reported nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the UN, the U.S., and other governments, such as ISIS and HTS, targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the areas of the country they controlled throughout the course of the conflict.

As of the end of the year, forces comprised of a coalition of 79 partners and the SDF liberated the vast majority of Syrian territory that ISIS once controlled and governed.  Until military operations largely removed ISIS from control of the country’s territory, ISIS killed hundreds of civilian men, women, and children through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and cursing God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

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

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

United Arab Emirates

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.7 million (July 2018 estimate).  Approximately 11 percent of the population are citizens, of whom more than 85 percent are Sunni Muslims, according to media reports.  The vast majority of the remainder are Shia Muslims, who are concentrated in the Emirates of Dubai and Sharjah.

Of the estimated 89 percent of residents who are noncitizens, the majority come from South and Southeast Asia.  Although no official statistics are available for what percentage of the noncitizen population is Muslim or the breakdown between Sunni and Shia Muslims among noncitizen residents, media estimates suggest less than 20 percent of the noncitizen Muslim population is Shia.

Of the total population (both citizen and noncitizen), the 2005 census, the most recent, found 76 percent to be Muslim, 9 percent Christian, and 15 percent from other religious groups comprising mainly Hindus and Buddhists, and also including Parsis, Baha’is, Druze, Sikhs, and Jews.  Ahmadi Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, and Dawoodi Bohra Muslims together constitute less than 5 percent of the total population and are almost entirely noncitizens.  The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2010, 76.9 percent of the total population was Muslim, 12.6 percent Christian, 6.6 percent Hindu, 2 percent Buddhist, with the remaining belonging to other faith traditions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution designates Islam as the official religion.  It guarantees freedom of religious worship “in accordance with established customs,” provided this “does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals.”  The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law, and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief.

The law prohibits black magic, sorcery, and incantations, which are punishable by a prison term ranging from six months to three years, and deportation for noncitizens.

The law does not directly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions; however, the penal code defers to sharia on matters defined as crimes in Islamic doctrine, which in many interpretations prohibits apostasy.

The law provides for imprisonment of up to five years for preaching against Islam or proselytizing to Muslims.  The law also prohibits “abusing” a holy shrine or ritual of any religion, insulting any religion, inciting someone to commit sin or contravene national values, labeling someone an infidel or unbeliever, and forming groups or holding meetings with the purpose of provoking religious hatred.  Offenders are subject to fines up to two million dirhams ($545,000) and imprisonment generally ranging from five to 10 or more years.

The law prohibits blasphemy, defined as any act insulting God, religions, prophets, messengers, holy books, or houses of worship.  Offenders are subject to imprisonment for five or more years and fines from 250,000 dirhams ($68,100) to two million dirhams ($545,000); noncitizens may be deported.

The law does not require religious organizations to register; however, the formation of a legal entity, which requires some form of registration, is necessary for operational functions such as opening a bank account or renting space.  Each emirate oversees registration of non-Muslim religious organizations and the process differs by emirate, organization, and circumstance.  Currently, there is no consistent legal framework across the seven emirates for registering non-Muslim religious organizations and, as a result, different religious organizations register under different ministries.  In Dubai, religious organizations are required to obtain a license from the Community Development Authority (CDA).  The government has also granted some religious organizations land in free trade zones, where they legally registered by applying for a trade license, which allows them some operational functions.

The law requires Muslims and non-Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking in public during fasting hours during the month of Ramadan.

The law prohibits churches from erecting bell towers or displaying crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises, although they may place signs on their properties indicating they are churches.

Islamic studies are mandatory for all students in public schools and for Muslim students in private schools.  The government does not provide instruction in any religion other than Islam in public schools.  In private schools, non-Muslim students are not required to attend Islamic study classes.  All students, however, are required to take national social studies classes, which include some teaching on Islam.  The government permits Christian-affiliated schools to provide instruction tailored to the religious background of the student, for example, Islamic studies for Muslim students, Christian instruction for Christian students, and ethics or comparative religions for others.

Private schools deemed to be teaching material offensive to Islam, defamatory of any religion, or contravening the country’s ethics and beliefs face potential penalties, including closure.  All private schools, regardless of religious affiliation, must register with the government.  Private schools are required to have a license from the federal Ministry of Education and their curriculum must be consistent with a plan of operation submitted to and approved by the ministry.  Administrative oversight of the schools is a responsibility of each emirate’s government.

The law prohibits the distribution of religious literature the government determines is contradictory to Islam, as well as literature it deems blasphemous or offensive towards religions.

Land ownership by non-citizens is restricted to designated freehold areas.  Outside of special economic zones and designated freehold areas, the law restricts the majority company ownership to citizens.  This restriction is an impediment to most minority religious communities (which consist of noncitizens) from purchasing property to build houses of worship.

The law prohibits multiple forms of discrimination, including religious discrimination, and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religion through any form of expression.  It also criminalizes the broadcasting, publication, and transmission of such material by any means, including audio/visual or print media, or via the internet, and prohibits conferences or meetings the government deems promote discrimination, discord, or hatred.

According to the constitution, sharia is the principal source of legislation, although the judicial system applies two types of law, depending on the case.  Sharia forms the basis for judicial decisions in most family law matters for Muslims, such as marriage and divorce, and inheritance for both Muslims and non-Muslims; however, in the case of noncitizens, the parties may petition the court to have the laws of their home country apply, rather than sharia.  Sharia also applies in some criminal matters.  Civil law provides the basis for decisions on all other matters.  Shia Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shia family law cases through a special Shia council rather than through the regular judicial system.  When sharia courts try non-Muslims for criminal offenses, judges have the discretion to impose civil or sharia penalties.  Higher courts may overturn or modify sharia penalties.

