The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam are free to exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, which is punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property according to the Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” There were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy during the year, but converts from Islam to other religions reported they continued to fear punishment from the government as well as reprisals from family and society. The law prohibits the production and publishing of works contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions. The new penal code, which went into effect in February, includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam. Shia leaders continued to state that the government neglected security in majority-Shia areas. The government sought to address security issues in Western Kabul’s Shia Hazara Dasht-e Barchi area, a target of major attacks during the year, by announcing plans to increase Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) presence. Media reported the government arrested 26 militants preparing attacks on the Shia community during the community’s observance of Ashura in Kabul. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils. Representatives of minority religious groups reported the courts’ continued failure to grant non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. The Independent Elections Commission (IEC) granted an extension on July 5 for the registration for a Sikh candidate to run in the October parliamentary elections following the death of the only Sikh candidate in a suicide attack in Jalalabad on July 1. Shia Muslims continued to hold some major government positions; however, Shia leaders said the number of positions still did not reflect their demographics.
The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, again targeted and killed members of minority religious communities, and the Taliban again targeted and killed individuals because of their beliefs or their links to the government. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), consistent with trends observed in the past two years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras. During the year, UNAMA recorded 22 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, causing 453 civilian casualties (156 deaths and 297 injured), all attributed to ISKP and other antigovernment elements. The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam. Taliban gunmen killed imams and other religious officials throughout the country. On November 20, a suicide bomber killed more than 50 religious scholars gathered at a Kabul wedding hall to celebrate the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials and to punish residents in areas under Taliban control according to their interpretation of Islamic law, including stoning any person suspected of adultery or other “moral crimes.” Insurgents claiming affiliation with the ISKP reportedly engaged in similar activities. On February 27, in Tangi Wazir, Nangarhar Province, the ISKP stoned to death a man accused of engaging in extramarital sexual relations (zina), and subsequently issued a press statement about the killing. In April the ISKP stoned to death a 60-year-old man accused of raping a woman in Darzab District, Jawzjan Province. According to some religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISKP in their sermons.
Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported continued harassment from some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they were able to practice their respective religions in public. Christian groups reported public opinion remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims stated they continued to worship privately to avoid societal discrimination and persecution. Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering. Observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. The authoritative body of Islamic scholars, known as the Ulema Council, announced plans to establish a special committee to oversee social reform to address government corruption and “moral corruption” in society that religious clerics deemed incompatible with the teachings of Islam. According to minority religious leaders, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities. Community leaders reported that 500 to 600 Sikhs and Hindus, representing almost half their numbers, fled to either India or Western countries during the year, particularly in the aftermath of the July 1 bombing in Jalalabad. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported interference with their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, from individuals who lived near cremation sites. On June 4, the Ulema Council convened approximately 3,000 religious scholars in Kabul to issue a propeace fatwa that also condemned discrimination based on religion.
U.S. embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and the protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. In October the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met with government officials and civil society leaders to promote religious tolerance. To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism, facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, and create policies to foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met frequently with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC). Embassy officials met regularly with leaders of major religious groups, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify means and ways to counter violent religious extremism, and promote tolerance for religious diversity. During the month of Ramadan, the embassy used social media platforms to share information on Islam in America, based on Department of State-created materials that profiled prominent Muslim-Americans and organizations. The embassy also used social media to highlight the National Religious Freedom and International Religious Freedom Days.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.9 million (July 2018 estimate). There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not track disaggregated population data. According to the Pew Forum, Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent of the population.
According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. Sikh and Hindu leaders estimate there are 245 Sikh and Hindu families totaling 700 individuals, down from 1,300 individuals estimated in 2017, mostly in Kabul, with a few communities in Nangarhar, Ghazni, Paktiya, Kunduz, Kandahar, and Helmand Provinces.
The Ahmadi Muslim community estimates it has 450 adherents nationwide, down from 600 in 2017. Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including one Jewish person.
Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Baha’i Faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam the official state religion and says no law may contravene the beliefs and provisions of the “sacred religion of Islam.” It further states there shall be no amendment to the constitution’s provisions with respect to adherence to the fundamentals of Islam. According to the constitution, followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.” The penal code, enacted in February, outlines provisions that criminalize verbal and physical assaults on religion and protects individuals’ right to exercise their beliefs for any religion. An article in the new penal code specifies what constitutes an insult to religion, stating, “A person who intentionally insults a religion or disrupts its rites or destroys its permitted places of worship shall be deemed as a perpetrator of the crime of insulting religions and shall be punished according to provisions of this chapter.”
Another article of the penal code states persons who forcibly stop the conduct of rituals of any religion, destroy or damage “permitted places of worship” (a term not defined by the code) where religious rituals are conducted, or destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion are subject to imprisonment of three months to one year or a fine ranging from 30,000 afghanis to 60,000 afghanis ($400 to $800). In cases where murder or physical injury result from the disturbance of religious rites or ceremonies, the perpetrator will be tried according to crimes of murder and physical injury as defined by law.
The new penal code also specifies that deliberate insults or distortions directed towards Islamic beliefs or laws carry a prison sentence of one to five years.
While the crime of blasphemy of Islam, also known as apostasy, is not specifically provided for under the penal code, it falls under the seven offenses making up the hudood as defined by sharia law. According to the penal code, perpetrators of hudood will be punished according to Hanafi jurisprudence. According to Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case,” beheading is appropriate for male apostates, while life imprisonment is appropriate for female apostates, unless the individual repents. A judge may also impose a lesser penalty, such as short-term imprisonment or lashes, if doubt about the apostasy exists. Under Hanafi jurisprudence, the government may also confiscate the property of apostates or prevent apostates from inheriting property. This guidance applies to individuals who are of sound mind and have reached the age of maturity. Civil law states the age of majority for citizens is 18, although it is 16 for females with regard to marriage. Islamic law defines it as the point at which one shows signs of puberty.
Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts. If someone converts to another religion from Islam, he or she shall have three days to recant the conversion. If the person does not recant, then he or she shall be subject to the punishment for apostasy. Proselytizing to try to convert individuals from Islam to another religion is also illegal according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which is applied in the courts and subject to the same punishment.
Blasphemy, which may include anti-Islamic writings or speech, is a capital crime according to the Hanafi school. Accused blasphemers, like apostates, have three days to recant or face death, although there is no clear process for recanting under sharia. Some hadiths (sayings or traditions that serve as a source of Islamic law or guidance) suggest discussion and negotiation with an apostate to encourage the apostate to recant.
According to a 2007 ruling from the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court, the Baha’i Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy. All Muslims who convert to it are considered apostates; Baha’is are labeled infidels.
Licensing and registration of religious groups are not required. Registration as a group (which gives the group the status of a council, known as a shura) or an association conveys official recognition and the benefit of government provision of facilities for seminars and conferences. By law, anyone who is 18 years of age or older may establish a social or political organization. Such an entity must have a charter consistent with domestic laws as well as a central office. Both groups and associations may register with the Ministry of Justice. The ministry may dissolve such organizations through a judicial order. Groups recognized as shuras (councils) may cooperate with one another on religious issues. Associations may conduct business with the government or the society as a whole.
A mass media law prohibits the production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and denominations. It also prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam and bans articles on any topic the government deems might harm the physical, spiritual, and moral wellbeing of persons, especially children and adolescents. The law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan, a government agency, to provide broadcasting content reflecting the religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country. The law also obligates the agency to adjust its programs in light of Islamic principles as well as national and spiritual values.
According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, national culture as well as academic principles” and develop courses on religion based on the “Islamic sects” in the country. The national curriculum includes materials designed separately for Sunni-majority schools and Shia-majority schools, as well as textbooks that emphasize nonviolent Islamic terms and principles. The curriculum includes courses on Islam, but not on other religions. Non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools.
According to the law, all funds contributed to madrassahs by private or international sources must be channeled through the Ministry of Education (MOE).
The civil and penal codes derive their authority from the constitution. The constitution stipulates the courts shall apply constitutional provisions as well as the law in ruling on cases. For instances in which neither the constitution nor the penal or civil code address a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi Sunni jurisprudence within the limits set by the constitution to attain justice. The constitution also allows courts to apply Shia law in cases involving Shia followers. Non-Muslims may not provide testimony in matters requiring sharia jurisprudence. The constitution makes no mention of separate laws applying to non-Muslims.
A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she is not an adherent of one of the other two Abrahamic faiths – Christianity or Judaism. It is illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man.
The government’s national identity cards indicate an individual’s religion, as well as nationality, tribe, and ethnicity. Individuals are not required to declare belief in Islam to receive citizenship.
The constitution requires the president and two vice presidents to be Muslim. Other senior officials (ministers, members of parliament, judges) must swear allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam as part of their oath of office.
The constitution allows the formation of political parties, provided the program and charter of a party are “not contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” The constitution states political parties may not be based on sectarianism.
The law, pursuant to a 2016 presidential decree, mandates an additional seat in parliament’s lower house be reserved for a member of the Hindu and Sikh community. Four seats in the parliament are also reserved for Ismaili Muslims.
The Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA) remained responsible for managing Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, revenue collection for religious activities, acquisition of property for religious purposes, issuance of fatwas, educational testing of imams, sermon preparation and distribution for government-supported mosques, and raising public awareness of religious issues. During the year, MOHRA restructured its bureaucracy to establish an office dedicated to assisting the faith practices of religious minorities, specifically Sikhs and Hindus.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Media reported members of the Shia community continued to state the government did not provide them with adequate protection from attacks by nonstate actors. In response to these attacks, in September President Ashraf Ghani announced a plan to divide Kabul into four security zones, creating a security zone in the Dasht-e Barchi area similar to the one that protects embassies and international organizations in central Kabul and increasing the ANDSF presence there. President Ghani also announced plans for the Kabul Municipality and Capital Zone Development Authority to implement development projects in the area, including road construction. Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community, however, said these were insufficient, symbolic measures from the government. The Ministry of Interior again increased security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians, under police authority, to provide extra security for Ashura. There were no reports of violence during Ashura processions – a sharp contrast from recent years. On September 18, media reported the government had prevented attacks by arresting 26 ISKP militants in Kabul suspected of planning attacks on Ashura.
As in the previous four years, there were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy during the year; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty. Baha’is continued to be labeled as “infidels,” although they were not considered converts; as such, they were not charged with either crime.
The government again allowed both Sunnis and Shia to go on pilgrimages, with no quota on either group. It charged fees for Hajj participants to cover transportation, food, accommodation, and other expenses. MOHRA also continued to facilitate pilgrimages for Hindus and Sikhs to India, but it did not collect any revenue for or from non-Muslims. Ahmadi Muslims reported they chose not to interact with MOHRA because they feared MOHRA would deem them non-Muslims and forbid them from participating in the Hajj.
MOHRA reported that of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 6,000 registered mullahs were working directly for MOHRA at year’s end, an increase from 4,589 in 2017. Government officials said the ministry was able to hire additional clerics under the year’s budget due to the implementation of new procedures and a new payroll system. These mullahs continued to receive an average monthly salary of 12,000 afghanis ($160) from the government. For highly educated mullahs of central mosques delivering special Friday sermons or khatibs, MOHRA provided a salary of 14,000 afghanis ($190). Mullahs applying to be prayer leaders in MOHRA-registered mosques continued to have to hold at least a high school diploma, although a bachelor’s degree or equivalent verified by the Ministry of Higher Education was preferred. MOHRA reported approximately 66,000 of the estimated 160,000 mosques in the country were registered. According to MOHRA, the ministry lacked the financial resources to create a comprehensive registry of mullahs and mosques in the country.
MOHRA reported it continued to allocate a portion of its budget for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques. Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about the new construction.
Hindu and Sikh groups again reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy, but per the law against conversion of Muslims, the government continued not to allow them to proselytize. Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing land disputes through the courts due to fear of retaliation, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property.
Although the government provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security in the region continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs reported continued interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead from individuals who lived near the cremation sites. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government promised to construct modern crematories for the Sikh and Hindu populations. Sikh and Hindu community leaders said President Ghani reaffirmed this promise in an August 2017 meeting, but as of the end of the year, the government had not taken action. Despite these challenges, community leaders acknowledged new efforts by MOHRA to provide free water, electricity, and repair services for a few Sikh and Hindu temples, as well as facilitate visas for religious trips to India.
MOHRA reported there were 4,500 registered madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country, up from 4,093 in 2017. The government reported that approximately 50,000 mosques were registered with the ministry. The government registered some additional madrassahs during the year but did not report how many. More than 300,000 students were enrolled in madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to the latest available estimate.
The registration process for madrassahs continued to require a school to demonstrate it had suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students lived on campus. MOHRA continued to register madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the MOE continued to register madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-run madrassahs, students received individual instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels. Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allowed students to pursue higher education at government universities.
MOHRA could not estimate the number of unregistered madrassahs but stated it was likely unregistered madrassahs “far outnumbered” registered madrassahs. The MOE was authorized to close unregistered madrassahs, but ministry officials again said it remained nearly impossible to close any due to local sensitivities. According to ministry officials, some madrassahs were closed in conflict areas during the year, but not out of concern for potential negative societal repercussions. Ministry officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery. Government officials said they were concerned about their inability to supervise unregistered madrassas that could institute violent extremist curriculum intolerant of religious minorities and become recruitment centers for antigovernment groups.
Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Eighty MOE-registered madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. An estimated 1,200 public madrassahs were registered with the MOE.
Ulema Council members continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government. The council also provided advice to some provincial governments; however, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition. President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah included messages in support of religious tolerance in speeches invoking national unity and in meetings with minority religious groups. For example, on September 19, media reported that President Ghani had stated the ongoing war was against the “national unity and religious freedom” of the country. President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah also held meetings with Ulema Council members on promoting intrafaith tolerance and “moderate practices” of Islam.
Minority religious groups reported the courts continued not to apply the protections provided to those groups by law, and the courts denied non-Muslims the access to the courts or other legal redress as Muslims, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights.
According to media reports and representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, some members of these communities, such as Sikhs and Hindus, were told they did not have equal rights because they were “Indians,” not Afghans, even when they were citizens of the country. Members of minority religious communities reported the state, including the courts, treated all citizens as if they were Muslims, and some basic citizenship rights of non-Muslims remained uncodified. They said the result was non-Muslims continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence.
Sikhs and Hindus continued to report their community members avoided taking civil cases to court because they believed they were unprotected by dispute resolution mechanisms such as the Special Land and Property Court. Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.
Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to state they faced discrimination in the judicial system, including long delays in resolving cases, particularly regarding the continued appropriation of Sikh properties. Hindu and Sikh community leaders said they had pending court cases of land seized by municipal authorities and warlords from four years ago. Whenever community advocates reproached the court, government officials said their cases remained under review.
Although some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government such as Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh, High Peace Council Chairman Karim Khalili, and then Second Chief Executive Deputy Mohammad Mohaqeq, Shia leaders continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia remained overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. Observers said these debates were often about the predominantly Hazara ethnicity of the majority of the country’s Shia rather than about religion.
A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions, including one at the municipal level, one at the Chamber of Commerce and Industries, one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, and one as an elected member in the lower house. After the only Sikh candidate, Awtar Singh Khalsa, for lower house parliament elections was killed in a July 1 suicide attack in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province, the IEC granted an extension on July 5 for the registration for a Sikh candidate to run in parliamentary elections in October.
Although four Ismaili Muslims remained members of parliament, Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.
The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques. The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council, and MOHRA also continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation. Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.
On June 4, the Ulema Council convened approximately 3,000 religious scholars at the Loya Jirga tent in Kabul to issue a propeace fatwa. Although the religious scholars said the effort was more of a symbolic attempt to challenge the religious legitimacy of “holy war” invoked by violent extremist groups, including the Taliban and ISKP, they said the fatwa included principles of religious tolerance. The scholars stated, “Divisions among Muslims based on language, tribe, or sect are against Islam” and that “those who cause such division should be punished.” This included all forms of intra-Muslim violence, including through suicide attacks.