Under the law, Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women who are “people of the book” (Christian or Jewish).  Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men.  Non-Muslim men and Muslim women who marry are subject to arrest, trial, and imprisonment on grounds of engaging in extramarital sex, which carries a minimum sentence of one year in jail, as the marriage is considered invalid; any extramarital sex between persons of any religion is subject to the same penalties.

In the event of a divorce between a Muslim father and non-Muslim mother, sharia law will usually apply.  Strict interpretation of sharia – which oftentimes favors the father – does not apply to child custody cases.  The father, deemed the guardian, provides for the child financially, while the mother, the custodian, provides day-to-day care of the child.  Non-Muslim wives of citizens are ineligible for naturalization.  There is no automatic spousal inheritance provision for wives under the law if the husband is Muslim and the wife is non-Muslim.  Such wives may not inherit their husband’s property unless named as a beneficiary in their husband’s will.

Abu Dhabi’s judicial department permits Christian leaders to legally mediate divorces for Christians and agnostics if the bride and groom are both residents of the emirate.  The government permits church officials to officiate at weddings for non-Muslims, but the couple must also obtain the marriage certificate from the Abu Dhabi Justice Department.  In both cases of marriage and divorce, the church official must be registered with the Ministry of Justice as officially recognized to perform these acts.

Noncitizens may register wills in the emirate in which they live.  In the absence of a will filed with the government, the assets of foreigners who die are subject to sharia.  Non-Muslims are able to register their wills with the Abu Dhabi judicial system as a way to safeguard their assets and preserve their children’s inheritance rights.  In Dubai, foreigners may file wills at the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) Court Wills and Probate Registry and include their own choice of law clause.  The DIFC Wills Service Center allows non-Muslim business owners and shareholders to designate an heir.  Dubai wills not filed in the DIFC Court are subject to sharia.  The DIFC’s jurisdiction extends to the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah.  There are courts for Personal Status and for Inheritance for non-Muslims in the Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance.

The law prohibits activities the government deems supportive of political or extremist interpretations of Islam.  These include the use of the internet or any other electronic means to promote views the government believes insult religions, promote sectarianism, damage national unity or the reputation of the state, or harm public order and public morals.  Punishments include imprisonment and fines from 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) to one million dirhams ($272,000).  In August the government increased the penalties for electronic violations of the law, including raising the maximum fine to four million dirhams ($1.09 million).  The law prohibits membership in groups the government designates as terrorist organizations, with penalties up to life imprisonment and capital punishment.

In May the president issued a federal law declaring that local authorities concerned with mosque affairs are responsible for naming mosques, providing and supervising the needs of mosques and prayer spaces, determining the timing of the second call to prayer, organizing religious lectures, and preparing sermons.  The law also defined acts prohibited in mosques, prayer spaces, and Eid Musallas (open prayer spaces outside of mosques or prayer halls smaller than mosques) without a license, such as giving lectures or sermons, holding Quran memorization circles, fundraising, and distributing written and visual material.  The law further stipulates that citizen applicants must be given first consideration for vacant positions at mosques.  The law prohibits those working in mosques from belonging to any illegal group or from carrying out any political or organizational activities.

The law restricts charitable fundraising activities, including by religious organizations, by prohibiting the collection of donations or advertising fundraising campaigns without prior approval from authorities.

In May the president approved a federal law on charitable endowments, clarifying circumstances under which fundraising was permissible.  The law classifies charitable endowments into three categories:  where proceeds are designated for the founder’s offspring; where proceeds are designated for charitable endeavors supporting the underprivileged; and where the proceeds are designed for both offspring and the general public.

The Dubai CDA is the official body mandated to oversee all civil institutions and nonprofits in the emirate, including non-Muslim religious groups.  The CDA issues operating licenses and permits for events, and monitors fundraising activities.  The law also states that civil institutions may only collect donations or launch fundraising campaigns after obtaining the CDA’s written approval.  Fines for noncompliance range from 500 dirhams ($140) to 100,000 dirhams ($27,200).

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

Government Practices

According to press, in July the criminal court of Ajman sentenced “an Arab man” to seven years of imprisonment, deportation upon completion of jail time, and a fine of 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) on blasphemy charges for an allegedly offensive voice mail that, according to media reports, contained offensive words and insulted God.

In January a court sentenced a Dominican woman and her child’s Yemeni biological father to a suspended one-month jail term and deportation for violating the country’s interpretation of sharia by engaging in extramarital sex.

Police and courts continued to enforce laws against sorcery.  In February the Federal Supreme Court upheld an 18-month jail term against someone identified in the press as “an Arab man” for charges of witchcraft, fraud, and trying to coerce sex from a woman.

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

Within prisons, the authorities required Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services.  In Abu Dhabi, some Christian clergy reported difficulties visiting Christian prisoners and raised concerns about lack of worship space for incarcerated Christians.  They reported that when they were granted prison access, they were permitted to take Bibles to the prisoners.

The country’s two primary internet service providers, both majority-owned by the government, continued to block certain web sites critical of Islam or supportive of religious views the government considered extremist, including Islamic sites.  The service providers continued to block other sites on religion-related topics, including some with information on Judaism, Christianity, atheism, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity.

In June the cabinet approved the formation of the UAE Fatwa Council, headed by President of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah.  The cabinet tasked the council with presenting a clear image of Islam, including issuing general fatwas and licensing individuals to issue fatwas, train muftis, and conduct research in coordination with the Awqaf.  In a July statement to the official Emirates news agency, Sheikh bin Bayyah declared, “Unofficial and rogue fatwas are the first gateway to extremist ideologies, and now is the time to demolish the misuse of this platform and end the distortion of fatwas to serve terrorism, murder, and destruction, both in Muslim countries and among Muslim minorities in different countries of the world.”