The ONSC continued its work on addressing religiously motivated violent extremism, which included policies to foster religious tolerance. The ONSC continued to sponsor provincial-level conferences on religiously motivated violent extremism to collect data for use in its effort to develop a strategy to counter violent extremism. The ONSC also continued to coordinate the efforts of relevant government institutions and NGOs to formulate the strategy through an interministerial working group. Government officials said the strategy had reached the final stages of review during the year.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
According to journalists, local observers, and UNAMA, attacks by the ISKP and other insurgent groups continued to target specific religious and ethnoreligious groups, including the Hazara Shia. UNAMA’s 2018 report on civilian deaths documented attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, recording 22 attacks causing 453 civilian casualties (156 deaths and 297 injured). UNAMA attributed all attacks to antigovernment elements; the ISKP committed the vast majority of attacks. Suicide attacks were the main cause of casualties, killing 136 civilians and injuring 266, representing a 118 per cent increase in casualties compared with 2017. In addition to suicide attacks, UNAMA documented 35 civilian casualties (15 deaths and 20 injured) from targeted killings of religious leaders and worshippers.
UNAMA continued to report high levels of ISKP-directed, sectarian-motivated violence targeting the Shia Muslim, mostly ethnic Hazara, population. During the year, it documented 19 incidents of sectarian-motivated violence against Shia Muslims resulting in 747 civilian casualties (223 deaths and 524 injured), a 34 percent increase in civilian casualties from such attacks compared with 2017.
The ISKP claimed responsibility for the September 6 twin-suicide attack on a sports club in Western Kabul that killed close to 150 individuals, the vast majority of them members of the Shia Hazara community.
Attacks on Shia mosques for which the ISKP claimed responsibility included a March 21 suicide attack on a Shia shrine in Kabul during a Nowruz celebration, killing 31 and wounding 65, and an August 3 suicide bomb attack on a Shia mosque in Gardez, Paktiya Province, killing 33 persons and injuring 94 during Friday prayers.
According to media reports, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques. On May 6, an IED exploded in the Sunni Yaqubi Mosque in the Khost provincial center used as a voter registration center for the October parliamentary elections, killing at least 19 civilians, and injuring 32 others. No group claimed responsibility for the attack; religious scholars noted the Taliban appeared to avoid attacks against Sunni mosques or refrain from claiming responsibility for them.
ISKP attacks targeting Shia continued to extend outside of mosques. On April 22, a suicide attacker self-detonated outside of a national identity card (tazkira) distribution center in Kabul, killing 60 civilians and injuring 138 others, mostly women and children. The predominantly Shia Hazara area in Kabul, Dasht-e Barchi, witnessed several suicide attacks targeting mosques, schools, and government offices, killing and injuring a large number of civilians. The ISKP claimed responsibility for the majority of these attacks, which deliberately targeted the Shia community. For example, on August 15, a suicide attack targeted students at an educational center in the Dasht-e Barchi area, killing more than 50 and injuring an estimated 70 individuals, mostly students. An attack on a gym in the same area on September 5 killed more than 25 civilians and injured approximately 100.
The ISKP also claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing outside the tent of a June 4 Ulema Council conference, where close to 3,000 religious scholars gathered to issue a fatwa condemning intra-Muslim violence, killing 14 and injuring at least 20.
On November 20, a suicide bombing at a wedding hall in Kabul killed at least 50 individuals and injured dozens more. According to a government official, the attack was one of more deadly attacks in Kabul during the year, targeting a gathering of religious scholars. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
The Taliban continued to kill and threaten religious leaders with death for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam or its political agenda. On May 26, the Taliban killed a prominent religious scholar in Bati Kot District, Nangarhar Province, whom it accused of spying for the government. On June 5, local authorities said the Taliban killed a prominent religious scholar in Kandahar City.
In several cases, the responsibility for attacks on religious officials was unclear. In these cases, although no individual or group claimed responsibility for the attacks, local authorities suspected the ISKP and less frequently, the Taliban were responsible. On April 29, an IED explosion near a Sunni mosque killed five civilians in Jalalabad City, Nangarhar Province. On June 6, armed men opened fire in a Sunni mosque during prayers, killing four civilians and injuring five others in Mandozai District, Khost Province. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. On November 24 in Kabul, two unidentified gunmen on a motorcycle killed Mawlawi Abdul Basir Haqqani, the head of Kabul’s Ulema Council. Authorities detained two individuals.
On June 8, an IED killed religious scholars supportive of the government in Mehtarlam City, Laghman Province, killing three civilians and injuring 12 others. On June 23, unidentified gunmen killed a Shia religious scholar in Herat. On July 14, unidentified gunmen killed a progovernment imam in Farah City, Farah Province.
There continued to be reports of the Taliban and ISKP monitoring the social habits of local populations in areas under their control and imposing punishments on residents according to their respective interpretations of Islamic law. On February 12, the Taliban stoned a man to death on charges of engaging in extramarital sex (zina) in the province of Sar-e Pul. On March 18, the Taliban punished an 18-year-old male by cutting off his right hand and left leg on charges of robbery in Obe District, Herat Province.
On February 27, in Tangi Wazir, Nangarhar Province, the ISKP stoned to death a man accused of engaging in extramarital sexual relations. The ISKP released a press statement stating the married man was stoned to death because he had illegal extramarital sexual relations. In April the ISKP stoned to death a 60-year-old man accused of raping a woman in Darzab District, Jawzjan Province.
There were reports of continued Taliban warnings to mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. As a result, according to MOHRA officials, imams continued to state they feared performing funeral rites for ANDSF and other government employees. In July government officials confirmed media reports that officially registered imams in Samkani District, Paktiya Province, refused to perform funeral rites for ANDSF members to avoid being targeted by antigovernment elements in the area. Local communities pointed out that inaction by Islamic clerics affected security force morale. MOHRA also reported difficulty in staffing registered mosques in insecure areas because of Taliban threats.
According to some religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISKP in their sermons.
There were continued reports of the Taliban and ISKP taking over schools in areas under their control and imposing their own curricula.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions. Members of the Hindu community continued to report they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress. Both groups attributed fewer cases of harassment of members of their communities to the decline in the Sikh and Hindu populations in the country.
Although in past years media reported cases of local religious leaders forcing young men to fast during Ramadan, there were no cases reported during the year.
Women of several different faiths, including Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, the women said they continued to wear burqas in public in rural areas and in some districts of urban areas, including in Kabul, in contrast to other more secure, government-controlled areas where women said they felt comfortable without burqas. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and increase their security in public. MOHRA and the National Ulema Council both continued to state there was no official pressure on women regarding their attire.
Ahmadi Muslims continued to report verbal abuse on the street and harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith. They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad. They said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Ahmadis maintained a place of worship but kept it unmarked, without minarets or other adornments identifying it as an Ahmadi Muslim community mosque. Overall, Ahmadis reported the need to increasingly conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public, or to depart the country permanently.
Christian representatives reported public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. There continued to be no public Christian churches.
According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few places of worship. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were 12 gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and four mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, compared with a combined total of 64 in the past. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Following past seizures of their places of worship by residents of Kandahar, Ghazni, Paktiya, and other provinces, the Hindu community had presented a list of its places of worship to MOHRA in 2016 in an effort to stop further seizures and to reclaim the land and buildings previously lost. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said these problems were still unresolved at year’s end.
Community leaders said they perceived the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul as a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons. Sikh and Hindu leaders also reported neighboring residents tended to place household trash in their temples of worship. Although they filed official complaints to police, neither local authorities nor local imams took action to remedy the situation.
The government attempted to honor the Sikh and Hindu community following the July 1 suicide attack that killed several members of their community in Jalalabad by renaming the location of the attack as Daramsal, after the Sikh parliamentary candidate who died in the bombing. Community leaders, however, said the government’s decision brought more unwanted attention and harassment to Hindus and Sikhs in the area.
According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and one school in Kabul remained operational. Sikh and Hindu representatives, however, said these schools were still underequipped to teach students.