The Awqaf continued to vet and appoint Sunni imams, except in Dubai, based on their gender, educational background and knowledge of Islam, along with security checks.  According to the federal Awqaf, the government continued to fund Sunni mosques, with the exception of those considered private, and retained all Sunni imams as government employees.

The federal Awqaf continued to oversee the administration of Sunni mosques, except in Dubai, where they were administered by the IACAD.  On its website, the Awqaf stated its goals included offering “religious guidance in the UAE to instill the principle of moderation in Islam.”  It continued to distribute weekly guidance to Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of Friday Islamic sermons; published a Friday sermon script every week; and posted the guidance on its website.  The Awqaf applied a three-tier system in which junior imams followed the Awqaf Friday sermon script closely; midlevel imams prepared sermons according to the topic or subject matter selected by Awqaf authorities; and senior imams had the flexibility to choose their own subject and content for their Friday sermons.  Some Shia sheikhs (religious leaders) chose to follow Awqaf-approved weekly addresses, while others wrote their own sermons.  In June the Awqaf launched the first English-language Friday sermons in Ras Al Khaimah.  In September the Awqaf launched an initiative to translate Friday sermons for reading and listening into English and Urdu on its website and mobile application.

Dubai’s IACAD controlled the appointment of Sunni clergy and their conduct during worship in Dubai mosques.  All of the imams in Dubai’s more than 2,000 Sunni mosques were government employees and included both citizens and noncitizens.  Qualification requirements were more stringent for expatriate imams than for local imams, and starting salaries much lower.

The Jaafari Affairs Council, located in Dubai, managed Shia affairs for all of the country, including overseeing mosques and community activities, managing financial affairs, and hiring preachers.  The council complied with the weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.  In May, acting on an initiative of Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, emirate officials inaugurated the Imam Al Sadiq Center in Dubai for Shia religious and community activities.  The site is intended to hold 2,400 people.

The government did not appoint sheikhs for Shia mosques.  Shia adherents worshiped in and maintained their own mosques.  The government considered all Shia mosques to be private; however, they were eligible to receive some funds from the government upon request.

The Awqaf operated official toll-free call centers and a text messaging service for fatwas in three languages (Arabic, English, and Urdu).  Fatwa categories included belief and worship, business transactions, family issues, women’s issues, and other Islamic legal issues.  Callers explained their question directly to an official mufti, who then issued a fatwa.  Both female (muftiya) and male (mufti) religious scholars worked the phones at the fatwa hotline.

The government permitted Shia Muslims to observe Ashura in private, but not in public.  There were no public processions in Dubai or the northern emirates.

Representatives of non-Islamic faiths said registration procedures and requirements for minority religious groups remained unclear in all emirates other than Dubai.  The government did not require non-Muslim religious groups to register, but according to some observers, the lack of a clear legal designation continued to result in an ambiguous legal status for many groups and created difficulties in carrying out certain administrative functions, including banking or signing leases.  For example, the government required religious groups to register as a precondition for establishing formal places of worship, such as temples, mosques, or churches, or for holding religious services in rented spaces such as hotels or convention centers.  Community sources indicated that the government permitted unregistered religious organizations to rent spaces at hotels in some circumstances.  The government permitted groups that chose not to register to practice in private homes, as long as this activity did not disturb neighbors through excessive noise or vehicle congestion.

The government required all conference organizers, including religious groups, to register conferences and events, including disclosing speaker topics.

In Dubai, there were reports of delays in obtaining permits to worship in spaces outside of government-designated religious compounds from the CDA, tasked with implementing a new oversight structure for civil institutions and nonprofits and with regulating non-Muslim faith communities in the emirate.  There were also reports of additional restrictions on holding some religious services in hotels, due to confusion and uncertainty regarding CDA policies, and last-minute event cancellations affecting religious groups.

Immigration authorities continued to ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on residence applications.  School applications also asked for family religious affiliation.  Applicants were required to list a religious affiliation, creating potential legal issues for atheists and agnostics.  According to Ministry of Interior officials, the government collected this information for demographic statistical analysis only.

Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism, said they generally could worship and practice without government interference within designated compounds or buildings, or in private facilities or homes.  While the government did not generally allow non-Muslims to worship, preach, or conduct prayers in public, there were reports of government-sanctioned exceptions, such as the annual Easter celebrations held on a beach.

The government continued to provide land for non-Islamic cemeteries.  There were cremation facilities and associated cemeteries for the large Hindu community.  The Al Ain municipality in Abu Dhabi Emirate also ran a cremation facility.  Non-Muslim groups said the capacity in crematoriums and cemeteries was sufficient to meet demand.  The government required residents and nonresidents to obtain a permit to use cremation facilities, and authorities routinely granted such permits.  The government allowed people from all religious groups except Islam to use the cremation facilities.

In November the Abu Dhabi International Airport opened a multi-faith prayer room for use by the general public.

Some religious groups, particularly Christians and Hindus, advertised religious functions in the press or online, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, and choral concerts, without government objection.  The government also allowed businesses to advertise, sell merchandise, and host events for non-Islamic religious holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali.  The government allowed local media to report on non-Islamic religious holiday celebrations, including service times and related community-safety reminders.

In spite of legal prohibitions on eating during daytime hours of Ramadan, in Dubai and several northern emirates, non-Muslims were exempt from these laws in hotels and most malls; non-Muslims could eat at some stand-alone restaurants and most hotels in Abu Dhabi as well.  In Dubai and several northern emirates, the emirate governments permitted most licensed restaurants to offer alcohol during Ramadan.

The government did not always enforce the law against bell towers and crosses on churches, and some churches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai displayed crosses on their buildings or had ornamental bell towers; none of them used the towers to ring or chime bells.