Sikh leaders continued to state the main cause of Hindu and Sikh emigration was a lack of employment opportunities; they said one factor impeding their access to employment was illiteracy. Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples (gurdwaras and mandirs) because they could not afford permanent housing. Both communities stated emigration would continue to increase as economic conditions worsened and security concerns increased. Community leaders estimated between 500 to 600 Sikhs and Hindus had fled the country during the year to either India or Western countries.
Observers reported societal discrimination against the Shia minority by the Sunni majority continued to decline, although there were reports of discrimination in some localities, especially involving employment opportunities. There were also instances, however, where Sunnis and Shia joined in prayer or to donate blood in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Shia clerics and NGOs reported instances of Sunni religious leaders openly condemning attacks against the Shia community and attending the funeral processions of Shia victims.
Media published reports of both Shia and Sunni leaders condemning particular secular events as contrary to Islam; however, there were no prominent reports of joint condemnations.
Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump. The lone Jew said he was able to perform all his religious rituals. He said in the past Jews from international military forces and foreign embassies attended the synagogue but could no longer do so due to security concerns and threats.
Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul.
Media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports.
According to media reports, the Ulema Council sought an expanded role in public life; on August 4, it announced plans to establish a special committee to oversee social reform to address government corruption and “moral corruption” deemed incompatible with the teachings of Islam. Media reported that President Ghani and the public welcomed the council’s initiative to cooperate with the government in tackling government corruption. Media outlets however, conveyed public concerns that the council’s social reform plans infringed on freedoms and rights provided under the country’s constitution, referring to the country’s past history of religious social repression under the Taliban regime. According to religious community representatives, however, the council did not implement these plans during the year. Early in the year, a video clip went viral on social media of a prominent mullah of a registered madrassah in Kabul, praising the Taliban and strongly criticizing the government for permitting the continued presence of international forces in the country.
NGOs reported Muslim residents remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with members of the president’s staff, ONSC, MOHRA, and the Ulema Council, U.S. embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism. Senior embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to protect religious minorities. The Ambassador met with leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities to understand their relationship with the government and ability to practice their faith. In October the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities visited the country and promoted religious tolerance in discussions with senior government officials, civil society, and members of the international community.
Embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to discuss the issue of ensuring madrassahs did not offer a curriculum encouraging religiously motivated violent extremism, which could encourage intolerance towards the country’s religious minorities. The embassy continued to coordinate with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to assist the ONSC in creating a national strategy to combat violent extremism and enhancing its relevance to promoting respect for religious diversity.
Embassy officials held regular meetings with leaders of major religious groups, imams, scholars, and NGOs to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. Embassy officials hosted iftars with government, civil society, and religious leaders during Ramadan to promote religious dialogue and tolerance. During the month of Ramadan, embassy social media platforms shared information on Islam in America based on Department of State-created materials that profiled prominent Muslim-Americans and organizations.
The embassy hosted roundtables with researchers and religious scholars, including MOHRA representatives, to discuss the sources and means to counter violent religious extremism. The embassy also facilitated and funded the coordination of research efforts on violent religious extremism, which included policies to foster intrafaith tolerance.
The embassy highlighted National Religious Freedom Day on July 16 and International Religious Freedom Day on October 27 through Twitter and Facebook posts, which featured a video on the lives of American Muslims exemplifying exemplified religious tolerance in the United States.
The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It stipulates there is no official religion and that the state is neutral in matters of belief, recognizes the equality and independence of religious groups, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania (VUSH), a Protestant umbrella organization, pertaining to recognition, property restitution, and other arrangements. The law stipulates the government will give financial support to faith communities, but the government’s agreement with the VUSH under the law does not specifically designate it to receive such funding. The VUSH reported, however, that correspondence with the State Committee on Cults included a commitment to provide financial support for evangelical Christian churches. The Orthodox Church, the Albanian Islamic Community (AIC), and the VUSH noted positively the State Committee on Cults’ engagement with them, although the VUSH expressed concern the government showed indifference towards it relative to other faith communities. The government legalized 105 buildings owned by religious groups during the year, and the status of 68 additional properties was under review. In response to a Constitutional Court ruling that some provisions of the 2015 Law on Property were unconstitutional, the Council of Ministers issued two decisions during the year designed to break an impasse in reviewing claims. The Agency for the Treatment of Property (ATP) reported it rejected 17 claims for title, which allowed the claimants to take their cases to court. VUSH leaders continued to report difficulties in acquiring land to construct places of worship and problems concerning municipal government fees. The Bektashi and the AIC reported problems defending title to certain properties. The Orthodox Church reported problems obtaining ownership of monasteries and churches deemed cultural heritage sites by the government. As of year’s end, the Council of Ministers had not finished adopting regulations to support implementation of a 2017 law on the rights and freedoms of national minorities, including religious freedom.
The Interreligious Council, a forum for the country’s religious leaders to discuss shared concerns, held its first meeting of the year in October and voted to include the VUSH as a member. The AIC reported the Polish government presented an award on October 25 in Poland to the Interreligious Council for its efforts to encourage and preserve interfaith harmony in Albania. Separately, several religious authorities expressed concern about foreign influence and interference in Albanian religious organizations.
U.S. embassy officers again urged government officials to accelerate the religious property claims process and return to religious group’s buildings and other property confiscated from them during the communist era. The embassy sponsored the participation of the commissioner on cults to participate in an exchange program on interfaith dialogue and religious freedom. The embassy also provided technical assistance from a U.S. specialist who assisted the Ministry of Education in developing a national policy on, and drafting the outline of, a teacher’s manual for teaching about religion in public and private schools. Embassy youth education programs continued to focus on respecting religious diversity. Other embassy-sponsored programs focused on promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities and the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy also continued its work with religious communities to discourage the appeal of violent extremism related to religion among youth.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.1 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2011, Sunni Muslims constitute nearly 57 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 10 percent, members of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania nearly 7 percent, and members of the Bektashi Order (a form of Shia Sufism) 2 percent. Other groups include Protestant denominations, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a small Jewish community. Nearly 20 percent of respondents declined to answer the optional question about religious affiliation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates there is no official religion, all religions are equal, and the state has the duty to respect and protect religious coexistence. It declares the state’s neutrality in questions of belief and recognizes the independence of religious groups. According to the constitution, relations between state and religious groups are regulated by agreements between these groups and the Council of Ministers and ratified by the parliament.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, and free expression. It affirms the freedom of all individuals to choose or change religion or beliefs and to express them individually, collectively, in public, or in private. The constitution states individuals may not be compelled to participate or excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or prohibited from doing so. It prohibits political parties or other organizations whose programs incite or support religious hatred. The criminal code prohibits interference in an individual’s ability to practice a religion and prescribes punishments of up to three years in prison for obstructing the activities of religious organizations or for willfully destroying objects or buildings of religious value.
By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice. The law specifies the State Committee on Cults, under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Prime Minister, regulates relations between the government and religious groups, protects freedom of religion, and promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding. The law also directs the committee to maintain records and statistics on foreign religious groups that solicit assistance and to support foreign employees of religious groups in obtaining residence permits.
The government does not require registration or licensing of religious groups, but a religious group must register with the district court as a nonprofit association to qualify for certain benefits, including opening a bank account, owning property, and exemption from certain taxes. The registration process entails submission of information on the form and scope of the organization, its activities, identities of its founders and legal representatives, nature of its interactions with other stakeholders (e.g., government ministries and civil society organizations), address of the organization, and a registration fee of 1,000 lek ($9). A judge is randomly assigned within three to four days of submission to adjudicate an application, and the decision process usually concludes within one session.
The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the VUSH. These bilateral agreements codify arrangements pertaining to official recognition, property restitution, tax exemptions on income, donations and religious property, and exemption from submitting accounting records for religious activities. A legal provision enacted in 2009 directs the government to provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it had agreements at the time. This provision of the law does not include the VUSH, whose agreement with the government dates from 2011. There is no provision of the law to provide VUSH with financial support from the government.
The law requires the ATP to address claims by religious groups for properties confiscated during the communist era.
The law allows religious communities to run educational institutions as well as build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.
Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits religious instruction, but not the teaching of religion as part of a humanities curriculum. Private schools may offer religious instruction. Religious communities manage 114 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, preschools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages. By law, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards. Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox groups operate numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities. Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes but offer them as an elective. For instance, Beder University offers undergraduate and graduate programs in Islamic Studies. The AIC runs six madrassahs that teach religion in addition to the state-sponsored curriculum.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities reported their total government financial support remained at 109 million lek ($1.02 million), the same as in 2017 and the previous year. The Sunni Muslim community continued to receive approximately 28 percent of the funding, while the remaining three each continued to receive 24 percent. The communities continued to use the funds to cover part of the salaries for administrative and educational staff. The Bektashi community, which had fewer staff members than the others, continued to use part of these funds for new places of worship.
The government implemented an April 2017 decision to subsidize the price of electricity and water for places of worship as a means of indirect financial support for religious communities. Leaders of the five main religious communities confirmed they were paying a lower price for electricity and water.
The VUSH reported that, although there was still no formal written agreement with the government on receiving financial support, the State Committee on Cults provided a written commitment to extend financial support to evangelical Christian churches. The Cults Committee stated it submitted VUSH’s request for financial support to the government. The VUSH, the Orthodox Church, and the AIC expressed appreciation for the State Committee on Cults’ engagement with them. The VUSH, however, also expressed concern that the government and some media outlets had shown indifference towards it in comparison with other faith communities.
The government continued the process of legalizing unofficial mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and tekkes (Bektashi centers of worship) built during the 1990s. The Agency for the Legalization, Urbanization, and Integration of Informal Construction (ALUIZNI) reported that from 2014 through September it legalized 330 religious buildings, including 104 Catholic churches, 153 mosques, and 47 tekkes. The Orthodox Church reported ALUIZNI approved only two full and two partial legalizations out of the Church’s 23 requests.
The ATP acknowledged the slow pace in adjudicating claims, attributing it to the large volume of files – 551 cases – under review. The ATP reported it rejected 17 claims during the year, which claimants may challenge in court. The law grants 10 years to execute a compensation order from the ATP – awarding the property in dispute, monetary compensation, or different property – from the date the order is finalized. In response to a Constitutional Court declaration that some provisions of the 2015 Law on Property were unconstitutional, the Council of Ministers issued two decisions during the year designed to break an impasse in reviewing claims. ALUIZNI reported that, between 2012 and 2018, it compensated the Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, AIC, and Bektashi for land illegally occupied by builders.
The Orthodox Church reported the ATP had reviewed only 10 percent of the 890 properties for which the Church had submitted claims. The Church expressed its concern about delayed court proceedings and said the State Advocate, an institution in the Ministry of Justice that provides government institutions with legal counsel and representation, appealed the few court rulings that favored the Church.
Bektashi leaders reported construction continued on two places of worship in Gjirokaster, three in Permet, and one in Elbasan. The government reportedly legalized 31 tekkes during the year. The Bektashi community said it continued to have problems with the local registration offices in Gjirokaster regarding one property, noting the registration process was slow, bureaucratic, and vulnerable to corruption.
The Bektashi stated the State Advocate unfairly challenged title over the course of several years for numerous properties that the Bektashi said they obtained through a court ruling. The Bektashi community said it brought a complaint to the Ministry of Justice and Office of the Prime Minister, but had not received a response.
The AIC reported the unlawful expropriation of some of its land, citing corruption in the judiciary as the cause. For example, the AIC claims it owned land near the Trade Chamber building in Tirana but said it was transferred in a corrupt judicial holding to another entity. The other entity exchanged the land claimed by the AIC for two parking garages, further alienating title from the AIC.
VUSH members continued to report difficulties in acquiring land on which to construct places of worship due to local government tax assessments and regulations. They said they continued to rent existing buildings instead.
The VUSH reported it continued to have problems registering its property with the local registration office in Korca, and the registration office in Tirana did not provide one of the VUSH’s organizations with a foundation blue print. The VUSH filed a complaint challenging the Tirana refusal, but said the city had not responded by year’s end.
VUSH leaders stated the central government continued to exempt the organization from property taxes on its churches, but local authorities imposed fees they said were not taxes. The VUSH continued to dispute the municipalities’ position. The AIC paid the locally imposed fees for its entities located in Tirana.
Leaders of the five main religious groups expressed concern with a new, cross-thematic curriculum for teaching religion as part of the humanities curriculum for sixth and 10th grade students. They stated they were concerned because they did not participate in the drafting, and the teachers slated to provide the instruction did not have training in theology.
As of year’s end, the Council of Ministers had not adopted regulations to implement a 2017 law providing additional protection for minority rights, including freedom of religion.
A State Committee on Cults census of religious organizations conducted during the year counted 611 groups, including 248 foundations, 323 religiously related NGOs, and 40 centers. The AIC has one foundation, while the Orthodox Church has three. The Catholic Church does have any associated NGOs, foundations, or centers, while the VUSH has 158.
In April Prime Minister Edi Rama warned in a speech that Russia was intent on radicalizing Muslims in the country and urged the European Union not “leave a space for other countries to fill.” (The country is seeking EU accession.) He criticized European politicians for stirring anti-Muslim sentiment.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On October 11, the Interreligious Council, established as a forum for leaders of the Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities to discuss shared concerns, held its first meeting of the year. It inducted the VUSH into the Council as its fifth member, named Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos (head of the Orthodox Church) as the council’s chairperson, and addressed various administrative matters.
In July the Orthodox Academy in Shen Vlash-Durres became part of Logos University, a private institution funded by the Orthodox Church.
In May an international conference on interfaith dialogue in Tirana discussed topics that included interreligious harmony as a factor of social stability and policies for managing religious diversity.
On October 25, the Polish government presented an award to the Interreligious Council for its efforts to encourage and preserve interfaith harmony.
Several religious authorities expressed concern about foreign influence and interference in religious organizations.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with the State Committee on Cults and the ATP, embassy officers continued to urge the government to accelerate its handling of religious property claims and to restore to religious groups their property confiscated during the communist era. The embassy sponsored the participation of the commissioner on cults in an exchange program in the United States on interfaith dialogue and religious freedom. The embassy also hosted a U.S. specialist who, during a three-week visit, met with members of religious communities and helped the Ministry of Education develop a national policy on, and draft the outline of a manual for, teaching about religion in public and private schools.
Embassy officials promoted religious tolerance in meetings with the Sunni Muslim, Bektashi, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities, and in visits to churches, mosques, and other religious sites. The Ambassador hosted an iftar for Muslim youth from Tirana’s Lanabregas neighborhood to encourage the integration of and tolerance for the recently established Roma community; the Ambassador stressed the value of religious dialogue and tolerance during the event.
The embassy continued its youth education programs and work with religious communities to decrease the potential appeal of violent religious extremism. As part of these programs, students at Islamic, Catholic, and Orthodox religious schools and students from public schools planned and carried out projects highlighting religious diversity and tolerance, focusing on youth activism and common civic values. Other embassy-sponsored programs in Cerrik and Peqin helped establish “schools as community centers,” which promoted tolerance through partnerships with local schools, regional education directorates, municipalities, and law enforcement. The Ambassador met with students from Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim higher education institutions at Beder University and discussed advancing interfaith dialogue among youth. The embassy continued to sponsor seminars with key religious figures and leaders in government and academia focused on the compatibility of religious faith and democracy.
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
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.
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.
The constitution designates Islam as the state religion but upholds the principle of secularism. It prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality for all religions. The government continued to provide guidance to imams throughout the country on the content of their sermons in its stated effort to prevent militancy and monitor mosques for “provocative” messaging. In March police completed the investigation of the case involving the 2016 killing of 22 persons, most of them non-Muslims, at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka and forwarded it for prosecution. Legal proceedings against the attackers continued through year’s end. On March 30, led by a local political Awami League party leader, approximately 80 armed members of the Muslim community in Jamalpur District attacked members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community at an Ahmadiyya mosque, injuring 22 Ahmadis. Despite government orders to the contrary, village community leaders, often working together with local religious leaders, continued using extrajudicial fatwas to punish individuals, mostly women, for perceived “moral transgressions.” In April the government announced its intent to fund an approximately 76 billion taka ($904.76 million) project to construct madrassahs in every electoral constituency. Various local organizations and media reports said the project was a political tactic by the government to use religion to influence voters during an election year. Members of religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, who were sometimes also members of ethnic minorities, stated the government remained ineffective in preventing forced evictions and land seizures stemming from land disputes. The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered possible targets for violence.