Customs authorities continued to review the content of religious materials imported into the country and occasionally confiscated some materials, such as books.  Additionally, sometimes customs authorities denied or delayed entry to passengers carrying items deemed intended for sorcery, black magic, or witchcraft.  Specific items airport inspectors reportedly confiscated included amulets, animal bones, spells, knives, and containers of blood.

Officials from the Awqaf’s Department of Research and Censorship reviewed religious materials such as books and DVDs published at home and abroad.  The department’s Religious Publications Monitoring Section continued to limit the publication and distribution of religious literature to those it considered consistent with moderate interpretations of Islam and placed restrictions on non-Islamic religious publications, such as material that could be considered proselytizing or promoting another religion over Islam.  The section issued permits to print the Quran and reviewed literature on Quranic interpretation.  The government continued to prohibit the publication and distribution of literature it believed promoted extremist Islam and overtly political Islam.  The Religious Publications Monitoring Section inspected mosques to ensure prohibited publications were not present.

The Anti-Defamation League noted that despite the central government’s policy of promoting religious tolerance, the Dubai emirate sponsored three speakers with a history of anti-Semitic comments at an emirate-sponsored Ramadan event, a ceremony for the Dubai Holy Quran Award.  Omar Abdel Kafi, also spoke at the opening session of the May 2018 “Tolerance and Diversity of Cultures” conference in Abu Dhabi, held at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research.  Another of the speakers identified in the report, Saleh al-Maghemsy, spoke at the April “Al-Quds – Location and Status” conference in Abu Dhabi, under the patronage of the Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al Nahyan.

The government continued to grant permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis.  Minority religious groups said, however, the construction of new houses of worship had not kept up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population.  Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding and many congregations lacked their own space.  In Dubai, overcrowding of the emirate’s two church compounds was especially pronounced, and routinely led to congestion and traffic.  Media reports highlighted that holiday services often attract tens of thousands of worshippers to Dubai’s church compounds.  Some smaller congregations met in private locations, or shared space with other churches to which rulers had given land.  Noncitizen groups with land grants did not pay rent on the property.  Several emirates also continued to provide free utilities for religious buildings.

Noncitizens, who make up the membership of most minority religious groups, relied on grants and permission from local rulers to build houses of worship.  For these groups, land titles remained in the respective ruler’s name.  There were approximately 42 Christian churches, built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they were located.  Ajman and Umm Al Quwain were the only emirates without dedicated land for Christian churches, although congregations gathered in other spaces, such as hotels.

There are two Hindu temples and one Sikh temple in Dubai.  Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed allocated land in Al-Wathba, Abu Dhabi, for the construction of a privately funded Hindu temple, scheduled to be completed by 2020.  In January the minister of tolerance and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East inaugurated Saint Elias Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Abu Dhabi.  There were no Buddhist temples; some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.  There were no synagogues for the expatriate resident Jewish population, but regular communal worship took place on the Sabbath and holidays in a private villa in Dubai.  In December Bloomberg published an article about the Dubai Jewish community with the permission of its leaders, marking the first time the worship space had been publicly acknowledged.  Construction was underway on a new Anglican church in Abu Dhabi; the projected completion date is not clear.

Although the government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad, some noncitizen religious groups were unable to open bank accounts because of the lack of a clear legal category to assign the organization.  Several religious minority leaders reported this ambiguity created practical barriers to renting space, paying salaries, collecting funds, and purchasing insurance, and made it difficult to maintain financial controls and accountability.

In Islamic court cases involving non-Muslim defendants, judges had the discretion to impose civil or sharia penalties, and sources said the judges generally imposed civil penalties.

Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan often spoke publicly in support of free practice of religion, including during a February address to a delegation from the Catholic University of Paris.  The minister continued to host the International Institute of Tolerance, which sponsored the Dubai-based World Tolerance Summit in November, which featured messaging on respect for religious pluralism.

The government engaged with religious minorities frequently.  In January the minister of tolerance hosted senior Christian leaders from across the Gulf Cooperation Council at his palace in Abu Dhabi and discussed interfaith relations and their ability to worship in the UAE.  In January Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister and ruler of Dubai, hosted Aga Khan IV, imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, as part of the Aga Khan’s diamond jubilee tour as spiritual leader and to promote the Aga Khan Foundation.

In October Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces Mohammed bin Zayed and numerous other officials hosted a visiting evangelical Christian delegation from the United States to discuss promotion of tolerance and religious pluralism.

During the St. Anthony’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral’s Christmas celebration, Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan addressed the congregation and condemned the terrorist attack against the Church of Mar Mina in Cairo and affirmed the country’s commitment to religious tolerance and interfaith understanding.

In June Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan met with Pope Francis and other senior Vatican officials in Rome.  Local media reports noted that the discussions included promoting interfaith dialogue and increased bilateral cooperation.

Some Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported their ability to engage in nonreligious charitable activities, such as providing meals or social services, was limited because of government restrictions.  For example, the government required groups to obtain permission prior to any fundraising activities.  Religious groups reported official permission was required for any activities held outside of their place of worship, including charitable activities, and this permission was sometimes difficult to obtain.

In Dubai, representatives of the CDA attended interfaith iftars and suhoors (predawn meals during Ramadan) hosted by several Christian congregations, the Sikh Gurudwara, and the Ismaili Center.  Dubai’s Al Manara Islamic Center hosted an interfaith iftar, and invited attendees to share their thoughts on the themes of tolerance and happiness.  The iftar was broadcast live on the center’s website.  Dubai’s grand mufti addressed the diverse group of minority religious leaders and diplomats in attendance.

In June 2018 Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited the Akshardham Hindu temple in New Delhi, India, as part of an official visit.