In June unidentified individuals killed self-described secular writer and activist Shahjahan Bachchu. Security forces stated Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)-linked individuals may have been responsible for killing Bachchu, a former leader of the Communist Party of Bangladesh and known for his secular beliefs and writings, for “offending Islam.” In March unidentified individuals killed a Hindu priest in Chatmohar Upazila in Pabna District. According to press reports, law enforcement suspected individuals with anti-Hindu sentiments may have killed the priest. In February approximately 30 Muslims attacked a Christian home in Vatara District and injured three family members. A police investigation continued at year’s end. Human rights organization Odhikar documented one killing and 34 cases of violent attacks resulting in injuries targeting Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians.
In meetings with government officials and in public statements, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, and other embassy representatives spoke out against acts of violence in the name of religion and encouraged the government to uphold the rights of minority religious groups and foster a climate of tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy staff met with local government officials, civil society members, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious leaders to continue to underscore the importance of religious tolerance and explore the link between religion, religious freedom, and violent extremism. The U.S. government provided more than $345 million in humanitarian assistance to overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic Rohingya who fled Burma.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 159.5 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the 2013 census, Sunni Muslims constitute 89 percent of the population and Hindus 10 percent. The remainder of the population is predominantly Christian (mostly Roman Catholic) and Theravada-Hinayana Buddhist. The country also has small numbers of Shia Muslims, Baha’is, animists, Ahmadi Muslims, agnostics, and atheists. Many of these communities estimate their respective numbers to be between a few thousand and 100,000 adherents.
Many ethnic minorities practice minority religions and are concentrated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and northern districts. The Garo in Mymensingh are predominantly Christian as are some of the Santal in Gaibandha. Most Buddhists are members of the indigenous (non-Bengali) populations of the CHT. Bengali and ethnic minority Christians live in communities across the country, with relatively high concentrations in Barishal city and Gournadi in Barishal District, Baniarchar in Gopalganj District, Monipuripara and Christianpara in Dhaka city, and in the cities of Gazipur and Khulna.
The largest noncitizen population is Rohingya, nearly all Muslim. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 33,000 Rohingya refugees from Burma are officially registered in the country and are residing in the two official refugee camps within Cox’s Bazar District. The government and UNHCR estimate another 900,000 to 1,000,000 Rohingya from Burma are in Cox’s Bazar District, including an estimated 450 Hindu Rohingya. In August 2017, approximately 730,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh following the start of violence in Burma’s Rakhine State.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, “the state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal rights in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and other religions.” The constitution also stipulates the state should not grant political status in favor of any religion. It also provides for the right to profess, practice, or propagate all religions “subject to law, public order, and morality” and states religious communities or denominations have the right to establish, maintain, and manage their religious institutions. The constitution stipulates no one attending any educational institution shall be required to receive instruction in, or participate in ceremonies or worship pertaining to, a religion to which he or she does not belong.
Under the penal code, statements or acts made with a “deliberate and malicious” intent to insult religious sentiments are subject to fines or up to two years in prison. Although the code does not further define this prohibited intent, the courts have interpreted it to include insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The criminal code allows the government to confiscate all copies of any newspaper, magazine, or other publication containing language that “creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.” The law applies similar restrictions to online publications. While there is no specific blasphemy law, authorities use the penal code as well as a section of the Information and Communication Technology Act to charge individuals. The Digital Security Act, passed by parliament in September, criminalizes publication or broadcast of “any information that hurts religious values or sentiments.”
The constitution prohibits freedom of association if an association is formed for the purpose of destroying religious harmony or creating discrimination on religious grounds.
Individual houses of worship are not required to register. Religious groups seeking to form associations with multiple houses of worship, however, must register with either the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) as an NGO if they receive foreign assistance for development projects or with the Ministry of Social Welfare if they do not. The law requires that the NGOAB approve and monitor all foreign-funded projects. The NGOAB director general has the authority to impose sanctions on NGOs for violating the law, including fines of up to three times the amount of the foreign donation or closure of the NGO. NGOs also are subject to penalties for “derogatory” comments about the constitution or constitutional institutions (i.e., the government). Expatriate staff must receive a security clearance from the National Security Intelligence Agency, Special Branch of Police, and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence.
Registration requirements and procedures for religious groups are the same as for secular associations. Registration requirements with the Ministry of Social Welfare include submission of certification that the name being registered is not taken; provision of the bylaws/constitution of the organization; a security clearance for leaders of the organization from the national intelligence agency; minutes of the meeting appointing the executive committee; list of all executive committee and general members and photographs of principal officers; work plan; copy of the deed or lease of the organization’s office and a list of property owned; budget; and a recommendation by a local government representative.
Requirements to register with the NGOAB are similar.
Family law concerning marriage, divorce, and adoption has separate provisions for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. These laws are enforced in the same secular courts. A separate civil family law applies to mixed faith families or those of other faiths or no faith. The family law of the religion of the two parties concerned governs their marriage rituals and proceedings. A Muslim man may have as many as four wives, although he must obtain the written consent of his existing wife or wives before marrying again. A Christian man may marry only one woman.
Hindu men may have multiple wives. Officially, Hindus have no options for divorce, although informal divorces do occur. Women may not inherit property under Hindu law. Buddhists are subject to Hindu law. Divorced Hindus and Buddhists may not legally remarry. Divorced men and women of other religions and widowed individuals of any religion may remarry. Marriage between members of different religious groups is allowed and occurs under civil law. To be legally recognized, Muslim marriages must be registered with the state by either the couple or the cleric performing the marriage; however, some marriages are not. Registration of a marriage for Hindus and Christians is optional, and other faiths may determine their own guidelines.
Under the Muslim family ordinance, a Muslim man may marry women of any Abrahamic faith; however, a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim. Under the ordinance, a widow receives one-eighth of her husband’s estate if she is his only wife, and the remainder is divided among the children; each female child receives half the share of each male child. Wives have fewer divorce rights than husbands. Civil courts must approve divorces. The law requires a Muslim man to pay a former wife three months of alimony, but these protections generally apply only to registered marriages; unregistered marriages are by definition undocumented and difficult to substantiate. Authorities do not always enforce the alimony requirement even in cases involving registered marriages.
Alternative dispute resolution is available to all citizens, including Muslims, for settling family arguments and other civil matters not related to land ownership. With the consent of both parties, lawyers may be identified to facilitate the arbitration, the results of which may be used in court.
Fatwas may be issued only by Muslim religious scholars, and not by local religious leaders, to settle matters of religious practice. Fatwas neither may be invoked to justify meting out punishment, nor may they supersede existing secular law.
Religious studies are compulsory and part of the curriculum for grades three through 10 in all public government-accredited schools. Private schools do not have this requirement. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian students receive instruction in their own religious beliefs, although the teachers are not always adherents of the students’ faith.
The code regulating prisons allows for observance of religious commemorations by prisoners, including access to extra food on feast days or permission to fast for religious reasons. The law does not guarantee prisoners regular access to clergy nor regular religious services, but prison authorities may arrange special religious programs for them. Prison authorities are required to provide prisoners facing the death penalty access to a religious figure from a religion of their choice before execution.
A 2001 law allows the government to return property confiscated from individuals, mostly Hindus, whom it declares to be an enemy of the state. In the past, authorities used it to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups, especially Hindus, who fled the country, particularly following the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In March police completed the investigation of the case involving the July 2016 killing of 22 persons, most of them non-Muslims, at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka and forwarded it for prosecution. The attackers singled out non-Muslims and killed the victims with machetes and firearms. In August a Dhaka court accepted the charges against the attackers. At year’s end, six of the attackers remained in jail, while another two fled the country. Legal proceedings against the attackers continued through the end of the year.
On May 8, prosecutors announced the conviction of five suspects, two of whom received the death penalty, for killing Rajshahi University professor Reazul Karim Siddique in a 2016 machete attack. Prosecutor Entajul Haque stated the five suspects belonged to terrorist organization Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh, also known as a Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh or ISIS-B, a militant Islamic group outlawed by the government. Law enforcement officials stated the killing of Siddique was one of many attacks on individuals espousing secular beliefs in the last three years.
The government’s investigation into the 2016 killings of six secular bloggers, online activists, writers, and publishers remained inconclusive, according to press reports. Police had not charged any individuals by year’s end.
Legal proceedings against the three suspects allegedly involved in the killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy continued at year’s end. In 2017, police announced they had detained Abu Siddiq Sohel, whom they said admitted to involvement in the 2015 killing of Roy, a critic of religious extremism. Also in 2017, police said they arrested two other individuals, Arafat Rahman and Mozammel Hossain, in connection with Roy’s killing. Machete-wielding assailants hacked to death Roy, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi origin, while he accompanied his wife home from a Dhaka book fair. The press reported police suspected Ansarullah Bangla Team, a militant Islamic organization claiming association with AQIS – accused of other acts of violence and banned by the government – was involved in Roy’s killing. A police official identified Rahman as a member of Ansrarullah Bangla Team. The press also reported Rahman confessed to involvement in the killings of four other secular activists.
According to media reports, on March 30, approximately 80 armed members of the Muslim community in Jamalpur District attacked members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community at an Ahmadiyya mosque, injuring 22 Ahmadis. Ahmadiyya Muslim imam SM Asaduzzaman Razib stated Awami League Religious Affairs Secretary for Madarganj Upazila Monirul Islam Monir instigated the attack. When police responded to the incident, both sides agreed to refrain from any further violence. Members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community said the attack was a result of leaders of Jamalpur District’s Muslim congregation’s Waz Mahfil (religious discussion) attempt to provoke its members to support turning the country into a fundamentalist and militant state.
By year’s end, the government stated it had compensated and otherwise assisted 70 Santal Christian families who were victims of attacks, arson, and gunshot wounds allegedly involving local authorities and law enforcement in 2016. According to media reports, at year’s end, the Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI) had not filed charges against a parliamentarian from the ruling Awami League party and a local civil servant reportedly involved in the attacks. Three Santal Christians were killed in the 2016 attack; in 2017, the government removed the superintendent of police of Gaibandha District and the entire police force from the Govidaganj Sub-District to comply with a High Court order. In 2017 personnel from the PBI detained Shah Alam, a Union Council member and one of the 33 accused in the case.
Human rights organizations reported that, despite longstanding government orders to the contrary, village community leaders, often together with local religious leaders, continued to use extrajudicial fatwas to punish individuals, mostly women, for perceived “moral transgressions,” such as adultery and other illicit sexual relations. From January to December the human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra documented seven incidents of punishments under fatwas, including societal shunning, whipping, and forced interim marriages (a formality enabling a couple to remarry one another after the wife briefly marries and then divorces a new “interim” spouse), compared with 10 in 2017. In 2017, the High Court ordered a local government entity to report on action it had taken against the perpetrators of the extrajudicial punishment meted out to a man and woman in 2016 in Komolganj Upazila of Maulvibazar District for reported moral transgressions. No new developments regarding the case were reported at year’s end.
In October unidentified individuals destroyed a Buddhist monastery and statue in Khagrachhari District. According to press reports, no eyewitnesses were present during the destruction of the structures; however, community members said local individuals were responsible for the destruction. The local governmental administration told members of the community it would rebuild the monastery and statue. The army supervised the reconstruction of the monastery. The Chittagong Hill Tracts commission condemned the incident and demanded the perpetrators be brought to justice. A police investigation continued through the end of the year.
Although most mosques were independent of the state, the government continued to influence the appointment and removal of imams and provide guidance to imams throughout the country through the Islamic Foundation on some aspects of the content of their sermons, for example by issuing written instructions highlighting certain Quranic verses and quotations of the Prophet Muhammad. Religious community leaders said imams in all mosques usually continued to avoid sermons that contradicted government policy.
Early in the year, the government granted the Allama Fazlullah Foundation the requisite registration to work in Cox’s Bazar. Two other religiously affiliated organizations that applied for registration to work in Cox’s Bazar for Rohingya relief in 2017, Muslim Aid Bangladesh and Islamic Relief, remained banned throughout the year. In 2017, parliamentarian Mahjabeen Khaled stated to media, “It is believed they were running other operations under cover of relief efforts.”
The government continued to prohibit transmission of India-based Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik’s Peace TV Bangla, stating the program spread extremist ideologies, and closed “peace schools,” which the government said reflected his teachings.
A government-run media monitoring cell established in 2016 with the stated intention of helping maintain religious harmony in the country by tracking media and blogs that write negatively about Hindu, Muslim, and other religious beliefs continued to function.
According to the Ministry of Land, authorities adjudicated approximately 15,224 of 118,173 property restitution cases filed under the Vested Property Return Act during the year. Of these judgements, the owners, primarily Hindus, won 7,733 of the cases, recovering 8,187.5 acres of land, while the government won the remaining 7,491 cases. Media reports, rights activists, and the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC) attributed the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India to judicial inefficiency and general government indifference.
Religious minorities continued to state minority students sometimes were unable to enroll in religion classes of their faith because of an insufficient number of minority teachers for mandatory religious education classes. In these cases, school officials generally allowed local religious institutions, parents, or others to hold religious studies classes for such students outside of school hours and sometimes exempted students from the religious education requirement.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs had a budget of 11.68 billion taka ($139.05 million) for the 2018-19 fiscal year, which covers June 2018-July 2019. The budget included 9.21 billion taka ($109.64 million) allocated for development through various autonomous religious bodies. The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 8.24 billion taka ($98.1 million). The Hindu Welfare Trust received 780.8 million taka ($9.3 million), and The Buddhist Welfare Trust received 37.5 million taka ($446,000) of the total development allocation. While the Christian Welfare Trust did not receive development funding from the 2018-19 budget, it received 2.8 million taka ($33,300) to run its office.
In April the government announced it would fund an approximately 76 billion taka ($904.76 million) project to construct madrassahs in every electoral constituency in the country. Under the two-year project, 300 members of parliament would receive funding to construct a five-story building in each electoral constituency. According to press reports, the project was in response to parliamentarians citing the dilapidated conditions of madrassah structures in their constituencies. A combination of news reports and think tanks criticized the project, stating the government’s use of public funds for such projects was a political tactic by the government to use religion to influence voters prior to national parliamentary elections in December.
According to press reports, in November the government delayed national student examinations so Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina could attend a Qawmi madrassah rally in favor of the Awami League and chaired by Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh Chief Shah Ahmed Shafi. Hefazat-e-Islam is a self-defined Islamist advocacy group including madrassah teachers and students. According to press reports, the Hefazat-e-Islam rally was conducted to express gratitude for the government’s formal recognition of the Qawmi madrassah education system in 2017. The Qawmi madrassahs are independent community madrassahs with their own governing boards and are commonly viewed as more conservative than government-run madrassahs.
In September the Daily Star newspaper reported government involvement, through a local teachers’ association, in the seizure of a Hindu temple and its surrounding land in Tangail District, in contravention of a court order and without requisite building permits. The report stated the association wanted to construct a multistory building on the site of the temple that many in the community said would be used for commercial purposes. The Daily Star reported that in January a court in Tangail District issued an order ordering a halt to the construction, but construction on the temple’s site continued, in what the press report said was due to the ruling Awami League’s alleged involvement in the project.
Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and members of other minority religious communities, who are also sometimes members of ethnic minority groups, continued to report several property and land ownership disputes and forced evictions, including by the government, which remained unresolved at year’s end. According to minority religious associations, such disputes occurred in areas near new roads or industrial development zones, where land prices had recently increased. They also stated local police, civil authorities, and political leaders sometimes enabled property appropriation for financial gain or shielded politically influential property appropriators from prosecution. Some human rights groups, including Odhikar, continued to attribute the lack of resolution of some of these disputes to ineffective judicial and land registry systems and the targeted communities’ insufficient political and financial clout rather than government policy disfavoring religious or ethnic minorities.