Prominent government figures and social media influencers routinely acknowledged minority religious holidays using various platforms.  For example, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and ruler of Dubai, tweeted wishes for a happy Diwali and encouraged observers to use social media to share pictures of Diwali celebrations around the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to non-Muslim groups, there continued to be societal pressure discouraging conversion from Islam and encouraging conversion to Islam.  In March the Dubai-based Dar Al Ber Society announced that it had supported the conversion to Islam of 3,014 residents representing 69 nationalities in 2017.  During Ramadan, local newspapers published stories portraying conversions to Islam positively and published statistics on conversions to Islam.  For example, local media reported that 40 residents converted to Islam at an iftar hosted by the Islamic Information Center (IIC) of Dubai.  By contrast, observers reported conversion from Islam was highly discouraged through strong cultural and social pressure, particularly from family members.

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 at malls and hotels.  The news media continued to print reports of religious holiday celebrations, including religious activities such as Christmas celebrations and Hindu festivals such as Diwali.  Decorations and supplies for christenings and other religious events were available in major shopping centers.

Religious literature, primarily related to Islam, was available in stores; however, bookstores generally did not carry core religious works for other faiths, such as the Bible or Hindu sacred texts.

Radio and television stations frequently broadcast Islamic programming, including sermons and lectures; they did not feature similar content for other religious groups.

In some cases, organizations reported hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services.  Local media reported on difficulties in obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces, even for registered religious organizations, such as Anglican attempts to fund construction for All Saints Anglican Church in Abu Dhabi.

Anti-Semitic materials were available for purchase at some book fairs and from a major international book retailer.  There were continued reports of users posting anti-Semitic remarks on some social media sites and local Arabic print media featured anti-Semitic caricatures in political cartoons.  Following the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in May, Al-Bayan, a Dubai-based newspaper, ran an editorial cartoon showing the caricature of an orthodox Jew wearing a hat featuring the Star of David and firing a pistol into a grave with a headstone marked “Palestine’s martyrs.”

News reports during the year quoted religious leaders, including from Catholic, Anglican, Hindu, Sikh, and other religious communities, expressing appreciation for government support for their communities and the relative freedom in which their communities could worship.  During Ramadan, local media widely covered interfaith iftars hosted by minority faith communities, for example by the Anglican Church in Abu Dhabi.

Because of the limited capacity of official houses of worship, dozens of religious organizations and different sects shared worship space.  At the celebration of the 50th anniversary of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Abu Dhabi, the minister of tolerance during his keynote address praised the number of different Christian faith groups sharing space and worshipping side by side.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In December the U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom spoke at the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies’ fifth annual conference in Abu Dhabi about advancing religious freedom across the world.  In May the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, at the invitation of the Ministry of Tolerance, spoke about U.S. support for Muslim communities as a panel member for the International Conference on Muslim Minorities.

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, Consul General, and other embassy and consulate general officers met with representatives of the Ministry of Tolerance, Dubai’s CDA, IACAD, and other officials during the year.  In addition to the implementation of new laws and regulatory practices, officers discussed international, bilateral, and governmental efforts to support religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance, as well as government initiatives to promote moderate Islam.  Officers also engaged with government-supported organizations whose official stated purpose was to promote tolerance within and across religions, such as the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies.

Embassy and consulate general officers regularly met with representatives of minority religious groups to learn more about issues affecting their communities as part of continuing efforts to monitor their abilities to associate and worship.  The embassy and consulate general hosted events that brought together leaders from diverse religious communities, such as the Hindu, Sikh, Christian, and Shia communities, to facilitate the sharing of their experiences with one another, encourage interfaith contact building and dialogue, and demonstrate U.S. support for tolerance and religious freedom.  In March in partnership with the Ministry of Tolerance, the U.S. embassy and consulate sponsored the visit of a gospel choir affiliated with Howard University to perform in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Fujairah.  The choir also sang on local radio and at an event hosted by the minister of tolerance at his majlis (salon).  In Dubai, the Ismaili Center cohosted the gospel choir for an interfaith concert that was widely covered by local media.  Remarks from both U.S. and UAE officials throughout the visit praised mutual efforts to understand different religions and cultures.

West Bank and Gaza

Executive Summary

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


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

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

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total Palestinian population at 2.8 million in the West Bank and 1.8 million in the Gaza Strip (July 2018 estimates).  According to the U.S. government and other sources, Palestinian residents of these territories are predominantly Sunni Muslims.  The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics reports an estimated 412,000 Jewish Israelis reside in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  According to various estimates, 50,000 Christians reside in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and according to media reports and religious communities, there are approximately 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

Legal Framework

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 ordnances 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 ordnances enacted by the Military Commander and Israeli law and Israeli legislation.  Palestinians living in the portion of the West Bank designated as Area C in the Oslo II Accord are subject to military ordnances 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 ordnances enacted by the Military Commander whenever its 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 due to 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 comes 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.  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 criminalizing “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 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.

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 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 religious 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 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 presidential decree requires that Christians head 10 municipal councils in the West Bank (including Ramallah, Bethlehem, Birzeit, and Beit Jala) and establishes a Christian quota for 10 West Bank municipal councils.

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 the law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority (ILA), 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 since 2014, older identity cards continue to circulate, listing the holder as either Muslim or Christian.

Government Practices

In October Palestinian authorities detained a Palestinian-U.S. citizen Jerusalem identification card holder and investigated him for involvement in brokering the sale of Palestinian property to Jewish Israelis.  After a one-week trial, the Palestinian Grand Criminal Court found him guilty of “seizing/tearing away part of the Palestinian Territories to a foreign State” and sentenced him to life in prison with hard labor.  Authorities also froze his bank accounts as well as those of the owners of the property, according to media.

Israeli police and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) reported investigating known instances of religiously motivated attacks and making arrests where possible.  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.  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.