According to religious rights groups, in April local Awami League politicians seized and illegally occupied one acre of land from a Christian family in Bagerhat District. Those allegedly responsible donated a portion of the land for local school use in an effort to conceal the illegal seizure and occupation, and they threatened the family with physical harm if members of the family pursued legal proceedings against the alleged culprits. Members of civil society attributed the alleged illegal seizure and occupation to a pending 1984 legal case between feuding family members over the land, which the occupiers allegedly exploited.
The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered potential targets for violence, including the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, and the Buddhist festival of Buddha Purnima.
According to religious advocacy groups, the government provided extra security to protect Buddhist monasteries in Chittagong and Dhaka in anticipation of possible retaliation for the actions against the majority Muslim Rohingya by the military and civilians in Burma’s Rakhine State. No attacks occurred during the year.
President Abdul Hamid continued to host receptions to commemorate each of the principal Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holidays and emphasized the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and respect for religious minorities.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In June unidentified individuals killed writer and self-described activist Shahjahan Bachchu. Security forces stated AQIS-linked individuals may have been responsible for killing Bachchu, a former leader of the Communist Party of Bangladesh known for his secular beliefs and writings, for “offending Islam.”
According to press reports, on March 6, unidentified individuals killed a Hindu priest, Haradhan Bhattacharya, and stole gold and cash from his nephew’s home in Pabna District, Chatmohar Upazila. According to press reports, law enforcement believed individuals motivated by anti-Hindu sentiment may have killed the priest. According to press reports, a witness said she saw a young female in a burqa flee the scene. Investigation of the case continued through the end of the year.
According to the Bangladesh Christian Association, on February 13, approximately 30 Muslims attacked a Christian family’s home and attempted to seize the family’s land and small business in Vatara District. Association leaders said three members of the Christian community were injured. Police continued to investigate the case through year’s end.
Law enforcement concluded one of eight investigations regarding a 2016 attack on Hindu individuals, homes, and temples in Brahmanbaria District. By year’s end, approximately 228 were charged and pending prosecution. Attackers injured more than 100 individuals and vandalized 52 Hindu homes and 15 temples in response to a Hindu resident’s Facebook post showing a Hindu deity pasted over the Kaaba in Mecca. The National Human Rights Commission stated the attack was orchestrated to drive Hindus from the area to obtain their land. Of the 104 persons detained for suspected involvement in the attacks, all but one was released on bail.
According to Odhikar, acts of violence targeting religious minorities or their property resulted in the death of one person and injuries to 34 from January to December, compared with none killed and seven injured in 2017. Attackers destroyed 49 statues, monasteries, or temples, compared with 132 in 2017, and destroyed no homes, compared with 12 homes in 2017. The motivation for these incidents was often unclear. Some NGO representatives said the increase in violence targeting religious minorities and their properties could be due to increasing impunity.
The BHBCUC compiled 806 reports of violations of minority rights, including religious minorities, from newspaper reports during the year, compared with 380 in 2017. Violations included killings, attempted killings, death threats, assaults, rapes, kidnappings, and attacks on homes, businesses, and places of worship. According to the BHBCUC, the primary motivation for most of the incidents was a desire to seize real property, steal, or extort money.
According to the Hindu Post newspaper, 338 hate crimes occurred against members of the Hindu community during the year. The hate crimes included, but were not limited to, physical attacks, including killings and rapes, and real and personal property destruction. According to media reports, in May a fifth-grade Hindu girl was raped in Manikganj District of Gheor Upazila as she was traveling to a Hindu religious festival. The young girl was lured into an open agricultural field by a local resident, Jony Miah, where, joined by two of his accomplices, Rubel Islam and Shahidul Islam, the three began to rape her. Local inhabitants caught the three perpetrators in the act but soon released them. According to press reports, a local union council (parishad) member, Mujibur Rahman, tried to pressure the victim’s family to remain silent and attempted to offer the family an approximately $1,200 settlement. When the victim’s family refused, Rahman and others threatened the family. The victim’s brother filed a criminal case against the alleged perpetrators. Admitting he had attempted to settle the case quietly, Rahman said, “We tried to hush the matter as the girl was young and belonged to a different religion.”
Some Buddhists continued to say they feared local Muslims would commit acts of vengeance against them in reaction to the Burmese Buddhists’ mistreatment of the Muslim Rohingya in Burma; however, no cases were reported during the year. The Bangladesh United Buddhist Forum, formed in 2017, announced it would publicly celebrate Buddhist holidays during the year. In 2017, the forum curtailed its public celebrations of Buddhist holidays to donate to the Rohingya relief effort.
NGOs continued to report tensions in the CHT between the predominantly Muslim Bengali settlers and members of indigenous groups, primarily Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian, largely over land ownership. The Kapaeeng Foundation recorded 70 instances of human rights abuses in the CHT from January to June. These abuses included rape, unlawful evictions, and arbitrary arrests affecting primarily Buddhists, but also Christians and Hindus. The government continued to work to resolve land ownership disputes affecting indigenous non-Muslims, using a 2017 amendment to the law providing for more inclusive decision making and a harmonization of the law with the 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord. According to some members of the indigenous community, procedural issues had delayed resolution of many of their property disputes. In October Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina publicly urged peace and harmony in the CHT at the inauguration of the Sheikh Hasina Chattogram Hill Tracts Complex in Dhaka.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Ambassador, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and embassy staff met with officials from the Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Social Welfare, and local government representatives to underscore the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. They discussed the interface between religion, religious freedom, and violent extremism, and the importance of integrating religious freedom and other human rights in security policy. Embassy officials stressed the importance of respecting religious minorities’ viewpoints, minority religious inclusion within society, and protecting religious minorities from extremist attacks.
The U.S. government provided more than $345 million in humanitarian assistance to overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic Rohingya who fled Burma from August 2017 to December 2018. In April embassy officials and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with government officials to discuss protection and humanitarian assistance for the approximately one million Rohingya from Burma living in the country. The Ambassador, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and other embassy officials also visited refugee camps and makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar to hear directly from Rohingya refugees about their experiences. Religious leaders across various faiths said they were encouraged by the Ambassador at Large’s visit and its importance for promoting religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation.
As part of community policing training, the embassy encouraged law enforcement officials to protect the rights of religious minorities.
Embassy officials attended public religious events demonstrating religious tolerance among religious groups. Embassy officials were invited to and attended several religious festivals celebrated by the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities and emphasized in these events the importance of tolerance and respect for religious minorities. In all these events, the Ambassador and other embassy officials emphasized the importance of religious tolerance and respect for diversity.
The embassy conducted a social media campaign throughout the year to promote religious freedom and tolerance. On January 16-19, the embassy launched a three-day social media campaign to commemorate Religious Freedom Day. The campaign reached more than 230,000 individuals on Facebook and used social media on Jumma Mubarak (early afternoon Friday prayers) to emphasize the U.S. government’s commitment to promoting and protecting religious freedom at home and abroad. During the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom’s visit in April, the embassy posted photographs on its Facebook page of his visit to Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, where he advocated for religious tolerance and religious freedom. In July the embassy posted photographs on its social media platform of religious leaders from Bangladesh at the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington D.C.
Embassy and other U.S. government officials expressed support for the rights of religious minorities and emphasized the importance of their protection. Embassy officials met regularly with a wide range of religious organizations and representatives, including the Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, Bangladesh Christian Association, Buddhist Religious Welfare Trust, Christian Religious Welfare Trust, World Buddhist Association Bangladesh, Bangladesh Buddhist Federation, Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Commission, Bangladesh Prabarana Purnima Celebration Committee, Bangladesh Kathin Cibor Danustan Celebration Committee, International Buddhist Monestary of Dhaka, and the Aga Khan Foundation. Embassy officials met with a group of Rohingya imams on several visits to Rohingya refugee camps and makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar District. In these meetings, embassy and other U.S. government officials and representatives from the various groups discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, identified challenges religious minorities encountered, and discussed the importance of religious tolerance.
Embassy officials met regularly with a working group of 11 foreign missions to discuss a broad range of human rights concerns, including religious freedom.