The Israeli government stated that authorities maintained a zero-tolerance policy against Israeli extremists’ attacks on Palestinians and have made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank, including through taskforces, increased funding, and hiring additional staff members.  During the first six months of the year, Israeli police had investigated 115 allegations of nationalistic-based offenses committed by Israelis in the West Bank and 405 allegations against Palestinians.  In all of 2017, Israeli police investigated 183 and 609 allegations, respectively.  At the end of June, Israeli authorities had opened 35 new investigations of ideologically-based offenses and disturbances of public order by Israelis against Palestinians, compared with 29 in all of 2017.  By June Israeli authorities issued four indictments in these cases, two of which were from prior years’ investigations, while in 2017 four indictments were issued, including three from prior years’ investigations.  Offenses against property constituted 65 percent of these cases.  Israeli authorities investigated 15 cases of Israelis allegedly committing bodily harm against Palestinians.  As of the end of June, however, Israeli authorities had not investigated any cases involving Israeli stone-throwing at Palestinians in the West Bank.  The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported 21 incidents of Israelis throwing stones at Palestinian homes and vehicles during the same six-month period.

As of October, Israeli authorities had issued 27 restraining orders against 25 Israelis from entering the West Bank and four orders prohibiting Israelis from entering specific areas in the West Bank.  In 2017, Israeli authorities issued one detention order and 55 restraining orders against 41 Israelis, including minors, prohibiting their presence in the West Bank to deter and prevent ideologically based offenses.  The Israeli government stated the special unit it established in 2013 in the West Bank’s Judea and Samaria Police District to combat nationalist crimes was fully operational, with 60 police officers, and 20 auxiliary officers.

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 Mufti of Jerusalem issued fatwas prohibiting Palestinian participation in Jerusalem municipal elections, and sales of Palestinian-owned lands to Israelis.  In April the Palestinian Supreme Fatwa Council reiterated an Islamic legal ruling (fatwa) reemphasizing previous rulings that sale of Palestinian-owned lands, including in Jerusalem, to “enemies such as the state of Israel,” is forbidden to Muslims according to sharia.

Nonrecognized churches, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and some evangelical Christian groups, faced a continued PA ban on proselytization but stated they were able to conduct most other functions unhindered by the PA.  Palestinian authorities generally recognized on a case-by-case basis personal status documents issued by nonrecognized churches.  The PA, however, continued to refuse to recognize personal status legal documents (e.g., marriage certificates) issued by some of these nonrecognized 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 nonrecognized churches advised members with dual citizenship to marry or divorce abroad to register the action officially in that location.  Some converts to nonrecognized 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, which would also enable couples to register their children and protect the children’s inheritance rights.  Palestinian authorities generally recognized on a case-by-case basis documents from a small number of churches that were relatively recently established in the West Bank and whose legal status remained uncertain.

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 that was begun by Israel during the second Intifada (2000-2005), impeded their work, particularly south of Jerusalem in the 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 Sepulcher 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 attacks in Israel.

In addition, 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.

Palestinian leaders often did not publicly condemn individual terrorist attacks or speak out publicly against members of their institutions who advocated for violence.  Media and social media regularly used the word “martyr” to refer to individuals killed during confrontations with Israeli security forces.  Some official PA media channels, social media sites affiliated with the Fatah political movement, terrorist organizations, and individuals glorified terrorist attacks on Jewish Israelis, referring to the assailants as “martyrs.”  Several local Fatah chapters on social media referred to individuals who had engaged in terrorist attacks as martyrs and posted memorials, including photographs of suicide bombers.  The Fatah branch in the city of Tubas and the Fatah youth organization posted a photograph on March 11 of Wafa Idreis, a suicide bomber who carried out an attack during the second Intifada, and which killed one Israeli and injured 90 others.

The PA and the PLO continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinian individuals killed during the commission of a terrorist act.  The PA and the PLO also continued to provide payments to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism against Israelis.  These payments and separate stipends for prisoners were first initiated by the PLO in 1965 and have continued under the PA since the Oslo Accords with Israel.  President Abbas said he would use his last penny “on the families of the prisoners and martyrs.”

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.

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.

The Israeli government continued to prohibit 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).  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, 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 Jewish 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.

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).

The IDF continued 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 the site.  Some Muslim leaders publicly rejected a Jewish connection to the site.  The IDF again restricted Muslim access on 10 days corresponding to Jewish holidays and Jewish access on 10 days corresponding to Islamic holidays.  The Israeli government said these restrictions allowed a greater number of worshipers to access the site on special days for the two faiths.  The IDF restricted Muslims to one entry point with IDF security screening.  The IDF granted Jews access via several entry points without security screening.  The Israeli government said police guard posts were located at both crossings, and manned by soldiers and equipped with metal detectors.  Entrance was denied to individuals identified as posing a threat to the security of the site or its worshipers.  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 Israeli government said the road closure was 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 regarding the needs of Jewish worshippers at the site.

Following the September fatal stabbing of a Jewish settler in the West Bank by a Palestinian, President Abbas told Israeli government leaders that “everybody loses from violence.”  On April 30, however, Abbas spoke at a meeting of the Palestinian National Council, stating the  massacres of Jews, including during the Holocaust, were related to their “social behavior, [charging] interest, and financial matters,” and not their religion.  He issued a statement on May 4 apologizing to those offended by his remarks, condemning anti-Semitism in all its forms, and called the Holocaust the most heinous crime in history.

Religiously intolerant and anti-Semitic material continued to appear in official PA media.  On October 5, the official Palestinian TV aired a speech by PA Islamic Law Judge Muhannad Abu Roomi describing Jews as “fabricators of history” who “dance and live on the body parts and blood of others.”  In another instance, a guest on a Palestinian TV program on April 10 stated that the Holocaust was a lie, and that many Jews “colluded with Hitler to create a gateway to bring settlers to Palestine.”  On December 14, Osama al-Tibi delivered a Friday sermon at the Taqwa mosque in al-Tira, near Ramallah, broadcast on Palestine TV.  In his sermon, al-Tibi said he was not able to mention all of the Jews’ despicable traits, and that “Allah … turned them into apes and pigs.”

There continued to be anti-Semitic and militaristic and adversarial content directed against Israel in Palestinian textbooks as well as the absence of references to Judaism alongside Christianity and Islam when discussing religion, according to Palestinian Media Watch and the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education.  The two NGOs also reported that PA schoolbooks for the 2017-2018 school year contained material glorifying terror and promoting violence.  In September media reported a European Parliament committee voted to freeze more than $17 million in aid to the PA over incitement against Israel in its textbooks.

NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in the West Bank continued to state the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), an Israeli government entity, exploited archaeological finds to bolster Jewish claims, while overlooking other historically significant archaeological finds of other religions or the needs of Palestinian residents at these sites.  Under the Israeli Antiquities Law, excavations within a sacred site require the approval of a ministerial committee, which includes the ministers of culture, justice, and religious affairs.  The government stated that the IAA 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 of ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk and Ottoman periods.”

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 from entering and working.  The Israeli government continued to limit Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank to single entry visas, which local parish leaders in the West Bank 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 Israeli 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.  Christian leaders said Israel’s visa and permit policy for individuals wishing to work and reside in the West Bank adversely impacted faith-based operations in the West Bank.  While clergy generally were able to obtain visas, Christian leaders said this policy adversely affected school teachers and volunteers affiliated with faith-based charities working in the West Bank.  NGOs and religious leaders said this policy did not appear to specifically target faith based organizations, but rather, appeared to be part of a broader Israeli tightening of visa issuance in response to the international “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.”  Israeli authorities issued permits for some Christians in Gaza 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 from entering Gaza, including bishops and other senior clergy seeking to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority.  Israel facilitated visits by clergy, including bishops from non-Arab countries, to Gaza on multiple occasions, including delegations from Europe, North America, and South Africa.

At year’s end, Christians held minister-level positions in three PA ministries (Finance, Economy, and Tourism) and the cabinet-level office of deputy prime minister for public information.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Hamas, PIJ, and other militant and terrorist groups continued to be active in Gaza.  Hamas remained in de facto political control of Gaza.

Hamas leaders continued to call for the elimination of the state of Israel, and some Hamas leaders called for the killing of Zionist Jews.  Some Hamas leaders condemned, however, the terrorist attack on a U.S. synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Hamas also continued to enforce restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia, including a separate judicial system from the PA courts.  At times Hamas courts prohibited women from departing Gaza due to ongoing divorce or family court proceedings, despite having Israeli authorization to travel.  Human Rights Watch issued a report in October regarding accusation of torture and abuse of detainees in PA and Hamas detention, based on 86 cases and dozens of interviews with former detainees, lawyers, and family members.  The report included an example from 2017 of Hamas police detaining a social worker and investigating him for “offending religious feelings.”  Media reported the Hamas-affiliated Islamic University of Gaza required hijabs for all females.  Gazan civil society leaders said Hamas in recent years had moderated its restrictions on dress and gender segregation in public.

Christian groups reported Hamas generally tolerated the small Christian presence in Gaza and did not force Christians to abide by Islamic law.  According to media accounts, Hamas continued to neither investigate nor prosecute Gaza-based cases of religious discrimination, including reported anti-Christian bias in private sector hiring and in police investigations of anti-Christian harassment.  Media quoted Gazan Christians as saying that Hamas generally did not impede private and communal religious activities for the Christian minority in Gaza, but continued to not celebrate Christmas as a public holiday, unlike in the West Bank.

Some Muslim students continued to attend schools run by Christian institutions and NGOs in Gaza.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were incidents of deadly violence that perpetrators said was justified at least partly on religious grounds.  Because religion and ethnicity or nationality were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize much of this violence as being solely based on religious identity.  Actions included killings, physical and verbal attacks on 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 January 9, a member of Hamas’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades shot and killed Rabbi Raziel Shevach at a traffic junction near the Israeli settlement outpost of Havat Gilad, west of Nablus in the West Bank.  On March 28, an Arab Israeli, Abed al-Hakim Asi, was charged in Central District Court for the February 5 fatal stabbing of Rabbi Itamar Ben Gal at a bus stop near the Ariel settlement, located between Nablus and Ramallah.  Following these two attacks, Israeli settlers from neighboring areas threw stones at Palestinian vehicles and houses, destroyed olive orchards, sprayed anti-Palestinian graffiti, and blocked road access to Nablus.

On October 12, 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 police opened an investigation and at year’s end continued to investigate the possible involvement of yeshiva students from the nearby Israeli settlement of Rehelim.

In July a Palestinian teenager climbed over the wall of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank near Ramallah and stabbed three Israelis, killing one.  Neighbors of the victim killed the 17-year-old.  In response, the Israeli defense minister tweeted, “The best answer to terror is the accelerated settlement of Judea and Samaria.”

Palestinians at times violently protested when Jewish groups visited holy sites 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, and/or evacuate Jewish worshippers.

According to local press and social media, some Israeli 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.  NGO Tag Meir reported that in April unknown assailants attempted to set a mosque near Nablus on fire, leaving graffiti on the building that stated “price tag and revenge.”

According to local human rights groups and media, Israeli authorities rarely prosecuted Jewish attacks against Muslims and Christians successfully, failing to open investigations or closing cases for lack of evidence.  The Israeli government stated it maintained a zero-tolerance policy towards “price-tag” offenses by Israeli extremists and other violence against Palestinians in areas of the West Bank under its responsibility.  It also stated it had made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank, which led to a decrease in ideologically-based offences, and an increase in the numbers of investigations and rates of prosecution.

A crowd of Christian Palestinians threw stones, bottles, and eggs at Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III on January 6-7 when he arrived in Bethlehem’s Manger Square to preside over midnight Mass on Orthodox Christmas.  Members of the crowd, who also pounded the patriarch’s car with their fists, chanting “traitor, traitor,” accused the Greek Orthodox Church of selling Palestinian-owned property and land to Israeli Jewish groups.  According to media, the controversy dated back to 2004, when three companies associated with a settler group obtained a long-term lease on three buildings belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church in the Old City of Jerusalem.  The church launched a legal battle against the agreement, calling it “illegal” and “unauthorized.”  In 2017, a district court in Israel rejected the church’s argument.  The church appealed the decision to the Israeli Supreme Court in November 2017, and the appeal was still pending at year’s end.

According to members of more recently arrived faith communities in the West Bank and Jerusalem, established Christian groups opposed their efforts to obtain official recognition from the PA 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 Palestinian sources, most Christian and Muslim families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip pressured their children, especially their 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.

In an article published by the independent Palestinian Ma’an News Agency, former Hamas official Mustafa al-Lidawi invoked the blood libel to describe how Jews prepared pastries for the Purim holiday.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government representatives 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.  These meetings included discussions of the groups’ concerns about religious tolerance, access to religious sites, respect for clergy, and attacks on religious sites and houses of worship.

U.S. government representatives met with political, religious, and civil society leaders to promote tolerance and cooperation to combat religious prejudice.  They also 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 with local Christian leaders to discuss their concerns about ongoing Christian emigration from Jerusalem and the West Bank.


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

Yemen

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no provision for the registration of religious groups.

By law, the government must authorize construction of new buildings.  The law, however, does not mention places of worship specifically.

Public schools must provide instruction in Islam but not in other religions.  The law states primary school classes must include knowledge of Islamic rituals and the country’s history and culture within the context of Islamic civilization.  The law also specifies knowledge of Islamic beliefs as an objective of secondary education.  Public schools are required to teach Sunni and Shia students the same curriculum; however, instructional materials indicate that schools in Houthi controlled areas are teaching Zaydi principles.

The Houthis and officials residing in Houthi-controlled areas representing the largest secular political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), jointly established the Supreme Political Council (SPC) in July 2016.  The SPC is a 10-member entity organized to establish and determine a governing structure for Yemen under the Houthi-led regime in Sana’a.  The government and the international community have deemed the SPC unconstitutional and illegitimate.

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

Government Practices

The cabinet, with the exception of President Hadi, Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani, who remained in Saudi Arabia, returned to Aden under the leadership of the new Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed in late October.  The government, however, did not exercise effective legal or administrative control over much of the country.

Although causes for the war are complex, sectarian violence has accompanied the civil conflict.  Since March 2015, the government has engaged in a military conflict with Ansar Allah (Houthis).  After the Houthis established control over Sana’a in September 2014, and expanded their control over significant portions of the country, senior government officials fled to Saudi Arabia, where they requested assistance from Saudi Arabia and other regional states.  As noted by the BBC, “Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia power Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states began an air campaign aimed at restoring [President] Hadi’s government.”  The BBC report later described the conflict as “part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi-led coalition airstrikes damaged places of worship and religious institutions and caused casualties at religious gatherings, according to the UN, nongovernmental organizations, and media.

Prior to the outbreak of the current military conflict, the government permitted the use of Hindu temples in Aden and Sana’a as well as existing church buildings for religious services of other denominations.  Due to the conflict, information on the use of these religious sites was not available during the year.

The government was unable to verify the content of the religious curriculum taught in some private schools, although the government said it was aware of the forced introduction of Zaydi Shia teaching into the curriculum of schools within Houthi-controlled areas.  Some Muslim citizens attended private schools that did not teach Islam.  Most non-Muslim students were foreigners and attended private schools.  According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, schools were open for only a few hours a day in many areas and over 2,000 were closed because of damage or because displaced persons or armed groups had occupied them.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Media reports indicated that as of August, unknown gunmen killed 27 Muslim clerics in Aden during the last two years.

Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in print.

Jewish community members reported their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices.

Ismaili Muslims continued to complain about discrimination.  The outbreak of the conflict hindered the ability of Indian Ismailis to perform pilgrimages to sites of religious significance within the country.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Because of the deteriorating security situation in Sana’a, the Department of State suspended embassy operations at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a on February 11, 2015, and resumed operations as the Yemen Affairs Unit, initially from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia until it moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in September 2018.  In meetings with officials from the government, U.S. officials continued to stress the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue.  Yemeni government officials routinely stressed they upheld these principles, and criticized the Houthis for persecuting religious minorities.

On May 14, the Department of State spokesperson issued a statement expressing the U.S. government’s concern about the Baha’i population of Yemen and called on the Houthis to end their unacceptable treatment of the Baha’is, stating, “The Houthis have targeted the Baha’i community in inflammatory speech along with a wave of detentions, ‘court summons,’ and punishment without a fair or transparent legal process.  These actions over the past year indicate a persistent pattern of mistreatment of Baha’is in Yemen.  These actions appear to be an effort to pressure Yemeni Baha’is to recant their faith.”

On November 8, the Yemen Affairs Unit posted a statement that it signed on behalf of the United States and that was cosigned by the governments of Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom expressing deep concern about the worsening treatment of Baha’is in Yemen, stating, “We join others in calling on the Houthis to immediately release all Baha’is in their custody.  Respect for religious freedom is an essential building block for peace and prosperity in Yemen.”

On November 28, the Secretary of State designated the Houthis as an “Entity of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.